The Dark Carnival: Hook a Duck! by J.C. Michael

Posted by on Oct 31, 2013 in Horror, Reading, The Dark Carnival, Writing | 0 comments

The Dark Carnival: Hook a Duck! by J.C. Michael

 

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The Dark Carnival

Hook The Duck / Lobster Pots

 by J.C. Michael

 

The alarm went off. Some cheesy, chipmunk vocal, dance track, the Waltzer operator had loaded onto his phone. He hated that kind of music. It was why the little shit had done it, and got a black eye for his trouble. Heading for another too if he didn’t take it off again. Reaching over he tapped the screen, and the noise stopped. A quick swipe brought up the calendar. It wasn’t that he had any appointments, hell no, but the name of the girl sleeping next to him, along with an eight point five out of ten, was stored in there. Clara. She’d better appreciate the fact that he remembered her name, if she didn’t, she’d be out the door before she’d have the chance to get her panties on.

 

***

 

“Billy Jarrow ain’t a nice man,” said Pete Barker as he watched Billy walk from his van toward the food stalls, still fastening his belt as he walked. It was the same every day, a sausage and bacon roll that for some reason he expected to get for free.

“So long as he pays me,” said the youngster busily cleaning behind the Hook a Duck stall. Billy had told him it was essential that all the ducks were scrubbed clean every morning, and he took pride in doing just that.

“You’re more naive ‘n I thought boy,” said Pete.

The night before the young lad, a keen sixteen year old named Jake, had spotted some kids trying to cut loose the prizes from Pete’s Lobster Pot stall. He shouted a word of warning, and Pete appreciated the heads up. He’d decided to give the kid a bit of advice in return.

“He’s a cheat, a thief, a drunk, ‘n’ a liar. We’re outta here tomorrow, so watch y’self today.”

“You guy’s not friends huh? He says your pots are rigged so the balls bounce out unless there’s another one left in there.”

Pete let the jibe slide, after all, it was true, but he’d had enough of watching Jarrow take a different young girl to his van each night. The one last night nothing more than a kid, just like the boy stood polishing the ducks like they were classic bloody cars.

“Listen to me, don’t listen to me. I don’t give a shit. You did me a favour, so I’m doing you one. Don’t give him an excuse to rip you off son. I’m guessing you ain’t seen a dime of yo’ wages yet, never will if y’ put a foot out of line today. Man’s a bully ‘n’ a thug, ‘n’ if I were a few years younger I’d make it my business to make him my business. Had enough shit to last a lifetime when his old man ran this ‘ere stall before he took a long walk off a short pier.”

Now the kid showed some interest. It was always the same. The legends of the fair. The romantic notion of the carnival way of life which was nothing more than a myth. A veil masking a dark soul like the greasepaint hides the sneer of a clown. “His dad ran the stalls?”

“Yep. A perennial pisshead found drowned on the beach. Just another piece of flotsam. There weren’t no tears. Old man Jarrow was even more of a bastard ‘n his son. Some folk reckon Billy was with him that night, but he never let on if he knew anything ‘bout it. Probably safer that way.”

“Are you saying…”

“I’m not saying fuck all ‘n’ if you repeat it you’ll have me to watch out for as well as him.” Pete had let his irritation show, and in the distance he could see the swaggering source of his annoyance heading for the stalls. “The last kid worked four days, just like you. Got nothing more ‘n a busted nose ‘n’ a dental bill. Now get yo’ ducks cleaned like a good lad.”

***

 

“What did that old cunt want?” asked Billy as soon as he reached the stall. In one hand was the remnants of his breakfast. The other held the morning paper.

“Nothing much,” said Jake.

“Good. Here, break time.”

Jake took the paper that Billy was holding out. Break time meant a cigarette for each of them, and time for Jake to read the paper. Not to himself. But to Billy. He’d read each headline, starting with the sports at the back; “go on,” meant read the article, a grunt meant move swiftly on. At least it was a break. There wouldn’t be chance for one once the gates were open.

 

***

 

By mid-afternoon the fairground was filling up. Billy’s thoughts turned to Clara; posh name for a dirty little bitch. He didn’t normally visit the same place twice, much like the fair, but he was tempted to make an exception. He could be as rough as he liked tonight, by the time anyone saw the bruises he’d be over the hills and far away. He’d made a decent amount over the past couple of days; it was easy when you knew how. The mug punters knew the odds were stacked against them, yet still they came. Roll up, roll up. Play the Hook a Duck. Everyone’s a winner. So come and take a look. But when the cost price of the prize is less than that you pay to play there’s only one team coming out on top, Team Jarrow. It wasn’t his fault people were blind to the fact the house always wins. He’d no qualms about taking money from fools.

“I’m going for a beer, you hold the fort.”

“Like it was the Alamo,” said Jake smiling.

Billy spat on the floor and walked away muttering.

By the time he returned it was approaching seven and it seemed the whole town was out for the last night of the fair.

“Someone won the big Scooby-Doo?” said Billy as he climbed over the front of the stall.

“Yep, I helped a little girl win just like you said, and put the winning duck under the pool.”

“Don’t act too proud. Ain’t like you just found the cure for cancer is it. Should bring the punters in though, make ‘em think they can win.”

Jake was about to reply when Billy grabbed him by the arm, “would you look the fuck at that!”

He was nodding in the direction of Pete’s stall, but Jake couldn’t see anything to justify such interest.

“Look you dim bastard. The guy who started for Pete yesterday, he’s robbing the old twat blind.”

Jake watched for a moment while Billy served one of their own customers. It was true. The guy on the stall was taking the money, and instead of putting it in the cash tin, or sorting out the change and then dropping the right money in the slot, he was just using his float.

“You see?” said Billy sidling up to Jake. He’ll take a piss break soon and siphon off the extra. Thinking he’s a clever fucker. You see him move, you tell me.”

“You’re going to tell Pete?” Jake was genuinely surprised, but he supposed that perhaps there was some sense of solidarity amongst the stall holders. His supposition was shattered when Billy laughed.

“Fuck no. But I’ll threaten to. Half of what the bastards taken should be enough to keep me quiet. I’m not greedy. Tell you one thing for free though, if I ever caught anyone doing that to me I’d take care of it Saudi style. Cut the bastards hand off. You know what I mean?”

As the last words fell from his lips he lifted his chequered shirt just far enough for Jake to see the hilt of the hunting knife tucked into his waistband. And then it was gone.

“Excuse me?” The voice of the old man was thin and reedy. A voice at the end of its life and heading for the grave.

“Yes Sir,” said Billy, a smile appearing across his face.

“Three please,” said the old man. “One for me, two for my grandson.”

“Three goes it is,” said Billy as he took the man’s money and made a show of placing it into the dome on the counter top. He pulled the lever and the money fell into the cash tin before the steel jaws clamped shut once more.

“Who’s going first? You young man?”

The kid looked sixteen, and simple.

“Yes please. My turn now.”

He took the pole and hovered it over the ducks. First one. Then another. Then a third. Then back to the second. Billy leant over to Jake and, obscuring his mouth with his hand, began to whisper. “Look at the retard with his tongue sticking out, we’ll be here all night with this window lick..”

He was cut off by the whoops of delight as the boy whipped out a duck and showed the gold paint on its bottom to his grandfather.

Billy looked at Jake, who in turn looked confused. The dozy fucker must’ve put the top prize duck back in, but on the bright side it gave him just the excuse to give him a slap and refuse to pay up what he was owed. Such thoughts however were buried beneath a veneer of showmanship honed over a lifetime on the stalls.

“Well done, well done. We have a winner!” bellowed Billy, milking the opportunity to demonstrate how the game could be won for all it was worth.

“What’s your name young man?”

“Lewis. Lewis Geflen. My granddad’s called Allan.”

Lewis was beaming. Allan was beaming. Billy was beaming. Billy was seething. He handed over one of the massive Scooby-Doo toys, almost as big as a real Great Dane. “You’ve seen it done, now come and try your luck,” he shouted as he passed the toy to Allan and, hidden from view by Scooby Dooby Doo, dropped the golden bottomed duck behind the counter before kicking it out of sight.

“Well, it’s my turn now.”

It was grandpa, old fucking Al. Billy turned to him, the veneer beginning to crack. “You’ve won already. One large prize a day, future goes are forfeit.”

The grandfather, Allan, looked at him. There was a look of steel in his eyes which hadn’t been there before. “Where does it say that?”

Billy looked back with an intensity of his own. “It say’s so on the sign over there.”

He pointed to his left as he spoke. To the place on his stall where the sign always stood. Other than today.

“Which sign?”

Billy looked, then looked at Jake. The look suggested broken ribs, and convinced Jake that he should forget about his wages, put the past few days down as a learning experience, and head home as soon as this peculiar little show had been played out.

“Let’s try again for your sister,” said the Allan grabbing the pole from Lewis before swinging it straight into the pool and hooking out a duck in one fluid motion. The duck had a golden bottom.

“Well isn’t that wonderful. I always thought they only had one winner in here,” said the old man as he smiled a toothless smile.

Billy was stunned, but before he could react the younger of the two had grabbed the pole and hooked out another duck. Another golden bottomed duck. The pair of them stood there, each with a golden duck despite the fact that Billy knew there was a third under the counter. A whole brace of golden arsed ducks more than there should have been. Jake had to have set him up. He was going to put that cunt in hospital and then visit him just to piss in his IV.

“Our prizes?”

The words brought Billy out of his trance and the shallow mask of civility threatened to slip from his face like an avalanche from a mountainside. “There you go old man,” he tossed two more toys over the counter, tearing a hole in one as he wrenched it from the side of the stall. “Now clear off”.

“That’s no way to speak to a customer. They don’t talk to you like that at Disney Land, and that was built by a Nazi.”

“What?” said Billy. He was about to explode. Jump right over the counter and bust the old bastards jaw.

“Yes. Walt. Didn’t like Kikes.”

“Just piss off.”

“Are you a betting man?”

“What?”

“Are you hard of hearing? I said are you a betting man? I bet your belt to these three toys that Lewis can win again.”

A crowd was gathering now, brought to the stall by the argument and sheep mentality. Billy needed to get a grip of the situation. He fixed his best showman’s grin across his face. “We have ourselves a bet. Allan here stakes his three Scooby Doo’s, and I stake my belt.” His mind was racing. He needed to stack the deck, but had no idea how many more golden ducks that little wanker Jake had stashed in there, “But, Ladies and Gentlemen, we’ve seen how skilled these two are. So I don’t want to just see any golden duck, I want to see this one.” He picked up one of the ducks from the counter top and showed it to the crowd.

“As you can see the bottom of this duck is painted gold. Into this paint I will scratch my initials,” and he proceeded to do just that with his finger nail before showing it again to the crowd.

“Now my assistant Jake will swirl the water. Jake.”

Jake did as he was told with one eye on Billy. He knew he’d have something up his sleeve, and he spotted it. As Billy continued to play to the crowd, and Jake continued to swirl the water, Billy was gently rubbing the bottom of the duck. The cheap gold paint would be smudging. Obscuring the initials which had been lightly scraped in at best. Billy tossed in the duck. The crowd waited. Lewis lent forward. Jake watched. The pole lingered over one duck, then a second. Then a third. Back to the first. His tongue was stuck out. Swaying back and forth in line with the pole. Pointing at one duck, then another. The tongue stopped. The pole dropped. The duck was hooked. Pulled out. And the initials were plain to see.

Billy’s face was red and his eyes brimming with fury as the crowd cheered. He removed his belt, and then, before handing it over, he removed the buckle. Two Colt ‘45’s crossed over a Confederate flag, “This was my fathers.”

“He gave you the belt did he?” said Allan in a way that was drenched in insinuation.

“Not the belt. The buckle. No spastic’s having this buckle.”

The jibe brought some murmurs from the crowd and it started to drift away.

“You’ve the buckle but no belt?”

“What the fuck’s it to you?”

“Was it wasted?”

Yes, it was wasted. Stained with blood after he’d cracked his father over the head with the belt and buckle wrapped around his fist before tossing the old bastard into the sea. The belt that hung on the back of the bedroom door. The belt for special occasions. The belt for births and marriages. Funerals, and beatings. The belt which had burnt in the fire on the beach as Billy cleaned the buckle and his father lay face down in the water.

“One last bet,” shouted the old man and the crowd turned their wandering attention back to the stall “I want your boots and… And no funny business. I want the laces and tell you what, let me list everything I want. Lewis.”

Lewis pulled a piece of paper and a pen, a god-damn fountain pen as it turned out, out of his pocket and handed it to his grandfather as the crowd watched.

“That’s all folks,” growled Billy. People were going to get hurt tonight. Jake for one. Allan and Lewis given half a chance. That cunt Pete must have had a hand in this too.

“You don’t know what I putting up yet,” said the old man as he quickly scrawled a few words on the piece of paper. “What if it was this.”

The roll of notes he held in his hand was as thick as a baby’s arm.

“My pair of old boots for all that money? You’ve hustled me enough for one night.”

“Check the ducks are in order,” said Allan, playing to the crowd just as much as Billy. “Confirm that there are nineteen ducks in that pond, and only one with cheap gold paint smeared upon its underside. That’s good odds Mr. Jarrow. Jake can confirm what we require you to stake.” He held out his hand to Jake, giving him the stage, and passed the note to Billy who glanced at it before passing it over “read it out please.”

Jake cleared his throat, “It says, Boots, in capitals, and then underneath it says, laces, heel, upper, tongue, and sole.”

Billy looked at Jake, then the old man, and finally the money. “As God is your witness you accept?” said Allan

“I accept” said Billy as he started to take the ducks out of the pool and put them on the counter, checking each one as he did. Each had paint on the bottom, the colour corresponding to the level of prize, but none were gold. The crowd was watching. It was good odds. He started to put them back in the pool, all nineteen, and then he took one of the golden bottomed ducks and tossed it in before swirling the water.

“Gather round, gather round,” he shouted as he stirred. “One last wager,” he stirred more and more. Greed had got the better of him. The win wasn’t guaranteed, but he stood a damn good chance. Eventually he stopped, and stood to one side. Lewis was holding the cane in one hand, his other hand over his eyes. The hook on the cane was catching the lights of the stall and glinting like surgical steel. His tongue was out again, darting this way and that as if searching out the golden duck before its pace slowed, and it started to weave like a Fakirs cobra. The cane dipped down, touched a duck, then swept to the left hooking a duck as it went before flicking it out of the pool and into straight the hands of Allan who held it aloft, the golden underside clear for all to see.

The crowd cheered. Lewis held his arms up as if he’d just become Heavyweight Champion of the World. Allan smiled his toothless smile. Jake stood open mouthed. And Billy began to take off his boots. He’d lost. Again.

“There’s no need for that right now. We’ll come back later,” said Allan.

 

***

 

The rest of the evening was uneventful. Jake went for a break, and never came back. Billy rang Cara but her phone was engaged. He left a message. She never rang back. The crowds started to dwindle, and soon the litter outnumbered the fairgoers. Midnight came and went. And one by one the rides fell silent. As the hour ticked by Billy started to put the shutters on the front of his stall. He’d be up at dawn, the stall would become a trailer and they’d be back on the road. It had been a strange night, but the fair was no stranger to the strange.

“We’ve come for what you owe us,” said a voice behind him just as he padlocked the last shutter.

“Fuck you,” said Billy as he turned.

“You won’t be fucking anything,” snarled Allan as he grabbed Billy’s balls and squeezed them in a vicelike grip. Billy lashed out, his fist connected with flesh but it was like striking concrete. He felt his knuckles pop out of place.

“You owe me,” spat Allan as he released his grip on Billy’s genitals and Billy doubled over in agony.

“Boots first.”

Instead Billy pulled out his knife and with a curse thrust it into the old mans stomach but, rather than show any pain, Allan grabbed his hand and pushed the knife in deeper before wriggling it from side to side. Where there should have been a torrent of blood there was only a thick tar like substance oozing from the wound. “Your father’s knife? So many keepsakes from a man who beat you. A man who heated this very knife on the stove and branded you.”

“Who the fuck are you?” said Billy letting go of the knife and backing away.

“I’m a friend of your fathers. All the way from Hell. It’s time for a family reunion William.”

“God help me.”

“He can’t. Much as he’d willingly save even a sinner like you if you asked him to. God would pity you. Accept you as misunderstood. A beaten, abused, child. A victim who knows no better. But you took the bet.”

“Then take my fucking boots and go.”

Billy knelt down and fumbled with his laces. This was a nightmare. It couldn’t be real. Allan was stood there with a knife sticking out of his stomach and Lewis, how had he missed Lewis, was off to one side eating candy floss, his impossibly long tongue wrapping all the way around it.

“I don’t just want your boots, William. I want the rest.”

Allan hunkered down in front of Billy and pulled the knife from his stomach with a sound that was like a boot pulled from mud. “I want your tongue,” he said as he grabbed Billy’s jaw and forced the foul tasting knife into his mouth, twisting it this way and that, breaking teeth and gouging into the base of the tongue, the roof of the mouth, the inside of the cheek. Billy tried to struggle but a pair of arms had wrapped around him from behind with immense strength. It could only be Lewis, his tongue darting around Billy’s ear as his demonic grandfather dug more and more into the soft tissue of Billy’s mouth until eventually the tongue, tattered and torn, was cut loose.

Billy swallowed blood and gagged on the chunks of tissue which followed it down his throat. Lewis released him and the pair of them stood over him like giants reaching up into the moonlit sky.

“One last thing,” said Allan as he looked down, “that boy you employed could barely read any better than you. And as soon as I pulled out that last duck, I laid my claim upon your soul.”

 

JC Michael

J. C. Michael studied History at Durham University and lives in the North of England with his wife and young son. Although he wouldn’t dream of viewing his work as belonging in the same league as Stephen King, Clive Barker, and James Herbert, their influence on his own writing is clear. After constantly criticising films, books, and T.V shows, J. C was challenged by his “better half” to write something himself if he was “so bloody clever”. The resulting novel was Discoredia.

In his spare time J. C tries to avoid checking his work emails and dreams about becoming a best selling author.

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