3/ Henchman and Carnival

            So tell me this.  How the fuck are you supposed to go straight if you can’t get a bloody job?  Sure they talk a lot about “helping you back into society” but that’s all it really is.  A lot of talk.  Who wants to hire somebody who used to dress as a pirate and rob banks?  Nobody, that’s who.

            A month out of work and I was really getting depressed.  Dianne was growing so fast and always needed new clothes, new shoes.  My wife’s income alone barely paid the rent.  I was all out of funds from my previous work and the bills were beginning to mount up, little piles of threatening red ink to haunt my dreams.

            Then I got the call from Jose.  “Hey man,” his voice crackled out of my cell phone.
“Hey yourself,” I said, somewhat bitterly.  I didn’t blame Jose for what had happened, not really.  After all, it had all been my own choice.  But I couldn’t help but resent the fact that he’d pointed me along the path that secured me a serious criminal record.  He hadn’t been a part of The Leprechaun’s team, he’d simply known about the vacancy.  Some people would call that unfair, but not me.  Poor luck was just my thing. 
“How’s it going?”
“How do you think?” I replied.  “It’s shitty.”
“I’m on a crew,” Jose said.  “They’re looking to hire.”
“What sort of crew?” I asked.
“Same sort you have some experience with,” Came his careful response.
“I’m not doing that shit again,” I said.
“Okay man,” Jose said.  “I know you had a bad outcome before.  I don’t blame you.  But this came up and it’s a sweet gig.  I wanted to offer it to you first.”
“Thanks, but no thanks,” I said and closed the call.

            I’d like to say it took me a few days to call him back.  But it didn’t.  It took me about ten minutes.  I know that sounds weak, but I just didn’t know what else I could do.  I don’t want to live off the state, or off the meagre income my wife was working all hours to earn.  I wanted to provide for my family and all the other doors seemed to be closed.  I just couldn’t see that I had a choice. 

            It turned out the new gig was as muscle for a fucking lunatic called Carnival.  This guy was nothing like the Leprechaun.  I met him and his goons in an abandoned fairground just North of town.  I don’t recall ever noticing an abandoned fairground here before and I’d driven out this way a few times.  But I suppose it’s not the sort of thing you really look for unless you’re a supervillain with a penchant for the bizarre and unlikely.

            “I will do all the killing,” Carnival said, grinning like the nutcase he was.  There was something really unsettling about that grin.  It was madness and death all rolled into one.  Simply being in the presence of this cadaverous pale-skinned weirdo was creeping me out, but I’d already been paid a thousand bucks and I hadn’t even done anything yet.  Money talks.  “Okay,” I agreed.  “I’m happy with that.”
“Your job,” Carnival told me, “Is to slow down Halfmoon when he arrives – just enough to buy me time to prepare for him.”
“If you know he’s coming, can’t you prepare for him at any time?”  I asked.  Carnival laughed and laughed as if I’d just cracked the most hilarious joke he’d ever heard.
“Of course I can.  But where would be the fun in that?”  I shrugged.  Clearly it was pointless talking common sense to a psycho killer.

            There were no jobs to do for Carnival.  No robberies or other crimes.  We all just lounged around the fairground; playing pool, drinking a few beers, hanging out.  The supervillain had recruited a dozen of us and this time Jose was in the crew too.  “What’s this guy’s deal?” I asked him.
“He has a feud with Halfmoon.  It goes back years.  I’m not sure what started it.  Somebody fell in some acid, or somebody killed somebody’s Mother, or some shit like that.”
“Halfmoon is that superhero who is strong and fast, but only at night, right?”
“That’s it.  So Carnival is always trying to draw him out in the daytime.  Usually with innocent terrified hostages.”
“I don’t want to be involved in somebody’s murder,” I said.
“You won’t be.  Halfmoon rescues them.  Carnival gets beaten and locked up again.  It’s always the same.  The best thing about it is that we won’t get locked up.  Halfmoon isn’t a licensed superhero.  So he doesn’t try and capture the henchmen – just delivers them a beating and catches the main target.”
“Where does the money come from to pay us?” I asked.  “If Carnival commits no profitable crimes?”
“No idea,” Jose laughed.  “But we do get paid.  So who cares?”
“I’ll drink to that.”

The money was good, take my word for it.  Better, even, than the Leprechaun’s pay.  But I really didn’t like the work.  Carnival was just too strange and being around him made everybody tense.  One day he’d be laughing at nothing and capering about like a crazy clown.  Another day he’d be dark, brooding and distinctly threatening, pacing about the fairground talking to himself, hissing and spitting dark epithets.  Of course this is why the pay was so good.  Nobody would stick around if it wasn’t.

One day I was nearly at the end of my shift and looking forwards to getting home when he appeared in the doorway of the Rec Room.  I had been drinking coffee with Hank and Juan and the three of us glanced at one another in such a way that I knew we all felt the tension.  “Where is Billy?” Carnival asked.  We looked at one another blankly.  None of us had a clue who Billy was.  There was nobody called Billy in our team.
“Well?” Carnival demanded.  His face was hard, his expression black.   This was very, very dangerous.  Everybody knew that Carnival sometimes killed his own people.  It wasn’t often, but he was certainly capable of it.
“I’m sorry boss,” Hank said, “I don’t know who Billy is?”
“You don’t?” Carnival came across the room is a smooth rush, his strange  leering face now directly in front of Hank’s.  “Are you sure?”
“I am boss,” Hank said.  He stayed calm.  I wasn’t sure I could have.  “I have never heard of him.”
Carnival’s left eye twitched.  His eyes rolled strangely.  “Very well then,” He said.  And just like that the tension was broken.  He glanced at the colourful fairground costumes we were all expected to wear and laughed.  “High fashion indeed!” he declared and skipped out of the room chuckling.
“I am getting too old for this,” Hank said.  Juan and I just nodded.

I’d been working for Carnival for seven weeks when the kidnapping happened.  Overnight, everything changed.  Carnival kept the woman in a room in the Haunted House.  Jose was guarding her first hand, but my job remained as an occasional perimeter sentry.  There was nothing organised or regimental about it.  Sometimes Carnival would tell us to “Go guard me,” and other times he was happy for us to just sit inside.  There didn’t seem to be any logic to it.  But once the woman was there, our guard duties escalated rapidly. 

Apparently, she was some important politician’s daughter.  No idea who.  I don’t follow politics.  Regardless of party affiliation they all seem to be lying assholes to me.  At least when I am a criminal it’s clear from my costume.  Those guys will fleece you before breakfast and do it all in a sharp suit and tie.  But even so, hearing her screaming while Carnival terrorised her was eating at my nerves.  A few times I considered calling it quits, getting out and telling the Police our location.  But Jose was the voice of reason.
“Stay calm, man,” He said.  “He isn’t hurting her.”
“Why is she always screaming then?” I asked.
“He’s scaring her, sure.  You know what a fucking freak he is, right?  But he won’t injure her.  That would change the nature of his game.”
“What game?” I asked.
“The one he is playing with Halfmoon.  If he hurts her too much then Halfmoon can’t save her.  Not fully.  And if Halfmoon can’t save her, it might drive him over the edge.  Carnival wants a proper good guy as an enemy, not some kind of vengeful out-of-control vigilante.”
“Why?” I asked.  “What the fuck does he care?”
Jose laughed.  “I don’t know, man.  What am I, the Encyclopaedia of Supervillains?”

If it had taken even another day I am sure I would have snapped.  Every time I heard her crying, or begging for help, I thought of my own daughter.  I tried to stay away from the Haunted House but a deserted fairground is a much quieter place than you might imagine.  Screams travel.  They echo.  I wasn’t the only one.  Some of the gang were as hard as iron and so cold-hearted that you could have fed a kitten to a baby and they wouldn’t have blinked.  But others were clearly as disturbed as I was – though we all tried to act tough and hide that.

That night, Halfmoon came.  I’d never encountered a superhero before and this guy wasn’t a particularly big name.  But he sure as hell impressed me.  He came in the back way, through the scrub and over the security fence, as quiet as a soft breeze.  He appeared halfway up the ferris wheel, just kind of squatting on one of the cars, his cape billowing in the breeze.  It was as cool as hell, no doubt about it.  Then he dropped down on some of the guys and beat the living shit out of them without breaking a sweat.

He came through the offices where Jose, Hank, Juan and I were waiting for him.  By then I knew them well enough to have a handle on their talents.  Juan was a competent martial artist.  Black belt in something or other, I think.  Hank was strong and brave, making up for a lack of dexterity with sheer bloody-minded resolve.  Jose was a knife man and when a blade was in his hand he turned pretty scary himself.  Halfmoon took all three of them out in just under a minute.  He kicked Hank through an interior wall, knocking him senseless.  Then he broke Jose’s arm to disable the knife hand, and broke the other arm just for good measure.  Juan threw several impressive kicks, all of which Halfmoon dodged or blocked.  Then the hero disabled my colleague with a kick to the balls I doubt he’ll ever forget.

“You,” Halfmoon’s gravelly voice crackled.  He pointed at me.  I was holding a pool cue somewhat un-threateningly.  I hadn’t deliberately avoided the fight.  He’d just been so fast!  Each time I moved to intercept him, he’d taken somebody out and moved on.  It was like watching a force of nature.  “What?” I asked.  I tried to sound tough, but my voice came out high-pitched.  “Where is Carnival?”   I suppose I could have just told him.  I didn’t give a shit about Carnival – the guy was a nutter.  But somewhere within me, a trace of professional pride still flickered.  Plus, this prick had just really hurt my friends. 
“Who’s carnival?” I asked.
“Don’t play games with me,” Halfmoon threatened.  “You’ll tell me where he’s keeping the girl, or I’ll break you in half.”
“Sorry,” I told him, “But with all due respect, you can stick your threats up your arse.”  I came at him as fast as I could and swung the pool cue aggressively.  I wasn’t going down without a fight.

In the event, Halfmoon beat me within an inch of my life.  He broke three ribs, my collarbone, my nose and my jaw.  He gave me a fairly serious concussion.  But I still didn’t tell him anything.  It didn’t matter, the girl was still screaming and it wasn’t going to take a rocket scientist to find her.  He did find her and he did rescue her, but not before Carnival had caught him in a death trap that he fairly easily escaped, and then led him on a midnight chase across an assortment of creaky old funfair equipment.  It made the news, briefly.  As Jose promised, I wasn’t arrested.  I did spent a couple of weeks in hospital though, which ate into my cash reserves.  I still made a reasonable profit, but I knew for sure I was never working for a lunatic like that again.  It was all just too fucking strange.