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John J. Dillon
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Circle Quirk

by John J. Dillon

 

          Loren steered the motorcycle off the interstate onto the exit ramp, headlight sweeping the dark, narrow road and trees ahead in silver gray.  He braked down from seventy to forty as he reached the end, then gunned past the stop sign and onto the country road.  For fifteen minutes he soared along the familiar route, hitting close to ninety, feeling the autumn wind on his face, the angular hard shell helmet gripping his head, even the empty wallet in the back pocket of his jeans.  The wallet soon to be filled with cash.       

          Finally, he spotted the billboard, "Crystal Lake Amusement Park--Come Scream With Us!!".  He banked off the highway onto the entrance road into the roundabout lined with the heavy red oaks so common in upstate New York.  Leaning left into the curve, he rode it around at high speed, then with dead perfect timing threw his weight right and shot out onto the straight one-way that brought him up to the park’s main gate.  He skidded to a stop at the chain link fence and saw the shapes of the deserted midway in shadows beyond the wire.  He took a long look.

          With his leather-gloved finger he pressed the button on the speaker box.  An electronic voice gargled: "That you, Loren?"

          "Right, Mr. Nock.  Payday." 

          The gate shuddered and ground open on squeaky wheels until Loren could slip through.  He thought about popping a celebration wheelie straight down empty Crystal Lake Lane but decided he'd rather drink it all in slowly.  It was, after all, his last visit till next season.  He rolled past the dark, boarded-up food kiosks, shooting galleries, beanbag and ball throws, funhouse, the Las Vegas Roulette Wheel, the Malavoom House of Horrors--all lined up like the flimsy props of some exhausted stage play.  Next the scare rides slid into view, the Hammer, the Tilt-A-Whirl, the Swinging Axe, the Super Saucer, the Whipsaw, prime attractions during the summer for the surrounding area's families, college kids, farmers. 

          Then the Sphere of Fear loomed into view and Loren felt his stomach leap.

          He stopped and with a surge of pride and accomplishment, swung the headlight across the twenty-two-foot high globe of steel bands bent and welded together to form a gigantic cage. 

          For sixteen years, three shows a night, six nights a week from Memorial to Labor days plus all the backbreaking practice sessions, Roarin' Loren had been Master of the Sphere.  Roarin' Loren, delivering cardiac arrest thrills to all as he swooped around in a precise fifty-four mph centrifugal trajectory while three other drivers shrieked in and out of his orbit like a swarm of synchronized chainsaws.  At every performance he maneuvered through the buzzing machines, missing collisions by millimeters and microseconds, dodged death and dismemberment at high velocity, upside down, rightside up, sideways and all other angles, then ended his impossible acrobatics with arms and helmet held triumphantly in the air to the cheers of the crowd.  There was no one like him.  Roarin' Loren, stunt driver from heaven. 

          Now the summer's revenue was all in, and it was bonus day and the end of another year.  Rest and travel through the off season beckoned, this time to exotic Uruguay and its rabid motorcycle culture, a place where he’d undoubtedly be idolized as an American celebrity.  Foreign adventures, side business opportunities, romance on the hot Atlantic beaches awaited.  Then, next spring, he'd strike back to Crystal Lake where practice for his seventeenth season would begin.  And next year, old man Nock had better finally make him a stakeholder.  Or else.

          He tore himself from the Sphere and headed to the one-story cinder block admin building secluded at the rear of the park, down by the lakeshore.  He pulled up to the steel door, cut the engine, snapped the chrome kickstand open with his booted heel.  Under a dirty lightbulb he removed his helmet and dismounted, taking in the night.  Nock had already clicked him through. 

          Inside the hallway he marched under sputtering ceiling fluorescents to the back office. 

          Old Man Nock was sitting behind a desk staring at his computer, arms and shoulders thin and frail but eyes as intense as a foundation specialist searching for cracks in the concrete.    

          "Evening, Mr. Nock," Loren said.

          Nock kept his attention on the screen.  "Loren, my man," he said distantly.  "Have a seat.  Dog and beer?"

          The offer irritated Loren, the way Nock barely acknowledged his number one performer.  Loren itched to head south, where he'd be treated like the royalty he was.  But for now, this last task remained.  "A beer sounds stellar," he said, sitting, helmet in lap, knowing it was smarter to indulge the owner, stay calm and respectful.      

          Nock reached behind him into a fridge jammed with eats, grabbed a can, slid it across the desk.  "Let's talk, my friend."

          Loren heard Nock's voice coming out of his mouth and didn't like the sudden, serious direction.  A talk?  What the hell did that mean?  This meeting was supposed to be a handshake and a trumpet blare, with significant remuneration.  Loren felt as if he were sailing around inside the Sphere, the edges of his vision starting to redden as g-forces squeezed his head, face, lungs.  With a silent effort he pushed back against the advancing red, kept his wits.  "Sure, Mr. Nock," he said, snapping the tab.  "Anything you say."    

          Nock disengaged himself from the monitor, turned, unblinking.  "Loren, there's no easy way to say this," he said, his voice loaded with fake respect that Loren saw through.  "We have to part ways.  I'm sorry." 

          The words failed to register with Loren.  Their general meaning seemed to make it through into his skull where it implanted itself like a painful shard.  But he wasn't exactly sure what the talking head in front of him had just said, as if the words were muffled and coming from far away. 

          "Come again, Mr. Nock?" Loren heard himself say. 

          "I know this is a rotten news," Nock said, shaking his head.  "But I have no choice.  To me you'll always be the one and only Roarin' Loren, commander of the Sphere.  But I can't risk another year like this one, Loren.  It's time to hang it up."

          Loren was confused.  Hang what up?  He took a sip of his beer and it tasted like dry ice.  He stared for a minute, hearing for the first time an office radio playing some irritating, whiny song.  "What do you mean?" he managed to say as the red ate its way inward from the edge of his vision.

          "That last crackup inside the Sphere a week ago.  You lost the pattern and threw everyone off.  The team went down, all three of them, left just you standing in front of the crowd.  A miracle no one was seriously hurt and the guys got up.  It could have been much worse.  And there was that pileup in practice last spring, and other signs, too.  We’re lucky no one’s raised a stink with the cops.  I've managed to keep a lid on this, hoping you’d pull out of it.  But Loren, my friend, you've lost something.  It happens to everyone.  It's time to go out a winner." 

          Loren felt the familiar anger invading his shoulders, arms, and neck.  "What the hell are you accusing me of?  Those wrecks weren't my fault.  The other guys screwed up.”

          Nock stifled a nervous laugh, shook his head and rubbed his hands across his face.  "Loren, no one's screwed up but you.  The team's rebelled, said they're scared of getting into the Sphere with you.  They won't work with you next year.  They're justified, Loren.  It's been sixteen years.  You've been around the Sphere too many times, taken too many spills.  It's gotten to you.  There's no shame in it.  Call it a career before it's too late."

          "You're firing me?"

          "I'm sorry."

          Loren tried to concentrate but his mind was racing.  Had the team really spread all these lies?  There’d been hints, but he hadn’t wanted to believe.  Now he could see the truth.  "I know what you bloodsuckers are trying to do."

          "We're not trying to 'do' anything except tell it to you straight.  We're begging you, start a new life for yourself.  You're still a young man.  You've got many years ahead of you.  Find a girl.  Lose the..."

          "The what?"

          Nock shrugged.  "The dependencies.  They're going to end up killing you." 

          "You weasel, Nock.  You’re calling me an addict?” 

          "You know the truth.  Let's just say you're not the stunt cyclist you once were.  Loren, get help before it’s too late.” 

          Loren got the picture loud and clear:  fire the star so the cheap second-raters could take over.  Loren, the perfect employee, had come here to celebrate another successful season, have a few laughs, drinks, collect his bonus, plan for next year.  Instead, he was being betrayed and his character assassinated.  As if everyone else in the business, Nock included, didn't dose themselves stupid whenever they wanted.  Loren felt a withering resentment against this man who'd taken the best he could give and was now tossing him away like a gnawed wing.

          "After all these years you’re dumping me and saying it’s my fault.  You’re gonna burn in hell for this, Nock.  Give me my bonus so I can get the hell out of here.”

          Nock used his sleeve to wipe sweat off his forehead.  He gazed at Loren oddly, then reached into a drawer.  An envelope appeared in his hand and landed on the desktop.  “I’m sorry you feel that way.”  

          Loren grabbed the envelope and ripped it open.  Inside were a few bills.  He flipped through them in disbelief.  "Is this a joke?" he said, barely able to speak.  "Five hundred dollars?"

          Nock took a nervous swallow of beer.  "Loren, believe me, I'm not trying to cheat you.  It was a bad year.  The park had unexpected expenses, the crowds were off.  I'm hurting.  Everybody's taking a hit.  Please try to understand."

          Loren rose, unable to restrain himself as he looked down at Nock.  "Understand?  I understand you're a thieving liar.  What the hell am I supposed to do with five hundred dollars?"

          "It's the best I can do this year."

          "I should have ten times this, twenty times, like last year."  Loren gripped his helmet tight and shook it at Nock.  "I bring in thousands of people.  Everyone loves me.  I'm the star."  Shaking, he stepped closer and jabbed his finger at Nock.  “You’re stealing my money,” he said in a tone filled with threat.

          Alarm flashed across the old man's face.  "Please, you're a son to me.  I want to see you get healthy.  But back off, okay?"  As he talked, Nock slid open a drawer and the next thing Loren knew, a revolver was on the desk.  Nock stared, and with measured words said, "I don't want any trouble, Loren.  Just take the money and go."

          The sudden presence of the gun triggered a burst of hatred toward this backstabbing thief who now dared to threaten him on top of everything else.  He leaped onto the desk and

round-housed his helmet into Nock's head, snapping it sideways, grabbed with his free hand for the gun but missed as Nock beat him to it.  Nock struggled to sit up straight, fumbled the weapon, met with another blow that knocked him half over into a defensive huddled position and sent the gun flying. 

          Loren lost count of how many times he swung the helmet.  When he finally stopped, he was breathing hard, looking down at a motionless Nock and what had been his face.   

          He slid off the desk, the cratered helmet smeared red in his hand.  Gradually his head stopped pounding and he was able to think.  Idiot Nock, pulling a gun.  He'd left Loren no choice but to defend himself.  If Loren hadn't acted, he'd be dead.  It had been clear self-defense.  Loren or Nock. 

          Loren’s mind spun.  Self defense, yes, but the cops might not see it that way.  Over the years he’d seen how those arrogant bastards worked, always looking for a way to twist the situation against you just for the sport of it.  He had to keep himself out of this mess.  Playing the good citizen, turning himself in would be suicide.  He needed to get out, leave this losing hand behind.   

          From his jacket came mirrored sunglasses which he held to Nock's crushed mouth.  No breath.  He searched through the desk drawers, found more than a dozen envelopes of cash amounting to several thousand dollars.  His well-deserved bonus fit neatly into his pockets.  The hell with the other lying losers.  And the cops would love the robbery gone wrong angle.

          He located an ancient security camera hard drive system in a cupboard and spent ten minutes with a found hammer converting the delicate hardware into a smoking heap of scrap metal.   

          Ignoring the revolver on the floor, he left the building carrying his helmet, careful it didn't touch his clothes. 

          Outside in the night, he walked around back, down to the lakeshore where he washed his gloves and helmet.  He'd have no trouble later tonight digging anonymous graves in the forest miles from here for the helmet and clothes.

          Returning to his cycle he strapped the helmet onto a rack and climbed on, fired up the engine and drove, cool and calm now, toward the park's entrance.  Uruguay.  In a week he'd be thousands of miles away with loaded pockets.  A new identity would come shortly after. 

          As he passed the Sphere of Fear he stopped, turned his headlight onto the enormous metal globe, bringing it out of the shadows.  Struts and girders hummed faintly in the night's breeze.  Calling?

          He looked up at the structure and felt exhilarated, as he always did when he stood before it.  The plan would work.  He had money, maybe not as much as he'd hoped for, but enough.  Soon he'd be gone from the face of the earth like most seasonal workers.  He'd stay away and start over, lose himself in another culture teeming with people.  Good bye, Nock.  Too bad you asked for it. 

          But it was difficult to break himself away from the magnetic attraction of the Sphere.  What was another minute or two?  He would probably never see it again.  The Sphere of Fear, the role it had played in his life, demanded fealty. 

          In fact, he felt he even had the time to open its gate and drive up inside the airy, cathedral-like interior and pay regards to something that had given him so much.   He could rev his engine up to speed and take flight for three or four loop the loops, a fitting farewell.  And with no amateur drivers to contend with, the effort would be minimal and danger-free, just his speeding around in energizing, comforting circles alone, a final winning set that would last him for the rest of his life.  He crept forward, imagining the crowd, the engines, the noise.  Roarin' Loren and the Sphere of Fear.  One last performance.

          But no, it would be insane and he forced an end to the ridiculous fantasy.  Time was running out; he'd been given the gift of a safe escape and couldn't squander it.  He didn't have a minute to spare.  He had to hit the road.

          He ripped himself from the Sphere’s pull and headed for the main gate and out of the park for good.

                                                          #

          Later, when the police were trying to determine why a fleeing murderer would sabotage his own escape by zooming around the park’s entrance roundabout hundreds of times, judging from all the tire marks, until he'd skidded off the road to slam into the red oaks, killing himself in a twisted heap of metal and wood, all they could do was shake their heads, point at their temples, and twirl their index fingers. 

          In circles.

                                                   END


John J. Dillon has worked for many years in the computer software industry and his most interesting job was at an atom smasher laboratory.  Over the years he’s had several publishing credits, one of his earliest being as co-author of a hardcover spy thriller published by Cliffhanger Press titled The Druze Document. He lives in Dallas, Texas but loves snowboarding in Utah beyond all reason.

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