“Ladies and gentlemen!” echoed the voice of the Ringmaster. “If you’ll turn your attention to the very top of the tent!” The spotlights swung up, illuminating a single figure standing on the highest platform. “Watch carefully as this maneuver has never been performed for the eyes of an audience!”
The crowd quieted to a murmur as the snare drum sounded from the band. The acrobat waved her hands from above and the Ringmaster gasped. “Ladies and gentlemen the acrobat has just signaled to me that she wishes to perform the maneuver without the aid of a net!” he said, emphasizing his speech dramatically. Circus hands moved to quickly dismantle the net as whispers floated amongst the crowd. When they escaped into the shadows the acrobat bowed to the crowd and leaped from the platform, fly bar in hand.
At the apex of the swing she let go and flipped in the air. Another fly bar flew out from the unlit area of the tent. She caught it and swung in the opposite direction. Each time she caught it cymbals crashed and the crowd cheered. Her hand reached out for the fourth one, fingers grasped the bar, and just as quickly it was gone. Screams sprang from the crowd as the acrobat tumbled in the air, hurtling toward the ground. Forty feet from the ground another fly bar swung out and her hands shot out. Gripped true by her two hands, the acrobat swung perfectly on the bar to the ground. She landed gracefully, spun into a double roll, and then stood still with arms outstretched. The crowed roared, drowning out the fanfare of the band. “Ladies and gentlemen! Anastasia!” The acrobat walked over to the Ringmaster. He took her hand and they bowed.
“Great show tonight.” Said Rocco as he walked by Anastasia. She didn’t reply, staring off at the handlers moving the elephants back into the pens. “Ana? Hey.”
She shook her head and turned to the knife thrower. “Oh…thanks. I…”
Rocco frowned. “What’s wrong?” He asked. Anastasia pulled a folded piece of paper from her pocket and handed it to him. “What is this?” He asked.
“Just read it.” She said.
“Circus Maximus! Full of wondrous delights and greedy, penny pinching slights. Fulfill your unpaid dues or you will find the ground under the tent not just covered in scattered popcorn but in the blood of its…performers.” Read Rocco. “What the hell is this? A threat?” Ana circled her finger and Rocco flipped it over. “Anastasia, Rocco, Layla, Mad Mike, and Peter.” Anastasia watched him as he stood silently. “Us…they’re after us? Where did you get this?” He asked.
“The Ringmaster gave it to me. He found it in an envelope placed in his office. There was no sign of forced entry.”
“Someone from the Circus.”
Anastasia nodded as he contemplated the ramifications of such knowledge.
“Have you told the others?” Asked Rocco.
“No. I told Layla to get Mad Mike and meet in Peter’s tent.” Rocco stood silent.
“What did the Ringmaster say?”
“He didn’t want there to be a panic. He told me to gather up everyone on the list and take care of it ourselves.”
“What a lazy ass…” Rocco replied before sighing. “Fine. Fine. Let’s see what the others have to say about this.” He said, handing the note back to Anastasia who folded it and placed it back in her pocket.
“So what do you think?” Asked Rocco. Peter lay against the lion cage. Mad Mike eyed him warily as he sat opposite on a bale of hay.
“Why would someone want to kill us?” Asked Peter. He extended his hand backward into the cage. Bruce the lion walked up and nuzzled it.
Layla smiled at the feline and then looked at Rocco. “Money makes everyone do crazy things.”
“But murder?” Asked Mad Mike. “Why not sit everyone down and question them?”
“There’s no time. We have another show in six hours.” Said Anastasia. Everyone else nodded. “The show must go on and all of that. You know how much of a miser Malcolm is.” Rocco walked over to a female elephant lying down on some hay. He rubbed her behind the ear and her trunk raised and patted him on the head.
“Good girl, Ellie.” He said smiling.
“She misses you Rocco. We should set up that act where you ride her and throw knives at the targets again. She really liked that.” Said Peter.
The knife thrower nodded. “I did too. We should…”
“Hey!” Shouted Mad Mike, quickly silencing their conversation. “You two idiots! Someone wants to murder us!” Layla frowned and Anastasia shook her head. “How about we head over to the side trailers and start asking around huh?” He said standing and throwing his hands into the air.
Peter glared at him. “Fine. Let’s get on with this nonsense.” He patted the lion on the head, walked over to a mini fridge, pulled out a chunk of steak and walked back to the cage. The lion sat at attention as Peter raised his hand up.
“Bruce!” He shouted, the lion roared and the trainer threw the meat into the cage. The great cat stood on his hind legs and leaped up to snap the meat in its jaws. “Right this way then.” Said Peter, pushing open the flaps to the large tent that housed the animals, and bowing extravagantly. Mad Mike shook his head as they all stood up and exited calmly.
They walked slowly and in silence from the animal enclosure towards the mess tent.
“I don’t even think we know where to look,” said Layla. “And besides, we should be keeping an eye out. All of us. Together. So we don’t…” She trailed off. The unicyclist stood in place and looked around. The rest stopped and looked back at her.
“Layla,” said Rocco “what’s wrong?”
Layla looked at the other three. “Where’s Pete?” She asked, confused. From inside the tent there was an explosion. Everyone looked surprised except for Mad Mike. His expression quickly turned to one of rage.
“My cannon.” He said before running full tilt towards the Big Top.
From the smell inside the tent it was apparent that the Human Canonball act had been performed. A single spotlight shone down opposite the cannon highlighting someone lying on the ground. The four rushed toward it with Rocco being the first to realize it was Peter. His mouth, hands, and feet were bound with electrical tape and his never-ending gaze was directed towards the spotlight itself. Anastasia cringed as she looked at his head, which was unnaturally turned with chin tilted downward and toward his back. Layla gasped and Mad Mike quickly pulled and spun her away from the grisly sight. Other performers were crying and some angrily shouting at Mike. He didn’t say a word in response and soon the Ringmaster arrived.
“What’s going on?” He asked as his gaze fell upon the animal trainer’s body, “Good Lord!” He exclaimed. “Peter! What’s happened to him?” Shouted the Ringmaster. Several performers nearby pointed at Mad Mike.
“He happened to Pete.” Said one of the strong men. “He shot him out of his damn cannon.” There were angry, murmured agreements from several of those around Mad Mike.
“I didn’t do a god damned thing.” Shot back Mike. “I was with Rocco, Layla, and Anastasia for the past hour. They can vouch for me.” The rest of his friends nodded in agreement.
“It’s true we were all by the animal pens.” Said Layla, sniffling. “It couldn’t have been Mike.”
The Ringmaster rolled his moustache hairs between his thumb and forefinger. “Right, well first off no one call the cops. Lord knows we have enough going on here without the police nosing around. Second, someone gather up Peter’s body for God’s sake!” He angrily motioned to the people standing beside the corpse. “And you,” he said, pointing at Anastasia. “Find out what the hell is going on. I told you I wanted this taken care of quietly. No more delays.” The acrobat could only stare at him. “Go!” He shouted and the four quickly made for Rocco’s trailer.
“Who do you think is next?” Asked Rocco.
Layla quickly punched his arm. “Don’t even think like that!” She said.
“He’s right.” Said Mad Mike. They turned to face the human cannonball. “We have to find out who this bastard is that’s hunting us down and why the hell they singled the five of us out.”
“Well if it’s money they want it can’t have anything to do with us. We aren’t star attractions.” Said Rocco. Layla coughed and glanced toward Anastasia “Well I mean other than you Ana. Especially with that new routine, you’re the only one of us bringing in the big bucks.”
Mad Mike tugged on his wild, wiry, black beard. “I think it’s because we’re all fixtures.” He said eventually.
Rocco frowned. “Fixtures?” He asked.
“We all perform routines that are central to the circus experience: acrobatics, knife throwing or juggling, human cannonball, unicycle, and animals. You can’t get rid of us. Which means they can’t take money from our acts to fund new routines or to cover debts…” said Mike trailing off.
“So do you think someone was asking for more?” Asked Layla. “Like who? Gary? Fire eating isn’t as impressive as it used to be.” Mad Mike shook his head and Anastasia remained quiet.
“What about the hopefuls?” Said Rocco, pointing to the tent taken up by young men and women who had come to audition a routine for the Ringmaster. “There’s a whole lot of them. Anyone of them could be a greedy son of bitch ready to blackmail the circus for being passed over.”
Anastasia nodded. “That’s a good start. Maybe we should check in on them.” Mad Mike pursed his lips then shook his head once more. “No no. The note said ‘Fulfill your unpaid dues’ which means it’s already an act. It’s someone asking for more for a routine that already exists.” He said, slapping his fist into his open palm for effect.
“Well which ‘big’ or ultra dangerous acts do we have?” Asked Layla.
“The sphere of death, the lion taming…” started Rocco, but because of the way Layla was looking at him he decided against finishing that sentence. “…uh,” he went on, “and your new routine Anastasia.” They all looked at the acrobat.
Anastasia, unmoved, pointed directly at Mad Mike. “What about human cannonball?” She asked. “That’s pretty dangerous.”
Mad Mike waved his hand, his gaze never leaving the acrobat. “It’s not dangerous. Everyone knows the cannon is spring actuated and I have a net. Unlike you Ana.” He replied. There was a palpable silence as they studied each other. “How much is the Ringmaster paying you Ana? With that new routine you must have him in the palm of your hand.” She didn’t respond but neither did she look away. “How much Ana?” Mad Mike asked again.
“Enough.” She replied, looking up at him then to the ground.
“Enough is right!” Said Layla suddenly. “We shouldn’t be fighting amongst ourselves. We need to keep watch over each other! It’s our names on the note,” she said as she walked over and stood between the two. They both nodded and Layla walked over to Mad Mike. “Mike and I will look for the motorcycle guys. You two can go talk to the hopefuls.”
“Alright.” Replied Anastasia. She motioned for Rocco to join her and they both walked into the Big Top.
“I’ve got an odd feeling about how Anastasia’s acting,” Said Mad Mike as he walked beside Layla towards the circus’s motorpool. “It just doesn’t seem right.”
The unicyclist laughed. “Come on Mike! I don’t think anyone on that list is capable of…” she trailed off as a whistling sound came from the shadows on the outskirts of the tent. In an instant a dagger materialized deep within Mad Mike’s neck. Both of their eyes widened. Layla screeched as a gurgling sound issued from Mad Mike’s mouth. He clutched the area around his neck and then fell to his knees. People started to appear and someone rushed to get a med kit. A few of the clowns rushed up to see if they could help as Rocco and Anastasia arrived.
“Oh my god, Mike!” Shouted Rocco as he ran to his friend’s side.
One of the clowns glared up at him. “Hey Rocco. This looks like one of yours,” he said pointing at the skull tipped hilt of the knife. “From the wheel of death act.” There were murmurs of agreement and someone shouted, “Grab him!” Two circus hands rushed over and took hold of Rocco. The woman who had rushed to get the med kit had the Ringmaster in tow.
“Hey! Let go of me! I didn’t do this. I was with her,” he said motioning with his head towards Anastasia, “the whole time! Tell them!”
“He was…” she said but pausing, “but you did go to the bathroom.” Rocco stared at Anastasia, betrayed.
“Wait! I did go to the bathroom but just to the bathroom! You’ve got to believe me.”
The Ringmaster stood up from a kneeling position beside Mad Mike. “It’s too late. He’s dead.” He said, eliciting gasps and angered whispers from those present. He walked over to Rocco and leaned down, their faces inches away. “If you did go to the bathroom, did anyone see you?” He asked.
Rocco struggled against the two men who held him and tried to remember if he had seen anyone. “Gary!” he shouted suddenly. “I walked by Gary on my way to the can!” Everyone looked around but the fire-eater wasn’t there.
“Someone go find Gary!” commanded the Ringmaster. “As for you,” he said turning back to Rocco, “how about you and I spend a little time in my office.” He motioned to the circus hands and the four of them walked off toward the office. Rocco turned his head as far as he could toward Anastasia and Layla.
“Find out who’s killing us! Go!” He shouted urgently.
Layla took the acrobat’s hand and squeezed it tightly. “Rocco wouldn’t have done this. He’s not like that,” she said. They stood there as the rest of the circus hands took care of Mad Mike.
Anastasia turned and looked at her, on the verge of tears. “That may be but we have to solve this and soon. I don’t want to end up like Mike and Pete.” Layla nodded in agreement but then cocked her head to the side quizzically. “What is it?” Asked Anastasia.
“Well Pete was killed by Mike’s cannon, and Mike was killed by one of Rocco’s knives right?” She said slowly, thinking as she spoke.
Anastasia’s eyes shot open. “That means he’s next!” She said before sprinting toward the Ringmaster’s office, Layla in tow.
“I don’t see why I have to be here.” Said Rocco. In the dimly lit office the Ringmaster and the two circus hands watched him closely. From behind the huge, varnished, oak desk the master of the show stared him down.
“Why’d you kill Mad Mike, Rocco?” He asked.
Rocco glared at him incredulously. “I didn’t, you ass!” he shouted, slamming his fists down on the desk. The circus hands edged closer but the Ringmaster waved them off. “Why would I kill one of my friends, huh? Why? You gave me a raise last year when I did a wheel of death every week for the entire summer!” Said Rocco, throwing his hands in the air. “Jesus, Malcolm! Why the fuck would I try to squeeze you for money! I’ve got a good thing going here.” He shook his head and slumped down into the chair opposite the Ringmaster who stroked his moustache.
“It doesn’t make much sense. I’ll admit that. Then who?” The Ringmaster sighed heavily. “Ever since Ana showed me that letter there’s been nothing but–” he said before he was cut off.
“Wait…what did you just say?” Asked Rocco.
“Ana said she found the letter sitting in the middle of the big top.” Replied the Ringmaster. Rocco’s mouth hung open as the Ringmaster stood. “What?” He asked.
“She’s going to kill Layla!” Shouted Rocco, leaping backwards and smashing his shoulder against the door. The cold air of the night replaced him as he ran off. The Ringmaster pointed at the open door.
“Follow him!” He shouted.
“Anastasia,” said Layla, “where are we going?”
The acrobat pointed up ahead into an unlit tent. “I just saw Rocco walk into that tent.” She replied. “Come on! We have to save him!” She shouted at the unicyclist, urging her on into the darkness.
Rocco ran into the big top shouting for Anastasia and Layla. It was completely empty, the corpse of Peter the animal handler having long since been taken away. Two spot lights suddenly snapped on, one on the top platform high above, and the second shining down onto the ground. In the center of the light stood Anastasia and Layla. The former wielding two pistols, and the second tied up, her mouth gagged.
“Ana. What the hell?” Said Rocco, pausing then slowly walking toward them.
Anastasia raised one of the guns towards him, the other toward the unicyclist. “Well I was going to kill her using my act and eventually frame you again for an attempt at my life but now…that’s close enough.” She said, indicating with her gun.
“I don’t understand.” Said the knife thrower, wracking his brain for an answer. Just then the Ringmaster arrived, preceded by the circus hands.
“Maybe you’d like to ask Malcolm, Rocco.” She replied. “I had just come up with an act that made the crowd mad and this asshole wouldn’t pay me one red cent more.”
“We didn’t have the money. I told you that!” Said the Ringmaster, gritting his teeth. Anastasia fired a round at Rocco’s feet. He leapt back as the sound echoed in the vast space inside the tent.
“It’s because you’re too stupid to let go of these ‘tentpoles.’” She scowled. “Has-beens with no talent or actual sense of danger.” Rocco raised his hand up, attempting to respond but he was met with another bullet in front of him. “I mean this one rides a unicycle and Mad Mike used a net!” She scoffed. The anger quickly returned to her face and she raised the pistol up, aiming it at Rocco’s chest.
“Ana. Think about what you’re doing.” Pleaded the Ringmaster.
A humorless smile formed on Anastasia’s face. “Why? You never did.” She replied casually. A crash sounded behind her and they all turned to face it. There were slow, heavy footsteps and then from the darkness an elephant appeared. Anastasia, only momentarily stunned swung both guns up and fired. One grazed past the elephant’s face, the other piercing straight through one of its giant ears. The giant creature blew an angry cry as it swung out with its trunk, knocking the firearms from the acrobat’s hands. Rocco sprang forward and grabbed them as the elephant wrapped its trunk around Anastasia. He smiled at the pachyderm and nodded to it.
“Thank you Ellie,” he said as the Ringmaster ran over to Layla.
“One of you go get a first aid kit for Ellie.” Said Malcolm. The two circus hands stood confused.
“In Pete’s tent. Go!” Shouted the knife thrower. The taller of the two ran off and the Ringmaster waved the other off.
“Go get us some coffee from my office,” He said, the man nodding before quickly rushing toward the Ringmaster’s trailer. Anastasia struggled to break free, pounding her fists on Ellie’s trunk. Layla cried, hugging the Ringmaster. Rocco stared up at the acrobat held firm in the elephant’s grip.
“What should we do with her?” He asked. The Ringmaster turned to face him.
Before he could respond Layla spoke up. “Give her what she wants. Cut the circus’s budget.” She had stopped crying, a stern look now in her eyes. Rocco turned to the Ringmaster and they shared a knowing look.
“I won’t call the cops then,” said Rocco slowly, turning his head towards Anastasia. Her face turned white and she grew deathly quiet as he handed one of the pistols to Malcolm.
The Ringmaster nodded. “Yes of course. Lord knows we have enough things going on here without the police nosing around…”
He said trailing off as he took the pistol from the knife thrower.
Jyoji is a Half-Korean American who was born in Japan. He came to the states after growing up in Canada. He’s a bit of a wanderer by trade and has moved twenty-seven times in thirty years. He grew up reading a lot of bargain-bin science fiction and fantasy along with some classics. His Grandmother, a literature teacher, thankfully directed him to read things like the Iliad and Crime and Punishment. He has fallen back to the paperback recently, devouring random books saved from used bookstore shelves. Currently he is a stay at home dad, his second having just been born on the 13th of August. He is an avid gamer and plays just about everything: chess, Ticket to Ride, D&D, Titanfall, and Warhammer 40k just to name a few. His home has an 8’x8′ bookshelf dedicated just to boardgames…he writes when he can and most of his writing ends up on Books Not Yet Written, a testament to his struggles to complete more than a blurb.