Previous: Episode 5
Gaspard pushed through the crowd. Le Petit was at the mouth of the tent, keeping the cast and crew at bay, though several made attempts to peer in when the wind blew the corner of the tent flap open.
“Thank you, sir.” Gaspard patted Le Petit on the shoulder.
He was about to dip under when someone called out, “Of course, the Frenchy lets the Frenchy in. We deserve to know what’s going on in there, too!” Donovan, though Gaspard couldn’t pick him out from among the crowd.
Gaspard stopped, looked up at Le Petit. “Le Petit. You are French? I did not know.”
This got a few laughs from the crowd.
“Sit tight, folks. I’m sure the tent is closed for everyone’s safety. I’ll find out what’s going on here and I’ll be back.”
He ducked into the tent. Just like working the crowd, Gaspard thought. Make them laugh to get them on your side, then give them a small promise they can hang a hat on.
It wouldn’t satisfy them for long, especially if Donovan kept up his moaning in the back. But who knows? Maybe he’d luck out and someone would tell Donovan to shut up.
Inside, the borders of the tent were dark, the hundred or so seats set up for the night’s show barely visible. They were still stringing electricity and wiring lights outside, but since this was Folley’s tent, the juice man always wired this tent first with its own generator.
The spotlights were lit, though no one was manning them. One shone on a trapeze, fifty feet up, deadly still. All others shone on the center ring, and the people gathered there. Ringmaster Folley and Hank were inspecting the trapeze from the ground, pointing and talking. The acrobats and a handful of rousties were waiting for Folley. Dr. Fagan knelt near a blond girl, crumpled on the ground.
The girl’s legs were broken. Gaspard could tell that from the tent entrance, and it only got worse as he drew closer.
Though they didn’t perform with a net, the acrobats did practice with one. There were no signs of the cause, but the net lay spread open across the ring.
Dr. Fagan withdrew a needle from the injured girl’s arm. “That’ll put her out for a couple hours.”
“How bad is it?” Gaspard asked, even though he could guess at the answer.
“Arm is broken. Looks like a clean break, I’ll get a splint on it. But her legs.” The doctor looked down, and it was all Gaspard could do to keep from looking again. The girl acrobat, the slightly smaller one—Emma, he finally remembered—stood beside him. She wouldn’t look away, and her hands fidgeted like she didn’t know what to do with them.
Gaspard reached into his pants pocket, removed a half-pack of Pall Malls. “Smoke?”
Emma took one, lit it on Gaspard’s proffered match. “I didn’t know you smoked.”
“No, no. Can’t stand them. But it’s a good way to make friends, oui?”
Emma snorted dismissively, then looked at the calm hand on her cigarette. “Thanks.” She took a drag. She didn’t seem to notice her other hand wrung all the worse against her side.
“Someone tell me what happened,” Folley demanded.
One of the male acrobats stepped forward. The man looked like he was carved from marble, large hands with huge forearms.
“Charles,” Folley nodded. “You were practicing with Celia?”
Charles nodded. “We were working on returns. We had only started, she was swinging toward me. It was just a simple half-turn catch, we’ve done it thousands of times. It looked like everything was perfect. Good swing. Good release. We were in synch.” He added this as if he were worried someone was trying to catch him in a lie. “I was upside down, ready to catch her, our hands brushed…no, that’s. No?”
“What do you mean, ‘no?’” Folley’s thin eyebrow raised and curled so drastically, Gaspard thought it might shape itself into a question mark.
Charles sounded flustered. “I, maybe I’m confused. She didn’t reach me on her release. She was too far, there was nothing I could do. No way I could catch her. I thought she touched my hand for just a moment, but if we had made any contact, I would have had her. God himself couldn’t wrest her from my grasp.”
He looked at his hands, clenched them. He looked uncertain.
Gaspard looked down at his own hands.
Charles added, “And if I had known the net,” but his voice trailed off.
Hank turned to the others gathered there. “And the rest of you?”
A roustabout stepped forward, young enough that it looked his first whiskers were coming in along his jawline.
“I was up there,” he pointed to one of the spotlights mounted on a tent pole. “It’s exactly like Charles said. I thought he caught her, but I blinked, and the next thing I knew both she and the net were hitting the ground.”
“Folley. Look.” Hank was in earshot, only a few feet away. He had been kicking around beneath the trapeze: picking up the net here and there, eyeing the rigging, the poles. But now he was stopped at some leaves and trash that had gathered at the near edge of the ring. He held something in his hand, cupped and angled such that Gaspard couldn’t see what was there.
Ringmaster Folley’s face turned to steel. There was anger in his eyes. “No.” The word was directed at Hank, short and curt, like a bark.
“Folley!” Hank gestured with the unseen object again. “Look around you! Are you choosing to ignore—?”
“It’s from a crow. Just garbage brought in on the wind.”
“What? What’s going on?” This was the last acrobat, Stephen.
“Nothing that concerns you,” Folley snapped.
“If it involves Celia, it is my concern,” Stephen replied. He was a tall man, with broad, muscular shoulders and dark hair. Gaspard was reminded of the comic books of his youth, L’homme d’acier. “Steel man” was the direct translation, an American comic that was short-lived in France.
Stephen squared up with Folley, puffing up to his full height. Gaspard pulled his spauldeens from his pocket, was searching for a way to diffuse the situation. Ringmaster Folley was no slight man, but it wasn’t likely he could take shot from a man like Stephen. Still, Folley didn’t look away.
Big hand gestures, bouncing the balls off the ring so hard they snapped when they struck. None of it broke either man from their gaze. Stephen’s hand balled into a fist. Gaspard had only moments. He needed to, what? His only thought was putting himself between the men, but then he’d get his own stupid face punched.
And then Folley did…something. Turned his body full toward Stephen, but that wasn’t all. The men were equal height, though Folley’s top hat gave him another foot. When he squared back at Stephen, Folley didn’t puff up.
He was suddenly the tallest thing in the tent, taller than the tent poles themselves. Lights dimmed around them, and shadows elongated. Folley was the spider; Stephen, and everyone else for that matter, were the flies.
Standing here, in the hatched rope net, all of them were in his web.
The acrobats, all three of them, backed away.
Gaspard blinked, and the tent had returned to normal.
“Doctor!” Ringmaster Folley called without turning. “Can we move her?”
Dr. Fagan hesitantly stepped forward. “There doesn’t appear to be any spinal damage. But we should be careful, she could—”
“Good,” Ringmaster Folley cut him off. “Let’s get her out of the way so the rousties can finish up their work before tonight’s show.”
“Take her to my trailer,” Hank said. “She can recover there. I’ll find somewhere else to bunk.” Hank was among the older folks in the carnival, both in seniority and age. He was Ringmaster Folley’s right-hand man, rumor was he was once Folley’s mentor. Right now, he only looked old and exhausted.
“She’s going to be in a lot of pain when she wakes,” Dr. Fagan said. “Still haven’t been able to purchase supplies, I don’t have much to give her.”
Without batting an eye Folley replied, “Hang some quilts along the walls. It’ll dampen the noise, in case she’s loud.”
“We’re not going to take her to a hospital?” Stephen again, but this time his outrage carried a degree of humility.
“Maybe if we were closer to Houston,” Dr. Fagan replied. “We’re in the middle of Podunk, Texas. Even if these superstitious idiots were willing to help people like us, their doctors will be a far cry from my work.”
“Can you fix her?” Charles asked, hopeful.
“I…she will live. With some work she’ll walk again. Besides that…”
Emma ground her cigarette in the dirt and left. Charles closed his eyes and shook his head.
“Now,” Folley said. “All of you, back to your tasks. Hank, Gaspard, with me.”
“You think we’re going to perform tonight?” Stephen asked. “After this?”
“I expect that each of us is going to perform the task we’ve signed on for.”
It was a silent stomp toward the back yard, Folley setting the pace, Gaspard and Hank jogging to keep up. The crescent wasn’t even in eyeshot when Gaspard figured where they were going.
“We’re going to settle this once and for all, Hank.”
“And if he’s not there, Al—Ringmaster Folley?”
“That’s not possible.” Ringmaster Folley jerked the key in the lock, flung the door open. It slammed, rattling the hundreds of jars inside. The air here was bitter with the smell of spoiled alcohol.
Like everyone in the carnival, Gaspard had taken his turn at feeding the thing behind the chained door. It talked. It knew things Gaspard had tried to forget. The hundred little monsters pickling in alcohol were the tiniest tip of the iceberg. There was a much bigger monster in here.
“Show yourself!” Folley shouted to the far end of the cart.
Silence from the far end, just long enough to be dramatic. If Gaspard didn’t know any better, he’d thought the winged man was a performer like himself. Slowly, emerging from the shadows, the face appeared behind its bars.
“Ringmaster Folley? Oh, and you’ve brought others. Hank, Gaspard, welcome.”
That voice. Gaspard felt himself drawn to the winged man, then shook himself of that dangerous thought.
Folley pointed across the cart, vindicated.
“I don’t buy it, Alis—uh, Folley.” Hank pulled a feather from his pocket. Over a foot long, black, it glistened like oil on water.
The winged man smiled. Broad, perfect teeth, and kind, silver eyes. “That does look like mine. I’m so cramped in here; I think it’s causing my wings to molt. See?” Movement at the bottom of the door, the winged man kicking the flap. Dozens of feathers pushed through with each kick.
“You’ve been here the whole day?” Hank pointed, demanding, but kept his distance.
“Answer!” Folley demanded.
“I may be trapped here, but there’s nothing that compels me to answer you, nor to tell the truth.”
At this Folley grabbed the shelves near the back door, shoved, shaking the cart. It jostled the winged man.
“What are you playing at, demon?” Folley shouted.
The winged man laughed. Loud. Long.
“You know I can’t leave here. The wards are too strong. So long as they remain in place, so do I. See?” At this the winged man pushed at the other side of the door. It rattled the chains and locks, so pitifully that it seemed sarcastic.
“That, oui, it sounds very honest,” Gaspard said to the two men. He added, “I want it to be clear, that was sarcasm.”
“Ignore it,” Folley said. “It’s the same damn game he plays all the time. Wants you to question yourself, ruin something that’s already right.” Nevertheless, Folley ran his hands along the chains, checked that the seven locks were still secure.
“They’re all good?” Hank asked.
Folley brushed his hands. “Yes. Just like I told you.”
“He’s staring at us,” Gaspard added. While Folley had been checking the locks, the winged man never looked away from Hank and Gaspard. Still as a statue, without blinking. “Yes, that is very unsettling. Can we leave?”
“Not so soon,” the winged man said. “Did I say something to upset you?”
Folley ignored him, made his way to the exit. “Yes, let’s leave.”
“See you at midnight, Ringmaster Folley. I do look forward to our talks every night.”
Hank stopped in the open doorway, looked at Folley.
“Ignore him,” Folley said. “Let’s go.” Folley locked the door behind them, and added, “Make sure the main tent is cleared and ready, then move the animals in there.” Then he stormed off.
“Let’s go,” Hank said. He led the way toward the animal cages, but Gaspard could tell something was weighing on Hank’s mind.
Gaspard had questions, too. Some begged to be answered. Others—he thought it was maybe better without the question ever being spoken.
He had been through the ledgers, the old ones. Curiosity, or maybe just because they were there. The black cart was part of the circus since early on. The man who owned it had several consecutive contracts. He was probably the man who collected the specimens. Odds were either this man or the man who built their catalogue of freaks was also the one who acquired the winged man. But there wasn’t a name for either employee.
Hank would probably have an answer, but did Gaspard want to know?
They passed by the vendors, back behind the main tent where the rousties had only started gathering the animals. The bear was here in his little hat, and one of their tigers.
“Good,” Hank clapped, applauding the crew. “I like the initiative.”
“Hank?” Gaspard asked. “Did you call Ringmaster Folley ‘Alice?’”
“No, not Alice. It’s—he doesn’t like me using his first name around the carnival. Thinks it’s safer that way.” Hank clapped a hand on Gaspard’s shoulder. “Gaspard, you seem like a good guy.”
“Can I give you some advice? When your contract’s done—how long do you have left on your contract?”
“I just signed another two years.”
“You just signed—dammit! Folley, you sonofabitch, you’re not supposed to write any new contracts without me!” Hank removed his cabbie, crumpled it in his hands.
“Is there a problem?” Trying to soothe the situation, Gaspard added, “If it helps, it came with this very unsavory bonus.” He pulled at his lapel, and the gold pin stuck there.
“I heard,” Hank grunted. “I’m none too happy about that, either.”
“I’m not too keen on the responsibility.” He removed the pin, held it out to Hank. “I’m happy to return it, if that’s—”
“No!” Hank jumped back, arms raised as if Gaspard had him at gunpoint.
Gaspard looked at the pin in his hand: the size and shape of a penny, but gold, with an image of a key. Why had Hank reacted like that?
“Well, now I’m beginning to think I should return it,” Gaspard said.
“No. Just…no.” Hank calmed, or maybe was just trying to calm himself. “Put it back on. You need to keep it. Need to. But if Folley ever asks for it back, you don’t touch it. Just take whatever coat or shirt you’re wearing and hand the whole thing to him.”
Hank eyed the tiger in the cage. It lapped at the bars with a huge, pink tongue. It yawned, and tilted its head to hook its huge canines around the bars. Closed its mouth around them, and began lapping the bars again through its closed mouth.
“I don’t know what Folley thinks he’s doing, but he’s making a mess of things.” Gaspard realized Hank was looking at the tiger, but his mind was looking elsewhere.
The tiger paced, back and forth, occasionally repeating the biting and licking.
“What is this tiger doing?” Gaspard laughed, if only to break the silence. Hank had been staring into space for several moments.
“She’s checking the bars,” Hank replied.
“She was born here. Isn’t she used to the cage by now?”
“All trapped animals test their cages.”
Next episode: April 15