Authors: Tanya Landman
“If appearances are anything to go by, yes,” replied Graham.
Elaborate frames held photographs of Brady’s favourite performers. The largest was of Irena. Irena on her own, without Alonzo or Misha.
Her face formed the centrepiece to the whole display and was lit with its own spotlight. She must have been the last thing Brady Sparkles saw before he closed his eyes at night; the first thing he saw when he woke up in the morning.
Was his interest in her purely professional? Or was he as besotted as Peepo had been? As Alonzo was? Did he want to kill her as much as Carlotta had?
Graham and I looked at the photo and then at each other, eyebrows raised in mutual enquiry. But before we had time to say anything, we heard the tread of feet on the boardwalk outside. We dived beneath the draped table in the nick of time. The door creaked open.
We were trapped in Brady Sparkles’s caravan with a potentially murderous ringmaster.
thirty stomach-churningly terrifying seconds that Brady Sparkles was storming around his caravan were filled with more swear-words than I’d heard in my entire life. He threw cupboards open and yanked clothes out of drawers, flinging everything on the sofa bed. If it hadn’t been his home, you’d have assumed he was a burglar.
“Where is it, where is it, where
it?” he demanded.
Of course Graham and I had no idea what he was looking for, but we both desperately hoped that he’d find whatever it was before he looked under the table. If he caught us in his current mood, he’d probably tear us limb from limb.
It was then that I spotted a hat snuggling up to Graham’s left foot as if it was asking to be adopted. His top hat! The show couldn’t start without it! While the ringmaster ransacked his wardrobe, I nudged Graham, pointed at the hat and mouthed, “He’s looking for that.”
Brady Sparkles had his back to us. Graham lifted the tablecloth a little and eased the hat underneath, giving it a gentle shove. The hat rolled across the floor of the caravan towards its rightful owner. But we must have been on a slight slope, because then it rolled back to Graham like a faithful hound returning to its master. Graham pushed it away again, and once more it came back. The third time he gave it such a hard knock that he sent it spinning into the middle of the floor. When the ringmaster stepped back from the wardrobe, he trod on it, crushing the silk hat beneath his foot like a beetle.
When he realized what he’d done, a further stream of foul language flowed as he tried to repair the damage. Cramming the now-lopsided article onto his head, he turned to the photograph of Irena.
He doffed his hat to her. And then he spoke words that chilled me to the bone.
“This isn’t over yet, my lovely, despite what you think. I’ll see you in your grave before I let you leave me.”
He left the caravan as swiftly as he’d arrived.
For a few moments Graham and I didn’t even sigh with relief. We were both quivering like a pair of particularly unhappy jellyfish. Eventually I managed to say, “Let’s get out of here.”
Graham couldn’t manage an answer, but he followed as I crawled shakily from underneath the table, and together we slipped out of the door.
“I don’t think we should do that again,” said Graham when we were sitting safely on a bench in the park half an hour later, fortifying ourselves with cups of hot, sweet tea from the nearest cafe.
“OK,” I agreed. “That was a bit too much of a close shave, wasn’t it?”
“A brush with Certain Death, I’d have said.” Graham sipped his tea, and bit by bit some colour came back into his cheeks.
I was pretty shaken up too, but my mind was still running on what we’d seen and heard. “Do you reckon Brady Sparkles is our man?”
It was a while before Graham answered. “I can’t be sure either way,” he said at last.
“I know what you mean,” I replied. “He certainly seems to be angry. Irena’s his star – I can understand why he’d try to stop her leaving. But it wouldn’t make sense for him to kill her, would it?”
“Sense and logic rarely figure in the mind of a murderer,” said Graham. “However, I agree that it seems implausible. It would be a totally counter-productive move.”
“And what about Peepo? Brady couldn’t have killed
, could he? He must have been in the ring at the time Peepo died.”
“No, the ringmaster couldn’t have shot the clown. Although he could, of course, have persuaded someone else to do it for him. As we observed, Brady Sparkles is the only member of the circus worth blackmailing. And if he could pay a blackmailer, perhaps he could also pay an assassin.”
“Peepo… Misha…” My mind suddenly swung onto a completely different tack. “Do you reckon Peepo really was Russian?”
“Undoubtedly,” said Graham. His firmness surprised me.
“We heard him swear when he dropped the necklace, and he certainly wasn’t speaking English. In times of crisis the mind instinctively reverts to its native language.”
“Native language,” I echoed. “It’s odd that his note to Irena was written in English, then, isn’t it?”
“That’s true. You’d have thought a private letter to her would have been written in their common tongue. Russian uses a different alphabet – I believe it’s called Cyrillic script.”
“So we could have been right about her. She
be from Bognor Regis or Wokingham or somewhere. She sounds foreign, though, doesn’t she? And speaking of accents, what about Yuri?” I had the feeling again that I’d heard an accent like his somewhere before, but I still couldn’t pin down when. “He sounds Polish or something. Do you reckon it’s genuine?”
“I would assume so. That photograph of him must have been taken in another country – that wasn’t an English army uniform.”
The photograph! It was only then that I remembered the piece of paper I’d pulled from the frame. Taking it from my pocket, I unfolded it carefully.
My jaw practically hit the park bench and I felt hot and cold all over. I recognized that handwriting!
It was Peepo’s.
and I stared at the torn piece of paper in my hand. The words made my stomach flip right over.
“Peepo didn’t kill himself!” I said urgently. “We were right. Here’s the proof!”
Graham looked slightly baffled by my excitement. “But it’s nonsense,” he protested. “Jibberish. It doesn’t prove anything except that he defaced the posters. And the fact that he was possibly unbalanced.”
“Don’t you remember the suicide note? It was just a torn scrap of paper like this one.”
“So this is the other half! The original note must have been ripped down the middle.” I knew exactly what the first one had said. The words were tattooed on my memory. “If you put the bits together,” I explained to Graham, “it would read:
My only love, Irena, my wife, now and for ever, I am to blame. I marked the posters. A foolish act. But now I have killed my rage. I am calm. I am Misha again. I am myself. Forgive me. Let us love again as we once did.
“Oh!” said Graham, flushing slightly. “Not a suicide note, then.”
“No… And not a confession, either. Not to attempted murder, anyway. Someone must have planted it to make the police think Peepo had killed himself.”
“Yuri?” asked Graham.
“The fact that he had this half in his caravan looks dead dodgy.”
“Do you think Peepo was blackmailing
“He could have been,” I said. “I mean, I know Yuri’s caravan isn’t exactly luxurious, but maybe he’s happy like that. If he was in the army he probably likes things fairly basic. It doesn’t mean he hasn’t got pots of money stashed away somewhere. And he was first on the scene, wasn’t he? You said yourself that the person who discovers the body is often the one who killed them. Suppose Yuri was already in the caravan when Peepo went in? When we saw him on the steps we thought he was opening the door – that he’d just got there. But he could have easily been coming out. Yuri
have killed Peepo!”
“But why?” Graham’s forehead was creased.
“Maybe Peepo saw him taking a shot at Irena,” I suggested. “But hang on…” I sighed, contradicting myself. “He can’t have fired at Irena. What did he say to the police?” I attempted to copy his accent.
“I am an excellent shot, Inspector. If I had meant to kill Irena, believe me, I would not have missed.”
Graham rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Of course, we only have his word for that. We haven’t witnessed his performance. If his aim is as poor as the Dashing Blade’s, he couldn’t possibly have struck a target with any degree of accuracy. And I seem to recall his hands shaking when we bought our tickets.”
“They did, didn’t they. I’d forgotten that,” I replied. “So could he have fired at her and missed? But why? What’s his motive? Do you think
in love with Irena, too?”
Graham shrugged but said nothing. It didn’t seem at all likely. Yuri didn’t show any emotion at all when Irena was about – as far as he was concerned she could be a plank of wood or a park railing. We sat in silence, trying to come up with a single reason why Yuri might have tried to kill Irena, but neither of us could find one.
I thought about what we’d seen in Yuri’s caravan. There had to be a clue there. The photograph. The model church. Those amazing little carvings. The sweet-wrapper stained glass. Something was nagging at me. Something I’d missed. Overlooked. It tickled away at the back of my mind, tantalizingly out of reach. What was it? The photograph? The church? The windows? The gargoyles?
“Graham,” I said, shattering the silence. “That church he was making…”
“Impressive, wasn’t it.”
“You’d need a really steady hand to do something like that. If his hands shook all the time… Well, he wouldn’t be able to do it, would he?”
Graham frowned. “No, probably not. How very strange.”
“Why might a person’s hands shake?” I asked.
“There are all kinds of illnesses that can cause it. I believe Parkinson’s disease is one. Chronic alcoholism gives people the shakes. My uncle once had a thyroid problem that made him a bit jerky—”
“Fear!” I interrupted him. “Fear, Graham. Yuri’s not ill – his hands don’t tremble all the time, that model proves it. Something scared him!”
“But he was only selling tickets.” Graham looked puzzled. “Why would that give him cause for anxiety?”
I shut my eyes, trying to remember what had happened the day we bought the tickets. We’d been standing in the queue. “That old lady was ahead of us. The one who died. She kept talking, didn’t she? Did you hear what she said?”
“No,” said Graham. “Sorry.”
“Me neither.” I fished through my mind, trying to pluck out a word, a phrase, a sentence that she’d uttered. For a frustrating few seconds I couldn’t get hold of anything. Then one surfaced.
I love the circus.
And there had been something funny about the way she pronounced the word “circus”. She’d rolled the “R”. In a blinding flash I realized why Yuri’s accent had struck me as vaguely familiar. The old lady had spoken that way too. “I think they might have come from the same place,” I said slowly.
“Yuri and Ana Kotromanik?
” Graham looked incredulous. “What makes you think that?”
“She had the same accent… Rolled her Rs like he does.” I frowned. “She had a loud voice, didn’t she? The kind that carries. Maybe she said something that frightened him.” It sounded unlikely even to me. But some gut instinct told me I was finally on the right track. “We need to find out where she was from.”
There was an Internet cafe round the corner. It didn’t take Graham long to access the files of the local newspaper, and there in the obituaries were a few lines about the woman who’d died. It turned out that Ana Kotromanik had fled from her home in what used to be called Yugoslavia. She’d come to England as a refugee from the Bosnian War in 1995. Graham scrolled down until he found the name of the town she’d been born in. It was the same as the one on the back of Yuri’s photograph.
typed the word “Stolijna” into the search engine.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” I said.
“Me too.” Graham’s mouth had gone into a tight line, as if he was bracing himself. “We’re going to find out something horrible, I can tell.”
We did. And it was more terrible than either of us could have imagined. The news site had a bit of background about the Bosnian War but I didn’t really understand much of it. As far as I could see, Yugoslavia had suddenly fallen apart. People – neighbours – had divided into ethnic groups and turned on each other. It had been awful. Worst of all, we read that there had been a massacre at Stolijna. The men had been rounded up by the army. Marched out. Lined up. Shot. Every single one of them had been killed.
“Everyone but Yuri…” I croaked.
“…who was in the army.” Graham finished my sentence for me. We looked at each other in horror, unspoken questions hanging in the air. Had he watched his fellow soldiers kill those people? Had he been part of it?
I felt sick. Faint. Dizzy. And then I felt angry.