Everything in the circus was dead except for Marv, Marissa, and maybe Magpye.
Nobody was sure about Magpye.
Part of the problem was that Magpye wasn’t always completely Magpye. Sometimes he was Able Quirk, and he certainly looked a lot like him. A dead him, but still him. Other times Magpye was someone else entirely, the ghost of some other person, or persons, speaking through Able’s body. But always, underneath it all, he was Magpye. Whatever the hell that meant.
Above ground, the circus had been burnt long ago. The caravans were nothing more than rusting skeletons, their blackened skins blistered from the heat of the fire, ruptured, and now rusting in the merciless elements. Their black frames looked like the bones of elephants, great beasts come together in their graveyard to die, far from the herd. Tattered tarps, colourful shrouds for the dead circus, clung to the ruined frames of the tents and awnings, and the ground was a black, scorched skin. Above it all towered the fleshless carcass of the big top, casting its grim shadow across the place like a cage. When the wind was right, you could still smell burning. If you listened carefully, you could sometimes hear screams too. Murder hung in the air like a fog and clung to everything, a sticky miasma that made the flesh crawl and the heart pound.
Something bad had happened here. The kind of bad that stained a place.
Even when the circus had been open, before everything had burnt, there had been strange rumours. The place was built on an old, forgotten cemetery some said, and the ghosts of those interred here haunted the circus and plagued its visitors. Well, there were ghosts here, that much was certain. Magpye could hear them. He could hear them all the time.
Below ground, in their tiny sanctuary underneath the vast corpse of the circus, Marv and Marissa were cooking. Pans steamed, lids rattled. Ever the showman, ever the magician, Marv made even a simple stew cooked over a camping stove look like a conjuring trick. Behind him, Marissa laid the table. Impossibly, some china had survived the fire-storm that had consumed the circus, and she arranged it carefully on the table.
Their sanctuary was a small mausoleum: an expensive tribute, Marv had suggested, to a family long past. Despite all the ghosts that Magpye could sense, he had no inkling of who the original denizens of this place might have been. Unlike the ghosts of the circus, their spirits had found peace, he suspected. Marissa had done her best to decorate the place, papering the vaulted stone ceilings with old posters from the circus, scrounging up what furniture she could. With the original tenants gone, they had turned the place into a shrine to their own lost loved ones. Salvage from the burnt out caravans was piled everywhere, a ramshackle museum built up from the everyday detritus of people’s lives mixed with what was left of the paraphernalia of the circus. They had used some of the larger boxes to block up doors, limiting themselves to just a few small rooms. Marv wanted to explore the place, but Magpye’s keen sense of the dead and their demands had bade him leave the rest of the crypt alone. This was a dead place. The living were the interlopers here.
Perched on the edge of an old steam trunk, Magpye watched Marissa laying the table. The plates were fragile, just like the girl, he thought. Survivors, but chipped and crazed and changed by the whole thing. He was changed too, of course, more than any of them.
“Sit down to the table, son, you’re making us all nervous,” Marv said. “Or make yourself useful and help Marissa.”
Magpye cocked his head to one side, an affectation that let Marv and Marissa know that he was no longer listening to them, but to one of the many voices that only he could hear. Dead voices, never quiet. “Sorry,” he mumbled, hopping down from his perch.
“That’s OK,” said Marissa, unsure whether the apology had been for her or not. “Everything’s ready. Why don’t you sit down and we can get started?”
Magpye shot Marv a look. “I can’t…”
“Try,” said Marv, pouring steaming stew from the pan into the waiting bowls. “Just… try.”
And so the three of them sat and stared at their plates of stew. Marv, the once great circus conjurer, and Marissa his daughter and former assistant. Magpye knew them both, but couldn’t be sure if the memories were his or if they belonged to one of his ghosts, to the one of the voices in his head.
He felt Marissa’s hand on his. It was warm, far warmer than his own cold and cadaverous flesh.
“You used to love this stew,” she said earnestly. “You’ve got to eat something, keep your strength up.”
Magpye pushed the bowl away angrily, spilling some of the steaming stew onto the old wooden table.
“I can’t,” he said flatly, his temper immediately subsiding. “I can’t eat this.”
He stalked away from the table, damning the voices in his head for their sudden silence as Marissa began to sob behind him.
Sitting in his lair, Magpye listened to the girl’s sobs fade away, and to the muffled sounds of Marv’s calm, deep voice. He was a hypnotist, amongst his other conjuring skills, and Magpye wondered if Marv had ever considered reaching into Marissa’s mind and turning off the things that plagued her. The voices said no, but Magpye still wondered.
The “lair”, as Magpye had come to term it, was the smallest of their rooms. Marv’s old trick cabinet stood against one wall, co-opted by Magpye for his own storage. A bed of sorts, cobbled together from part of one of the old caravans, lay awkwardly to one side. A jagged shard of warped glass was propped up in one corner, a poor substitute for a decent mirror. Magpye liked to look at himself, he said, to see if he could see any trace of them, the voices in his head, behind his eyes or on his face. Marv said that Magpye had once stared into the mirror for almost two days. All he ever saw was his own warped reflection, of course. The dead were far too cunning to be caught in mirrors.
A soft tap on the door and the creak of hinges announced Marv’s arrival.
“I’m sorry,” said Magpye instantly, “I shouldn’t have…”
“It’s fine,” Marv interrupted, dragging an old crate away from the wall to make an impromptu seat for himself. “But you can’t hide what you are from her forever you know.”
Magpye looked down at the floor. “And what is that, exactly?”
“You’re a young man with some incredible gifts, Quirk.”
“Don’t call me that!” snapped Magpye. The bed creaked under his weight as he shifted himself back and forwards. Marv knew the movement well and understood the inner torment that it signified. He couldn’t imagine what it was to have so many voices in your head, especially when, according to Able, they were always screaming.
Marv sighed and rubbed at his face. “You can’t afford to forget who you really are, son.”
“Who I really am is why all of my friends and all of my family are dead, Marv. Who I really am is why we live in a tomb underneath what used to be our home, why we have to scavenge in the wreckage of our lives, of their lives, for the things we need. Being Able Quirk is why all of this happened.”
Magpye stood up and stalked across to the trick cabinet. Yanking the doors open, he revealed the contents – a small arsenal of throwing knives, a long handled axe, a belt hung with loops of trapeze wire, and his great coat. Stitched with a series secret pouches and pockets, even Marv didn’t know the full extent of the coat’s contents. Hanging from the top of the cabinet, was the mask. In a cabinet full of weapons, it was the mask that frightened Marv most of all.
“You’re going out?” he asked, warily.
Magpye pulled on the great coat. Inside, Marv could see holsters swinging.
“And you’ve got yourself some guns, I see.”
“Malcolm put me on to them. He kept them in a secret compartment in the floor of his caravan.”
“Malcolm…” said Marv wistfully. Malcolm had been the circus’ sharpshooter. British by birth, he dressed as a cowboy and affected a Texan drawl as part of his act. He’d been great, in his day, but he’d never told anyone the secret of where he’d learnt to shoot. Marv had always suspected that he was more than just a sharpshooter or a trick shot. For one thing, he’d never come across a trick shot who knew how to shoot a man in the gut so that it took him a whole day to bleed out.
Magpye unhooked the long handled axe and slung it over his back on a leather strap.
“I’m not going to try and stop you,” said Marv.
“But you can’t do this forever. Eventually, you’re going to have to stop hiding and remember who you are, underneath all of this.”
“Doing this,” said Magpye, unhooking the mask, “Is the only thing that makes sense of any of this.”
Marv stood, placing his arms on Magpye’s shoulders. He could feel hard plates stitched underneath the cloth.
“I used to feel that way, you know I did. They were my family too.”
“And I came back.”
“When they were dead. When it was too late to help anybody.”
Marv looked away. Magpye’s eyes were pale, milky orbs almost devoid of colour, another of the mysterious changes that had come over the boy Marv had once known as Able Quirk, and it was impossible to meet their gaze for long. There was something more than that though, something deeper. Marv didn’t see the dead, or hear them like Magpye did, but that didn’t mean that he didn’t remember them. The circus had been his home too, once. Marv, the great magician, the master escape artist. He’d pulled his greatest ever escape without even knowing it, leaving the circus just a few weeks before it was burnt to the ground, the entire crew murdered.
“I helped you, didn’t I?” he asked weakly.
“Yes, Marv, you did,” replied Magpye. “And you’re still helping me now. Let’s face it, if I stop, what else are we going to do?”
“Live?” suggested Marv, his tone glib.
“As ghosts, maybe. Hiding down here in a tomb? We may as well be dead.”
“But we’re not. We’ve got a chance. I’ve got friends in LA, a few friends in Vegas… we could start over.” Marv gripped Magpye by the shoulders, tightening his grip, “Everyone who goes up against the Kings ends up dead, kid. Everyone knows that. What happened here, what happened to us? They’ve done things a hundred times worse. They own this city, and nobody is taking it from them.”
“Bullshit!” scoffed Marv. “Well, at least use that secret passage of yours,” he said, heading out of the room. “I don’t want Marissa any more upset than she is already. And don’t think you can come back and haunt me if you get yourself killed out there.”
But Magpye didn’t answer. As he closed the door, Marv heard the unmistakeable sound of Able Quirk zipping up his mask, and he knew that any vestige of the boy was gone in that instant. Inside the mask, there was only Magpye, and Magpye only wanted one thing.
Magpye was going to kill the King.