"And the glorious Night is approaching - this quaint, old-time night, star-jeweled, fantastically robed; and the blue river is bearing us fleets of white boats thronged with strangers who doubtless are dreaming of lights and music, the tepid, perfumed air of Rex's palace, and the motley route of merry ghosts, droll goblins, and sweet fairies, who will dance the dance of Carnival until blue day puts out at once the trembling tapers of the stars and the lights of the great ball."
~ Lafcadio Hearn
Vincent held a pair of ties up, squinting. Was that left one red or blue? Or maybe brown? His careful tags had been removed by the dry cleaner, and he didn't feel like roaming the hall until he found someone who could tell him how to dress himself.
"Hey, hey, Vinnie, c'mon! It's not that kind of party!" Nate popped up at his elbow, wearing his hydrant hat.
Vincent sighed and folded the ties back into the drawer. Gentleman Joe turned away from the window, frowning.
"Leave the boy be, Nathan," the graying man said. "In my day, a respectable man knew how to present himself at a public function."
"Your day was a hundred years ago, Gramps," Nate shot back. "'Sides, it's more of a public dysfunction by the time we get there"
"Simmer down," Vincent ordered. "I've got enough to deal with tonight."
Nate spread his hands. "I'm stating the obvious."
"Be more polite about it," Vincent suggested. He couldn't put an age to Gentleman Joe, but the coat and hat and the folded scarf-thing around his neck hinted at Pretty Old. Sometimes, when he looked at the man, he got a flash of gray skies, ornate towers like the picture on his English Literature book, and images of young men in long black robes like judges. He never asked where his 'guests' came from, or why they were there. Being dead wasn't something most people could help after all, and it was rude to ask questions about things that couldn't change.
"Im going to try and talk to the Jazz Man tonight," he announced, shutting the drawer.
Nate fiddled with the squeeze bulb for his hat. The stuffed Dalmatian next to the plush hydrant lifted a jerky leg and sent a stream of beer down the clear tube, into the man's mouth. Gentleman Joe cast his gaze heavenward and shook his head.
"You sure about that?" Nate asked after a noisy swallow. "He don't talk to nobody, bro."
Vincent patted his pockets. Keys, cash card, money clip, pillbox of coarse salt and iron filings, stick of fresh chalk - destined to be become four pieces by the end of the night when he forgot about it and sat down -and a condom. Maybe he should check the date on that one, it'd been a while.
"I gotta try. Carnevale's the only time anybody sees him. Maybe he needs help."
"Not all those who linger here do so for gentle reasons," Gentleman Joe cautioned. "Frightened people lash out, my boy. Take all suitable precautions."
Vincent patted his pockets again and winked. "Thanks. Got it covered."
Gentleman Joe folded his hands around the knobby head of his walking stick, still looking concerned. "I hope so, my boy."
Vincent managed a smile. The energy of Carnevale made the living a little nuts. For beings that were nothing but energy... He picked up a bottle of Dasani water from the dresser, double-checked to make sure it was one of the blessed ones. Not that he was expecting trouble. Just being prepared.
"We'll see how it goes But Nate's right; we've got a party to go to."
Out on the street, the bass gained a beat. Vincent grinned and set out, his step light. He passed people dressed like horror film extras and escapees from a glam rock video. A group of women sashayed up the street, dressed in skimpy 'Catholic schoolgirl' uniforms, chaperoned by a gnaga nun who hadn't shaved. His grin widened and he turned on his heel as they passed, watching them go. Those same women had probably grown up wearing uniforms like that, and hated every second of it . The experiences of the gnaga he was willing to leave to conjecture.
The music beat against his throat. He couldn't find a tune under the noise, but no-one seemed to mind. He dodged left to avoid Baby New Year as he boogied up the street.
"Hmph." Gentleman Joe sniffed, tilting his hat to a more precise angle. "What a display."
The mortal noise didn't seem to affect his hearing where ghosts were involved. Nor did it seem to affect their ability to hear him. Vincent wasn't overly fond of screaming in public, especially when he appeared to be screaming at thin air. People got locked up for stuff like that, Carnevale or no Carnevale.
"This is tame," he said to the gentleman's ghost. "Since they cracked down on open containers a few years ago, things have been more controlled."
Gentleman Joe shook his head. "It's sad to see the loss of tradition. Always, Carnevale served a purpose. We used to say that God winked during Carnevale, but even then, one had to follow the rules."
"Rules, shmooles," Nate sneered. "It's a party!"
Vincent turned. Nate had climbed a lamppost and hung from it, holding his hydrant hat on with one hand. For a moment, his image flickered in Vincent's sight, and he saw Nate in a fireman's heavy coat and boots, a heavy tank on his back. A battered helmet replaced the silly hat, and when Nate looked up, his face was grimy and serious.
Then Vincent blinked, and the image vanished, leaving the World's Oldest Frat Boy in its place.
"Boo-yeah! Check! It! Out!"
Almost against his will, Vincent followed the line of Nate's pointing finger. A woman with long blonde hair rode down the street on a white horse. Green garlands fluttered as the horse clopped by.
"That's gotta itch," Vincent said, turning his head as she passed.
"I got some calamine with her name on it!" Nate crowed. "Hey, gorgeous!"
To Vincent's surprise, the woman looked over her shoulder - and winked. Ah, she's dead, he realized. Before his Sight had come in, he might have added, 'what a waste.'
But she looked... happy. Mischief shone in her face, and she rode the ghost-horse as if they'd both stepped out of a sylvan fantasy. Looking around, Vincent saw more of the city's phantom population along the parade route.
Old Beaudry had his guitar, strumming as he walked. Lady Sorrow sat at an ornate wrought iron table in front of a cafe that had closed twenty years ago. She sipped something from a tall glass, idly fanning herself with an ivory-handled fan. Girls in flapper dresses swarmed nearby, waving silver flasks and laughing.
Vincent shook his head. If the lost buildings were going to come back tonight, he'd have to step carefully. He might walk into a false window thinking it was a door.
A figure in white danced across the street. The feathers on his headdress bobbed as he moved. Suddenly, he lifted what looked like a broad strip of canvas. Vincent tensed, slipping the fingers of one hand into his jeans pocket. The pillbox felt cold and hard.
The man in white spun in a graceful half-circle, twirling his band of cloth. Glowing egg shapes flew out. Vincent tried to duck away, but one glowing egg hit him in the chest - and kept on going.
Vincent gasped and clutched at his shirt. The cloth was whole and dry. He thought he smelled roses.
"Oh, man," he gasped, clinging to the lamppost. "That, that was just weird."
Gentleman Joe materialized beside him. "You've never encountered the Mattasin?"
Still trying to get his breath back, Vincent squinted up at the ghost. At some point, Gentleman Joe had re-envisioned himself into a proper Carnevale costume: a Bautta mask and black cloak, complete with black tri-corner hat festooned with tiny golden bells.
"Matta-who?" he asked.
But Gentleman Joe's attention had moved on. "Ah, Columbina!" he called, lifting a hand in salute. The woman - and Vincent felt sure it was a woman this time - tossed her dark ringlets over her shoulder and swept Gentleman Joe a deep curtsey. Her dress billowed in a wave of silk and lace.
Vincent glanced back, his attention caught by a glimmer of light. Gentleman Joe held a glowing egg-shape in his gloved hand, identical to the one that had passed through Vincent. Lifting the egg to his lips, he kissed it, then lobbed the egg to the woman in a gentle underhand toss.
Columbina caught it, clapping her hands together. The egg-shape vanished in a burst of golden sparkles and rose petals. The people around her cheered.
Vincent gaped. 'Oh man... does this mean I got hit on by a ghost?' That was a first. He glanced back at Joe.
"Friend of yours, I take it?"
"Columbina and I share a close acquaintance," the ghost said.
Vincent blinked. Coming from Gentleman Joe, that was quite a declaration.
"If you will excuse me, Vincent." Gentleman Joe bowed his head in farewell, then swept past in a swirl of black cloth.
"Yeah! Go, Joe!" Nate pumped his fist in the air. "Woo!"
Vincent covered his face with his hand and edged away from the street lamp. I'm not with him...
When he lifted his eyes again, he found the Night Parade in full swing. Horses drew elaborate floats of acrobats up the street, while ragged men in sackcloth raced alongside with wheelbarrows. Girls in cat masks danced in between Harlequins and torch-spinning jugglers.
Nearby, a young man in an army uniform played cards with Capitano and a 'Nam soldier in full dress. The three barely glanced up as the creepy doctor stalked by in his bird beak mask. They passed around a bottle of something clear and sharp-smelling, no doubt muttering about the kids today.
Vincent clung to the lamppost. He'd been watching the Night Parade for five years now, and the sheer size of it still took his breath away. This was a young city, in a young country, but you couldn't tell that by who was walking past.
A shout and a fierce drumbeat announced the arrival of the musicians. Vincent made sure he had a secure grip on his anchor and leaned out for a better view. Times like this, it was hard to believe he had ever been afraid of the dead.
Vincent brushed at the front of his shirt. The egg had left no mark, but his chest still felt cold. Nate and Gentleman Joe were nowhere in sight.
The streets looked eerie and flat, like a clumsy CGI graft in a live-action movie. Papers, cups, plates, confetti and streamers clogged the gutters and the doorways, formed ankle-deep drifts around the lampposts. Vincent took a deep breath, tasting smoke and stale beer. So much for the open container laws., he thought. Shoving his hands into his pockets, he started up the street.
The street lights, in echo of their celestial cousins, were beginning to wink out. A few blocks over, he could hear sirens and the static-clogged roar of a loudspeaker, the city's finest, clearing the streets.
"Carnevale is over. Clear the streets. Carnevale is over."
Vincent thought about coffee. Eggs, over easy. Hash browns, the really good kind, with chunks of sweet onion. The Garden Bistro would open in a few hours. He couldn't really put the Night Parade to bed for another year until he'd had breakfast.
At the end of the block, where the last of the winter shadows still congregated, a flash of metal caught his eye.
Vincent stopped, his hands sliding from his pockets. The man under the street lamp looked no older than thirty, but his clothes, like Gentleman Joe's, pointed to an earlier age. He held something that looked like Vincent's sister's old clarinet. As he watched, sure, dark fingers moved along the instrument, scattering a double-handful of notes into the air.
If he knew music, he might have been able to name the song, but he was a child of cover bands and hairspray glam. Sign of the times, perhaps. Vincent inched closer. If he paid attention, maybe he could hear enough of the song to try and learn its name. That might give him a lead...
The light grew stronger, the shadows faded, and the music grew. The musician leaned into the melody, sweat gleaming on his face. His eyes were shut tight, lips pursed. The song unrolled, sharp and clear. Vincent rose up on his toes, drawn up by the tension in the song.
Just a little longer, he pled silently with the coming dawn. He had no idea how much of the song remained, but it seemed he'd heard more than he had in previous years. Would Jazz man get to finish this year? What would happen if he did?
The gray light spilled down between the buildings and washed up the street. For half a heartbeat, the new light of say haloed the sentinel of the past. Ba--
The notes skirled together into a brassy flourish--
The light swept up, over the musician, washing him away like chalk in the rain. The music cut off in mid-note, as if someone had turned off the radio. Vincent sighed.
"Carnevale is over... clear the streets..."