PUNCH – A ROMANCE

These are their brethren, whom you Goths beheld

Alive and dead, and for their brethren slain

Religiously they ask a sacrifice:

To this your son is mark’d, and die he must,

To appease their groaning shadows that are gone.

– Titus Andronicus, William Shakespeare

 

Chapter 1

Firebird held the dying young man in his arms, watching the rain wash away the blood from his wounds. As the blood flowed the wounds would seep out more as if there was no end to it. Firebird fell to his knees exhausted, unable to carry him any further. He fell hard to his knees and Kid Razor began to slip from his grip. Touching his partner’s pale face, he pushed the wet hair from his eyes, hoping desperately that they would open.

“It wasn’t supposed to be like this.” Firebird whispered. He leaned over and kissed Kid Razor on the forehead. As tears sprang to his eyes, he looked away. Firebird watched the rivers of blood run down the cracks in the concrete and Firebird knew the young man’s life was contained in those tiny red rivers that spread across the alley like a scarlet hand.

He forced himself to one foot, trying to lift Kid Razor’s body. Anger pushed him on and he was not going let Tim’s life slip away that way, running down the sewer with the filth and garbage. If he could get him to the car there might still be time to save his life. As his second foot hit the concrete Firebird let out a groan and lifted Kid Razor off the ground. His muscles strained and he hoists the wounded man up, gathering all the strength he could to continue moving forward.

Their masks lay on the ground, Firebird’s floated in a quickly formed puddle of rain. Their secret identities no longer mattered to him; all that mattered was saving Tim Gamble’s life. The secrets, the training, the costumes and the battles were all the past now. All that mattered to Firebird was the future, a future with the man he loved, a man he had to save. He took the first steps toward the end of the alley that seemed to stretch on forever. Somewhere out there in the storm was the car. He knew it wasn’t far but his body ached from the beating he’d taken at the hands at the London Underground Circus. The same people who had stabbed his partner. He took another step, determined not to let them win, determined not to let Kid Razor die in his arms.

 

TWO YEARS EARLIER

From the back of the car Tim Gamble stared out the window at the long stretch of desert seemed to go on forever in every direction.

“Are you listening to us Tim?” His mother asked from the front seat. She turned her head back slightly.

‘At least she’ll LOOK at me.’ Tim thought. His father kept his eyes on the road, staring straight ahead as if he were a hired driver.

Tim slouched down lower in the seat so he could watch the clouds overhead. He was eighteen now and coming out hadn’t been such a big deal. He’d assumed everyone, including his parents, were already aware of his orientation.

Tim could see his father tugging on his moustache, trying his best to find the rights words. He knew his father was a good man; he had never hit him or even punished him in any way that left any kind of scar. But his father was deeply committed to social standards and fitting in. When Chuck Gamble’s boss had taken up golf, Chuck began taking courses in case he was invited along one day. It never happened. Chuck Gamble was, in other words, a pushover. He was a man with no real passions or ideas, one of those men who looked to others for direction.  Tim wondered sometimes if he’d have been happier with a homophobe for a father. At least if his father hated him, he’d have made the decision on his own. Now he was stroking his moustache, trying to determine what the state of Arizona thought about queers.

“Tim, don’t take what we’re saying the wrong way. We’re glad to have you home.” Chuck said. Tim’s mother Gail nodded vigorously.

“Yes of course, we’re glad you came home Tim. It’s just that. .”

Tim ignored what the rest of the conversation. He knew how it was going to go. They would tell him how glad they were that he had wasted their money for two years of college that didn’t pan out. They would say they weren’t disappointed in a way that made it clear they were very disappointed. It was better to look out at the desert and pretend he was alone out there among the cacti and clowns. For a moment Tim did a double take, he had to sit up to see if there actually was a clown standing by the side of the road. Dressed in a red jumpsuit, there it stood holding a yellow smiley face balloon. The clown had only two tufts of green hair on the side of his head and he stared at Tim as the car rolled by. As they left the clown behind Tim saw him raise his hand slowly and wave goodbye. Or perhaps he was waving hello, Tim thought. Either way, it was creepy.

“So we’re hoping you can pick up your studies again after you’ve had some time off.” Gail said. Her voice seemed to rise in volume as if someone had turned a radio up. Tim just shook his head, sitting back in his seat.

“You’re not saying much.” Chuck said, finally turning around to address his son.

“What’s there to say?” Tim replied, shrugging his shoulders. “You guys are always right, right?”

“You know Tim your attitude is part of the problem. You won’t be successful with that kind of smart-alecky back talk.” Gail said.

“I seriously think we have very different ideas of what success is.” Tim replied.

“Don’t you want to be like your father?” Gail asked.

“Is that a trick question?” Tim said.

“Your father has done a great job providing for us.” Gail said.

“Dad spends every day kissing his bosses ass.” Tim replied.

“Watch it, Tim. That’s what being an adult is about. Being responsible and doing what you have to do to get by. It’s a lesson you should have learned by now.” Chuck said sternly.

“I’m sure I can find a way to do that and keep my pride intact, thanks.”

Suddenly the car lurched forward and Tim slammed into the back of the driver’s seat. Chuck had jammed on the brakes and caught them all unprepared.

“What in the world is that?” Chuck said, pointing out the window. Something big and grey moved in front of them. Tim felt like the boy from the Jurassic Park movie as he sat huddled in the back seat, the ground vibrating beneath the car. The creature in front of them let out a trumpeting roar and the Gamble family realized it was an elephant. On its back sat a tattooed man in a safari hat, yanking the rusty chains attached to the elephants tusked. The elephant seemed to be pulling a caravan, the paint on the side had long since faded but they could make out the faintest remains of a British flag. It was an entire circus, rolling across the Arizona landscape like a remnant from some long ago era. The second caravan was pulled by an old black pick-up truck. Sitting in the back were the meanest group of little people any of the Gamble’s had ever seen. All of them were dark skinned and heavily muscled, with body modifications, piercing and tattoos. Like some kind of weird modern gypsy criminals, they stared at Chuck and his wife as the truck rolled past them.

“I can’t . . . I mean I don’t believe it.” Gail stammered out.

“Look honey!” Chuck said, pointing at a pair of women on horseback. One wore a large snake around her neck while the other had a beard that would have made impressed an Arab man. The snake woman narrowed her eyes and seemed to hiss at them.

Something about the circus made Tim uneasy. There was no color, no joy or excitement amongst the crew. There was an aura of danger and recklessness to their movements, the men had a hardened gaze like men who had done hard time in prison. A leather clad unicyclist peddled in front of them and it seemed as if he was peddling too slowly, too casually and his stare lingered beyond the comfortable limit.

Something hit Tim’s window and he jumped in his seat. A fat yellow face appeared, grinning on tapping on the glass. The clown was incredibly large and obese; the yellow smiley face painted on him was twisted and grotesque. The Big Clown was massive and round, with black lipstick and circles around his eyes. In his hands were a dozen smiley face balloons, large and bulbous like the clown. Tim understood now why he’d seen a clown by the side of the road only a few moments ago.  The other clown had held the same type of smiley face balloon.

Someone walked slowly out in front of their car and bowed low at the waist. He was a black man in white mime paint, dressed in an old fashioned tuxedo and a large red bowtie.

“Hello, hello and good evening to you, lady and gentlemen.” The Black Clown said. His teeth were large and coated with silver as he smiled. Something flashed in his hands but he spun it so fast they could not see what it was.

“Hello.” The large Smiley Face clown said, pressing a fat finger against the glass window. Tim felt like a fish in a bowl, surrounded by cats. The larger one spoke with deep, baby-like voice.

As the Black Clown spun the crowbar he suddenly smashed it down on the hood of their car. Gail jumped in her seat, quickly covering her mouth to hold in her shriek.

“Will you marry me? Do you have any money? Answer the second question first!” The Black Clown said, smashing the side of the car again with the crowbar. The driver’s side headlight shattered and Chuck let out a curse. The two clowns laughed as if it was the most hilarious thing they’d ever heard.

The Black Clown leaped onto the hood of the car and hit the windshield. Chuck pulled his wife down into the seat and below the dashboard as the window exploded with the second blow.

Tim crawled across the backseat and exited out the other side just as the crowbar smashed his window. The Black Clown danced on the roof, metal taps on his toes clicking loudly. As Tim scurried out the Big Clown brought his hand down on Tim’s back, knocking him face first into the dirt.

“I SAID HELLO.” The Big Clown roared. “You ain’t got any manners!”

Tim tried to stand up but the Big Clown stepped down on his back, pinning him to the ground and forcing the air out of his lungs.

Chuck pulled the keys from the ignition and slid the key into the glove compartment. As it popped open, he quickly grabbed the .38 Special. It was an old gun and he’d never fired it, but he hoped it would scare their assailants enough to get them to back off.

The Big Clown leaned over and pointed a finger at Tim. The balloons in his hand swayed gently from side to side.

“You stay down, Rude Boy.”

“Ignore my balmy friend! He’s as harmless as a baby. We just want whatever it is you have that you can give us!” The Black Clown said.

The caravan of vehicles and supplies continued to roll by and other members of the Circus crew joined their friends in the assault. They were Carnies, the circus version of Roadies, men who travelled with the performers and worked behind the scenes. Chuck saw them coming, dragging chains and carrying baseball bats and he knew he had to do something to protect his family. Instead his wife jumps out first, stepping out of the car before Chuck can pull her back in. Before Gail can speak the Big Clown grabs her by the throat. His massive hands hold her neck like she is a child and he waves the other arm in her face, showing her the balloons.

“BALLOONS!” Big Clown shouted happily.

Tim scrambles under the car and the Big Clown stomped his feet in anger.

“COME BACK HERE!” he shouted.

The Big Clown tosses Gail against the car. She bounces like a rag doll and hits the ground. Tim could see her, he could even reach out to her she was so close. Looking at the boots and clown shoes of his attackers, Tim was too afraid to move. There was just too many of them. He heard his mother let out a groan of pain.

“ENOUGH!”

It took Tim a minute to recognize his father’s voice.

“I’ll shoot the next person that touches my family, I swear to God!” Chuck said, his voice quivering.

Tim slid out from the other side of the car, opposite his mother, hoping to avoid the Big Clown. Instead the Black Clown grabbed him from behind, using him as a shield.

“Now, now, old timer. Your piece looks like a duffer. I wouldn’t go shooting that off if I were you.” The Black Clown said in his clipped British accent.

Tim saw a flash of metal and suddenly the Black Clown had a stiletto blade pressed to his eyelid.

“It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye, Am I right?”

His father moved the gun from one pierced and tattooed Carnie to the next, all of them smiling like jackals ready to leap. Finally he turns and points the gun at the Big Clown.

“Gail, are you okay?” Chuck asked, trying to hedge his way around the car. Gail struggled to her feet. The Big Clown with his massive hands knocked her to the ground, a grin on his fat face. Tim tries to get to her but two Carnies grab his arms and hold him back.

Before she can get up off the ground, Big Clown places his foot on her head. Her brown hair is forced down into the dirt and she screams so loud it echoes back across the desert.

“LET HER GO!” Chuck shouts, shaking the gun.

Tim fights as hard as he can but he can’t get his arms free. A blind rage starts to rise up in Tim as he watches his mother squirm on the ground, her legs kicking up dust as the monstrous man rests his weight on the Gail’s face. Tim pulls at the men holding him but he is held tight; forced to watch as the first face he saw the day he was born is crushed into the dirt.

The Big Clown pulls the balloons closer to his face. Removing a pin, he holds it out slowly to one of his happy face balloons. For a moment everyone is quite.

“POP!” says the Giant Clown, popping the balloon. Chuck jumps and begins to weep.

“I SWEAR TO GOD! You let her go now or I’ll shoot!” Chuck was shaking all over, the gun jumping in his grip. The Black Clown opens his arms wide and dances around behind Tim’s father.

“Too-weeet! Too-wooo! What will you do?” the Black Clown chanted.

“How do crazy people go through the forest?” the Black Clown asks with a fake American accent.

“They take the psycho path.” The Black Clown said as he waved his hand at the Big Clown.

With a simple step the Black Clown lifted all his weight onto Gail’s skull, causing it to collapse, killing her instantly. Tim’s scream came from a dark place within himself and he would have continued screaming but the gun went off twice.

BLAM! BLAM!

The first shot hit the balloons, popping two of them. The second shot caught the confused Big Clown in the center of the forehead, blowing out the back of his head along with most of his brains. For a moment the Black Clown and the Carnies were shocked. As the Big Clown’s body hit the ground the remaining balloons floated into the air.

“Pop.” Tim said quietly, pulling one his wrists free. He was no longer thinking straight, his mind was turning over with anguish and rage. The Carnies react quickly, rushing at him as he ducked and dodged backwards. Tim managed to hit one of them with a shot to the jaw and shake his other arm loose. The Black Clown struck Chuck on the back of the head with his crowbar and Tim sees his father drop to the ground as the Black Clown turn towards him.

“Sorry about your wife. Marriage is a sacred institution.” The Black Clown said as he hit Chuck again.

“But who wants to live in an institution? HAHAHAHAHA!” The Black Clown swung again. The second hit sounded wet and Chuck stopped moving.

Tim screamed and shoved the Black Clown from behind. Two of the Carnies rush forward and grab him, throwing him to the ground like a rag doll. They begin to hit him simultaneously; the chain smashed against his knee and wrapped around his leg while someone else hit him on the back of the head. Whether it was a fist or a weapon Tim didn’t know, but his vision blacked out as he stumbled forward. Tim covered his head and tried to run but he kept falling down, each time the six men would kick and punch him from every direction. Finally they managed to grab his arms again and hold him in place. There was blood and sand caked in his eyes but Tim knew the man walking toward him was the Black Clown and that he was going to die.

“Bring me the gun.” The Black Clown ordered. He wasn’t smiling anymore.

Someone wrapped the motorcycle chain around his neck; Tim was hoisted off the ground and dangled in front of the Black Clown. Tim kicked his feet wildly, struggling like a fish on a hook. As he turned, gasping for breath, he could see the face of the Carnie who held him. He wore a large ring in his nose like a cartoon bull and his hair was long and black. He turned Tim to face the Black Clown with his free hand, holding him steady.

“Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.” The Black Clown said. He pressed the gun against Tim’s face. “So are the days of our lives. This is for our friend, you fuck.”

Tim squirmed to turn away but it was no use, there was nowhere to go. He opened his eyes, hoping in the end to at least defy the killers with the anger and rage within him. As he opened his eyes he spotted a dust cloud rising over the Black Clown’s shoulder. Like twin hurricanes they blasted through the desert on a direct course toward them. The rumble of a monster engine caught the Carnies attention and the Black Clown turned, lowering his gun slightly.

“What in the bloody hell is this now?” the Black Clown asked.

The dark red 1970 Firebird Esprit burned across the desert, sliding and stopping fifty feet away from them. Tim landed in the dirt as the Carnies turned their attention to the car. He was still gasping to catch his breath when he saw the driver step out of the vehicle. Dressed in a black mask and body armor with a red bird painted on the chest, the stranger turned at pointed a .44 Magnum directly at them.

The .44 Magnum went off and Tim covered his head. The Black Clown shouted out in surprise as the larger caliber bullet hit the .32 in his hand, sending it spinning away from him. Casually the vigilante put the gun away as he walked toward the Carnies. Even with the domino mask on Tim could tell the man was gorgeous. His short cropped blonde hair seemed to carry the glow of the sun while his eyes were the deep, piercing blue that was so rare they seemed almost supernatural. He slid the gun in a front holster with confidence and grace. As he walked toward the violent Carnies he was fearless and confident.

Firebird slid two black escrima sticks off his back he twirled them slowly and calmly as the Carnies circled him. Tim watched in awe as each of the attackers moved in and was beaten back with a couple of strikes from the sticks. It was like a song was playing that Tim could not hear, as if all these people had come together in some sort of sick flash mob of violence. Each time a Carnie would attack Firebird would spin around like a matador, bringing his black bats down on them in repeated blows. With each attacker he seemed to speed up, beating on them harder and faster, moving from one target to the next. He was a combat drummer, moving to his own private orchestra and it all happened in handful of seconds. The Black Clown watched the last of his accomplices fall and he gave Tim a nod before turning and running off toward the caravan. Firebird returned his weapons to their holster on his back and walked over toward Chuck’s body. As Tim stood up he found himself falling back down, the adrenaline and fear that had fueled him was leaving his body quickly. As Tim blacked out, he saw the vigilante glance at his with those blue eyes before the world upended and darkness swallowed him whole.

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