“Over here, Shataback! Here! Here! Gott in Himmel, Shataback, put it here or I vill feed you to him!”
J.J. had been working for Religger for three days now, and though he'd given the man the name he was using now, Michael, the only name Religger would use for him was Shataback. When he'd been hired Mr. Halephump had explained the term to him.
“You'll start out lower than the lowest roustabout, boy. Men,” the manager had waved a hand toward the office door behind J.J., “carrying a shovel and broom covered in elephant shit, they're gonna be higher on the totem pole than you.”
“I understand, sir.”
“Don't think you do understand, boy. That elephant shit on the broom and shovel? That's higher than you too. You'll be a shataback. You know what that means, boy?”
“No, sir,” J.J. had said.
“It means 'lower than elephant shit'. Most townies have a problem with that and last less than a week. How about you, boy? Can you take that?”
J.J. had said he could, and had been handed over to Rory Religger, the Man Without Fear, Haradan Brothers's lion tamer. Religger was a huge man. His bleached blonde hair was brilliant, and easy to see, but his accent was sometimes hard to understand. One word that came through loud and clear though, was Shataback.
Now they were unloading the lions in a new town, reversing the process that had been one of J.J.'s first jobs for the circus. One of the roustabouts, Gunter, was using the hoist and swing arm on the truck to lift the cages off the flatbed. J.J. used a long pole to guide the swinging cages into a precise line on the ground as Religger directed the whole project, shouting over the noise of the roaring animals, long whip in hand. Occasionally that whip would roll out to snap in the air near J.J., helping Religger to make a point.
“Here, you shtupid boy! Careful! Ve haff a show tomorrow night, und if you mark vun hair on that beast's head mitt your pole I'll feed you to him! Understand?”
J.J. understood. The work went off with barely a hitch, and once the cages were set he went off with Gunter to help in the setting up of the Big Top, returning to Religger in the evening.
“Zere you are, Shataback,” thundered Religger when he spied an exhausted J.J. at dusk. “Vun more job ve haff for you tonight, Shataback. Vun more job before you shleep! Come!”
The big man led the way into the tent that had been erected around the Big Cat cages, a tent filled with scent of old wet rugs and lion musk, the smell of the lions themselves overpowering any smells of dung or piss.
The man's cry brought all the animals to their feet, and J.J. couldn't help the little prickle of unease at the great luminous eyes that shone in the dim light as they pressed to the front of the cages. He stuck close to Religger, expecting the man to head toward the 50 lb. bags of lion chow J.J. had stacked neatly before they unloaded the animals. Instead, the big man strode to the center of the tent, to what looked like a chopping block. He saw J.J. glance at the stacked chow as he put on a butcher's apron, and smiled.
“Nein, Shataback. Not the chow. The day before the show they get meat. It makes them aggressive. Goot for the show. Now. I chop, you feed, Ja?”
“Why don't you feed them? Won't that, I don't know, make them feel closer to you?”
“I feed them meat, they think uff me as food, Shataback. Goot for show. Bad for me.”
He opened the big cooler next to the block and withdrew a cleaver and a huge side of meat. He began to hack chunks off and hand them to J.J.
“Vun to a cage, Ja? Throw it in between the bars, but don't get too close.”
He squinted at J.J.
“Your name is nicht Michael, Ja? I haff vatched you for three days, und I think you are nicht small for sixteen, but large for younger. Twelve, maybe?”
Eleven, J.J. thought, but how did he know?
The big man saw his expression.
“I know children, Shataback. Nicht to vorry, your secret is safe vith me.”
J.J. ferried slabs of meat to eleven of the twelve cages, not looking closely at what he carried, not watching as the hungry beasts tore into the bloody hunks he tossed between the bars. On the twelfth trip, he steeled himself to look, and to watch.
This is going to be my life now, I should at least see what I'm doing.
As he approached the last cage in the line he took a breath and looked down at what he held in his hands. The breath froze in his chest. The shape was familiar – too familiar.
The ankle. The toes.
The breath burst from him as he dropped the severed human foot from fingers gone nerveless. He spun to face Religger, who suddenly towered over him big cleaver in hand.
“You see? Aggressive at me, bad for me. Aggressive at audience, goot for show. Aggressive at kinder in the audience, if they think uff kinder, uff children, as food, great for show, great for me.”
The cleaver went up as the man's face split in a fierce grin.
“Bad for you, Shataback.”
J.J.'s back, pressed to the bars behind him as he looked for escape, exploded in pain as claws easily two inches long raked him from shoulder to hip. His scream of agony was cut short as the cleaver came dow–