This carnival looked like the last one, anywhere. None of the rides were safe; the tents housing the throw-the-ball-win-a-prize booths were faded and badly mended in places; the people working there looked uniformly seedy, as if they'd all once worked at better carnivals and had been kicked out of them. Near the entrance to the rather feeble Ghost Train, at a folding card table, sat a thin old woman. Dirty grey bandanna around her forehead, knitted shawl around her shoulders, her blind eyes blank white like two hard-boiled eggs. Every so often, she'd croak, "Tell your fortune... read your palm... one dollar..."

A group of children who'd been through the Ghost Train (and were not impressed) had come back to the entrance with the sole purpose of taunting this old woman. She ignored them.

The children fell silent when a man came over to the table. He was well over seven feet tall and seemed about that across the shoulders; dressed in a mottled beige overcoat, a wide-brimmed hat pulled down over his ears. His greasy black hair grew to the same level as his beard, down to his elbows. He left deep footprints in the muddy ground as he approached the old woman's table. He glanced about, his gaze sweeping across the children like a sniper scope, then he sat down, the chair legs bending alarmingly under his massive weight.

"Tell your fortune... read your palm... one dollar."

He placed a coin in front of her with his left hand and then let his right drop to the table, palm up. Some of the children got closer to the table, fascinated despite their earlier cynicism. The old woman felt across the table to the offered hand, gently uncurled the fingers and stroked the palm.

"Ah, miss... you are young, and full of the love of life and the world around you." Miss? The children looked at each other in amazement. The old woman thought this huge hillbilly was a girl! "You are kind and trusting soul... perhaps too trusting. This will be your downfall one day. You will meet a tall, dark stranger, and he will be your doom. Beware!"

The children were almost falling about laughing by this point, shouting insults at the old woman and making that twirling-finger-beside-the-head gesture that traditionally represented insanity. The man turned to look at them, eyes slitted beneath the shadow of his hat-brim, then his surprisingly white teeth showed in a broad grin. He stood up and walked through the middle of the group of children, and it was about thirty seconds before any of them noticed that the old woman was still clutching the hand - a young woman's hand which had been severed at the elbow, the ragged, bloody end of which had been pushed up the man's coat sleeve.

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