“You’re not afraid of clowns, are you?”
When Victor had been interviewed for a sales rep with MC&D, they had asked him a lot of unusual questions, but for some reason that one had always stuck out as the most non-sequitur. Now he was wondering if they wouldn’t have hired him if he had said yes, or just not have sent him here.
As he looked upon the numerous striped tents of Herman Fuller’s Circus of the Disquieting, he tried to figure out exactly what it was that was making him so uneasy. Upon casual inspection, nothing was out of the ordinary. The glances he managed to steal of the freaks or the clowns or the attractions as the Circus was set up were never enough for him to explicitly identify anything wrong, but yet he couldn’t shake the feeling that they were all deeply abhorrent somehow.
Maybe it was just the pitch black cotton candy. Everyone knows cotton candy is supposed to be bright pink, baby blue, or maybe snow white on occasion, but never pitch black. Especially not such a deep, abyssal pitch black that looked like darkness incarnate on a stick. And why was the calliope playing when they weren’t open to customers yet? Something about a calliope being played just for the sake of it seemed so unwholesome.
Victor turned his head at the mention of his name. A few yards away from him was a large, muscular man with a mustache, bowler hat and of course…
My God, how is that even possible? Does his throat pass through his brain?
“Yes, I am indeed. Victor Chan, from Marshall, Carter, & Dark’s Hong Kong Office,” he greeted, masking his horror at the man’s disfigurement as best he could. He did not wish to offend him as Victor was himself a fairly small and slight man, and was painfully aware that his five-figure Italian suit only signified softness in this place. “I spoke with a Mr. Gorham over the phone and he said I was to meet with a gentleman by the name of Manny. Am I correct in assuming that you are him?”
“Never been mistaken for someone else yet,” the man with the upside down face replied dryly. “What’s this about Emcee D? You got something to sell me, you want another private show?”
“I actually have a proposition I would like to discuss with you regarding some of your former assets that are currently being held by the SCP Foundation,” Victor replied. Manny groaned and muttered something under his breath. It might have been ‘Icky’. “I apologize if I’ve said anything to upset you, but I was led to believe you may have an interest in reobtaining some of these assets.”
“You, ah, you’re going to want to talk to our Ringmaster Veronica. I run back-of-house around here. She runs front-of-house. I have a feeling she’s the one behind this,” he grumbled. “Follow me, we’ll see if she’s in her tent.”
“Thank you sir.”
Victor stuck as closely behind Manny as he could, not wanting to get lost in the candy coloured labyrinth. As they moved further into the Circus the sickly sweet scent of cotton candy became so overwhelming Victor needed to cover his nose and mouth with a neckerchief. Amidst the unceasing drone of conversation that surrounded them, Victor swore that some of the voices he heard didn't sound Human. Though he had yet to see any animals, he could hear their various calls ringing through the air. Some didn't sound like any creature he was familiar with, and all of them either sounded monstrously vicious or pitifully forlorn. The calliope was still the worst of all. The music felt almost invasive, insidious somehow, as though it was trying to lull him into letting his guard down so that it could do with him as it pleased.
As he surveyed his strange surroundings, he noticed Herman Fuller's name over and over again, over every tent, booth, kiosk and caravan. This struck him as curious as Manny had said the Ringmaster was a woman.
If Victor was in a more mundane line of work he would have simply assumed that Herman was the late founder of the Circus, but if Herman was anything like his own employers it seemed unlikely that he was dead.
"Will Mr. Fuller need to sign off on any deal we might come to?" he coughed through his neckerchief, deciding it would be best to do his due diligence. The mere mention of the name caused a cold glower to spread across Manny's inverted face.
Victor didn't dare to press the issue any further.
Manny led him into a red and gold striped tent, where he saw two Clowns. One was hideously deformed, a lanky giant with an elongated face, ashen grey skin, and long pointed nose. His eyeless sockets were inky black, as were his oversized lips. The thing smiled at him, revealing a perfect set of dazzling white teeth.
The other Clown was a young woman, or at least a teenage girl, bouncing on a miniature trampoline and laughing uncontrollably. She was dressed in mismatched striped stockings and a purple Lolita dress, and her auburn hair was held up in twin pigtails that had been curled like ribbons. She was white skinned with a red Glasgow smile, a red nose, and sharp red lines through her eyes. Victor wondered if maybe she was just an ordinary human in makeup.
“Lolly!” Manny shouted to get her attention. She somersaulted through the air and landed in her black platform shoes.
“Ta da!” she exclaimed proudly, beaming a smile. He could see now that she had the same perfect, impossibly white teeth as the other.
She was one of them.
“Where’s Veronica?” Manny asked.
“In the Menagerie of Mayhem. The Pink Elephant got into the grownup juice and now it’s having hallucinations about people,” the Clown snickered.
“I’ll go get her. Lolly, would you be so kind as to entertain our guest until we get back?”
“Of course!” she said excitedly, rushing up to shake his hand. “Hi! My name’s Lollipop, but you can call me Lolly. Are you running away to join the Circus?”
“No Lolly, he’s just here on business. His name’s Victor, and he’s a salesman with Emcee D.”
“That sounds like a boring job. You should run away to join the Circus. We have so much fun here, and I never even get in trouble because I’m Icky’s favourite.” She stuck her tongue out tauntingly at Manny.
“Don’t worry kid, I’ll be back before you know it,” Manny told Victor, giving him a sympathetic pat on the pack. “And don’t mind the big guy. He’s just her babysitter.”
“I’m not allowed to be unsupervised,” she smiled mischievously. Manny left the tent, leaving Victor alone with the two Clowns. “Why do you look so scared? Honestly, Mr. Noodles would never hurt anyone. I know we Clowns can look a little strange, but that doesn’t mean we’re monsters.”
“No, of course not, I just…I’m just nervous. I’m a little out of my element,” Victor said, forcing an uncomfortable laugh. “I don’t usually do, ah…field work? If that’s what you call this.”
“Why don’t you sit down, relax?” Lolly offered, and led him to a large wooden desk on the west side of the tent. She opened a mini bar and pulled out what looked like a traditional milk bottle filled with some viscous black liquid. She sat down beside him and popped off the cap. “Sorry, I just need a fix before we go any further.”
She took a swig from the bottle, and a spasm threw her back against the chair. She cried out in apparent ecstasy and was left breathing heavily as she tried to regain her composure.
“Are you alright?” Victor asked.
“Oh yeah. I’m impossibly happy, literally. When normies drink this stuff their serosomething levels get so high they have a heart attack.”
She smiled at him, her teeth dripping black with the strange liquid. “I’d find that sad if I could stay away from this stuff long enough to feel anything but bliss. You could still have some cotton candy though. I bet you’ve never gotten high off calliope music before, have you?”
“I’m afraid I’ll have to pass. I am here on business, after all,” he declined as politely as he could. Just the smell of the cotton candy was making his teeth hurt.
Lolly took a more modest sip from the bottle, then passed it to Mr. Noodles.
“Have you ever been to our Circus before?” she asked. Victor just shook his head. “I could give you a tour if you want after your meeting. This place, it’s just, it’s magic. It’s really magic! The people, the rides, the games, the prizes, even the food is magic! It’s a sanctuary of magic in a shittingly mundane world. When I first saw this place I knew I could never go back to the real world, and I never did.”
“Go back? You mean you weren’t always…as you are now?”
“Uh-uh,” she shook her head. “I was an ordinary little girl until my seventh birthday. My mom was a cunt and I had a miserable childhood, so when the Circus came to town I took all the money from her purse and had the best day of my life! That was the day I met Icky. She saved me, like she’s saved a bunch of kids, but I was special; maybe because I came to her. She was so beautiful and powerful and wonderful and amazing I couldn’t help but love her. Wait ’til you see her, you’ll love her too. She’s a magician you know; a real magician with real magic, and I’m her lovely and beloved assistant.”
“And her playmate,” she added with a naughty smile.
“When you say that she rescued you, you mean she made you perform for the Circus?”
“Not just perform, but she turned me into a Clown! Mr. Noodles here was born a Clown, but I got turned, which is why I’m not as special looking as some of the other Clowns. Icky thinks I’m pretty though. I was so worried that she wouldn't let me stay because I wasn't special like everyone else here, but she asked me if I liked Clowns and I said that I loved Clowns because, duh, everyone loves Clowns and she said I could be a Clown! Oh, do you like candy?"
"Well we Clowns need so much sugar that our diet is basically all candy. That's why we get these special chompers so that our teeth don't rot out on us. I never even brush my teeth. I hated the dentist when I was little, and thanks to Icky I never have to go to one again! Doesn't that make you want to be a Clown?"
"I…don't mind dentists too terribly, actually. At least, not compared to some things," he replied. "Ms. Lollipop…"
"Lolly," she insisted.
"Alright, Lolly, am I understanding you correctly when you say you were a runaway child that Icky subjected to anomalous modifications for the sake of becoming a circus act?" he asked, failing to completely mask the horror in his voice.
"…and I get to eat all the candy I want," she said through her eerily serene smile. "Honestly, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I love performing. Every time I'm in that ring I get to delight and amaze hundreds of people. I get to show them that there really is such a thing as magic, which is the most uplifting thing anyone could ever do for anyone. You couldn't make me give that up. Icky rescued me from a horrifically mundane life, and I'll always love her for that."
“And she’s rescued others, as well?”
“Well she makes us feel like family, but Manny’s usually the one who brings ’em in. Every few months or so it seems. They’re not safe out there, freaks in a world of normies, so we bring them here where they’re safe and loved and get to be Circus stars!”
“I’m sure it’s a great privilege,” Victor said, reminding himself that it was no worse than some of the things MC&D did. "But if you wanted to leave, could you?"
"As a Clown I literally can't live without Milk, so leaving would be a death sentence."
"I see," Victor nodded. "Is there anyway you could not be a Clown again?"
"No offence, but I'd rather die from Milk deprivation than be normal again," she replied. "Normies can't do stuff like this."
She pulled out a pack of balloons, and inflated one with a single breath. She tied it off effortlessly, and when she let it go it floated like it was inflated with helium instead of air. She filled up several more in rapid succession, and then began juggling them. Going both up and down, they seemed to defy physics, floating or falling however she desired as if following a constantly changing invisible track. The balloons appeared to have a life of their own, an effect that was only enhanced by their giggling.
"That is impressive," Victor complimented. “I hope they pay you well."
“We get paid in scrip. It’s easier that way since we travel to so many different countries in so many alternate realities, there’s just too many types of currencies to keep straight,” Lolly replied, having no difficulty with juggling and talking at the same time. “It’s a little bit of a hassle to redeem it for real cash if we ever want to go off site, but I like it anyway. It makes this place feel like it’s its own little country, and I’m the princess."
One of the balloons did escape from her grasp, and floated over near Mr. Noodles. He popped it with his finger, and it screamed like someone being murdered, scattering confetti across the tent. All the other balloons fell dead silent.
Victor's expression twisted into one of confused horror.
"Oh don't mind that. That's just like when steam escapes from a lobster's shell when you toss them in boiling water," Lolly claimed, letting the balloons float away freely. "Balloons don't have souls. Believe me, I know. One time, we needed this Elder God thing's permission to enter his dimension or whatever, and he demanded a sacrifice. He got so cranky when I tried to give him balloons, so I'm pretty sure if anyone would know if something has a soul, it's a soul eating Elder God. We ended up going to another dimension with more reasonable lot fees, and they got to see me ride my unicycle upside down.
“I don't want to talk about otherworldly demons though. It's kind of a downer. I wanna talk about fun stuff. You sell magic stuff for Emcee D right? What’s the coolest magical thing you’ve ever sold?”
"I'm afraid I'm not allowed to divulge information about our wares to anyone that's not a potential customer."
"I'm a potential customer. Just because I use a piggy bank instead of a real bank doesn't mean my money's any less good."
"I…have no argument for that. I do happen to have a catalogue with me," he said, opening his briefcase. "I guess it can't hurt for you to look at it, as long as you promise to give it to Manny or the Ringmaster."
"Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye," she swore dutifully before eagerly snatching the catalogue. "Wow, this is a lot fancier looking than Wondertainment's catalogue."
"There is a section for Wondertainment's products that we carry, starting on page 33, however a great many of our offerings are handcrafted by some of the most skilled anartists known to…"
"120 bucks for a bubblebath bonbon! Are you nuts?"
"We are Wondertainment's exclusive distributors for that product, so without any competition the market value is rather high."
"We give better stuff than this away for prizes. People actually pay over a hundred dollars for one piece of magic candy?"
"Well as you yourself said, magic's depressingly hard to come by outside of your, lovely, circus. Our clients are normally more than willing to pay our prices."
"You know, Icky got me Ragamuffin from Emcee D," she said as she casually flipped through the slender catalogue.
"Oh my god! You have to meet my dolly!" she shouted excitedly, throwing the catalogue on the desk and running over to what appeared to be a Tim Burtonesque dollhouse and pulled out a purple haired rag doll with button eyes dressed in a similar manner to herself.
“This is my dolly Ragamuffin. She’s a magic dolly and a lot of bad things could have happened to her if she had ended up in the hands of the Essie P or any of the other bad people who kill or lock up freaks,” she said as she sat back down beside him. “That’s why she’s normally very shy around strangers and just acts like an ordinary doll, but she’s not. It’s a bit of a shame because I’d like to do some acts with her, but I love her the way she is. Icky got her for me. I had come here with nothing but the clothes on my back and some cash in my pocket, and she said a girl needed a doll, and I deserved the most special dolly she could find. Her contact at Emcee D was who she called to get me that doll.
“I know you probably didn’t care about giving her a loving home and would have sold her to whoever offered first, but I’m grateful that you were the ones that found her since you’re probably the only group out there that would have sold her in the first place.
“My point is, even though you charge way too much for candy, I'm glad we're business partners. Ragamuffin, don’t you agree?” She held the doll to her ear as if it was whispering to her. Victor would have been a little unnerved by a grown woman pretending to talk to a doll, but was more unnerved by the indistinct murmurs that seemed to emanate from the toy. “Ragamuffin says that your people treated her very well and she’s very thankful that she ended up with me in the Circus instead of being experimented on at the Essie P, but she’s still too shy to talk to you.”
“Another time perhaps,” Victor smiled. He became aware that voices were approaching the tent.
“Manny, if you won’t get rid of the elephant then we’ll have to stop having booze on site because no matter what we do she always gets into it,” he heard a woman say.
“I’ll send the damn thing to AA if I have to, but so long as she brings in more than she costs, she stays,” he heard Manny reply. “After all, she…
“Don’t say it!”
“…works for peanuts.”
The woman sighed, and then walked into the tent alongside Manny. She was quite obviously the Ringmaster, dressed in a long-tailed red velvet coat and tall high heeled boots. She wore a top hat upon her long black hair, though for some reason it reminded Victor more of a magician’s hat than a Ringmaster’s. Her skin was the same porcelain white as the Clowns’, but her elaborate violet makeup was closer to Cirque du Soleil than the Ringling Bros. aesthetic the rest of the Circus seem to follow. Victor also couldn’t help but note that she had a very pronounced, almost cartoonish hourglass figure. He glanced over at Mr. Noodles and his numerous exaggerated features, and figured they had both been shaped the way they were for the enjoyment of others.
“Icky!” Lolly cried excitedly, leaping from her chair and throwing herself into the Ringmaster’s arms.
“Easy there little Lollipop. I see someone’s had her serving of Milk for the day. Good girl,” she praised her. “How’s our guest?”
“He’s still a little bit nervous, but that’s to be expected for a normie. He’s really nice though. Come say hello."
“There he is, straight from the Deathless Merchant of London,” the Ringmaster said as she approached her desk.
“I’ve been told never to call him that, but yes, I am from Marshall, Carter, & Dark,” Victor said, standing up to shake her hand. The Ringmaster instead grabbed his face and seemed to inspect him, a manic gleam in her bright purple eyes. She smiled, her perfect white teeth confirming that she was indeed a Clown.
“Excellent. Very pretty. I see your bosses got the memo that I like ’em young. So much cuter than that old fart from the London Office. What’s his name, Bourgeois?”
“Burgess,” Manny replied.
“Close enough,” the Ringmaster shrugged.
“Icky, I think you’re scaring him,” Lolly said.
“You’re right. I’m sorry,” the Ringmaster said, releasing Victor from her unnaturally strong clutches. “I should be more professional. You may address me as Ms. Ringmaster, young man. That sounds very professional, I think. Of course, when you hear people talking about Icky they’re talking me. Icky the Magic Clown was my act before I was the Ringmaster. And of course Manny here insists on calling me Veronica, my boring normie name. I don’t know why. Do I look normal to you?”
“Don’t go asking questions that are liable to start a fight,” Manny objected. “We’re both busy and you called this boy here for a reason, so let’s get to it.”
“You’re right. Sit back down young man,” the Ringmaster said. Victor quickly obliged, and the Ringmaster sat across from him. She poured herself a tumbler of Milk from the bottle and drank it in one gulp, shouting and slamming her palm on the desktop. She poured herself a second glass, but proceeded to sip it normally. Lolly sat herself on the Ringmaster’s lap, placing her arm over her shoulder like she was visiting Santa Claus. Manny stood to their right, while Mr. Noodles stood right behind Victor, ready to intervene should he start any funny business with his employers.
“Whenever you’re ready,” the Ringmaster said. Victor began fumbling with his briefcase and pulled out a manila folder.
“As per your request, I have compiled a dossier containing the SCP files of all your Circus’s former assets that, to our knowledge, are currently being held by the SCP Foundation,” he said, sliding the folder over to her. “If there are any there you would like to retrieve, our contacts within the Foundation can provide additional intelligence regarding the containment facilities and personnel or arrange for security system failures. The price for our assistance will be that during your recovery operation you also retrieve for us an SCP object of our choosing from that same facility.”
“We are not antagonizing the Essie P!” Manny growled through his teeth.
“Yeah, I don’t like the Essie P. They’re mean,” Lolly said. “They lock up freaks just for being freaks. That’s not right. Clowns are meant to make people happy, and I can't do that if they lock me up.”
“You have nothing to worry about darling,” the Ringmaster claimed. “With the Kaleidoscope, we can travel through any door we want, and with Emcee D’s operatives we won’t even have to worry about being caught on camera. They’ll never know it was us, especially since we’ll be stealing something else while we’re at it. Perfect prestidigitation, which as a magician I’m pretty good at.”
“I know what you’re doing,” Manny claimed. “You think that if you spring a freak or two from the Essie P and bring them home the rest of the freaks will love you as much as the Clowns do, and then you won’t need me anymore to keep them in line.”
“Manny, I’m not Herman,” the Ringmaster assured him. “I’m not trying to get rid of you. You’ve been with the Circus longer than anyone; you know it better than anyone. This Circus couldn’t exist without you, and no one here wants it to, especially me. Herman may not have meant it when he said that the Circus was family, but I do. You’re my family Manny, along with everyone else here, and that’s why I want to do this. Sure, it will be good for morale, but we owe it to our Little Acts Lost to at least make sure they’re okay, and to help them if they’re not. The Circus is a family, and family stays together.”
Manny made a gesture which Victor guessed was a face-palm, but due to his upside down face it looked more like he was stroking his chin.
“If I may interject something, the Ringmaster is right that there’s no danger in antagonizing the Foundation in this manner,” Victor said. “Marshall, Carter, & Dark has been pinching items for decades without any consequence. The Foundation has actual world-ending threats they must contain. They can’t be bothered to chase down every anomalous trinket that goes missing. They are already aware of both our organizations but do very little besides espionage. Besides, if all goes as planned, they’ll never even know that either of us was involved.”
“Manny, we don’t need to be afraid of the Essie P. We have the Kaleidoscope for quick getaways, and the Fortune Teller as an early warning system,” the Ringmaster said. “Essie can’t touch us. What do we have to lose?”
Manny let out a long sigh.
“Open the file at least. We might as well have a look at it."
The Ringmaster squealed with delight and greedily snatched the file from the desk. Victor noticed that her eyes moved rapidly over each page, and he guessed that she was speed reading.
“Let’s see…No, too stinky, too grabby, a lawsuit waiting to happen. Hmm…Motormouth.”
“Oh, I liked Motormouth. He taught me to juggle,” Lolly said.
“Everyone liked Motormouth,” the Ringmaster said wistfully.
“Not him. He’s not coming back, not after that stunt he pulled,” Manny said firmly.
“I know,” the Ringmaster agreed, despondently turning the page. “Though maybe you should have taken the machine gun out of his mouth before turning him over.”
“Ooh, can we get Meaty the Meatworm back? That was so much fun!” Lolly asked. "It went so fast and so high and so many loopty loops and upside down and sideways and backwards like schoom schoom schoom schoom! Also it was sticky."
“We can’t operate the machine safely without Charley,” Manny said. “He’s not still kicking around, is he?”
“No, he…blew himself up. Huh,” the Ringmaster said. “Moving on. Viscera and confetti? What a mess. Can't blame him for being pissed. Cancer? That sucks. We should send him a card or something."
She turned to the next page, and her eyes went wide.
“Virtuoso,” she said softly. “They have Virtuoso.”
“Who’s that Icky?” Lolly asked.
“He was a creation of Fuller's. He had the most beautiful voice. Well, lots of voices actually. He sang constantly, it was what he lived for. I would sit by his cage for hours, just listening to him sing. I spoke to him too, I spoke to him like he couldn't understand me because I didn't think he could. But one night I came to him after Herman had caned me, I don't even remember what for, but I do remember I was still crying. Virtuoso finished his song, but instead of going straight to the next one as usual he looked straight at me and said two words: 'Any requests?'. I was stunned and just muttered if he knew any Gilbert and Sullivan. He nodded, and sang the entire score of the H.M.S Pinafore for me.
"From then on when I talked to him he would listen, humming as quietly as he could, and speak back if he felt he had something worth saying. He'd sing silly songs for me, I'd sing duets with him, bring him flowers. I was his number one fan, and he was my friend."
The Ringmaster inhaled sharply as tears began rolling down her face. Lolly offered her more Milk, but she pushed the glass away.
"I thought he was dead," she continued. "I thought Herman had burned him alive. There was an accident. Virtuoso's covering was pierced during a performance and all his voices deafened most of the audience. After that Herman decided he was a liability to be disposed of. I cried myself to sleep for weeks after that. But he's alive! He survived the fire and ended up with the Essie P! He's been locked up all this time. He was made to sing, he was meant to be heard, and those bastards have him locked in a soundproof room singing to himself! We can’t let him live like that Manny.”
“Do whatever you want. I won’t stop you,” he replied. “Just be sure to shut down the Kaleidoscope afterwards. I don’t want a mobile task force to come storming through one of those doors.”
“Thank you,” she said. She handed the SCP report over to Victor. “This is the one we want Emcee D. Essie P number 1860. I want literally every last scrap of information you have on the place they’re holding him.”
“Excellent. I will inform my superiors and contact you once we have decided what items we would consider acceptable payment for our services and proceed from there,” he said, gathering his briefcase. “If there’s nothing further?”
“One more thing,” the Ringmaster said, pulling out a VIP pass from her pocket and holding it out to him. “I want you to come here off the clock sometime, our treat. You need to really experience the Circus if you’re going to be our Emcee D rep. Wear a cheaper suit though. Some of our acts can get a bit messy.”
“…Right. Yes, I, it’s just that my schedule with Marshall, Carter, & Dark isn’t exactly 9-5, and your Circus doesn’t publish its tour schedule so I don’t know how we would…”
“You have Gary’s number. Just give him a ring whenever you’re free and he’ll send someone through the doorway to pick you up,” she said firmly.
Victor errred and ahhhed for a moment trying to think of a way to refuse, when Ragamuffin became animate. She took the ticket from the Ringmaster and walked it across the desk to him, waving it enthusiastically. Her button eyes were spinning slowly, and her stitched mouth gradually opened in a black smile that unleashed faint and otherworldly screams.
“Awwww, she likes you!" Lolly cooed. "Now you have to come back, or you’ll hurt her feelings.”
“I wouldn’t want to do that,” he replied, gingerly accepting the ticket.
Why didn’t I just say I was afraid of clowns?