Professor Paragon wasn’t your typical carnie. Tall, thin, with silver, flowing locks and a matching goatee, he dressed in black, with a flowing cloak and silver jewelry like something from an Erroll Flynn movie. Dashing, the chubby housefraus would say. A man’s man, their husbands agreed.
He had a gentle voice, and I’ve always had a big mouth, so I got the job of shilling for him, drawing in the willing crowds. Just because I’m full of hot air, that doesn’t make me a liar. That’s important, because you need to believe me. It’s a matter of life and death.
I think it was the gleam in Professor Paragon’s eye that most attracted the crowds. It wasn’t until later that I realized it wasn’t a twinkle of humor at the fools or a spark of fellowship or humor. It was hunger. An angry sort of raw, feral hunger.
Our outfit hooked up with the Ringling outfit that summer — no, it was a show almost as good, but it wasn’t them. I have no call to tell you tales. The circus folks adored Professor Paragon and the booth — and the hand-over-fist money he brought in. They tolerated our shabby tents and phony freaks just to have, as the banner proclaimed, “The Paragon of wisdom and knowledge.”
Like its namesake, the Paragon booth wasn’t your typical guess-your-weight, guess-your-age set-up. It was a dais that had a midnight-blue canopy covered with mystical symbols in silver paint, held up by slender silver rods. Those were carved with weird patterns that never made sense — like a dream you can’t quite remember.
Big canvas murals of Celtic stones, Mayan pyramids, Transylvanian castles painted like fever-dream fantasies surrounded the booth, and the professor used to eye them. Daydreaming like the rest of us of all the places he’d never see, I thought. Now I wonder if it wasn’t nostalgia.
The lines were always long at Paragon. Word-of-mouth was that Professor Paragon was never wrong on guessing an age, and almost perfect with the weights. (Perfect in that, too, I knew, but he threw a few just to keep the suckers hopeful.)
He’d lick liver-colored lips, his eyes shining and give me a sly wink, and guess wrong, and a plump pigeon of a woman would go away with a snowglobe or paperweight and think she had the treasure of the Pharaohs.
Sometimes Professor Paragon would sigh as he toyed with the silver bracelet — its symbols matched the booth’s — and his bright gaze would sweep the crowd that was different each night but always the same.
Until one July night, when his gaze seemed to linger and I followed it to a small, dark man taking in the patter and the flash. The torchlight catching his eyes gave me the impression he was gloating. Suddenly he slipped to the head of the line. Now that I remember it, nobody complained.
“Guess my age,” he said quietly, and fire met fire as Professor Paragon looked at him.
“Brother, I don’t need to,” Paragon said, smiling broadly with sharp white teeth.
The small man stepped closer and sniffed, like animals sometimes do when sizing up another. His metal-on-metal laughter tore at my ears. “They said you were a fool, to be caught like this. I had to come see for myself.”
“More the fool, you.” Paragon’s hand shot out, grasping the visitor’s arm Suddenly his incised silver bracelet was on the dark man’s wrist.
“Free,” Professor Paragon said in that soft voice. It sounded almost like a prayer of thanksgiving. The man he’d called brother tried to step down from the dais, and couldn’t, bound there by silver and symbols and something strong and sour — magic, I guess you’d call it.
Paragon looked at me with a red glint of death in his eyes. I can’t explain why, but willpower fled and I fell to my knees, craning my neck upward, accepting my fate.
“Not this night,” the professor said gently. “Your new partner awaits.” He flitted past me and bounded down off the dais.
Someone’s always screaming along the midway: Shiny-eyed kids giddy from winning sawdust-filled toys or half-dead goldfish; couples checking out the Siamese twins in the freak tent; buddies ragging each other at the ring-the-bell game. That’s not real screaming.
When Professor Paragon carved his way, tooth and nail, through the midway crowd that July night, those screams reached down my throat and twisted my guts. I swear I had goose bumps on the inside of my skin. Still do.
The images of that hot, red chaos don’t fade, either. Never will.
Hunger sated, revenge satisfied, boredom relieved, Professor Paragon faded into the night. We couldn’t tell the cops how or why, and they, equally at a loss, kicked it around for a few months, then concocted a story about drug-crazed lunatics on a rampage and let the story fade.
We travel another circuit now, and call Paragon’s new tenant Doctor Darke, but the booth is the same. We don’t trumpet it, but mystery and danger seem to feed their own rumors, and the crowds come.
He stands there, dressed in black, fidgeting with the silver bracelet, hating the crowds but knowing they are his only hope. I can see a spark behind his heavy-lidded eyes as he searches for the needle in the haystack, the perfect mark who will set him free. Who will let him feed his growing hunger.
And I watch, too, so that nobody like him tries their luck at the booth. I’m not bound by silver and spell, but I guess I’m as much a prisoner as Darke. While it’s not much consolation, knowing that I might prevent another midway nightmare helps me sleep nights.
Mostly. Until the nightmares start.
TW Williams is a Chicago-area writer and magazine editor, who has magazine and anthology credits in fantasy and science fiction genres.