Christopher Galt Novels






EXTRACT

THE CARNIVAL MASTER
by Craig Russell



Weiberfastnacht - Women's Karneval Night. Cologne. January, 1999

Madness. Everywhere she looked was insanity. She ran through crowds of the demented. She stared around wildly, seeking an asylum: somewhere she could find refuge amongst the sane. The music thudded and screamed mercilessly, filling the night with terrifying cheerfulness. The crowd was denser now. More people, more insanity. She pushed through them. Always away from the two massive spires that thrust up from the mayhem of the streets, black and menacing into the night. Always away from the clown.

She stumbled as she ran down the steps. Past the main railway station. Through a square. On an on. Still surrounded by the shouting, grinning, laughing faces of the insane.

She collided with a knot of figures gathered in front of a stand selling Currywurst and beer. The former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl stood in a nappy stuffed with Deutschmarks, laughing and joking with three Elvis Presleys. A medieval knight struggled to eat his hotdog through a visor that would not stay up. There was a dinosaur. A cowboy. Louis the Fourteenth. But no clown.

She spun around. Scanned the throng of bodies that now closed in her wake. No clown. One of the beer-stand Elvises staggered towards her. Blocked her path and circled her waist with his arm; said something lewd and latex-muffled. She pushed Elvis away and he collided with the dinosaur.

'You're mad!' she screamed at them. 'You're all mad!' They laughed. She ran on through a part of the city she didn't know. Fewer people now. The streets narrowed and closed in on her. Then she was alone in a narrow cobbled street, dark and tightly lined with four-storey high buildings with black windows. She pressed into a shadow and tried to get her breathing under control. The sound from the distant city centre was still loud: madly cheerful music mingled with the raucous cries of the insane. She tried to listen through it for the sound of footsteps. Nothing. She stayed pressed into the shadow, the reassuring solidity of the apartment building at her back.

Still no clown. No nightmare clown from her childhood dreams. She had lost him.

She had no idea where she was: one direction looked the same as the other. But she would keep heading away from the maniac sounds of the city, from the looming black spires. Her heart continued to pound but her breathing was now under control. She hugged the wall as she moved along the street. The raucous music and laughter faded further but suddenly there was a new blast as a door opened and yellow light sliced across the street. She shrank back again into shadow. Three cavemen and a female flamenco dancer burst out of the apartment house, two of the Neanderthals carrying a crate of beer between them. They staggered off in the direction of the other lunatics. She started to cry. To sob. There was no escape from it.

She saw a church at the end of the street. A huge church, standing crammed into a cobbled square. It was a Romanesque building that at one time would have sat grandly with fields and gardens around it. But the city had closed in on it over the centuries: now it was squeezed on every side by apartment buildings, like a bishop jostled by beggars. A parochial house sat nudged into its flank. A bar-restaurant at the other end of its meagre square. She would avoid the bar. She would seek refuge in the parochial house. She walked towards it, suddenly startled by the image of a small, frail, frightened, broken-winged fairy in the black shield of a butcher's shop display window. Her reflection. Her reflection hanging between pasted cardboard stars with special offers on beef and pork.

She reached the corner of the church. It loomed dark and austere into the cold night sky. She turned the heavy iron handle and leaned against the door but it would not give. She moved towards the parochial house.

He stepped out in front of her from where he had been waiting, hidden, around the corner of the church. His face was blue-white in the dim streetlight, his over-wide painted smile dark crimson and grotesque. Two flaps of green hair stood at a ridiculous angle from his otherwise bald head. She tried to scream but nothing came. She stared at his eyes: cold and dead and hard under the comical arches of his black-painted eyebrows. She couldn't move. She couldn't cry out. She couldn't find the strength to break free and run. His hand, gloved in bright blue felt, snapped up and grabbed her throat. He pushed her against the wall and into the shadows. Lifted her onto tiptoe. In a single movement of his free hand he produced a necktie from the huge patch pocket of his oversized coat and looped it around her neck.

Now she struggled. The necktie burned her skin, crushed the arteries in her neck, closed her windpipe. No breath came to her screaming lungs. Her head swam. Her world darkened. And as he tightened the ligature around her neck, all she could do was stare into his face.
His grotesque clown face.


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all material © Craig Russell