The sun slid lazily downwards in the northwest, encroaching darkness spreading its tendrils across the midsummer sky. The road was near-empty of traffic, and Dean shrugged his shoulders as yet another car passed without stopping. At this rate they would never make it to Inverness. The roadside grit stung his nostrils as he stepped back on the greasy grass verge.
‘Why won’t these bastards stop?’ Gwyneth sounded as if she was close to tears.
‘They think we’re going to rob them or kill them.’
‘What?’ laughed Gwyneth, her nose-stud glinting beneath the darkness of her hair. ‘Bad things only happen to hitchhikers, never to drivers. Everyone knows that.’
‘Whatever,’ shrugged Dean. ‘We need to do something.’ He thought for a moment, then his eyes lit up with an idea. ‘I know,’ he said, in a burst of enthusiasm. ‘Why don’t you jump up and down in the road and wave your hands, like you’re in trouble?’
‘Okay,’ said Gwyneth, but with doubt lingering on her face. ‘What if they get mad, when they find out it’s a trick, and drive off?’
‘We don’t need to tell them it’s a trick. We just tell them we got into an argument with some nutter and that he chucked us out on the roadside.’
‘Right…’ muttered the girl, only half convinced.
A dull rumble in the distance interrupted their debate. Dean stepped back from the roadside, brushing back his lank brown hair. ‘I’ll stay out of sight,’ he said.
The noise grew louder, too loud for a car, or even a single lorry. A convoy thundered past, a circus procession without elephants, engine roar instead of music, going to town somewhere in the deathly still of the night. Dull lights hung open-eyed from the spider-arms of restrained rides, waltzers sat stacked up behind wooden ramps, grinning faces leered in spray-paint as they slid silently by. A cavalcade of lorries passed, each one carrying parts of an amusement ride in autopsied fragments, limbs poking skeletally into the night air or shrouded beneath tarpaulins. Bundled tents were piled up high like body bags, and then came the caravans, some brightly painted and others gleaming chrome in moonlight. Most were dirty with road-grime.
After a few minutes, the convoy passed, leaving dust hanging in its wake.
‘We wouldn’t have got a lift anyway,’ mumbled Dean.
‘Look, there’s a minibus’ Gwyneth pointed along the road. A pair of headlights glared at them from the south, growing larger as they got closer. She jumped up and down, clapping her hands. ‘We’re saved!’
‘Remember the plan,’ grinned Dean. ‘I’ll get back on the verge.’
Gwyneth staggered out into the headlight glow, waving her arms, and the vehicle slowed. It was a minibus, grimy with age and cobwebbed with rust. The window slid down.
Dean climbed up the verge and approached the passenger window. Then he laughed helplessly. The minibus was full of clowns.
‘What do you want,’ growled the nearside passenger, frowning at Gwyneth beneath the grease painted grin and two prongs of yellow hair. ‘Are you in trouble or something?’ He glared at Dean. ‘What’s so fucking funny?’
Dean laughed again. ‘Sorry,’ he giggled, ‘it’s just funny, clowns in a minibus. Shouldn’t you be in a little car or something?’
‘Shut up,’ hissed Gwyneth.
‘You think we dress like this all the time?’ grunted the passenger clown. ‘We’ve just been at a fucking stag night. Cash in hand, and no questions asked.’
The tears poured from Dean’s eyes as he convulsed in hysterical laughter. ‘I’m … sorry …’ he wheezed. ‘It’s just … so fucking funny …’ He leaned on the minibus door for support. ‘Have you … got … big shoes on?’
The clown’s eyes blazed in anger and his hand jerked as the cigarette burned down to his fingers. ‘Fuck!’ he yelled, battering out the smoldering embers in a shower of sparks. ‘This shit is polyester!’
That was too much for Dean, who burst out in a frenzy of uncontrollable giggles. It was also too much for the clown, who punched Dean in the face with a vicious right hook.
Dean slumped backwards, his lips split into a red grin. His head cracked wetly onto the tarmac and the look of shock fled from his eyes as blood flowed sluggishly from his nose and ears. Gwyneth screamed hopelessly into the silent night. The clown looked at the split knuckle on his outstretched fist with puzzlement on his face, as if it was a squirting flower that had malfunctioned.
‘Shit!’ The clown looked down at Dean’s face, grinning vacantly up at them with blood-painted lips and nose, livid against his powder-pale face. The youth was either dead or dying in silence. ‘What do we do now?’
‘You’ve killed him, you daft cunt.’ Driver Clown was the most sober of the troupe, but not by much. ‘You’re going to fucking jail.’
‘So are you, if you’re breathalyzed, you stupid bastard,’ hissed the passenger clown, now Killer Clown.
‘We’re all screwed, man,’ said another clown, with green-dyed hair and a glazed expression. ‘We’ve got enough dope in here to fuck up a hospital and we’ll be dead if we lose it.’
‘Let’s get the fuck out of here then!’ Driver Clown grabbed the gearstick, but Killer Clown grabbed his arm.
‘What about her?’ Six pairs of eyes stared at the sobbing Gwyneth. ‘She’ll tell the police, and we’re not exactly hard to pick out in an identity parade.’
‘Why not kill her?’ The voice came from one of the backseats, a red-haired clown who looked like Queen Elizabeth the First. Vivienne Westwood flashed into Gwyneth’s frozen mind. ‘I’ve got a fuck-off sharp knife,’ he added, with a vicious grin.
Despite a murmur of disapproval from the passengers, that evil gleam of teeth broke the spell. Gwyneth turned and fled, running into the bleak blackness of the moorland.
‘Get her!’ yelled Killer Clown. The six clowns piled out of the front, side and back doors in a roar of clattering metal.
They didn’t have big shoes on. They ran fast, capering in flapping clothing of all colors, white, red and harlequin patchwork. Psycho Clown was in the lead, grinning wildly in the moonlight, red hair wobbling, blade glinting in his hand.
Gwyneth ran for her life, breath hitching in her chest, her lungs clenching like fists as they sucked in acid-cold air. Ahead was a tree-line, looming in the darkness, and she was convinced she would be safe once hidden. She glanced back over her shoulder. The clowns had fallen back, out of breath, with Psycho Clown and the green-haired Dopey Clown in the lead. Killer Clown was bent over double, wheezing and coughing and Driver Clown was dashing back towards the minibus. She allowed herself a smile of relief, prompted by the adrenaline surge and the closeness of the forest. I might just make it out of this… Then, her foot found a heather-hidden hole, and she fell sprawling forwards, mossy grass muffling her scream.
She struggled to her feet, but the clowns fell upon her. A wickedly-sharp knife flashed in the air and she closed her eyes in terror.
But the blade never fell.
She opened her eyes, slits at first, then one at a time.
Four powder-white faces glowered at her.
She tried to speak, but words would not come and her lips flapped silently like a landed fish.
‘Don’t kill her,’ said the green-haired Dopey Clown, gripping Psycho Clown’s knife-clenched wrist. ‘Just don’t kill her. We can’t do that.’
‘What else can we do,’ hissed the red-haired clown. ‘Let her fucking go? With her boyfriend dead back there?’
‘Maybe he isn’t dead,’ said the third clown, frowning beneath a frizz of white hair, peering through a pair of grandfatherly half-moon glasses.
‘Here comes the others,’ said the fourth clown, who was made up like a harlequin, his face a blank white oval with a single black teardrop. ‘It looks like they’ve been checking him over.’
The two other clowns, Driver Clown and Killer Clown, leaned over Gwyneth who shivered like a trapped rabbit.
‘He’s fucked,’ said Killer Clown. ‘The bastard definitely ain’t breathing.’
‘You’re fucked, you mean,’ said Driver Clown. ‘Why did you have to punch him anyway?’
‘The cunt nearly set my suit on fire,’ wailed Killer Clown. ‘I was provoked!’
‘We’re all fucked,’ said Dopey Clown. ‘We need to get out of here with the stash and before the cops breathalyze that twat.’ He nodded in the direction of Driver Clown.
‘What about her?’ Psycho Clown pointed at Gwyneth with his knife, his painted mouth curved downwards in outrage, eyes glinting in the moonlight. ‘We can’t just fucking leave her!’
‘Can we not just tie her to a tree?’ Granddad Clown looked mildly concerned behind his glasses, in contrast to the outrage pulsing from some of the other grease painted faces.
‘It’s the middle of fucking nowhere,’ said Dopey Clown. ‘You might as well bloody kill her!’
‘That shit only works in films, anyway,’ said Psycho Clown impatiently. ‘We can stab her, make it look like the boyfriend did it, and then they were hit by cars or something.’
‘We could take her with us.’
The words were lost in the argument which was spreading like a bushfire, flames crackling in the still night air, Psycho and Dopey arguing with the greatest passion.
‘We could take her with us.’ The harlequin spoke more loudly this time.
The others stopped to listen.
‘What do you mean?’
‘We’ve got enough dope to tranquilize her for months.’ There was something about his geisha-powdered face with the single teardrop, which chilled her to the core. ‘We could make her part of the act.’ His deep-black eyes locked with her own, and the true horror of his placid moonface lunacy pierced her mind. The dope will keep her smiling and we could make sure she never ever speaks again.’ He knelt down beside her. ‘Someone bring up some dope, and put that boy into the bus.’ He spoke in tones of gentle authority, turning towards Psycho Clown. ‘And give me your knife for a minute….’
The others held her arms and Dopey spiked her arm with a syringe. The tongue writhed like a slippery snake as the harlequin sliced through the root and the muffled screaming turned into an insane gargle as he turned her head gently to one side, allowing the blood to flow freely. He realigned the knife slightly and sliced up between her jaws, skin flaps hanging in the blade’s wake as she gurgled incoherently through her new grin. He propped her up gently on his lap, holding her as the heroin hit home.
She looked up at the moonlight, which shone on her pale face, and then her stare relaxed and she gurgled in contentment, the ragged wound of her mouth spreading wider, blood seeping around her lips and chin.
‘There,’ said the harlequin, with the slightest hint of a smile. ‘What a grin she’s got now.’
By Iain Paton