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Authors: Tanya Landman

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BOOK: Certain Death
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The Bouncing Bellinis did a lot of impressively energetic acrobatics and finished their act by somersaulting off a springboard and landing on each other’s shoulders. They were actually quite good if you like that sort of thing. The people-pile was topped by the lovely Francesca, but they were all held up by the scarily hairy Alonzo.

“Aha!” I said quietly to Graham. “That’s why Francesca and Marco don’t like Irena. Look how much their act depends on Alonzo. He’s holding the whole thing up. Literally.”

“And if they suspect she might be about to take him away…”

Graham didn’t finish his sentence, because our attention was distracted by Peepo bursting into the ring on a tiny trick bicycle. I thought Irena had been really cruel to him the day before and I had no idea what was behind it. But as his act went on I started to understand why she might feel the way she did.

Peepo was one of those comedians who amuses the audience by dragging people up on stage and making fools of them. Everyone else is so glad they haven’t been picked on that they howl with hysterical laughter. Which is all very well unless you’re the victim suffering agonies of embarrassment in the spotlight.

I don’t know if I just happened to be sitting in the wrong place or if Peepo chose me because I’d irritated him by being so bad at juggling. But within thirty seconds of him appearing in the ring, Peepo’s trick bicycle had “broken down”, dousing me with water and shaving foam. So he grabbed me by the hand and yanked me into the ring to “apologize”. First he presented me with a bunch of flowers. When I took them, they exploded. Ha, ha. Next he gave me chocolates and absolutely insisted I ate one. Soap! Hilarious. Then he awarded me with a toy dog, which “pooped” down my leg. Oh, how I laughed. By the time he let me go again, my sides were splitting. Not.

“Let’s just go,” I said to Graham as soon as I got back to my seat. “That was horrible. I can’t stand any more.”

“But it’s Irena next.”

“I don’t care. I want to go home.”

I was so hot and humiliated that I would have walked out, but then the music changed and Irena literally dazzled me into sitting down.

She hadn’t been lying when she’d said she had talent. She was in a league of her own. By comparison, all the other acts were just a display of some rather weird tricks. Empty. Pointless. But there was something about Irena that grabbed at your heart the second she came on. She was irresistible: you just couldn’t take your eyes off her. Alonzo pulled a rope over from the side and held it steady while she climbed up to the trapeze. When she was perched safely, Alonzo followed her and Brady Sparkles pulled the rope aside and clipped it out of their way.

Irena’s routine with Alonzo was an amazingly beautiful aerial ballet. It told a story – boy meets girl, girl plays hard to get, boy wins her over. It was like watching two really good dancers on TV doing a rumba or a tango, only this was fifteen metres above our heads. The whole thing was romantic – not in a sloppy, puke-making fashion but in a way that warmed your heart and lifted your spirits. As the music built up, Alonzo had Irena wrapped around his torso like a snake. Then he dropped backwards off the trapeze: first dangling by his knees, then his ankles, then his toes. Irena moved down Alonzo’s body, sliding further and further away from him as if she was trying to escape his clutches. He was holding her arm, her wrist, her hand and then finally just her fingers. Only her fingertips prevented her from thudding to her death.

By now we were all on the edge of our seats. When they reached their jaw-dropping finale, the old woman sitting next to me was so entranced that she clutched my arm and gasped.

Alonzo was holding Irena by the tip of one finger and she was looking deep into his eyes, when…
Crack !

A shot ripped the air apart. Irena gasped. Slipped out of Alonzo’s grip. Fell.

Someone screamed. It might have been me. Graham leapt to his feet, arms outstretched, as though he might be able to catch her.

He didn’t need to. In a split second Alonzo whipped one foot from the trapeze and lunged at Irena, catching her by the wrist. She didn’t seem to be bleeding, but the jerky movement sent them into a lurching spin. They were both suspended, held only by the toes of Alonzo’s right foot. One false move and they would both be dead.

They hung in silence for several agonizing heartbeats. The audience were frozen in their seats: no one moved, no one breathed, no one made a sound. We were all gripped by Alonzo’s face. Terror showed clearly in his eyes: every muscle, every sinew, every nerve was strained, stretched to its very limit. Beyond it. Another second and he’d snap. They’d both fall. And there was nothing anyone could do to save them.

Then Peepo ran into the ring. He’d had the presence of mind to unhook the end of the rope that Alonzo and Irena had climbed to reach the trapeze. He pulled it over to Irena and she took it with one hand, then curled a leg around it gratefully. Just in the nick of time. Alonzo’s toes gave out and he fell off the trapeze, still holding Irena’s wrist. As he dropped below her he snatched at the rope, but not before there was a hideous popping sound and Irena screamed. In falling, Alonzo had pulled her arm out of its socket.

But then Alonzo was clinging to the rope below Irena and they were able finally to descend, with her riding on his shoulders as he lowered them both safely, hand over hand, to the ground. Once Alonzo’s feet touched the sawdust all hell broke loose. The Bouncing Bellinis ran, white-faced, to their aid. Carlotta threw herself at Alonzo’s waist and, when he didn’t respond, collapsed in a corner, weeping. Francesca seized a phone from a stunned member of the public and called for an ambulance. Peepo put his hand on Irena’s uninjured arm and looked as if he was about to speak. Yet even though he’d just saved her life, she looked right through him. His mouth snapped shut. A wave of sympathy crashed over me, but then I noticed a furtive, sneaky look flash across his face. He turned and left the ring.

It was only then that I realized the woman sitting next to me was still clutching my arm.

“It’s OK, she’s safe,” I said. “You can let go now.”

Except she couldn’t.

Whoever had fired the gun had missed Irena, but the bullet must have ricocheted off the trapeze, because it had hit the old woman right between the eyes.

She was dead.

the smoking gun

I
knew from experience that you shouldn’t move a dead body until the police have examined the crime scene. I just had to sit there, motionless, feeling the old lady’s hand getting colder and colder against my skin as I waited for them to arrive.

The police and the ambulance turned up at the same time. Suddenly the big top was awash with blue flashing lights and sirens and everything got very confusing.

After the emergency services had done what they needed to, the audience were allowed to troop out in single file, first giving their names and addresses to the uniformed PC on the exit in case they were required as witnesses later on. But Graham and I weren’t allowed to go anywhere until the policeman in charge, Inspector Humphries, had spoken to us. We’d met him before – he’d investigated a series of murders at the local theatre, where we’d been performing in
The Wizard of Oz
. He wasn’t exactly overjoyed to see us again, but even though he clearly wanted to get rid of us as fast as was humanly possible, he couldn’t do anything until Mum had arrived to be the Responsible Adult present at our interview.

As soon as the old lady had been carried away on a covered stretcher, the inspector took over the box office and began talking to the circus people. The shutters were down, so we couldn’t see inside. A uniformed PC guarded the side door, but there was no one minding the back. Graham and I squeezed between the crush barrier and the wooden wall, pressed our ears to the boards and began eavesdropping with all our might.

Inspector Humphries started with Yuri. I noticed that the sharpshooter’s accent sounded faintly familiar but I couldn’t think why.

“I gather that the murder weapon belonged to you?” said Inspector Humphries.

“Yes,” replied Yuri.

“You used it in your act?”

“Yes.”

“I understand that it was one of a pair,” continued the inspector. “Where is the second, Mr Mehic?”

“I do not know. It seems to have been … removed.” He rolled the R so vigorously that Graham and I could almost feel it vibrating through the wall.

“Removed?” echoed the policeman.

“Yes, removed. Taken. Stolen.”

“From where?”

“My act was to begin after that of Irena. The pistols were laid out on the table behind the curtain.”

“So any one of the performers would have had access to them?”

“Yes.”

“Did you see anyone touch them?”

“No. I was watching the act.”

“Along with everyone else, apparently,” grumbled Inspector Humphries. “There you were, standing like one big happy family, completely absorbed in the show. The big top was packed to bursting. You’d think we’d have had hundreds of witnesses to what happened. But no one seems to have seen a thing. It’s remarkable.”

“Not so remarkable, Inspector. Irena and Alonzo had not told anyone what was in their new act. They – how you say? – kept it close to the chest. It was the first time any of us had seen it. We did not know if it would be a success.”

“But it was? Until the incident, I mean?”

“Oh yes. It was a big success. They were extraordinary. The audience was enraptured. And many people’s lives will now change, for better or for worse.”

“Including yours?”

“No. For the Bellinis. Carlotta. Misha. For Brady Sparkles too. But for me? Irena stays, she goes… It makes no difference.”

“So you didn’t fire the pistol yourself?”

Yuri laughed suddenly. It was a sad, bitter sound without any trace of humour. We heard the scrape of his chair moving towards the policeman, and then he said so softly that we could barely catch his words, “I am an excellent shot, Inspector. If I had meant to kill Irena, believe me, I would not have missed.”

the bouncing bellinis

Graham
and I barely had time to exchange glances before the next interview began. Inspector Humphries talked to Francesca and Marco, but we didn’t learn anything we didn’t already know: that Irena and Alonzo were planning to move on to a bigger, glitzier circus, leaving Alonzo’s family high and dry.

“Did you resent it?” Inspector Humphries asked.

“Yes, of course. But he’s family, we wouldn’t have done anything,” Francesca replied.

“You know what they say,” agreed Marco, backing her up. “Blood’s thicker than water and all that. I can’t stand her myself, but Alonzo loves Irena. None of us wants to see her dead.”

Francesca and Marco sounded sincere enough. But Alonzo’s other brothers, Angelo and Italo – the remaining Bouncing Bellinis – weren’t so convincing.

“Irena’s rotten to the core,” one said. “A nasty piece of work.”

“I don’t know why he ever got involved with her.”

“Have you told your brother how you feel?” asked Inspector Humphries.

“Don’t do no good talking to him, does it, Angelo?” complained Italo. “He won’t listen to no one but her. He’s making a right idiot of himself if you ask me.”

“So you took direct action?” The inspector’s voice had a gritty edge.

“No! We didn’t do nothing!” Their replies came chorusing back in unison, loud and clear. A little bit too loud and clear for my liking – it was as though they’d been practising.

But Inspector Humphries brought their interview to an end and asked for Brady Sparkles to come in.

“Do you believe them?” I whispered to Graham.

“Mmmm,” he answered thoughtfully. “Statistically speaking, most murder victims are killed by the people closest to them. It wouldn’t be entirely surprising if this turned out to be a family affair.”

Brady Sparkles was next to go under Inspector Humphries’s microscope. The inspector began by producing what we assumed was the piece of paper Irena had torn during our juggling lesson that morning.

“Can you explain this, Mr Sparkles? One of my men found it in the grass.”

“It’s a contract,” the ringmaster said reluctantly.

“I can see that, Mr Sparkles. I just wondered how it came to be in two pieces?”

“Irena tore it.”

“Did she now? Care to tell me why?”

“She wanted to move to a different circus. We argued about it before the show.”

“And can she? Move, I mean?” enquired Inspector Humphries.

“No!” Brady Sparkles slammed his hand against the wall right where Graham and I had our ears pressed to the boards. We jerked back, banging our heads against the crush barrier. Brady seemed to be talking through gritted teeth. His voice came out high and tight, and with each sentence his anger was more pronounced. “She’s legally bound to stay with me. We’ve got a five-year contract. She signed it, fair and square: it’s all legit. I won’t allow her to go! I told her that if she tries to leave, she’s finished. I know people in this business. I’ll make sure she never works again. I’ll fight her to the bitter end. Whatever it takes, I’ll stop her!”

“To the
bitter
end?” asked Inspector Humphries smoothly. “And precisely where might that be, Mr Sparkles?”

The ringmaster seemed to realize that such an impressive display of temper wasn’t exactly putting him beyond suspicion. There was a strangled sort of sound as if he was trying to suck his words back out of the air. “Lawyers… I’d sue her,” he muttered. “That’s all I meant. I wouldn’t harm her – not physically. Really. It’s true.”

Inspector Humphries grunted. I could imagine the expression on his face: one eyebrow raised, spectacles halfway down his nose, looking at Brady Sparkles as if he didn’t believe a word of it.

crime of passion

Irena
might have looked as delicate as a china ballerina but she was actually made of pretty sturdy stuff.

When she’d been carted off in the ambulance, Alonzo had gone with her, looking at her with such desperate tenderness that Carlotta had burst into another furious bout of weeping. At the hospital they must have popped her arm back into its socket pretty quickly because right after Inspector Humphries had finished with Brady Sparkles, she was back. Graham and I were still lurking behind the box office, so we couldn’t see her, but we heard the jewel-encrusted pumps on the steps and could feel the atmosphere become supercharged by her electric presence.

BOOK: Certain Death
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