Horror & Dark Fantasy

THE ROBOTS OF GOTHAM

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Fiction

Mariners’ Round

It started small, as these things do, with a cheap glass jewel pried from the rump of a genuine Charles Carmel merry-go-round horse at Sydney’s Luna Park one cool autumn evening in 1977. A blue glass jewel set into a gold-painted wooden harness, many faceted, the size of a king’s thumbnail, a queen’s ransom, big enough to be easily visible and look so precious to kids watching the carousel turn.

Easy to pry off, too, in a small enough act of vandalism by one of three fourteen-year-old schoolboys on a cool, just past summer evening.

Davey Renford wanted it, yearned for it, loved the idea of having a precious blue-glass jewel from the haunch of the magnificent white wooden horse he’d chosen. Lysander, the chest blazon said, and it was on the outermost of the three rings, a smooth-turning stander, not like the favoured lift-and-fall jumpers on the two inner rings that most boys preferred. The fixed ones were not as exciting to ride but, being on the outside, they had the armour and bright fish-scale saddle cloths, the mirrors and the jewels. And this, to Davey, was the finest mount of them all, picked from the forty-two others, chosen over the two chariots, the lion and the fabulous (oh-so-tempting) griffin.

There was something about its dark gaze, the arch of the neck, the way the splendid creature lunged forward to seize the night, Davey couldn’t explain exactly. Stallion or mare, it didn’t matter. This was his horse, his jewel, something to mark the time.

Riley Trencher couldn’t have cared less, not yet. He was on an inner ring jumper, four horses ahead, yelling something back to Frank Coombs, who was busy swapping horses mid-ride when the operator wasn’t looking. And it was just as Davey’s cousin, Frank, was swinging between a second-ring jumper and the outer-ring fixed black behind Davey’s that he saw Davey reach back to run his finger yet again over the blue gem in the golden harness.

“You want it, take it!” Frank said. “It’s just glass!”

Which it was, of course, yet could never be.

“Take it!” Frank said again.

Davey couldn’t.

But for Frank Coombs it wasn’t an issue. He glanced at Riley Trencher sailing on ahead, then at the operator, whose back was still turned, then in seconds had his penknife out and open and the blade in under the jewel. In seconds, he was cupping the cool hard thing as it came away, then passing it forward to Davey, who took it, gaping in shock and wonder.

“What’s that you’re doing?” Riley called, which made the operator turn, shout an automatic “Behave yourselves, you boys!” and ended conversation until the ride was over.

By the time the platform had glided to a halt and all the horses were fixed and still, Riley and Frank had forgotten the jewel. They were too busy hurrying off to the Ghost Train, leaving Davey to follow on, lost in a buzz of wondering if it had really happened.

It was on the way home that Riley became the closest thing to an enemy Davey had ever known. The three of them were off the train at Hornsby, walking down Sutter’s Lane with the backyards of homes to one side and the vast open spread of the railway lines to the other. There was a streetlight ahead, just before the pedestrian underpass, and in the thin yellow light Frank saw how distracted Davey was.

“Hey, Davey-boy! Why the long face? You got the jewel.”

Which had Riley immediately demanding to see it. “Hey, yeah! I wondered what you two were doin’. Show me!”

Davey would’ve refused, but it wasn’t worth setting Riley off about anything. He was like a spring on its first flex, a firework teased with fire.

Davey took the jewel from his pocket and passed it over.

Maybe it looked precious in the light. Maybe it triggered something in Riley Trencher that had never existed before. For in a flash, mere seconds, his arm was back and he was flinging the stone out across the tracks.

For Davey it was a frozen moment, an eternity of alarm, dismay, rage beyond telling. He couldn’t speak, couldn’t move.

Not so Frank. An instant more and Frank had his own arm back and was punching Riley full in the face, spinning him off balance, sending him careening down the embankment. The chain-link fence should have caught him, but other kids had loosened the mesh for a shortcut and Riley went plunging through, scrambling and yelling, landing hard at the bottom on a standing length of pipe that went through his left thigh.

The yelling roused the neighbours. Suddenly there were adults there, and police and an ambulance soon afterwards. But then Davey and Frank had been led aside, questioned and taken home.

So it is that things happen, lives are turned, debts left owned and owing.

• • • •

Twenty-five years later, David Renford—Dave to his close friends, still Davey to his closest—knew so much more about the jewel, or rather the horse and the merry-go-round they had ridden that fateful night. Even before becoming a freelance heritage analyst, even before being called in to do insurance appraisals on two different Luna Park gates and associated vintage attractions various state governments, he had learned its origins: how it was an American three-row menagerie carousel in the Coney Island style purchased in England Herman Phillips and brought to Sydney in 1910. How the horses had been carved by Charles Carmel, one of the greatest of the American carousel horse carvers of the early twentieth century, a student of Charles Looff himself, and who, as an independent competitor, had specialised in splendid armoured mounts, fish-scale saddle blankets and feather-pattern, jewelled harnesses.

And twenty-five years to the day of that momentous evening (though he wasn’t to know that for another hour or so), Davey was sitting in the Trebarin in Dublin at 1:45 on an overcast Saturday afternoon listening to a five-piece band playing “Whiskey in the Jar.” There was a petite, redheaded woman with a winsome, heart-shaped face drinking with friends and singing along who kept catching his eye and smiling the right way. Losing on-again off-again Tina had made him cautious, even shy, and he meant to wait before attempting any kind of overture. What if he were wrong?

Still, it was the first time he’d been really, truly, unequivocally happy in the five years since Annie died, and it had started with winning the lucky door prize at the local RSL: the return trip to Ireland with three weeks’ accommodation and three thousand dollars spending money. He felt his life re-making itself at last.

But then—sheer astonishment!—Frank Coombs walked in, Frank or a time-worn lookalike. There was no mistaking him, though it had been ten years since he’d last seen his long-lost cousin, well before Annie.

“Frank!” Davey called above the singing, and Frank heard and turned, eyes widening in recognition, mouth falling open in an amazement to match Davey’s own.

“Davey? What on earth?”

For the next thirty minutes they huddled over beers in that corner of the Trebarin just off O’Connell Street, though the surprise and delight turned to a different, darker sort of astonishment after the first few minutes.

For Frank had won his own prize at another RSL, the three weeks’ accommodation, the three thousand dollars. It was unbelievable, impossible.

But more. On his way out of his hotel just forty minutes ago, Frank had been handed a most intriguing message at reception.

Your next surprise. The bar of the Trebarin Hotel, 2 p.m.

It had all been planned: the strictly fixed-term plane tickets, the proximity of their hotels, the meeting.

“What’s going on, Dave?” Frank asked, more to the universe than his one-year-younger cousin. “I thought you must’ve arranged the whole thing.”

“How I’m seeing it too, Frank. But what are the chances? Someone saw I was here and phoned your hotel.”

They spoke on, matched lives, found they had even more in common than they’d first thought.

Davey had lost Annie five years before, in a car accident in Royal National Park. Frank’s wife Marguerite had left him a year ago, taking their remaining child to her parents’ property at Calloway Point after a house fire had caused the death of their six-year-old son Mark.

The more they talked about their lives, the more alarming the symmetry became.

Several years back, Davey had looked like becoming a favoured heritage analyst for the Australian Museum in Sydney until an elaborately staged hoax had led first to his being sidelined, then sidestepped altogether. Frank, on the other hand, had been forced to close a promising rural medical practice when a lawsuit from a woman whose cancer had been misdiagnosed led to a malpractice investigation. The pathology lab had ended up being held accountable but, country towns being what they were, Frank’s reputation in the district had been effectively ruined.

“Believe in conspiracy theories, Davey?” Frank asked.

“Starting to,” Davey answered. “It’s too weird.”

The timing of this “discovery phase” had been planned as well. Forty-five minutes after their meeting, the waitress who came to clear the glasses handed them a business card.

“A gentleman upstairs asked me to give you this,” she said. “He’s in the private lounge on the first floor. Room 10.”

No, she didn’t know his name, just what was on the card. He’d booked the room, seemed a bit of a big spender. Then she hurried off about her duties before they could quiz her further.

The card gave no other identification than Blue Circle International, with a downtown New York address and contact details. On the reverse someone had written in a neat script:

There are things to discuss. Please join me for 3:00 p.m.

Davey and Frank checked their watches, saw that it was five minutes of that.

All of it planned.

But answers. Answers now at least.

They left their table and took the stairs to the first floor, continued along the hallway to the polished mahogany door of Room 10. Davey and Frank exchanged glances, then Frank knocked and they entered.

The spacious room was unoccupied but for a tall man sitting in a leather armchair before the fire. He was their age, late forties, early fifties, and had a full head of greying hair, a neatly trimmed beard. There was a walking stick his left hand and his suit looked expensive. Two more armchairs were arranged near his, and a small table was set with an ice bucket and a bottle of champagne, three glasses, a modest if ample plate of sandwiches and cakes.

The man turned in his chair, smiled. “Gentlemen, good afternoon. Excuse me if I don’t get up. An old injury.”

“We got your card,” Davey said, settling in one of the armchairs.

“And your plane tickets,” Frank added, taking the other. “An explanation would be appreciated.”

“Of course, Frank,” the bearded man said. “And please help yourselves to the sandwiches. Davey, do the honours and pour us each a glass. You’ve come a long way and we have things to celebrate.”

“We do?” Frank asked, even as Davey twigged to it.

“Riley? It’s you!”

“Indeed it is, Davey-boy. Good to see you. You too, Frank. Good of you to come.”

There was a strange silence then, absurd under the circumstances, and Davey eased them through it opening the bottle, filling the champagne flutes and passing them out.

“Thought we should catch up,” Riley said when they all had glasses. “Twenty-five years ago today. Today, you realise!”

Frank had lost things from his life. He needed to gain control here. “Riley, none of that was meant to happen.”

“Of course, it wasn’t, Frank. We were kids. I was a jerk. But twenty-five years! Different hemisphere, different country but this date, and here we are!”

Davey returned the bottle to the ice bucket. It was vintage Krug. “You seem to have done well.”

“Based in New York now. Married into old money. Spend my time running Blue Circle. Mainly antiquities auctions. One of the top five auction houses on the east coast. Who would’ve thought? But here’s to your health!”

They all drank the toast.

“So why the beat-up, Riley?” Frank said when it was done. “It’s a long way for an anniversary drink. Afraid we wouldn’t come?”

Riley set down his glass and laced his fingers. “Frank, it’s more to do with completing an old formula, an old incantation, if you can believe it.”

“An incantation!” Frank was first puzzled, then annoyed. As he’d just told Davey down in the lounge, ever since the lawsuit, ever since Markie died, he’d sworn never to put up with bullshit again.

Riley smiled. “All right. A protocol, if you prefer. How something has to be done. Davey, you’re in the trade. Ever hear of something called the Chinder Commission?”

“The name’s familiar. A carousel?”

“Exactly. A menagerie merry-go-round. Charles Carmel worked on it after the fire destroyed his own new carousel in 1911. His was uninsured and he lost nearly everything. But before he died in 1933, he did some work for Horace Chinder.”

Frank set his glass on the table. “Davey, Riley, how about you talk shop some other time. I want to know why we’re here.”

Riley raised a hand in a placating gesture. “Frank, please. What happened that night definitely has a place in this. That jewel you got for Davey.”

Davey was restless too, but saw that the best way to get answers was to play it as Riley wanted. He turned to his cousin. “Frank, the carousel we rode back in 1977 was a Charles Carmel merry-go-round. Brought to Sydney from the US, sold back to a US company after the 1979 Ghost Train fire. We might want to hear this.”

Frank settled back, let Davey top up his glass. “All right. But make it the five-dollar version, okay?”

Riley grinned. “The five-dollar version it is. Chinder was a stage magician, grandson and great-grandson in a family of very successful stage magicians. He was into puzzles and tricks, creating mysterious objects and events. A bit like that Kit Williams fellow.”

“Like who?” Frank asked.

“Kit Williams. Back in the 70s he made a hare out of gold, set it with jewels, and buried it in the countryside, then published a picture book with clues to its whereabouts so a lucky treasure hunter could find it. Masquerade. Do a net search. Chinder was like that, only he did it with a carousel.”

“Oh, and why is that?”

For all Davey knew, Frank might have been trying to behave, but his words came over as sarcasm.

Riley seemed not to notice. “Well, it’s a sacred shape, isn’t it? The wheel of life. Like the Round Table. No beginning or end. Anyway, you can’t stoppeth one of three unless you have three to start with, yes. Just like in ’77.”

“That’s a Coleridge reference,” Davey said for Frank’s benefit, in case his cousin didn’t know the allusion. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

“Gee, I was just going to say that,” Frank added. “Five-dollar version, Riley.”

“Gotcha. But it was Chinder’s favourite poem,” Riley continued. “And his favourite line was the first one: ‘It was an Ancient Mariner, And he stoppeth one of three.’ He had it inscribed on the marquee on Mariners’ Round, the carousel he had made for him, all fancy curlicue so you can barely read it. At least it’s supposed to be there, hidden in plain sight. And it’s a clue.”

“To what?” Frank asked.

“Exactly, Frank.” It was comical. Riley was ignoring Frank’s impatience and irritation, was treating him as if he were a fellow devotee, an interested colleague and ally. “To what indeed? That’s where you can help. I’ve located the Chinder Carousel. Now it’s a matter of solving the clues. All I need is an hour of your time.”

Frank shook his head in amazement. “That’s it? We’re here to solve a puzzle?”

Riley remained unshakeably charming and enthusiastic. “I’ve done a lot of work already. I’m nearly there. It has to do with the real purpose behind the Chinder Commission. Why these particular mounts. What they were intended to do.”

“To do?”

“To make possible.”

Incredibly, there was another silence then, just the sound of the fire crackling and of traffic out in the street. Quite possibly the champagne and the warmth were having their effect, for when Frank next spoke, it was as if he had worked through the absurdities and the impossibility, had found other things to settle on for a time, other memories, possibly a clearer sense of the reality of this unique moment in their lives. “Never thought of people having careers carving carousel horses,” was all he said.

Riley seized on the change of mood, handled Frank as he was no doubt handling them both. “I know. And you can’t imagine what a competitive, quirky bunch they were, Frank. One of them, Marcus Illions, had highly trained assistants but insisted on carving every horse head himself. Just the heads, think of it. Solomon Stein and Harry Goldstein turned out really quite frightening mounts with big heads and large teeth, quite ferocious-looking, like they were deliberately trying to frighten the children they were meant to attract. But most manufacturers just did the frames and hired carvers to provide what was needed. That one we rode as kids was a real beauty. Bit of a hybrid, not quite the usual Carmel menagerie. Mostly horses, but there was a lion, a griffin and two chariots for variety.”

“We remember,” Frank said, the edginess returning.

Riley picked up his glass of Krug, though barely drank. “Right. How can we forget? Something else was there to ‘stoppeth one of three’ that night.”

“Riley, we were kids,” Davey reminded him in case it was needed. “Let it go.”

“Hey, they saved the leg. I’ve done well.” Riley became thoughtful again. “But it’s strange, Davey. You seem to know Carmel’s work, but nothing about the Commission.”

“Just heard the name somewhere.”

“Right. But you probably know that when the fire destroyed his own carousel, Carmel was a broken man. He had to take whatever work he could get. I’m not saying it was arson, but suddenly Chinder comes along wanting a special menagerie unlike any Carmel had worked on before.”

“All conveniently omitted from the biographies,” Davey said. “I get piecework, diabetes, worsening arthritis, dead of cancer in his mid-sixties.”

“Strict secrecy was part of the brief. Carmel went to a dockside location in Brooklyn, used only the most trusted assistants. We know so little about it, just that it had a nautical theme and took two years to complete. Chinder was very specific about what had to be included. He also provided the materials. Can you guess what they were?”

“Just tell us,” Frank said.

“The timbers from wrecked sailing ships, Frank. Every single sea-mount for the Chinder Commission was made from the bulwarks and ribbing of old trading ships, from wrecks washed ashore, buried or never appraised properly. Timbers from storm-damaged vessels or hulks turned in for salvage.”

Frank had reached his patience limit again. “Great. So how does the jewel fit in?”

“Precisely the right word, Frank. Fit. Something being fitted. And since it has to do with the three of us, re-fitted. All three involved, like in the poem.”

It wasn’t what Coleridge had meant at all, Davey wanted to remind him, but he was looking out for Frank. “One of three, that poem says, Riley. Every three people, the Mariner would stop one to tell his story to.”

“Right, Davey-boy. A bit melodramatic pushing the image, I know, but circumstances make it relevant. You wanted the jewel back then. Frank took it. I ended up with it. Only fitting, don’t you think?”

Ended up with it! was Davey’s immediate thought, but his cousin spoke first.

“You threw it away!” Frank’s words were too loud in the otherwise empty room.

Riley’s eyes flashed in the firelight. “Did I now?” He gave a strange, somehow nasty, possibly exulting grin; Davey wasn’t sure how to read it. “Time to put this on again, I think.”

He took a silver ring from his jacket pocket and slipped it onto his right ring finger. It was handsome but too large, too overdone. And set into the crown was the blue glass jewel pried loose all those years ago.

Davey sat stunned. Blue Circle International. That name, of course. “But how—?”

“You bastard, Trencher,” Frank muttered, even as Riley answered.

“I palmed it! What did you think I did?”

Davey and Frank glanced at each other. The implications spun out before them.

“Riley . . .” Davey began. He never got to tell them he had it! It happened so quickly. Too quickly. All the violence for nothing!

“You two nearly ruined my life,” Riley continued. “For a while I even got to thinking that maybe I should ruin yours a bit.”

“Say again?” Frank demanded.

“What’s that?” Davey said.

But Riley had regained whatever composure the rush of feeling had brought undone. He reached down and laid a hand on his walking stick, then regarded the cousins again. “Still, that was then. This afternoon I have something important to show you.”

Frank was leaning forward, hands on his knees. “Finish what you were saying!”

“Frank, bear with me a bit longer, please. You’ve come a long way. The Blue Circle offices are in New York. You should be asking yourselves why here. Why Dublin?”

“The carousel’s here,” Davey said, before Frank could speak.

“Right on, Davey-boy! So think back to that night. Those horses had names. What was the one you rode? The one Frank took the jewel from? Do you remember?”

How could Davey forget? ”Lysander.”

Now it was Riley whose face showed surprise, more than that: astonishment. He went very still, not blinking for ten, twenty, thirty seconds. Then he reached up and stroked his beard with one hand, almost absentmindedly. He probably didn’t know he was doing it.

“Riley, what?” Davey asked.

“Lysander,” Riley said at last. His manner had changed. He was still distracted, but now seemed shrewd and calculating as well.

“Yes, so?”

Riley brought his attention back to the cousins. “Part of what got me into this. The auctions, maritime archaeology, all of it. There was a seventeenth century spice trader with that name. Ninety-eight footer. Three masts. Went missing at sea in 1704, all reports.” He took out a pen and notebook. “Davey, how is that spelt, please?”

He wrote the name as Davey spelled it, then, saying “Excuse me a moment,” took out his mobile and called a pre-set number. “Beverley, I have the name. It’s Lysander. Spelled L-Y-S-A-N-D-E-R. Within half an hour please.” He broke the connection.

Frank was still sitting forward as if preparing to leave. “Riley, something important to show us, you were saying. I assume it’s this carousel.”

“Gents, just one more hour, that’s all I ask.” Riley was not only back in control, but seemed to have reconsidered how much he would reveal. “Davey, it may help to see it as Chinder must have. He pondered the old questions. What is the role of magic in a life? Not necessarily real magic, working magic, as they say, but our relationship to magic as an idea, a constant, something wished for.”

“Magic?” Davey was thrown the sudden change of topic, then realised that the coincidence with the names had changed everything, saw too that Riley was probably working to a schedule, filling time.

“I know. Crazy stuff. But as a historical, cultural, personal thing we keep yearning for, keep returning to. The possibility of it.”

Frank made a disgusted sound. “Riley, what are you going on about? Real magic! Working magic! What is all this?”

But Davey raised a hand this time, urging patience. “You’re saying Chinder sought more than just the conceptual kind?”

“Davey, he did. We’re talking real magic here, I promise you. The real deal.” He turned back to Frank. “Chinder made his career exploiting the other kind, Frank, the conceptual kind, pandering to our yearnings, manipulating our need to believe. He was an entertainer, but his papers show he actually did believe in working magic as well. He spent much of his life finding ways to use it.”

Frank breathed out heavily. “Oh, for Pete’s sake!”

But he too saw the glint in Riley’s eyes, no doubt grasped that it was quite likely from exultation at a quest nearly completed, something about to reach its end.

“The Chinder Commission was the culmination of his efforts,” Riley said. “Some ancient cabbalistic, shamanistic way of reaching his goal.”

Davey had to ask it. “Which was?”

“Why, finding the heart’s desire, of course. Nothing less. That’s how his papers put it.”

“Which for him was what?”

Riley shrugged. “Chinder doesn’t say. And if I’m right, he never completed the process. But that’s what it was. Finding his heart’s desire.”

Frank shook his head in disbelief. “Which for you would be locating this old ship. Using the bloke’s carousel.”

“An indulgence, Frank. We all have them.”

Though much more than that, Davey knew, fascinated in spite of himself. After the long flight, after winning the prize that wasn’t a prize, the shock of meeting first Frank and now Riley again, this was something familiar, something to anchor him. “Riley, the Commission was never displayed. Never seen.”

“Right. It was packed up and shipped. Even Carmel never saw it reassembled.”

“But you’ve located it.”

“Davey, I have. It’s out in the docklands, and I’ve bought it. Humour me, please. Come and see it now is all I ask. Then you can both go on your way. Enjoy your holiday.”

Frank stood, stepped away from his armchair. “Riley, I’ve heard enough!”

“Frank, one thing for old time’s sake, please! All I ask. Just ten minutes from here.”

Frank looked down at his one-time friend. “Oh, Jesus! For old time’s sake then.”

• • • •

The afternoon outside was bleak and wintry and Davey wasn’t surprised to see a hire car waiting for them at the curb. They climbed in and were driven, mostly in silence, through late afternoon traffic out to a dockland, warehouse district, finally pulled over near a large brick building beside a chain-link fence.

Davey could easily imagine a menagerie being hidden away in such a structure, but the building itself wasn’t to be their destination. When they were standing in the road and the hire car had driven off, Riley used a key to unlock a gate in the fence, then led them down a pass-through a construction yard to a high fenced enclosure of a more traditional kind, a barricade of old wooden palings, sturdy and close-fitting. All about them could be heard the sounds of the Liffey.

Riley unlocked a gate in that fence as well, and held it open while they all stepped through. The cousins found themselves in a large dim precinct formed paling fences on all sides, even facing the river so there was no view at all, just the sounds of gulls, with the smell of estuarine mudflats strong on the breeze.

At first, Davey wasn’t certain what he was seeing; then, as his eyes adjusted in the last light of day, he saw that it was indeed a derelict carousel. Mariners’ Round, the faded letters on the canopy said. And, sure enough, all the worn and time-damaged mounts he could make out were things of the deep; lunging, looming, crowding over each other.

Some were based on real animals: sharks with gaping mouths, dolphins in mid-leap, whales sounding, spouting, a great squid with out-thrust tentacles, a brace of seahorses side side, the impressive spiral of a nautilus. But others were fanciful, wonderfully, disturbingly strange: a wild-eyed kraken, a sea-serpent with a tabard of old mirrors scrolling down its chest, half-human tritons and mermaids, all with heads that seemed larger than life, more in the style of Stein and Goldstein than Carmel, with bared teeth, rolling eyes, a manic, frantic, restless quality, like gasping things dragged from the depths before their time and against their wills.

Davey couldn’t help but be impressed. It did indeed seem to be the Chinder Carousel, Riley’s lost Carmel merry-go-round, seized, landed and trapped here in this sad enclosure beside the Liffey.

“Not as derelict as it looks,” Riley assured them. “There’s a new electric motor installed, though the musical accompaniment will be turned right down this evening. Mustn’t draw too much attention. But it’ll work well enough for a little ride.”

Frank wasn’t having any of it. “And why would we want to do that?”

“Frank, please. Choose a mount and take the one ride. Just one.”

“Riley, what’s to be gained?” Davey asked. “Why does it matter so much?”

“This jewel.” He raised his ring. “It was never meant to go to the carousel we rode in Sydney that night. Bet you never knew that, Davey. It was meant for this special hybrid, the Commission. There was a mix-up. Just the one jewel and it all went wrong for Chinder. Maybe a mischievous assistant palmed it, passed it on.” Riley’s grin was fierce. “Maybe it was an honest mistake. Maybe the carousel itself wasn’t ready. But that’s why it never worked as far as we can know. Never fulfilled its function.”

“Delivering the heart’s desire,” Davey said, echoing Riley’s words from the hotel, even as his mind locked on what else Riley had just now said.

Maybe the carousel itself wasn’t ready!

“The heart’s desire,” Riley continued. “Something like that. But we found the jewel that night. I palmed it, had it in my pocket at the accident. And there was blood. It was blooded. Maybe that’s it, you tell me. But the three of us were involved then; it seems right that all three have to be involved now. Chinder’s papers put it like that: ‘All that is intended,’ the line goes. Well, all this was intended—is intended, as I see it! What we did then means it should be that way now. I’d already been tinkering with your lives a bit, getting even for what happened.”

There it was again, the hint of threat and reprisal. Frank seized on it. “Wait! Wait! What’s that supposed to mean?”

And again Riley ignored the question. “Last year I finally located the carousel here, arranged to buy it.”

“Wait up, Riley!” Frank’s eyes flashed with anger. This wasn’t a hotel lounge with torpor brought on alcohol and a cosy fireside. This was a chill, naked evening with a fine drizzle beginning to fall. “What do you mean ‘tinkering with our lives a bit’?”

“Then I brought you all this way. Now we take the ride, restore the jewel one way rather than another and it’s done. You can go.”

“Go fuck yourself, Trencher!” Frank said. “What sort of tinkering?”

All through Frank’s outburst, Riley seemed patient, even unnaturally calm, but Davey sensed the old Riley Trencher danger waiting there. “Forget it, Riley,” he said, more gently than he felt. “We’ve seen enough.”

Riley gave a strange smile. “Gents, you don’t understand. I have more fun and games planned if you don’t co-operate. Frank, right now Marguerite is at Calloway Point with your daughter and your parents, yes? Davey, your parents are still living in Chatswood. There are things in place. I need only say the word. I think one quick ride will be worth all the inconvenience. So, please, choose a mount, finish what we started. What Chinder started.”

He left a silence then, rather something of one, for it was filled with the soughing of wind about the transoms and the canopy, getting in between the palings of the enclosure. Time seemed distended, every second stretched, laden. Davey and Frank stood in the growing gloom numb with loss and grief all over again, feeling the helplessness, the rage and fury, the old embers smouldering now, re-kindled.

For the first time, Davey saw his life as something deliberately spoiled. Not just the hoax but—hell and Jesus, no!—the accident! Annie! Other things that had been at least bearable as part of the burden of hazard in any life. But no longer. No longer.

Frank had to be feeling the same: seeing Markie’s death anew, the malpractice suit, losing Marguerite. What else had she been told in the careful, spiteful workings of Riley Trencher’s plan?

And Riley read that moment for precisely what it was, knew where it had to lead. He reached inside his jacket, produced a handgun and aimed it their way.

“Think carefully about what you do now, gents. My associates are close by. Refuse to take the ride and you’ll be shot. You’ll be strapped to a mount. We’ll take the ride anyway. You don’t have to be alive for it. Inside or out, the blood is still there. All that is intended.”

“You killed my son,” Frank said in a whisper, a ghost’s voice drawn thin.

Riley just tilted his head in a way that might have said: Collateral damage, Frank. I merely requested a house fire.

Davey couldn’t speak at all. The thought of Annie’s death, of Riley’s abiding hatred, that order of single-mindedness, brought the familiar weight, the exhaustion.

Only the search for this old carousel had stayed his hand, Davey realised, had brought this respite, this interlude, this whole parody of charm and civility. There’d be no going their own way once this was done, he was sure of it.

And dying here wouldn’t just end his own life, Davey saw, that was the thing. It would end Annie as well somehow, the chance to keep her in the world in some way, any way. Just as Frank surviving, continuing, kept Markie’s memory as something at least. We end, those things end. More forgotten things, the world moving on.

The bleakness of the thought, the hour, this cold, too early evening hour, made it possible. Why not take the ride? Move it along. Bring more hazard to the mix. Why not?

He moved towards the carousel. As if on cue, three proximity floods switched on, ghost-lighting the whole macabre display. Now glass eyes glittered in the time-struck faces, teeth gnashed, flashed off-white and worn silver, tongues lolled, mouths silently screamed. Old mirrors gave the barest glints and gleams, ancient brightwork showed in swatches, snatches, hints of fraught primary colours that had not been visible before.

Davey didn’t dare stop. The great squid impaled on its brass pole rolled a baleful eye, watched him approach, move past. Three mermaids offered scarred breasts, mouths flecked with old enamel.

Mount us! Mount us! Ride!

Sirens heaved, rolled, lolled in their meagre twists of surf.

No fish tails here, fancy-boy! Press close. We can be Annie! Annie!

Davey saw them through tears: flaunting, writhing, limbering.

Tritons glared, daring, warning off. One lunged—no, no it was Frank, Frank there with him now, circling the zodiac too, this wheel of lost and forsaken things.

“Davey—” his cousin began to say.

“Just do it!” Davey said with a voice, a forthrightness neither Davey nor Frank had ever heard from him before. “Move it along!”

“But we have to—”

“Frank, he has others with him. We’ve no choice.”

“We don’t know that! We don’t know that at all!”

“Doesn’t matter which ones we choose. Just pick one near mine, okay? Stay close!”

“Davey, we have to—”

“Frank, there’s been enough harm. Let it go! Get through this.”

And Frank did let it go then, like a balloon deflating, emptying, moved with Davey around this ancient wheel sea-changed—no, land-changed—into a base pathetic thing. Only one mount had a legible name-plate, a new plate newly fitted, Lysander. Riley’s mount this time, not his. Not now. Never his now.

Davey moved clear of it, well beyond, climbed atop a leaping dolphin on the outermost ring, one that looked less manic and blighted than the rest. Frank took the wild-eyed shark next in the row, climbed up and settled, gripped the pole.

Riley must have already been in place back there behind them for the platform began creaking, heaving, easing forward like a tide on the turn, moving faster and faster, girding itself like a king tsunami reaching to take on the world.

The music would be playing, that was part of the equation too, but was turned right down as Riley had said it would be. There was just the creaking, the straining, the flapping of the old torn canopy, just the onshore breeze, laving, pushing, growing stronger, smelling of tidal flats, sea-wrack and early rain. So, too, set running out there was the turn, turn of the city lights a way off, and more lights from the river, scant, precious, locked in time, those things shifting to a blur as the great wheel gained speed, completing itself the act of moving forward: animals, grotesques and halflings thrown, lunging, plunging into flickering night, snatching the life of the flow, wheeling, rushing, flinging into time and chance, purest hazard.

And caught in the sweep, that relentless rush, Davey almost saw it happen!

• • • •

He came back to it, to everything, with a song, to words that went like this—

Hoist away and make some sail,

We’ll have a toast for England.

Tomorrow we’re away to Spain or off to Araby.

A man has many chains on shore

But Davy Jones has many more.

He has no home, his wits are foam,

He cannot leave the sea.

—found himself in a corner of the Trebarin in Dublin on a wintry Saturday afternoon, woke to an old sea-shanty being sung as a round—a round, yes!—by two, three dozen men and women who were laughing, many with arms linked, raucously singing their parts. The pretty woman he’d seen before was still among them, smiling at him, coaxing, inviting, daring—he couldn’t be wrong!—so clear now through the refrain.

Mariners’ Round. Of course. Davey spared a thought for Frank and, unexpectedly, for Riley Trencher, wondering what had befallen them in this astonishing sleight-of-hand, sleight-of-mind, sleight-of-time.

Because look where he was! Just look! And look at what he had! Davey laughed, found his feet, and went to join the chorus.

• • • •

Frank Coombs woke under the trees in the sea-meadow above Calloway Point, looking out across the headland to the sparkling Pacific. When he heard laughter, the sound of children singing, he leant up on his elbows like some hayseed farm-boy, saw the old farmhouse under its sheltering Moreton Bay figs. Before it there were adults dancing in a circle with ten, eleven children—a reel it was—while other parents and friends watched, smiling, singing along, clapping in time.

A round, Frank realised. It’s a celebration, probably a birthday, and they’re dancing a round!

“Come on, Frank!” one of the spectators called, leaving the group, approaching. It was Marguerite, worn, dishevelled from the festivities and another handful of years, but Marguerite! “You took the trouble to come,” she said. “Least you can do is join in. Unless you’re too old for it!”

“As if!” Frank cried.

For he wasn’t. You never were. While you lived, you did what you could.

Frank laughed. There was no Markie, no, that lasting bruise on the perfect day, but there was this and, surprisingly, it was enough. He scrambled to his feet and went to join in, wanted Marguerite to see him doing that. Just that.

• • • •

And Riley Trencher? Why, Riley found himself on the ship of his dreams, of course, on the deck of the late seventeenth century spice trader Lysander, circling, endlessly circling, on the inner slope of a mighty maelstrom, a vast yawning gulf in the sea, at least two thousand metres across, five hundred deep, turning, roaring under a wild, leaden sky.

The decks were canted at an alarming forty degrees above that terrible drop, but a crewman used sea-lines to haul himself along the upper rail, finally arrived drenched rain and spray. He wore the foul-weather oilskins of an older time.

“You made it!” he shouted above the roar of the vortex. “They said you would! You’ve got the ring?”

“What?” Riley could barely hear his own voice. The roar numbed everything. “What’s that?”

“The ring, man! You’ve got the bloody ring?”

And when Riley raised his hand to show it, the man nodded, actually managed a ragged grin.

“Thank God! We can end this!”

“End what?” Riley asked, but knew, knew, even as the seaman gestured out at the gloom, the churning murk below.

All that is intended.

And after so many, too many, wasting, wearying years, the old ship leant harder into the wind, doors to crew quarters blew open, maps flew from the captain’s cabin like doves, the twin mirrors of a sextant floated in a half-silvered sky, and Lysander began its final descent.

Terry Dowling

Terry Dowling has been called “Australia’s finest writer of horror” by Locus magazine, its “premier writer of dark fantasy” by All Hallows and its “most acclaimed writer of the dark fantastic” by Cemetery Dance magazine. The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror series featured more horror stories by Terry in its 21-year run than by any other author. Terry’s horror collections include Basic Black: Tales of Appropriate Fear (International Horror Guild Award winner, Best Collection 2007), the Aurealis Award-winning An Intimate Knowledge of the Night, the World Fantasy Award nominated Blackwater Days, and his most recent title, The Night Shop: Tales for the Lonely Hours, published by Cemetery Dance in October 2017. London’s Guardian called his debut novel Clowns at Midnight “an exceptional work that bears comparison to John Fowles’s The Magus.” Terry lives in Sydney, Australia and his homepage can be found at www.terrydowling.com.