Authors: Tanya Landman
She refused the chair Inspector Humphries offered, so their conversation was punctuated by her tiger-like footfalls pacing up and down the length of the trailer. Luckily for us her voice was so resonant we heard every word.
“You seem to have made a number of enemies here, Miss Markova,” the inspector began.
“Great talent makes many enemies. They are jealous,” Irena replied dismissively. “Little people cannot bear to see such glory. Bellinis, Carlotta, Misha, even Brady. They all like to see Irena dead.”
“And is what I’ve heard true? Are you and Alonzo planning to leave this circus?”
“Yes!” Irena roared triumphantly. “Manager from Cirque de la Lune was here to see show this afternoon. He visit me in hospital just now. He tell me he has place for us. We will be famous.”
Inspector Humphries gave a low whistle. “Well, that should put the cat among the pigeons.”
“Cat?” echoed Irena. “What is this cat? What you talk about?”
“Just an expression, Miss Markova.”
She grunted. “We do five more shows in this lousy town. Run act in. Make it perfect. Then we leave. London. Paris. New York. The world is waiting for Irena.”
Inspector Humphries sounded concerned. “Are you really able to perform tonight? Your arm… Isn’t it very painful?”
“Irena scorns pain. Irena does not yield to it.”
Inspector Humphries tried another approach. “I’m not sure that you should perform again here, Miss Markova. The second pistol is still missing. You can’t be certain that whoever shot you won’t try again. I’m afraid I can’t guarantee your safety.”
“You think Irena is afraid? Irena knows no fear. Irena despises her enemies. They will not dare to try again!”
Her proud boast was answered by a furious scream of rage from another caravan. I edged round the side of the box office to see what was happening, and Graham followed. To our utter horror we saw Carlotta sprinting across the grass with a kitchen knife in her hand. Alonzo was in close pursuit, but Carlotta, inflamed with jealous rage, had acquired superhuman speed. She thumped the uniformed PC guarding the side door. He went flying, and then she was up the steps and into the trailer before I had a chance to yell a warning.
I knew from her voice that Irena was at our end of the box office – the one furthest from the door – and that Inspector Humphries must be between her and the murderous Carlotta. There was a howl of fury and Carlotta must have sprung towards Irena, because there was the sudden scraping of a chair followed by a loud crash. I assumed that Inspector Humphries had swung his chair at Carlotta, but clearly it wasn’t enough to stop her. We heard Carlotta lunge and Irena step to the side. Then Carlotta brought the knife down so violently that it plunged into the wall, the point emerging on the outside about a millimetre from Graham’s head.
As Graham and I looked at each other, white-faced with shock, Alonzo raced into the trailer. “I was just telling Carlotta about Cirque de la Lune!” he cried shakily, running to Irena. “I thought she had a right to know we were leaving. She’s gone insane!”
His description was one hundred per cent accurate as far as I could tell. Carlotta was incandescent with fury. The tip of the knife blade wobbled as she tried to pull it out of the wall. “You should have died in the big top!” she screeched at Irena. “Why didn’t you die? You can’t take him from me. I won’t let you! I’ll kill you with my bare hands!”
She must have lunged again, because Alonzo shouted “No!” and there was the sound of another desperate scuffle. Inspector Humphries called for help, and two minutes later Carlotta was being dragged to the police station in handcuffs, spitting and screaming like a wild animal. We heard on the evening news that she’d been charged with the attempted murder of Irena and the manslaughter of Ana Kotromanik, the woman who’d been sitting in the wrong place at the wrong time.
With great confidence Inspector Humphries told the TV reporter that the case was closed.
But I was convinced it was still wide open.
Graham and I had finally been interviewed by Inspector Humphries, we’d kept our accounts brief and to the point. We hadn’t offered a single opinion, but that didn’t mean our minds weren’t bursting with them. Of course, we couldn’t discuss anything – not there and then. After the police had finished with us, Mum insisted on accompanying Graham to his house to see that he “got back safely”. Then she practically frog-marched me home.
I don’t suppose she’d have even let me out of the house the next day if it hadn’t been for Inspector Humphries’s appearance on the news. His reassurances to the world at large that the right person had been caught and charged seemed to set her mind at rest. She was cooking a big Sunday lunch but agreed that I could still do the stilt-walking workshop that morning.
As we headed to the park once again I said to Graham, “OK then, who’s first on our list of suspects?”
“The police seem certain that they’ve arrested the culprit,” said Graham neutrally. “The level of anger Carlotta displayed yesterday was extraordinary. She certainly hates Irena enough to kill her.”
I shook my head. “No… I reckon a jealous rage is one thing. Shooting someone like that is completely different. Whoever pulled that trigger timed it for when everyone’s attention would be distracted. They must have planned it very carefully, and I don’t think Carlotta’s capable of thinking clearly when it comes to Irena. I mean, running at her with a kitchen knife? In front of everyone? It wasn’t exactly discreet, was it?”
, they call it in France,” Graham informed me. “Their legal system is quite accommodating when it comes to acts of violence provoked by jealousy.”
“Is it? Pity for her she’s in England, then.” We walked on in silence for a while and then I said, “If she’d fired that pistol she’d have risked hitting Alonzo, and I don’t think she’d have done that. It just doesn’t feel right. I’m sure she’s innocent. So who else could have done it?”
“Attempted murder…” Graham considered the matter thoughtfully. “At this stage I’m inclined to think of Brady Sparkles as the most suspicious. As we saw, he came into conflict with Irena immediately before the performance. And afterwards he was still extremely angry with her. He couldn’t conceal it even when Inspector Humphries interviewed him.”
“You’re right. He really doesn’t want her and Alonzo to leave, does he? They’re his star attraction.”
Graham looked puzzled. “The trouble is, killing her wouldn’t make any logical sense.”
“Maybe he missed on purpose. Maybe he was just trying to intimidate her. Force her to stay. I mean, that circus really needs her. She’s the one who’ll pull in the punters. Bums on seats – that’s what it’s all about. And the rest of the acts are rubbish.”
“We only saw the first half,” said Graham reasonably.
“True. But I can’t imagine it got any better.” We’d reached the park by now. The circus caravans were shuttered up, as if everyone inside them was asleep. Or keeping a low profile.
Peepo’s stilt-walking workshop wasn’t due to begin for another ten minutes but there were already a fair few kids milling about. Irena’s attempted murder was obviously a big attraction.
We joined the throng, and while we waited for Peepo I asked Graham to show me the programme again.
He handed it over. I had a quick flick through, and as far as I could see the second half of the show was pretty much a rerun of the first. Each act had a new name and new costumes but you could see from the photographs that the Flying Ferraris were actually the Bouncing Bellinis in different-coloured leotards.Whizzbang became Mr Magic (hardly the most inspiring change of name) and Carlotta swapped her hula hoops for yo-yos and became Angelina, Queen of the Sidewalk. Only Irena stayed as Irena, doing the solo act that she’d presumably been doing before she hooked up with Alonzo.
“Irena,” I considered. “She sounds Russian, doesn’t she?”
“That’s what I’d assumed,” replied Graham. “Her accent is authentic as far as I can tell.”
I stared at her photo, hoping for inspiration. “The way she speaks is a bit odd. All that referring to herself as ‘Irena’ instead of saying ‘me’ or ‘I’. It’s almost like ‘Irena’ is someone else. A character that the real person hides behind.” I considered her photo. “I bet she’s really called Tracy. She’s probably from Droitwich. Or Basingstoke.”
“Slough,” offered Graham.
Speculating about Irena’s origins didn’t get us any closer to working out who’d shot at her, however, and Peepo had now emerged from his caravan and was setting out a line of chairs. As we watched, he dragged out a couple of sacks and emptied a selection of stubby stilts onto the ground. There were clearly more kids than there were stilts available, so things at the crush barrier started to get nasty. The waiting crowd began to elbow each other, jostling for position. But before a fist fight could break out, Peepo took control. He pointed to the section of the crowd that included me and Graham.
“You will walk the stilts,” he said with a broad sweeping gesture of his hand. “The rest will juggle. Everyone does something. In half an hour we change over.”
Peepo made us divide into pairs and gave out instructions in his usual brusque manner. “Strap them on tight, like this. Stand. Move. This way. See? You do it now.” It occurred to me again that whatever Peepo’s reason for giving so many kids’ workshops, it definitely wasn’t a love of teaching. Or a love of kids, for that matter. He certainly wasn’t warming to either me or Graham.
In our pairs one of us had to wear the stilts while the other had to be ready to stop the walker overbalancing. Graham didn’t look too thrilled at the prospect of falling flat on his face, so I volunteered to have first go. Sitting on one of the chairs, I strapped a pair of stilts to my legs and, with Graham’s help, struggled upright.
To my immense surprise and considerable relief, stilt-walking proved a lot easier than juggling. I found that as long as I kept my legs straight, moving from the hips as if I didn’t have any knee joints, I could walk on the spot – the way Peepo had shown us – almost immediately. Before long I could stagger from caravan to caravan, my hand resting on the top of Graham’s head in case of emergencies.
“Who else might have fired that shot?” I said quietly as I teetered across the grass. “The Bellinis have got to be pretty high on the list.”
“Undoubtedly,” agreed Graham. “Ouch! Don’t pull my hair! Alonzo certainly seems to be giving his family a great many difficulties. And they quite definitely blame Irena for it.”
“Francesca and Marco didn’t sound that angry, though, did they?”
“No, but the other two did.”
“True. We’ll keep them all on the list.” When I reached the wall of Carlotta’s empty caravan, I leant against it for a short rest. “What about the business with the posters and the newspaper advert? Where does that fit in? Could someone have planned it to warn Irena off? Carlotta, maybe?”
“She might have done,” answered Graham. “But Brady Sparkles would also have had the opportunity.”
“And he would have done it for the same reason – to stop her going ahead with the new act and leaving the circus. When that didn’t work, either of them could have been driven to more extreme measures.”
It was Graham’s turn to try the stilts. I hobbled back to the line of chairs and, clutching his hand tightly, lowered myself down. Unstrapping the stilts, I looked across the grass to where Peepo was attempting to teach a kid who was even less co-ordinated than me to juggle. His face was clouded with irritation.
Graham was ready to begin. We were silent for a moment while he struggled to his feet and tried doing the walking-on-the-spot thing. He wasn’t very good at it, to be honest, so it was quite a while before we could have any more sensible conversation. For at least five minutes all we managed was “Ow!” and “Help!” and “Not like that!” and “Whoops!” and “Sorry!” But eventually we got him moving in a lurching, wobbly fashion and then I said, “Jealousy… Irena said something about everyone being jealous of her talent. I wonder if that’s the real motive? Didn’t Francesca say something about Irena having dropped someone before she got involved with Alonzo?”
“Yes. Someone called Misha. As I recall, Yuri mentioned his name too. So did Irena. But he isn’t in the programme, I checked.”
“I wonder where he is?”
“I expect he moved on,” said Graham. “Circus performers lead a nomadic life.”
I glanced around the ring of caravans. They were all still shuttered, refusing to reveal their secrets. “I suppose anyone might hate Irena enough to do it.”
“Yuri didn’t sound too concerned,” Graham pointed out. “And I can’t imagine that Whizzbang or Zippo or the Dashing Blade would feel themselves to be in competition with her.” Graham suddenly got his momentum up and I had to run after him as he sped away.
“No…” The image of Irena, proud and boastful, flashed through my head. “But she’s so
,” I puffed. “And everyone being crammed together in those little caravans like that, day after day – she’d get on anyone’s nerves.”
Graham came to a sudden halt, whacking into the side of the box office and clinging to the shutters for support. “Surely if it was simply a case of finding her impossible to work with, the person concerned would be doing their utmost to ensure she left,” he objected breathlessly. “Not defacing posters to put her off performing her promising new act. That would be illogical.”
“To a normal person, maybe. But they’re not your average bunch of people, are they? Who knows what dark jealousies are lurking in those leotards? I reckon any one of them is capable of anything.”
As if to prove my point, just then Peepo lost his temper with the uncoordinated juggler. “Useless!” he yelled. “Here! Take back your money. I can teach you nothing.” The poor unfortunate child fled, snivelling. My eyes fixed on Peepo’s unforgiving face and I shuddered involuntarily. Then I had a moment of inspiration. “That thing with the posters…” I said slowly. “Perhaps it was nothing to do with the shooting. I mean, you’ve seen how determined Irena is. She’s not the sort of girl to be put off by a vague threat, is she? She was shot at and she still went ahead with the act last night. No one could seriously think they’d stop her by putting a line through a poster.”