Previous: Episode 6
Emma stood on the platform, stark white leotard studded with sequins that reflected beams of light to all angles, starry pinpricks that lit the dark tent above and the crowd below. She raised her left arm to one side of the tent, addressing the audience, then turned and did the same to the right side of the tent.
Stephen started in the catch trap, guiding Emma between several flying flips and spins between himself and the fly bar. Emma leaped from the bar, jack-knifed and hung in mid-air—her leap too short for Stephen to catch her. But when the catch trap swung back, Stephen held the fully extended Charles by his ankles. They made the catch easily, and the audience, which had been holding its breath, broke out in cheering and applause.
The three of them swung twice, building up momentum, before Charles released Emma back to the fly bar.
There were names for these moves. Gaspard didn’t know them, nor did he care to. This was the third time he was forced to watch the act this evening, and his ass was getting sore from sitting on these terrible benches for so long. Hank wasn’t his boss, technically speaking—Ringmaster Folley had that title—but Gaspard knew who had the Ringmaster’s ear. And so, Gaspard didn’t complain when he was told he would be sitting in on all four of the acrobats’ performances this evening.
Hank sat next to Gaspard. Under his breath, Hank was willing safety toward the acrobats. He muttered things like, “Cast out,” “Forward over,” and at one point, when Emma herself was hanging upside down from the bar, “Hocks Salto,” just before she backflipped into Stephen’s hands. The old man had taken maybe five breaths up to this point, and he was constantly wringing his cabbie. Gaspard couldn’t blame him; it hadn’t been six hours since Celia’s injury. The poor woman, with her ruined legs, her ruined everything. Doctor Fagan was keeping an eye on her in Hank’s trailer; Celia was going to live, but the doctor had already explained she would never perform again.
Gaspard had wandered by Hank’s trailer between shows. Once. Celia was conscious again. He didn’t have to go in to know this, didn’t even want to go in after the shrieking he heard from outside.
Above, Stephen stepped out and Charles took his place in the catch trap.
At least the acrobats changed the show up a bit each time, Gaspard had to give them that. Their performances seemed to have some core elements: set ups, pauses for applause, and set strings of tricks they performed. But moving these strings around, adding one and removing another, made each show seem unique.
Gaspard leaned over to make up some lie about relieving himself, but Hank was enrapt, hands clenched together. Gaspard resigned himself to watch.
Charles hung upside-down from the trapeze, legs wrapped around the lines, setting up for a big release. There was the briefest moment of realization, the same half-turn catch that resulted in Celia’s injury. Stephen barked out some command, and Charles’ training took over. There was no life, no bravado in the move. The catch was executed perfectly, mechanically, and the release—some multiple twisting-flipping thing—received little applause.
From somewhere Ringmaster Folley called out, “Let’s hear it for the Miller Quar…Trio!”
“There’s a gaffe,” Gaspard said. “Haven’t heard Folley make one of those before.”
“No,” Hank agreed. He looked at his watch. “Next show is in an hour. Make your rounds, be back by then. I’ll need your help if…if I need it.”
Gaspard got to his feet. “That was sufficiently vague.”
Hank grunted. He was watching Folley take the center ring, working the crowd while the rousties set up the next act.
Rumors of an injury had somehow spread to the nearby town. Gaspard heard mutterings of it at the ticket booth when they opened. Now, while he slid between the crowd, he heard the most interesting rumors.
“…said the Strongman drove a railroad spike through his knee.” Oddly gory, but believable.
“Lion tamer. Bit clean in half.” Folley’s didn’t even have lions.
“One of them small fellas, bounced off a trampoline, landed smack in a hippo’s mouth.” Gaspard chuckled at this one. It was so strangely detailed, he almost wished it was true.
It was a decent enough crowd. Not record setting, but it would put some money in their pockets. Not the circumstances he’d prefer, but the crowd was one of the best they’d seen in a year.
Gaspard made his rounds: The animals were fed. Concessions were stocked and performing well enough. Another mechanical fault with the strongman’s magnets, the usual stage fright issue with Daniel; only a few problems, and all resolved too quickly. Gaspard looked at his watch: 10:30pm. Far earlier than he wanted to return to the tent. He rubbed his back and behind, both still sore from too much sitting. He looked, really looked for a problem to fix. Anything that would eat the time. He eyed the tents, concessions, everything up to the perimeter of the carnival.
That was it. The perimeter, or rather, the backyard beyond it. Sometimes folks wandered there accidentally or intentionally. It would take nearly twenty minutes to do a full sweep, make sure no one was lost or looking for the carnival’s secrets.
Grandma Babushka’s cart, aged and painted in dull colors to keep its old-world appeal, was the border between the carnival grounds and the backyard. He walked past it and, seeing some movement to the left, headed that way.
He could hear the voices before he saw who it was.
A man’s voice, “Quickly. It’s disconnected? Okay, let’s move it and get—”
“Shh,” followed by low mutterings from a second male voice.
Gaspard quickened his step. They were near the acrobats’ trailer. Possibly some fan looking for an autograph, but sometimes the local men-folk tried to take liberties with the women. He turned the corner.
Charles stepped down from the door to his trailer, a coat in hand. He paused, one foot on the ground, one still on the step.
Anton, Niccolo’s wrestling partner, appeared from behind the truck. “How are we with the—” He, too, paused when he saw Gaspard.
“Oh, it’s just you two,” Gaspard said. “I was worried some of our customers were back here looking for trouble.”
“Oh,” Anton said. His accent was well tempered, hardly a hint of his native German in it—after the war, it was probably something he had worked on. “No. Just us. I…forgot my coat. Bit chilly out.” Anton reached a muscular arm in Charles’ direction.
“Yes. Here you go.” Charles awkwardly handed the coat over.
Anton took it, wedged it under his arm. He watched Gaspard for a moment before taking it from under his arm and putting it on. The coat looked too tight in the arms and shoulders.
“Well,” Gaspard said. “I need to check the rest of the backyard, but I’ll see you in about twenty minutes, Charles.”
“What?” Charles looked genuinely surprised.
“Hank is acting strange. He’s having me watch all your shows this evening. Last one is at Eleven, oui?”
“Oui. I mean, yes. At Eleven. I’ll be there.”
“And I’m going over this way,” Anton said. He began walking away, slowly, but frequently looked back.
“Hank, I’m going to murder someone. Tell me who built this bench. That’s the man I’m going after.”
“Did someone leave a pea under your seat, princess?” Hank asked with no small amount of sarcasm.
“A pea?” Gaspard chuckled, realizing what Hank meant. “Yes. Au petit pois. My delicate behind can’t stand it.”
Hank side-eyed Gaspard, but broke a smile. He seemed much less tense, now. It was the acrobats’ last show for the evening, that was probably the reason.”
Down in the center ring, a spotlight shone. Folley was there, cane in his hand, top hat under his arm. His white shirt and black tailed coat were flawlessly in line and unwrinkled, and light sparkled off his brass buttons. He bowed, placed his hat atop his head and raised his arms. When he spoke, his voice filled the tent.
“Here at Folley’s Circus, we scour the globe for the best artists, the most impressive animals, the queerest freaks. But when it came to the flying trapeze, I had to go no further than these United States!”
Immediate applause. When it came to winning over a crowd, appealing to home or patriotism were guaranteed victories.
Folley continued, the cadence of his voice leading the applause. “Put your hands together for the Miller Trio!”
With a flourish of his arm, Ringmaster handed off the applause to the acrobats entering the ring—only, no one was there.
A few subtle gestures from Folley put half a dozen roustabouts into action: some back stage, others to predefined locations, including the mess and, in case someone’s been drinking between acts, back to the act’s trailer.
“What’s going on?” Hank peered to the right, in the direction of the entrance curtain, where the acrobats were supposed to be entering.
“Why aren’t they coming in?” Gaspard asked.
“I don’t know,” Hank said. “Dammit! Follow me, let’s go.”
Folley was stalling for time. Somehow he had cued the clowns, who were taking the ring, and the butchers were taking a second go-round with their popcorn and drinks.
“Pardon, folks. We appear to be having a small difficulty. One of our acrobats took a small injury last show…”
Gaspard and Hank were on their feet, shuffling along the narrow aisle. It took Gaspard a moment to realize Folley wasn’t referring to Celia; he was buying time and building a story. They’d probably bandage one of the performers to sell the lie and make the acrobats seem all the more heroic.
Hank threw open the curtain to the back stage. Empty, except for a few instruments and the clowns’ props. No one was there. The blue and yellow tent flap that acted as the backdoor, the performers’ entrance, shifted, but it was only the roustabouts that had been directed back here.
“Not here?” Gaspard asked.
The rousties shrugged.
“Dammit,” Hank said. “This isn’t like them. More than anyone, the acrobats were about the performance.”
Two more rousties entered, looking winded. “Not at the concessions,” one said.
The other, “Not at the mess.” He swallowed, looking piqued, “Passed by Hank’s on the way back. Not there, either.”
Inside the tent proper, music erupted. The giddy trumpets, drums, and occasional slide-whistle that accompanied the clowns’ performances.
The curtain flew open. Folley approached them, an aggressive, multi-leg walk led by his cane. Through clenched teeth he growled, “Where are they?”
No one wanted to chime in, so Gaspard answered. “No sign, so far. Nearby concessions, mess, they’re not with Celia either.”
Hank turned to Folley. “We can move Viera’s act in here to fill the time. Quick set up and tear down, gives us time to find—”
“No,” Folley said. “I want them in here. Now!”
Another roustie, one of the young new-hires, entered, beelined to Hank. “I couldn’t find their trailer,” he gasped.
Ringmaster Folley’s face scrunched in anger. “What do you mean, you couldn’t find their trailer? Then get your worthless ass back in the backyard and find it!”
The kid stepped back, scared. Clearly he hadn’t realized Folley was in the room. He made to leave, but Hank put his hand on the roustie’s shoulder to stop him.
“Where are the acrobats?” Hank asked, trying to calm the roustie.
“I got confused. Well, I thought I did, ‘cause I swore it was near just past Grandma Babushka’s. Their trailer, I mean. But it’s not there.”
“It’s not there…” Hank’s voice trailed off.
“Why would they move their trailer?” Gaspard asked. “They’ve got top billing. That gives them one of the spots closest to the main tent.”
Folley grabbed a nearby bass drum. Hank pulled the rousties back, ducked out of the way himself. The ringmaster hoisted the drum above his head and hurled it out the back door. “Damn them all!” he shouted.
Gaspard could hear the drum roll slowly away, bwom-bwoming its way through the field outside.
“You three,” Hank addressed the rousties. “Get Viera, tell her she’s in the main tent tonight. Carry her equipment in here, help her set up.”
Gaspard could sense the urgency under Hank’s steady demeanor. “Should I go, uh, check on the acrobats. Find their trailer or something?”
Folley was turned away, but he answered, “They’re gone. Don’t waste your time.”
“They’re gone?” Gaspard asked. “Can they do that?” It honestly hadn’t occurred to him that someone might break contract and just leave.
“They’re not supposed to do that,” Hank said. He eyed Folley as he did so, some odious message passing between them.
“So, I guess we don’t pay them for tonight?” Gaspard said. “Shame. It was a half decent crowd tonight.”
At the other end of the room, Folley snorted.
“Gaspard. Go to Grandma Babushka. Tell her, ‘The acrobats left without ceremony.’”
“She’ll understand,” Hank said. “We’ll wait for her here.”
Gaspard hadn’t taken a single step when the tent flap opened again. He hoped for the best, that the acrobats would be the ones coming in. Instead, Niccolo entered. His eyes swept back and forth across the room. The whole of his muscular frame seemed deflated.
“Niccolo?” Gaspard asked. “Why are you here? You have a wrestling match right now.”
“I, uh. Anton. Wasn’t at the tent.” The man looked lost.
Gaspard crushed the Spauldeen in his hand, didn’t know how or when it had gotten there. “This is a most splendid night. Head back, Niccolo. I’ll send the doctor to fill in. Never mind. He’s busy. Merde! Go back to your tent, I’ll find someone else for you to—”
“My truck is missing.” Niccolo’s words were dead and empty.
Folley spun around. “What?”
“About an hour ago he said he was tired, was going to take a nap. I just thought he had slept in. So, I went to the truck. It was gone, but I could follow the tracks. They led just over there.” Niccolo weakly pointed outside. “The acrobat trailer is missing, too.”
“That’s right,” Hank said. “They only had the trailer when they signed on. They’ve been using one of Folley’s trucks.”
“Dammit,” Gaspard said. “I saw them earlier, Charles and Anton. I thought they were just talking. They must have been hooking up your truck.”
“Charles and Anton?” At this, Niccolo’s face went white. “But Anton promised he wasn’t, they weren’t…”
Gaspard stared at Niccolo. He blinked slowly, feeling his eyelids slide along the moisture of his eyeballs, the lashes brush slowly just before the lids landed heavily against each other. He blinked a few more times, rattled his head.
“Were you and he…?” Gaspard didn’t even need to finish the question. He saw how hurt Niccolo was, even from the moment he entered.
“All our money. Our savings. When our contract was up, we were going to leave together. Go back to his country, buy some land.”
The poor man. He couldn’t even find tears.
“It’s all falling apart again,” Hank said to Ringmaster Folley.
Folley’s hands were clenched, thumbs pressed against his bowed head. His lips pressed together, twisted into a smile. “So be it. If we must put on a show, we’ll put on a show like they’ve never seen.”
“Al, no. Slow measures, not—”
“We’ll make your money back, Niccolo. We’ll fix all of this.” Folley was transfixed, his eyes set on some distant point.
“I don’t even care about the money, now. I just—”
Folley bowled over Niccolo’s words. “We only need a big draw, a big city, and a big show.” He turned to Hank. “You find the city. I’ll take care of the other two.”
Next: Episode 8