"Sometimes you run into something that simply defies everything you have learned in a lifetime of experiences." A lot of people will try to file such things away and forget about them. This is somewhat more difficult when they are on display.
Or so the poster on the outside of Dr. Chang's Wagon of Wonders said. Inside two people stood looking around at the collection lining the shelves set along the walls of the trailer. It was a good forty feet long and everything was firmly kept in place and had a small brass plaque under it explaining what each of the "wonders" was.
"You're kidding right?" Heather said to her boyfriend Steven Chang as he grinned proudly around at the contents of the trailer. "The Horn of Heimdall? The skull of a Kirin? Merlin's staff?" She peered at another plaque. "The sword of Aries, still clutched in the bony hand of Attila the Hun? Who did your uncle think he was kidding?"
"You don't believe in it?" Steve asked playfully. She glared at him. "Well most people don't. Uncle Cyrus had some boy from the University of Chicago come by every year to tell him why all these things were fake. Still paid the entrance fee every time and even offered to buy a few so they could get them into a lab. But the rule is: once it's in the trailer it stays."
"Why? If nothing else you could probably make more money selling these things online than you could in a hundred years of driving around and showing them to people." She flicked a stuffed lion's paw with feathers growing out of the heel that supposedly came from a gryphon. "You can't be serious about this. You spent four years in college learning to run a cheap carnival side show?"
"It's a family tradition. Don't knock it. This trailer kept the Chang family solvent through good times and bad for the last five hundred years. Since my ancestors first came to Europe from China showing 'Wonders of the East' as part of a gypsy caravan. It use to be little more than a panda pelt, a samurai's old armor, and some old scrolls. They used I-Ching to tell fortunes." He smiled and examined himself in the black mirror sitting on one of the shelves. Next to it was a small box full of ancient tarnished coins etched with unreadable symbols and sticks. His family's Chinese features shone through obviously, but his red hair showed his European and American ancestry too. "Or so my Uncle said when he showed me this place when I was a kid."
Heather snorted. "More like wonders of a garage sale." She was looking at a pickled sheep fetus with a single cyclopean eye.
"Everyone thinks so, up until the see the piece de résistance." He motioned for her to come closer and turned on the special light that illuminated another jar with something floating in it. The liquid was blue so that without the light you could not see the contents. Affixed to the wall under it was an antique samurai sword claiming to be the "grass cutter" from Japanese mythology and possibly Excalibur, the plaque beneath spinning a tale of the sea dragon king's daughter taking it from Japan to what would one day be England.
Floating in the liquid like an insect in amber was a hand. It had been positioned so that the pinky and pointer fingers were up while the middle two were held down by the thumb in devil horns. You might think it was a human hand, though much larger. That might have been a trick, refraction from the glass. It was only while you were still trying to decide that when you saw the rest of it.
Where the fingernails were supposed to be were instead eagle-like talons that looked to be made of solid white bone. The fingers had extra joints. Whatever color the skin was, through the blue liquid it looked mottled purple. The skin itself was pebbled, covered with thick overlapping scales. From the knuckles jutted tiny spikes. Down at the bottom it was handcuffed to the base of the jar with some kind of old thick shackle and chain attached to a weight, as if the thing might try to climb out. Sticking out of the raggedly cut off bottom was not just meat that looked almost fresh, but three distinct arm bones.
Heather realized she was staring and put on a sneer. "Where did your uncle get this? A prop department from an alien picture?" She looked at the plaque beneath it. "The devil's claw?" She snorted derisively, but her eyes kept moving up to the hand again.
Confident and obviously not fooled Steve nodded. "That's the story. My uncle said a man came up with the devil horns hand sign after seeing it. The origin of the hand goes back much further though." His voice was almost hypnotic as he easily told the tale. "You see it happened roughly three hundred years ago, before my family came to this country. My great-great-great-something or other grandfather was in Spain at the time, using his wagon to try to earn enough money for passage to California.
"Meanwhile there was this carnival doing pretty much the same thing. Doctor Blood's Carnival of Fascination it was called. I have an old copy of one of their posters in storage. It was a bit bigger operation, maybe half a dozen carts and wagons, some exotic animals and a few actual showmen. The owner, Doctor Blood, came to look at my ancestor's rickety old wagon and sneer. His eye was caught by the family I-Ching sticks and coins. Nobody else in Europe had ever seen or heard of them then and even if they had they would not know the rules to reading them."
Heather nodded. "They wouldn't even have been building railroads back then."
"He offered first a pittance to the poor foreigners. They were the main reason people came though. Crystal balls had become old hat and might get you in trouble for witchcraft, but sticks and coins from foreigners… just a fun superstition from heathens in the east. So he said no. The man then offered more money and then finally to pay for their trip to California. He suggested that there they could make more coins and sticks and in America nobody would have to know that there was someone else in Europe who knew how to do it.
"But after being offered so much and his hard life, my honorable ancestor decided to continue just earning his way himself. The I-Ching he had was a family heirloom and the secrets were sacred after all. So he bid the man farewell and prepared to leave town, knowing that even with them there was no way to compete with Doctor Blood's show.
"That night he and his wife went into town, leaving their three children alone with the wagon. There was one elder daughter and two younger boys. They needed supplies for the trip to the next town. They bought what they needed and were riding back to town when a huge figure came barreling out of the trees in front of them, huge and hideous and screaming. They caught only a glimpse of the beast in the light of their lanterns, but it was enough for them to see that it was gripping a stump where its left hand should have been."
Heather was listening now without the skeptical look of before. Steve continued, "Two of the children were dead. The daughter had been fighting off the monsters outside while the two boys hid in the wagon. The second eldest had been grabbed, trying to hold the door shut. While he had been struggling the youngest had grabbed the sword from the samurai armor and used it to cut off the beast's arm even as his brother died in its grasp."
"And they kept it?"
"They had to. It was hard enough being foreigners. They could not risk the rumor's that they had for whatever reason killed their own children. They went into town the next morning to tell people what happened and show the hand around. When they did they found out that Doctor Blood's carnival had vanished in the night."
Heather whistled and grinned. "That's some story."
"It doesn't end there," Steve said. "You see ten years later to the day in America they ran into another man, who offered to buy the hand. By then both the parents were dead and the boy, now a man, was running the wagon with his wife and expecting their second child. The American was rich and offered them a lot of money for it, but was turned down. The claw was the only thing he had to remember his bravery that night. They had chained it in that jar and had a Shinto priest on the ship over mark the shackle with spells to bind a demon's powers. You can see them etched into the metal if you look closely.
"The man got angry and began threatening them, demanding the hand. It was then that my ancestor noticed that this man… was missing his left hand."
Now Heather looked unconvinced again. "You're kidding."
"Do you want to hear this or not?" She firmly pressed her lips together and made a zipper motion. "We don't know if he was really the Christian devil or merely some other kind of demon, but my family saw no reason to deny what they had seen. The Chinese have different ways of handling demons than Christians. Naturally they were afraid, but at the same time my ancestor realized that he had, if you'll excuse the pun, the upper hand. There are stories that a demon deprived of a major body part cannot just regrow it, but can reattach it if they retrieve it. So instead he proposed a bet. If the demon wished to regain its hand it would have to offer up something just as valuable and they would have a contest of swords.
"The man denied being anything but a man and claimed that he lost his arm a childhood accident. Still he agreed to the contest obviously trying to hide how desperate he was to have the hand and offered up what he claimed was the magical horn of a Norse god that had been in his family for ages. So they fought. The man or demon, whatever he may have been, was skilled but unused to the fighting style of the east my family knew and they had learned the ways of European swordsmen as well. Or maybe the fact that he had one hand gave my ancestor the edge." He shrugged. "He won and took the horn."
Heather looked back at the horn she had seen earlier. It looked to be old, cracked, and made of some kind of animal's horn. "What does it do?"
"No idea. For all we know it's really the horn of Jericho or maybe a regular horn." He shrugged. "My family decided long ago that the demon itself was enough trouble without trying to play with its possessions."
"What do you mean?"
He grinned. "Every ten years the demon is supposed to return. It offers to buy the hand, but then so do dozens of other people who see it every year. Always the answer is no and we check. Someone who offers to buy it always appears on that same day and when we turn him or her down they make a bet— which we always win. So far."
"Yeah right," Heather laughed. "So you're going to tell me that everything in here is real and given to you by the devil."
He nodded. "Of course. I even saw it once myself. Back when I was twelve I was allowed to join my uncle for the summer as he traveled around with this wagon. One day I met this little girl, about ten or nine with blond hair and pretty blue eyes. We were in Michigan and it was still pretty cold. She wore a coat and bobble hat and mittens. She had a little money and offered me some to show her around the wagon.
"When we got to the hand she went right to it, goggled at the jar and reached for it. My uncle came in and saw her. Before I could say anything he ran forward and grabbed her by the arm, pulling her back and throwing her against the wall. The next thing I knew the sword was pressed up against her throat."
"Was he nuts or what?"
"I was going to ask that same question, but the little girl was not crying. In fact she smiled nastily and said, 'I almost had it!' To which my uncle said, 'Not unless you earn it demon.' She looked at him with big wide eyes. 'Demon? What are you talking about?' Then she added like it was a game, 'Maybe you might be willing to bet? Ask me a riddle. If I get it right I get the claw.' 'And if I win?' he asked. 'Then I will give you this mirror. It's been in my family for so long. There is a story that if you reflect someone in it under a full moon it will break any curse they might be under.'"
"What was the riddle?"
"I don't remember. It was actually a very complicated math formula. I could solve it now, I'm sure, but back then it made my head swim. My uncle spouted it off like he had memorized it. The whole time he kept the sword against her neck and she grinned like it was the best game ever. Finally he finished answering and she got pissed, but she admitted defeat and gave him the black mirror and started cussing up a storm as he forced her out of the trailer. When I came out just after them she was gone, despite the fact that we were in an empty fairground and there was no place for her to run."
Shaking her head Heather said, "Let me guess. Next you'll tell me that is why you're in all the advanced classes in school, so you'll be ready incase the big bad demon comes back."
"It's the rule. The smartest and most skilled one in the family gets the wagon when the current owner retires. My dad never stood a chance against my uncle when it was his turn so he went into construction but me… well I wanted it bad enough to work for it." He tapped the metal wall. "Of course we've upgraded the wagon over the years. You wouldn't believe the security system we've got in this thing."
With one last glance at the hand before Steve turned off the light hiding it again Heather said, "Okay, if you're through slinging bullshit, can we get out of here and go to dinner?"
"Sure," Steve said. He led the way out and punched in the security code to a keypad on the way out. There was the sound of heavy locks engaging and a hum as other security devices turned on.
"Steve, even if that story is true," Heather said in tones that indicated she would believe that the day Elvis told her in person. "Why not give the hand back? You could sell it to the 'demon' or some other sucker for a fortune, ditch the rest of this crap, and buy a house in the Riviera. You've got the brains and experience to make yourself a millionaire before you're thirty, especially with backing. People were bidding against each other to offer you a scholarship to college."
"Some things are more important that money. This demon killed my ancestors and that requires a blood debt. Besides," he said looking at the wagon. "Even if the hand is the only real magic in there to be the custodian of a piece of a true marvel is worth more than all the money in the world."
It was after eleven when Heather snuck out of the house. She moved quickly, the code to the trailer already in her head as she reached the door and punched in the numbers. The locks disengaged. Inside she went to the secondary panel hidden under statue on a counter that was supposedly a real Michelangelo, one of his models for a larger statue that was in a museum somewhere according to the plaque.
She put in another code that had been given to her by… someone else. It was a delayed alarm that would go off in fifteen minutes if the code were not put in each time the trailer opened and the other system was not on. Plenty of time for Steven's uncle to put it in between leading different people through the trailer or even if thy were there staring at the exhibits and not paying attention. If it went off by accident he was the owner and could easily explain it to anyone who showed up.
"I can't believe his crazy family is going through all this trouble for a deformed bird claw." If it were not such a ridiculous story you could almost believe it. "I love you Steve, but I'm not spending my days driving around the country like a carnie."
The alarms disabled for now she took out the small key she had found in Steve's wallet and unlocked the tiny lock holding the jar to its place. It came loose with a click and she lifted it up, revealing the metal bottom attached to the glass below the setting, firmly attaching it in place when locked. The jar was heavy, but no worse than a couple gallons of milk. She would not have to carry it far.
Outside again she shut the door with her foot and hesitated. Holding the jar she could not rest the outside alarm. Oh well, she should be back in plenty of time. She could see the car half a block away. Hurrying over, the jar sloshing in her hands she stopped by the side of a limo that was very out of place for the neighborhood.
The window rolled down. "You got it." He was a good-looking man with silver peppered hair. The card he had given Heather earlier that day had identified him as the owner of the Oni Security Company, Jeb Fulton.
"You have the money you promised me?"
He held up a large silver case. "Yes my dear, right here."
"Good." She held up the jar, catching its contents in the moonlight. "This is what you wanted, right?" She shook her head. "I can't believe you're offering ten million dollars for this thing."
"I was an old friend of your boyfriend's uncle. I have gone through that trailer more times than I can count. I know the family would never sell it, but I want something to remember old Chang by. A memento of a long lost friend."
She snorted. "Yeah well here's your paperweight." She leaned over and held it out. He opened the door and reached for it.
Two things happened almost at the same time. Even though he was in the back Heather noticed that the man wore gloves. While his right hand was making little motions, eager to grasp his prize, the left one did not move at all. Something twitched in the jar and Heather almost dropped it when she saw the thing inside begin making the same movements, the twisted talons twitching with the man's eager gloved fingers.
Mr. Fulton stopped, his hands an inch from the jar and his face moved from eagerness to rage in a moment. He pulled back and then glared at Heather. "He didn't give this to you!"
"What? No! I was going to ask, but the way he was talking about it I knew he'd never hand it over."
"I told you to get him to say you could have it first."
"What difference does it make? I got it for you."
"You fool…" The man hissed. His eyes flashed in the moonlight, too bright to be reflections. "If I could have stolen it I would have!" Heather found herself stepping back. The man's voice was changing, echoing in strange ways. She thought she saw a forked purple tongue flick past his teeth. "Only a blood relative can—!"
A throat was cleared behind them. They turned and Heather gasped, "Steven."
"Hey babe. I think what the man was going to tell you is that it's about rite of conquest. It's sort of a big deal among demons. Blood debts, exchanges, and other very detailed arrangements. The rules are complicated and not something you can just slip into the usual circus barker routine for the customers. It would take hours to explain all the loopholes alone to you. Nobody wants to stand in a trailer listening to legal double talk."
"Mr. Chang," Fulton said with a nod.
"Sir," he said politely. "It's been a while."
"Ten years, to the day."
"You looked cuter in curls."
The man laughed, deep and rough. Not even vaguely human. Heather's jaw hung open. Unthinking she took another step back from the car. "Needs must and all that."
"Isn't this a little low? You've tried fighting and conning my family for that thing for centuries and now this?"
"Your family has a tendency to pick your most stubborn members as guardians and you have a cousin and a nephew and a sister who are in line behind you for the job according to your uncle's lawyer. None of them are quite as smart and skilled as you perhaps or maybe he just liked you better. Still it's a long line and all of you are a little too on the ball. I'd kill your whole family if that would work, but you know the rules and further bloodshed and theft would only make the problem worse." His eyes flickered like flame for a moment so brief Heather wondered if she had imagined it. "In any case I thought I would see if I could arrange a new custodian who would be a little more open to a simple exchange. So many people outside of your blasted clan are so… refreshingly open to money."
The smile he gave Heather, who was now clutching the jar like grim death, sent a chill up her spine. Then she glanced at the thing inside and looked like she wanted to toss it aside and run screaming into the night. Eventually Heather looked at Steven pleadingly. "I just… I wanted us to have a life together Steven. A real life. Not throwing your future… our children's futures… away on some sideshow. "
Steven shook his head. "Now those children will never be born."
"Steven," she pleaded.
He ignored her, turning back to the man in the car. "Well, do you have a challenge?"
Mr. Fulton glanced at the sky. "It's a bit late for that I suppose. So close to the wire too. I would have had it if…" He trailed off like a man who had run out of excuses long ago.
"If can wait another decade," Steven said.
"I supposed we've had our challenge then and you've won. As for your prize," he glanced at Heather. "To see a loved one for who they truly are can be a rare and valuable gift. Something few ever get the chance at until it is far too late."
Steven looked at Heather. A woman he had always found charming, confident, and intelligent as well as beautiful. Now she stood there confused, afraid, and shown to be a true fool driven by greed to betray a man she had been about to marry. Marry, he knew now, for the potential she saw in him rather than what he wanted out of life.
"Agreed," he said at last.
The man looked at Heather and sneered. "To tell the truth this was quite an unsatisfactory evening. Next time I'll try something a bit more direct I think. Win or lose there is a certain joy in an honorable contest." The car window began to roll up. The egine started, snarling like a living animal rather than a machine. Both Heather and Steve jumped. "See you later Dr. Chang." The window shut. Whoever… or whatever… was behind the wheel pulled away, driving until the blood red tail lights vanished around the corner. Somewhere in the distance a clock struck midnight.
The alarm on the trailer began going off just then. It was loud and annoying and neighbors were already coming out to investigate and complain about the noise and the time and everything else. Heather flinched under Steven's gaze.
"Think you can carry it back to the trailer?"
She shook her head. "It's too heavy." It was true. He could see her fingers slipping. He started forward to take it but she moved away, just a bit. "I could smash it. Throw it on the ground and kick it into the sewer. Maybe he… whoever that really was… would never get it back, but it wouldn't be your problem any more."
"It wouldn't be the first time," he said. "I could, if I wanted, throw it away. It would be like giving it up and he could come and claim it for free. If someone else throws it out it'll crawl back to me eventually to go back in its jar and wait."
Heather looked at the thing in its jar. "That can't be true."
She knew there had to be some other explanation. Maybe Steven and the man were crazy. Maybe it was a different story and Steven's had been a lie. All she knew was that it was impossible for her to be holding the hand of a demon because such things did not exist.
Yet in her head, in the dark places most people never admit to having, she could see it in her head, pulling itself along by its claws with the chain and weight dragging behind it. It was no longer twitching, but she could not shake the feeling that at any moment it might snap its bonds and leap for her throat. It was an image that like the rest of this night would haunt her for the rest of her life.
Steven was there in a few steps and he took the jar from her hands just before she dropped it. A little sad he said, "I'll go put this back now. You can go pack your bags."
She nodded, not saying anything. Her eyes were still on the claw. Steven turned and walked away, the jar gripped tightly in his hands. She watched him go over to the trailer and through the still unlocked door. A moment later the alarm stopped. With a defeated sob at the back of her throat she went in to get her things.
Heather did see Steven again. Long after they were both married and had families of their own. At least once a year wherever the trailer happened to be at the time Heather would drive up, silently pay the entrance fee, and walk through the trailer. She would stop at each item, read the stories and sometimes ask Steven to tell her the tail that went with it. He would give a well rehearsed speech about every one and unlike any other customers Heather did not laugh or question the stories. She just stared, glassy eyed, at every display. Most of which were now behind thick bulletproof glass cases. Another addition that made people laugh at the overdone security and say that it was just another way to keep them from looking too closely.
The visits were mostly random, happening whenever Heather could find the time except once every ten years. On that day she would find the trailer wherever it was, clear her schedule regardless of how important her other duties, and drive or fly to wherever it was. Her husband thought it was something to do with seeing her old boyfriend and was secretly jealous even though he had no reason to think she did anything improper. Her children never learned why their mother disappeared or where she went, because she knew that if she started telling them what she knew she would never stop in time to keep her precious babies from having nightmares for the rest of their lives. Like her.
She went on those days, a decade apart, and she would stay in sight of the trailer all day and night from midnight to midnight. She would not enter the trailer on that day. Instead she parked down the street and just watched until inevitably a person would appear. Once so late enough to almost miss it, with barely an hour left in the day, and once so early the clock had barely struck midnight. Always someone new yet familiar, trying to lose themselves among the other customers. A man, a woman, a child, and even a dog. Each with a missing hand… or paw. Every time she left relieved as Steven faced them and sent them off again as Dr. Chang's wagon got a new exhibit for its shelves.
The next day Heather waited until the new plaque had been put in place and would look at the new exhibit for a long time. The cracked skull of Rasputin that was reputed to answer any one question you dared ask. Who could say if the answers were truth or lies? The mummified body of a pixie that could have been a piece of wood with leaves glued to the back. A vial of golden fluid that glowed with a faint light, the supposed blood of an angel. The white shroud of a water spirit that supposedly held the creature's very soul. Now lost on shelves among others of their kind.
Each time she passed through the trailer and saw these supposed wonders, old and new, sitting there collecting dust around the misshapen claw that dominated and dwarfed them all with its mere presence she felt a deep sense of regret. Loss keen and deep that hung around her neck like a stone when she returned home to her nice house, loving family, and sane sensible life. Because she knew that there would always be a next time. The next time that life got too dull and predictable, where the most amazing thing she would see in a year would be a distant rainbow. A world that was like a heavy mask that could fall away at any moment leaving her exposed, scared, and alone again like she had been that night so many years before. She dreaded that day, her stomach freezing even in what others would consider the most banal and boring of moments.
Yet she was driven to return and peek behind the mask and see some proof, some reminder of what was really there. Heather sought out Dr. Chang's wagon again and again. She would find the trailer containing those wonders, run by a happy man who faced down a monster and collected miracles and curses like others did stamps. Heather would stand in line with other people who had been there before and longed to see it all over again and new curious people who were looking for a laugh while Steven Chang smiled and collected their money. Together they would shuffle through the trailer one after another as Dr. Chang spun out the tail for each item too incredible for anyone to believe because if they were true then these were treasures most men would sell their very souls to own, displayed and untouched like cheap curios.
Sometimes she would see a younger member of his family standing eagerly in the background, listening to each story and moving their lips along in hopes of one day taking their place as the new Dr. Chang.
Meanwhile one after another the people in line around Heather stopped to stare through the glass at the twisted claw still chained in place waiting for the devil to finally reclaim it at last. As they did each would take one last look around the trailer and its contents, which suddenly seemed so much darker and less funny than it had before they saw the claw. Then they would be shooed away by Dr. Chang who had other customers waiting their turn. Those people would get in their cars and drive home to live their lives, likely never to see anything like it again.
Until the next time.