THE DEVIL TO PAY

By John Barr


Fairgrounds and Harold Grover didn’t mix. He hated the jostling, honking, ignorant people. He hated the glaring lights, deafening, so-called, music and the stink of diesel fumes and right now, he was in the thick of it all.

He ran a thin hand through his sparse, grey hair. As he’d expected, he had a splitting headache. Should he mention it to Millie? She might suggest they call it a day. Some hopes! She wouldn’t care. She loved fairgrounds, or anywhere else, where there was noise, life and bustle.

He gave a cynical grunt. Perhaps it was because she could hide her gross, overfed body among people too busy to notice her waddling figure. Even now, after a huge cheeseburger and three quarter pound bars of coconut ice, she was demolishing a candyfloss; a miniature mountain of pink spun sugar, just like the pile of coarse, tinted hair on her head. But there again; it was pointless telling her not to eat all that sugar. She never listened to anyone, least of all to her husband.

Harold didn’t despise fat people generally. He knew obesity wasn’t always due to gluttony, or other excesses, but Millie had no one to blame but herself. Harold’s long nose wrinkled in disgust as he looked at his wife’s vast buttocks, jiggling beneath the thin material of her voluminous skirt; like two fat rabbits in a sack. She was also obnoxious with a high-pitched laugh that could split a pine log. Even over the hubbub of the fair, he couldn’t shut out her shrieking, as her fickle mind flitted from one idea to the next. Millie was enjoying herself. Harold’s headache wouldn’t interest her. She would only tell him to go take an aspirin. A growl rumbled in his throat. It was a pity there wasn’t something he could take to get rid of her. One of these days…

He stopped.

Frowned.

Where had all that hate suddenly come from?

True, he didn’t exactly love his wife any more and he’d often wondered if he would have enough guts to get rid of her. Usually though, such ideas came to him after a few drinks and the ensuing tirade from Millie. This feeling was different though. He almost tasted the hate and, dare he admit it, the strongest desire to wring her neck, he had ever experienced....

‘Come along folks! See the freak show! Genuine freaks! Nothing rigged! Come along roll-up!’

Harold creased his high forehead again, as he heard the Barker’s voice. How had he managed to pick up the sound? They had passed the freak-show once or twice already, but at the moment the booth was across the other side of the noisy fair-ground, not even in sight.

Then Millie turned towards him, her face tinted with garish splashes of colour from the lights. ‘Oooo! Harold!’ she cooed. ‘Let’s go and see the freak show.’ She tossed aside the half-eaten floss.

Millie’s inane laugh seemed to disseminate his headache, causing it to spread, like a heavy-footed army over his brain. He could still hear the Barker’s insistent, grating, voice, although, strangely enough, that didn’t seem to bother him. Had Millie heard it too? Or was it another of her mercurial, spot decisions? He gazed miserably at his wife. He might as well agree. There’d be no peace until he did. He sighed. ‘Yes dear.’ He turned towards the main aisle between the stalls. ‘It’s this way.’ Then he wondered. He knew the general direction, but what made him so certain it was along this aisle?

***


The Barker was standing on the board stage, in the light from a horse shoe of harsh yellow bulbs. Beside him was the inevitable, bearded lady, fat, curly haired and wearing vermilion lipstick; like some incongruous, mixed-up drag artiste. On the facade, there were the usual pictures, brightly coloured paintings of voluptuous females, with tails, strange, goat-like creatures with human heads, eerie crawling things, with human faces. It all made Harold feel slightly sick and he turned away. A load of trash! It showed how sick some minds could be! He tasted the bile, sour in his throat. He wouldn’t go in. Millie could go alone. Then the Barker’s eyes lighted on him.

Harold had never seen a man with red eyes before, and for an instant, he was fascinated as the Barker stared at him. Until Harold realised it was just a trick of the lights; making the man’s eyes glow like twin furnaces.

All the same, a shudder ran through Harold’s thin frame. He felt his very soul had been touched and he pulled his gaze away from the Barker’s cadaverous features and moved away.

The Barker’s voice stopped him. ‘Come on sir.’ the man said. ‘Don’t be shy. ‘He grinned, showing broken, discoloured teeth,

‘Oh Harry! ‘Millie’s shrill voice battered his ear. ‘Hurry up. Get the money out. I want to go in and see.’

‘That’s right sir. Step up this way’

Harold sighed, delved for change and, wearily, followed his wife into the dingy, rather smelly, atmosphere of the booth.

Inside, Harold felt it was all a little sad. The chief attractions seemed to be a curvaceous woman, with a twisted, hideous face, covered in huge, grey warts. Good make-up. Or was it? Harold shuddered. In the same booth, there was a shrunken, pathetic creature without arms, using his feet to write and draw as easily as a normal person would use hands. They were billed as man and wife. Sick!

As Harold passed, he could hear the woman haranguing the stunted, armless man and he felt a jot of sympathy. Maybe they were really married to each other. Sometimes there was no justice. Well, that was one thing he and that poor creature had in common.

There were other, minor attractions, such as ‘the world’s smallest dwarf’ and a man with five fingers and a thumb on each hand. The bearded lady had also taken up her place in the booth. There were no other spectators and Harold felt a little relieved.

Millie was being her usual stupid self, giggling and cooing at every pathetic exhibit. ‘Oooo! Harold. Look! ‘Millie was pointing at the man with the extra fingers. ‘I wonder what he does with his other finger.’ Her shrill laugh, sounded coarse now and Harold winced.

Now she came to the unfortunate without arms and again she laughed. ‘Oooo Harold! I wonder how he gets on!’ The innuendo was obvious and Harold cringed, certain that both of the people in the booth must have heard what Millie had said. They gave no indication of it however and Harold ushered Millie past them to the next exhibit.

The embarrassment was starting again. What would his friends think? Then he shook his head. He was being silly. He didn’t have to tell them did he? He growled to himself again. This wasn’t his scene at all. There was no fun in gazing at misfortune and anyway, with the possible exception of the thalidomide victim, he had seen even less fortunate people in the streets. Even if he’d been inclined, he had seen nothing, so far, worth talking about.

Somehow, the Barker had appeared at Harold’s side and he whispered. ‘For an extra pound sir, you and the lady can see the special attractions in our side booth.’

Once more, Harold got the queasy feeling the Barker had invaded his mind. ‘Special attractions?’

‘Very special Sir.’ The Barker’s features looked like a death mask now. ‘The strangest freaks from all over the world.’

His voice wasn’t grating now, but sibilant and slightly hypnotic. Harold found himself sorting through his pocket for a pound coin, to hand it over.

Millie was eager. ‘Oooo Harry! I wonder what we’ll see in there.’ She pushed in front of him and went through the black curtain. Her voice sounded faraway as she shouted back. ‘Harry! This is fantastic! I’ve never seen anyth…’ Her voice trailed off and Harold, wondering if Millie was all right, went through himself, frowning at the strange, whooshing sound in his ears.

His wife was all right, but she was standing, in the bluish light, gazing quietly at the first exhibit. Millie’s face was slack, her mouth open and there was a strange look in her eyes. She was looking at a beautiful girl in a cage. A beautiful girl with the hindquarters of a donkey. The creature was smiling at Millie and Harold recognised the sheer lust in the creature’s green eyes.

He knew he should have been disgusted, but he wasn’t. The thought of the strange creature being attracted to Millie seemed to stimulate his own feelings, and he knew he was blushing.

Dry straw rustled, as the creature moved towards the front of the cage and its mouth opened to emit a soft, mewling sound, the tongue flicking out as it gazed at Millie.

Flustered, Millie stepped back and then glanced at Harold. She gave him an uncertain grin. ‘Weird isn’t it Harry?’

‘Just make-believe dear.’ he said quietly. ‘Come on let’s...’ He broke off, as he had noticed the disgusting creature in the next stall. Again it was only half human, this time a man’s head and shoulders, with the glistening body of a lizard. Harold knew it had to be rigged, but how? God dammit! The disgusting thing looked so real. How could everything look so real?

He looked about, panicking now. This was like a nightmare. There were small creatures which, if he hadn’t known better, he would have classed as goblins; there was an old crone, with reptilian claws for hands, tearing at a piece of raw meat; there was an incredibly beautiful girl, Siamese-twinned with a large ape and there was a man’s head with a tiny, hairy body and appendages like insects legs!

Millie was gabbling, as she looked about her, obviously unable to accept what she was seeing. The noise of these creatures, hissing, groaning, cackling and moaning was playing havoc with Harold’s headache, and he couldn’t understand why none of this had been audible from the main booth.

In the dim recesses of this chamber, there seemed to be other stalls, but Harold had seen enough. He grabbed Millie’s arm and rushed for the doorway, almost flinging himself through, dragging his wife after him.

Again, the funny, whooshing sound and then, like a preying mantis, the Barker was hovering near the black curtains. ‘I presume you were satisfied sir!’ Again the voice was sibilant, and persuasive.

Harold didn’t answer him. Still towing Millie along, he brushed past the man, and strode out into the bright light and noise of the fair, half-realising, that for some reason he had been unable to hear the din of the fair from inside the special booth.

But Harold wasn’t concerned about that. He was sick of this fair. Millie or no Millie, he was going home. Angrily, he dragged his protesting wife through the crush, towards the car-park.

***


That night sleep had come surprisingly easy for Harold, but it was a restless sleep, full of visions of the creatures he had seen at the fair. The Barker figured rather a lot, and his gentle, whispering voice seemed to be calling Harold.

Abruptly, Harold woke. Sitting up in the dark, he began to tremble, for added to the nightmarish visions, was the sudden idea he was strangling Millie, feeling his thumbs sinking into the rolls of fat under her chin.

He started to perspire and his breathing became heavy and fast. There was the vague echo of the Barker’s voice still in his ears. ‘You do want to get rid of her don’t you?’

***


It was the most restless Sunday Harold could remember.

All day he fidgeted, resisting the call of the fair.

To gaze again at the fascinating exhibits.

Even to see what awaited him in the booths at the back.

All day, he was continually reminded.

He had dreamed of killing Millie.

All day he wanted to go to the booth.

All day...

Sunday night was worse again and the face of the Barker, loomed from the night, his fierce eyes, like sections of a red-hot poker. The spectral vision was laughing, whispering, beckoning. This time Harold’s dream was complete. The inert form of Millie lay before him, her face distended and blue, the Barker’s sibilant whispering in his ears...

Harold sat up in bed. Everything was all right. Millie’s obese form was bunching up the bedclothes and she was snoring as usual. Dammit, he wished she were dead. Trembling now, Harold knew. Tomorrow, after work, he would visit the fair…

***


‘You’ve finally come have you?’ The Barker’s face looked yellow, seamed with evil,

For a moment, Harold didn’t know what to say.

‘Strangling the wretch really isn’t the way to get rid of her you know.’

Harold frowned. ‘You....’

‘Yes. I can read your thoughts Harold.’ He chuckled. ‘I also shared your dreams on the last two nights.’ He chuckled. ‘Harold! You really do have some strange preferences!’ His chuckle deepened and then he shrugged. ‘But that’s not important. The dreams were special in other ways.

Harold was sure he was boggle-eyed. ‘What d’you mean! How....?’

‘Your soul left your body Harold. You visited the realm of night.’ His voice seemed hypnotic again. ‘I’ve seen you there before, but you wouldn’t remember those times.’ he chuckled. ‘Most people visit there at some time or another.’

Somewhat bewildered, Harold felt he had to accept everything the Barker had just said. As though it were natural; mundane even. The Barker said so. It was so. That’s all there was to it. He nodded towards the black curtains. ‘All those er...things in there. They’re real?’

‘They’re real Harold,’ His smile gleamed, bright against the dull, sallow cheeks. ‘They all had someone who wanted rid of them. Of course no one would recognise them.’ He ushered Harold towards the curtains. ‘A satisfactory business arrangement. I need the exhibits.’ He turned up his hands. ‘People need help to solve a problem. My stock in trade.’ He grinned at Harold. ‘Let’s take another look.’

Again, Harold experienced the whooshing sound in his ears, and the blue-laid light. But this time, Harold wasn’t feeling any disgust. They stopped near the cage with the strange donkey-woman.

The thing was looking at Harold, but now there was no desire in the green eyes.

The Barker chuckled. ‘She rather preferred your wife.’ He rattled the bars of the cage and the creature retreated, hissing at him. ‘Her husband found out about her strange, sexual preferences.’ the Barker explained. ‘The lower half was his idea. Rather clever. She finally got what she had always wanted.’ Again he chuckled and moved on.

Each of the weird exhibits was explained to him. The lizard-man had been a dealer in alligator and crocodile skin, the old crone had kept a battery-chicken business; the girl-ape had been a glamour model who had turned to blackmail. Looking at the wretched girl, joined to the ugly ape, the Barker had laughed. ‘I’m rather proud of this one. We have a woman’s mind in an ape’s body and of course. vice-versa.’ He smirked. Subtle cruelty don’t you agree?’

Harold did feel a twinge of pity for the creature. The sad, bewildered expression in the dark brown eyes and the ape-like movements of the gorgeous girl’s body, told him the Barker was not lying.

If this strange man could do such things...’ Harold shuddered.

They stopped at the last booth. ‘Finally, the insect creature.’ The Barker said. ‘He used a poisonous spider, to kill his wife.’ The Barker shrugged. ‘His sister in law didn’t bother with the Police!’ He turned to Harold again. ‘All very appropriate punishments for the crimes they committed I think.’

They had reached an empty stall. ‘Here is Millie’s place.’ His smile was cold. ‘If you agree of course.’

‘Agree!’ Harold felt hid jaw quivering. ‘What d’you mean, agree!’

‘You do want her out of the way don’t you Harold?’

Harold knew he was gabbling. ‘B-b-but I...’

‘Come on Harold. Admit it! You’d like your freedom wouldn’t you?’

‘Yes. But...’ He barely heard himself admitting his secret desire. Then he shrugged. To Hell with it. ‘Well... Yes... ’ He paused for a moment, frowning, until finally he asked. ‘What will happen to her?’

‘That is for you to decide.’ He gestured towards the stalls. ‘Whatever your desire, my little helpers will see it is done.’

‘Your helpers?’

‘The little goblins. You saw them on your last visit.’

Harold nodded. ‘Oh yes. The goblins.’ Nothing was surprising him any more. He looked into the red eyes again. ‘What will it cost?’

‘Three thousand pounds.’ His tone precluded any bargaining.

Chewing his lower lip, Harold paused. Then he smiled. Millie was well insured. He could manage that.

‘We have a bargain Harold?’ The Barker asked.

‘We have a bargain.’ He held out his hand.

‘You won’t want to shake hands with me Harold.’

***


Millie had followed the Barker like a lamb. Harold had waved goodbye to her back, as the Barker had ushered her into the secret booth. Now, Harold was looking at the freak that had been his wife. He had surprised himself with his own cruelty. Millie was behind the glass front of an open sided, wooden box. Sitting on a plank, which stretched across the box, she was upright, restrained by a harness. The harness was necessary, for her arms and legs were now boneless, hanging, uselessly from her hairy torso. Her jawbone and teeth had also been removed and her lips had been stitched neatly back to the surrounding flesh, where they would eventually heal. Because she had often told lies, Harold had also decided her tongue would be split into two. He smiled at the wretched being he had helped create. She had always wanted to lose weight. Harold opened the glass door and leaned forwards to pat the top of Millie’s hairless head. He chuckled as he noted the fury and hatred in her eyes, then he switched on the saline drip, which had been inserted into a flaccid arm. He grinned at her. ‘How do you feel now Millie?’

Her reply was just a splather of saliva.

‘Bye Millie!’ Harold chuckled. ‘Don’t eat too much!’



***


The insurance investigator had been friendly and sympathetic towards Harold in his loss, but not very helpful. Yes, it was true, Millie’s clothing had been found stacked neatly by the river. Yes, it seemed she had committed suicide.’ But you see Mr Grover,’ he had said. ‘Without a body, er... Well...’He had spread his arms in defeat. ‘My company feels it should insist on the legal seven year wait, before settlement. Quite normal in the circumstances.’

‘B-b-but I thought that sometimes you would pay up in cases like this.’

‘Oh yes sir. We often do.’ Again he had shrugged. ‘But that’s when there’s other evidence to indicate death. In your case, well... Well you understand Sir. ‘He smiled slightly. ‘Perhaps someone saw her near the water.’ He shrugged. ‘If you could find someone… You understand of course.’

***


Unfortunately for Harold, the Barker didn’t understand. ‘Oh Harold, YOU DISAPPOINT ME!’ His voice was an awesome, spectral boom.

Harold cringed before the onslaught as the fiery eyes burned through his mind. The Barker was looming, his body filling the space with its overpowering presence.

Harold’s voice was a squeak. ‘B-b-but I can’t help it.’ he protested. ‘The insurance company won’t...’

‘‘We made a bargain!’ The voice was suddenly huge. ‘When you make a bargain with me, you keep your word. But you failed.’ He began to chuckle. ‘And I don’t tolerate failure.’

Again, Harold had the impression the man was growing bigger. Then knew it was so; or rather, he, himself was growing smaller!

Harold felt a crushing weight, all over his body, as though his skin was shrinking. He could feel his hands deforming; tightening, into grotesque claws, felt the sharp points on his teeth sticking into his tongue. What was happening to him? He began to writhe then, as the awful agony of his metamorphosis gripped him.

Ten minutes later, Harold’s clothing lay about him like discarded sacks. Scales glistened on his deformed little torso and his long, smooth tail twitched backwards and forwards as he looked up to the Barker. He tried to speak but all he could do was make a grunting sound.

The Barker chuckled and bent down to lift Harold up to eye-level. ‘Now where did you think I got my little helpers from? Hmmm?’ He chuckled again. ‘Like you, they were unable to pay my bill. So…’ Then he shrugged as he looked at the creature that had once been Harold. ‘Oh yes. A nice job, even if I say so myself… the punters will love you.’ He set the twisted little form down again. ‘Now go and join the others. The show begins in ten minutes.’


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Barr is 66 years of age and a retired Police Officer from the UK. He has been writing for about twenty years and has had short stories published, mostly in English periodicals. He also writes articles on woodwork for craft and hobby magazines.

With fiction he usually concentrates on crime or thrillers, but occasionally venture into the supernatural field. He is currently writing a full-length ‘mythological-based’ novel, in the adventure/quest genre.


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