Authors: Tanya Landman
“I don’t believe it,” I told Graham.
“What don’t you believe?” Graham whispered back. He’d clearly had the same reaction from his parents.
“Peepo didn’t strike me as the suicidal type,” I hissed. “Think about it. He had that awful accident, then Irena dumped him. He was left all alone in that hospital bed knowing he couldn’t ever fly again. Surely if he was going to do away with himself, he’d have done it then?”
“That sounds like a logical assumption,” agreed Graham.
“He was a fighter. A survivor. As soon as he was better, he devised a whole new act. I mean, I know I didn’t think it was funny, but I have to admit it was pretty impressive when you think of what he’d been through. And then he came to the circus where she was working, determined to get her back.”
“A plan that was spectacularly unsuccessful,” Graham reminded me.
“Yes, but he was still trying, wasn’t he? He hadn’t given up. And this morning she let him into her caravan. She was softening.”
“The diamonds certainly had a remarkable effect,” said Graham, his voice tight with disapproval.
“He knew the way to her heart, didn’t he,” I said. “I wonder how Alonzo felt about it? I bet he was jealous.”
“A love triangle,” Graham said thoughtfully. “There are plenty of examples throughout literature. It’s a classic subject for tragedy.”
“Yes,” I said quietly. “If we didn’t know for sure that Alonzo was performing in the big top when Peepo died, I’d wonder if he pulled the trigger.” I remembered the look on Irena’s face when she’d seen the diamonds. The change in her attitude to Peepo had been instantaneous. “Why didn’t he try it before?” I said suddenly.
“Try what before?”
“Buying her diamonds. If it worked that easily you’d think it would be the first thing he’d do.” An idea was beginning to form in the back of my mind. I frowned, waiting for it to take shape. “Where did he get the money from?”
“I don’t think so.” I was silent for a moment while I thought. “The circus is dead shabby, isn’t it?”
“Parts of it could certainly do with a coat of paint…”
“I bet circus performers don’t get paid much. That’s why they’re so keen to sell candyfloss and popcorn and all that other stuff – they need to make money where they can. Of course! That’ll be why Peepo was running those workshops – to make a bit extra. But surely it wouldn’t be enough to buy a whole diamond necklace?”
“Perhaps he’d been saving up,” said Graham, although he didn’t sound at all convinced by his own suggestion.
“Maybe. How else do people get hold of large sums of cash?”
“Robbery,” offered Graham. “Extortion. Fraud. Embezzlement. Blackmail.”
“Blackmail!” I seized on the word. “That’s it!” Everything fell into place. “When Irena got shot, all the performers were there – they said so themselves.”
“They also said they were watching the act,” Graham reminded me.
“One of them must have been lying. Someone was taking aim. The police say it was Peepo. Suppose it wasn’t? But suppose he
the person who did?”
“Then why didn’t he tell the police? Surely he’d have wanted them to arrest the person who attempted to murder his wife?”
I thought back to the chaos that had followed Irena’s shooting. “I watched him. He almost said something to her and then he didn’t. And he had this funny look on his face. Maybe he was going to tell her who’d done it. Then he realized he could make some money out of it. Money that he could use to win her back.”
“It certainly sounds like a plausible theory,” Graham murmured.
“I reckon Peepo didn’t kill himself at all. He was murdered.”
“If that’s the case, it puts us right back at square one,” said Graham. “Without a clue what’s going on.”
was half-term, and usually Mum would have been quite happy for me to hang around at home doing Not Very Much while she was out digging people’s vegetable patches and mowing their lawns. But that particular Monday morning she declared she’d had enough of me and Graham poking our noses into mishaps and murders.
“It’s dangerous,” she said firmly. “You’re all I’ve got. I’m not letting you put yourself in harm’s way again. You can come and help me today. I want you where I can see you.”
Fortunately Graham and I had anticipated parental objections to us returning to the circus. In our whispered conversation the night before we’d devised a Plan of Action.
I waited until I was showered and dressed and had eaten breakfast. Mum and I were just heading for the door when I announced: “Not feeling very well.” Clapping a hand over my mouth, I sprinted for the bathroom.
Nothing convinces a parent you’re ill quite so well as a violent bout of vomiting. It’s not like you have to stick your finger down your throat or anything disgusting like that. A half-chewed piece of toast and a spoonful of coleslaw chucked down the toilet at the right moment does the trick – especially if accompanied by convincing noises. If you have the foresight to apply a hot flannel to your forehead at the same time, it’s doubly effective.
Mum was now running late and her first client of the morning was particularly fussy about time-keeping. A glance at the fake vomit as I staggered from the bathroom was enough to persuade her to let me stay at home. In bed. All day. With only Mrs Biggs – our Not Very Observant next-door neighbour – to keep an eye on me.
“I’ll ask her to look in later to see how you are,” Mum said fretfully. “I’m afraid I’ve got to go.”
I knew from previous experience that Mrs Biggs would be far too busy watching daytime TV to do any such thing, but I wasn’t going to tell Mum that.
“Call me if you get worse,” she said anxiously, and with one last worried glance she was gone. As the front door clicked behind her I rang Graham and said triumphantly, “Mission accomplished.”
We met in the play area but found the swings already occupied by a gang of tough-looking toddlers. So instead we sat on the bank, the grass seeping damp through our jeans as we talked.
“Let’s get it straight,” I said. “Carlotta could have fired the first shot, but she couldn’t have killed Peepo because she was in police custody at the time. So if the two things are related, she’s definitely off the hook.”
“If our supposition is correct and the first crime precipitated the second,” said Graham, “then the other performers must be innocent too. They were all in the big top when Peepo died.”
“The only one who wasn’t was Yuri,” I considered. “Which is kind of odd, seeing as he was due to go on right after Irena. But he doesn’t seem to have any motive.”
“I read somewhere that, statistically speaking, the person who ‘discovers’ a corpse is very often the one who committed the crime,” offered Graham.
“Right, so we keep Yuri on the list. I mean, the pistols were his – I suppose that alone ought to make him a suspect.”
We both sat and thought for a while.
“Of course we don’t
they were all in the big top,” I said. “We’re just assuming they were because that’s what happened when we watched the show. But we couldn’t exactly see a lot when we were under that caravan, could we? Anyone might have dashed across the grass without us noticing.”
Another idea occurred to me. “Or someone might already have been hiding in there, waiting for Peepo. They could have escaped through the back window before Yuri opened the door.”
“That would have been extremely difficult,” said Graham. “Those windows are tiny.”
“But we’ve seen how bendy acrobats are. One of the Bouncing Bellinis could have done it, no problem. Or Zippo – he’s pretty supple. I don’t think Whizzbang would have managed it – he’s too old and creaky. And the Dashing Blade is way too big to have fitted through the gap.”
Another long silence followed. “I suppose what we ought to consider,” said Graham finally, “is who might have had sufficient funds to pay Peepo. You wouldn’t think any of the performers would have enough cash to buy off a blackmailer.”
“One more reason for killing him, then,” I suggested, my eyes roaming around the site and coming to rest on Brady Sparkles’s caravan. I pointed to it. “He owns the circus. It stands to reason he’d have more money than the others.”
“Granted,” said Graham. “But his caravan looks as run down as the rest of them. In fact, from the outside they look uniformly shabby.”
“From the outside,” I echoed thoughtfully. “But what about the inside?”
Graham looked as if he might actually be as sick as we’d both pretended to be that morning. “Don’t say it,” he groaned. “Please…”
But I couldn’t stop myself. “We have no choice,” I said. “We’re going to have to do a little breaking and entering.”
was no point whatsoever in going to the police. As far as Inspector Humphries was concerned the case was solved. If we suggested anything else, he’d be irritated at best – and at worst, he’d tell our mums and then we’d be in real trouble.
But we both knew that if the person who’d tried to kill Irena had also killed Peepo, it meant Irena was still in danger. And so would we be if we got caught.
The only safe time to take a peek inside the caravans would be at the start of the matinee performance. We knew that when the audience flocked in, every single member of the circus would be working hard to persuade them to part with their cash.
We would have about fifteen minutes.
The matinee was due to start at 2 p.m. At 1.40 p.m. the first members of the audience began to arrive and the well-oiled circus machine swung into action. Graham and I crept into the shrubbery.
“What are we looking for?” asked Graham, rolling up his sleeves courageously but looking green with nerves.
“I don’t know,” I said vaguely. “Something. Anything. A lead. Some indication of who’s got it in for Irena.”
Our search started easily enough. No one in the circus bothered to lock their doors, which seemed to suggest that either a) they were very trusting, or b) they had nothing worth stealing.
Francesca and Marco shared the first caravan with their son, Paolo, and it was disappointingly normal. The beds had been transformed into sofas for the day. Everything was compact and clean, and the only thing out of place was a teddy bear that had been thrown under the table, possibly as a result of a toddler tantrum. It looked like a photograph from a holiday brochure – you know the kind of thing: “Our caravans are fully equipped with every comfort and convenience.” There was nothing to suggest the occupants were harbouring evil thoughts, but then what was I expecting? A to-do list with “Murder Irena” scrawled at the top?
We tried the next one, which was obviously occupied by the remaining Bellini brothers. There were empty beer cans in the bin and the place smelt faintly of socks and cigarettes. The beds hadn’t been tidied away and it looked as though the occupants had only woken minutes before the audience arrived. Messy, but not murderous, was my verdict.
Carlotta’s, next door, was practically a shrine to Alonzo. On every wall and every available surface there were photographs of him in different-coloured leotards. The extent of her devotion was obvious, as was the extent of her unhappiness. Crumpled tissues spilled out of the bin. Her pillow had a damp, dark circle in the middle as if it had been soaked with tears and mascara. A kind of weary despair hung in the air.
“She must have cried non-stop since the police released her,” I whispered. “How will she be able to twirl her hula hoops if she feels this bad?”
“Do you think she still wants to kill Irena?” murmured Graham.
“No,” I said. Because for some reason I felt pretty sure that Carlotta was now miserable rather than murderous.
Whizzbang, on the other hand, looked as though he might be capable of anything. His door was booby-trapped, so when I pushed at it a three-metre furry pink snake shot out and almost knocked me off my feet. Fortunately the music from the big top was so loud that no one heard my scream of alarm.
“Spring-loaded,” said Graham, gathering it up and stuffing it back in its box. “Must be his idea of a joke.”
Feeling somewhat shaken, we continued our investigation. The home of Zippo the roller-skating juggler revealed nothing more than a fondness for cheese-and-pickle sandwiches, while the Dashing Blade hadn’t left any visible imprint of his personality on the caravan he shared with Ruby.
We didn’t bother with Irena’s – time was running out, and in any case we didn’t think we’d find any clues there. We avoided Peepo’s, too – it was still cordoned off with tape.
Yuri’s was next. On the table, a matchstick model of an enormously elaborate church was under construction. Tiny carved gargoyles edged the roof. The arched windows had been meticulously glazed with fragments of sweet wrappers, to mimic stained glass. Yet despite the evidence of this messy hobby, his home was fantastically clean. Small craft knives were neatly laid out, lined up precisely next to tubes of glue and strips of sandpaper.
“Shipshape and Bristol fashion,” said Graham approvingly.
Standing on a nearby shelf was a photograph of Yuri in some sort of uniform. I picked it up to show Graham.
“Aha!” he said. “That must be where he learnt to shoot. He was a soldier. That would explain the degree of orderliness, too.”
A name – presumably that of the photographic studio – was printed on the back.
ANDRIJA ZORAN, STOLIJNA
. More interesting was a tightly folded scrap of paper tucked into the corner of the frame. On impulse I pulled it out and stuffed it into my pocket to read later.
By my reckoning we had about two minutes left. We entered Brady Sparkles’s caravan and it was the biggest surprise of the lot. Outside: a shabby, slightly dented touring home. Inside: an Aladdin’s cave of opulence and wealth. Plush velvet curtains hung at the windows. Silk throws covered the sofas. An ornate lace cloth was draped over a table that was covered with letters and papers, most of which seemed to be legal stuff to do with Irena’s contract.
“He seems to be able to afford lots of lawyers,” I said. “He’d be worth blackmailing, wouldn’t he?”