Authors: Tanya Landman
“He told Inspector Humphries the truth,” I said bitterly. “
If I had meant to kill Irena, I would not have missed.
He wasn’t aiming at her, was he? It was the old woman. Ana Kotromanik was the one he wanted dead.”
“But why?” asked Graham miserably.
“He was scared when he heard her voice in the ticket queue. He must have recognized her. Maybe Ana knew something bad about him. Bad enough for him to kill her before she could tell anyone. He must have aimed at Irena so everyone would think
was the target. He fired so the bullet would bounce off and hit Ana.”
“Stop a minute.” Graham was shaking his head. “Even if he’s the most expert marksman in the world he couldn’t guarantee killing Ana like that. No one could judge the trajectory of a ricocheted bullet that accurately.”
“OK, so how
he do it? Because he did do it, Graham. I know he did.”
Graham didn’t speak for a good five minutes. His face showed signs of Deep Thought, so I didn’t interrupt him. Instead I remembered Ana Kotromanik in her headscarf and neck brace talking about how much she loved circuses. She’d gripped my arm so hard when she was watching Irena. At least she’d been enjoying herself when she died.
Eventually Graham said, “Yuri possesses two pistols.”
“It’s possible that he fired two shots simultaneously. If he’s as good a marksman as he claims, he could have fired at Irena – intending to miss – at the same time as he killed Ana.” Before I could even reply, Graham frowned. “No… That theory doesn’t work.” He sighed with irritation. “The angle would have been all wrong.”
“What do you mean?”
“Everyone in the audience was looking up at Irena. That’s why Ana got hit between the eyes when the bullet ricocheted off. If Yuri had fired straight across at her, it would have hit her in the neck.”
“The neck…” I echoed. Suddenly my heart gave a lurch. “She couldn’t look up! Ana had that neck brace, remember? No wonder she gripped my arm like that. It had nothing to do with Irena’s act – she must have looked across the ring and seen Yuri. She recognized him and gasped. The poor woman must have been trying to tell me!”
Graham’s voice came out in a small, scared whisper. “So are we assuming that Yuri the sharpshooter is, in fact, a war criminal?”
“I’m not absolutely certain,” I said grimly. “But I can tell you one thing for sure. If he is, we’re not going to let him get away with it.”
I told Graham what I thought we should do next, the colour drained from his face. “Are you sure we can’t just go straight to the police?” he asked faintly.
“Evidence,” I said. “We need evidence.”
“We’ve got the note,” he protested. “That proves Peepo didn’t kill himself.”
“It’s not enough. Inspector Humphries thinks the case is closed. He won’t listen to a pair of kids rambling on about something that happened years and years ago in another country unless we can prove we’re right.”
“OK,” he conceded. “Although I don’t like it.”
“I’m not particularly keen myself,” I replied, “but we’re not letting that man get away with killing Ana and Peepo and all those other people!”
My plan was to sneak into the big top as soon as the show was over. The bullet that had been fired at Irena must have gone somewhere. I was hoping we could find it – or, failing that, locate a hole in the tent fabric or a mark on the frame that would prove that two pistols had been fired. If we were lucky, we’d find the evidence we needed, make a quick call to the police and then be back in our separate homes, lying in bed and looking ill, by the time our mums got back from work. If we didn’t at least get that bit right we’d be in Very Big Trouble.
We didn’t have long to wait until the end of the show, and twenty minutes after the last audience member had left the big top the performers trooped out and shut themselves in their caravans, presumably to eat and rest before they had to do the whole thing again in the evening. We watched Yuri shut his door behind him.
“Right,” I said. “Let’s go.”
Our routine for breaking into the circus was now as well oiled as the Bouncing Bellinis’ act. We slithered under the fence with the practised ease of commandos and wriggled under the caravans until we reached the box office. Then it was just a matter of a short sprint across open ground to the big top and another crawl under the canvas.
We accomplished our mission without being spotted, but fear made us both breathless. By the time we were standing in the empty ring we were wheezing and it took us a few minutes to calm down.
As soon as we’d got our breath back, we started our search – but it was harder than I’d thought. Without the performers falling over themselves to sell us stuff or the audience jostling to get the best seats, it all looked different. We couldn’t work out exactly where we’d been sitting.
“There, I think,” I said, but Graham contradicted me.
“We were further round. Next to that pillar, don’t you remember?”
I trusted Graham’s memory for that sort of detail more than mine, so I didn’t argue.
“OK. If I was here,” I said, sitting down, “and Ana was next to me here, Yuri must have been over there, directly opposite. So if he fired at Irena, where do you think the bullet ended up?”
“It could be almost anywhere,” said Graham. “But if our theory is correct, we know it didn’t hit anyone – and no one found it. So it can’t have come down into the audience.”
“Might it have landed in the ring?”
“In which case Yuri would have pocketed it by now.” I looked up at the roof. “Do you think it could have gone through the canvas?”
“It might have done,” said Graham. “In which case there should be a hole.”
We scoured the big top until we’d both given ourselves neck ache but we couldn’t see a single hole that shouldn’t have been there.
“There’s only one option left,” considered Graham. “It might have hit one of the timber poles. I suggest we check those.”
We began with the one closest to where we’d been sitting and worked our way around the ring. We were almost back where we’d started when we spotted it – high above our heads, the paint was nicked and the wood splintered.
“There!” Graham crooned, his face glowing with satisfaction. “It must be embedded in the wood.”
“Brilliant!” I exclaimed. “Let’s give Inspector Humphries a call once we get out of here. Then we’d better run home quick.”
But before we could escape, we heard a voice. We both froze. We were dead.
“Run?” said the voice, rolling the R around as if it was edible. “There is nowhere to run. You will say goodbye to each other. Then – how you say? – it is curtains for the pair of you.”
“Yuri,” I said faintly to Graham. “Help!”
We turned to face our killer. But when he stepped out of the shadows, we both gawped in amazed silence. Because the man pointing two lethal-looking weapons in our direction wasn’t Yuri.
It was the Dashing Blade.
Dashing Blade had a very long, very sharp, very shiny knife in each hand – and they were both pointing at me and Graham. For a second I was tempted to laugh, because I remembered how bad his aim had been during his act. He’d had to practically push the knives in around Ruby like drawing-pins. I thought that if we made a run for it, he’d miss us both and we’d escape. Then I noticed that despite the absence of his thick glasses, he wasn’t having any problems fixing us with a cold, murderous glare. He looked like he’d lost loads of weight, too. Either that, or he’d removed the pillow he kept stuffed up his shirt.
“You were acting,” I said, my heart sinking. “You’ve been acting the whole time. You’re not short-sighted at all, are you? And you’re certainly not overweight.”
He laughed. A hard, barking sound that could have chipped flint. “You have seen through my disguise,” he smiled. “So now you must die.”
“Are you from Stolijna too?” I asked desperately, playing for time.
The mention of the town caused a whiff of sentiment to soften the Dashing Blade’s features. “Yes,” he replied. “Stolijna is my home.”
“So.” I tried to piece things together. “You and Yuri are friends, are you?”
“Yuri is my brother.”
“Your brother? Were you in the army together? Did you take part in the massacre too?” A wave of cold fury washed over me. “How could you? Those people were your neighbours!”
“They were Bosniaks,” he spat, his lip curled in disgust. “Muslims. They did not belong there. Our homeland needed to be cleansed. To be made pure. They had to die.”
“So we were right,” said Graham. “Yuri
kill all those people.”
The Dashing Blade laughed again and spat into the sawdust. “Not Yuri. He is weak! He had not the stomach for the task. When he saw Ana Kotromanik weeping and pleading for the lives of her sons, he fled like a baby. Deserted. He should have been shot for his cowardice, but when the war ended it was I who was called a criminal. I had to flee my country, so I came to find my little brother. I knew he would help me. What better place to hide than a circus? Who would look for me here?”
“Then Ana Kotromanik turned up.”
“Yes. Many years have passed, yet Yuri knew her at once. He told me to give myself up. He said he would cover for me no longer. But I cannot. I will not! Stand trial for doing my duty to my country? It is inconceivable! I borrowed his weapons to dispose of my enemies. He is not the only man here who is an excellent shot.”
“So you killed Ana the way we thought,” I said. “And Peepo? Did you shoot him, too?”
“Ah! Poor, foolish Peepo! He was obsessed with Irena. When he meddled with the posters and the adverts he was hot with anger. I knew that he was the perfect – how you say? – fall guy. If she was shot at, everyone would think he was to blame. A broken heart, a jealous rage – the same old story that has been told through the centuries. Yet Peepo saw what I had done. He tried to blackmail me. So he, too, had to die. I went to Irena’s caravan. I found the note he had written and saw at once how I could use it to my advantage. I tore it in half. I waited. I knew he would come. It was a habit of his to go there when she was absent. I killed him and climbed out of the window.”
“And you hid the other half of the note in Yuri’s photo? What was the point of that?”
The Dashing Blade shrugged. “A contingency plan. A second fall guy. If the police did not believe Peepo had killed himself, I needed a different direction to point them in.”
“But you couldn’t have got away with that. If they’d arrested Yuri, he’d have told the police what you did in Stolijna. They’d have worked it out.”
“Not if I silenced him first. Overcome with remorse, he shoots himself. Another suicide. Easy.”
I was stunned by the man’s ruthlessness. “You’d be prepared to kill your own brother to save your skin?”
.” He spoke as if it made perfect sense. “He should have faced a firing squad many years ago.”
“Excuse me,” said Graham politely, “but I don’t understand why you’re telling us all this. Your plan was working. We believed Yuri was guilty. You didn’t need to confess to us.”
The Dashing Blade stepped forward and held the tip of his knife a millimetre from Graham’s throat. “I have met people like you before. Persistent, troublesome, nosy. So nosy! You are like terriers. British bulldogs. I have been watching you. I knew you would not rest until you had found out the truth. You give me no choice but to kill you.”
“How are you going to do it?” I asked. My voice came out as a pathetic little whine.
He ran his second knife across my cheek. “Regrettably I cannot use this on you. A knife wound would – how you say? – give the game away.” He sheathed both knives and balled his hands into fists. “I will knock you both senseless now. After the show tonight, the big top comes down. Accidents happen. You will be in the wrong place at the wrong time. When you are found, people will think you were crushed by a falling pole. Two foolish, nosy children who should not have been out on their own.”
Before I could move or react, the Dashing Blade spun on his heel and struck Graham hard on the side of the head. Luckily Graham had seen it coming and ducked, so it was no more than a glancing blow. He was dazed and shocked, but still standing.
“Run!” I shrieked, grabbing his arm. We sprinted for the exit. When we reached the curtain to the backstage bit, I let go of Graham and yanked it aside, pulling it off its rings, and sped through. A few more steps and we’d be safe!
Then I heard Graham yelp. Dizzied by the knock to the head, he couldn’t keep up. The Dashing Blade had caught him from behind. His arm was around Graham’s neck. Graham’s face had turned a hideous shade of red. All thoughts of faking our accidental deaths seemed to have vanished. The Dashing Blade was so enraged that he was throttling my friend.
I grabbed a big wooden cane off the table next to me and launched myself at Graham’s attacker, whacking the cane repeatedly into the backs of his legs with all my might. It couldn’t have hurt much but it distracted him enough to make him relax his hold on Graham’s throat. Graham jerked both elbows backwards, punching the air from the Dashing Blade’s lungs. Twisting out of his grip, Graham wrenched himself free.
Side by side we faced our assailant. I was armed with the walking-stick; Graham had grabbed a hula hoop. The Dashing Blade pulled both knives from their sheaths and lunged at us. I jabbed my stick into his stomach, and instinctively he dropped one of the knives and grabbed the end of the cane. It came away in his hand and I was left holding a bunch of flowers. One of Whizzbang’s magic tricks: worse than useless as a weapon.
Graham fared better with the hula hoop. As I’d jabbed at the Dashing Blade’s belly, Graham had hooked the ring over his head. He was now pulling, swinging from side to side trying to unbalance our attacker while dodging the flashing knife. It nicked Graham’s arm and there was a sudden spurt of scarlet. He screamed and let go. The hula hoop clattered to the floor. I hurled each and every prop on that table at the Dashing Blade: juggling balls, Indian clubs, roller-skates. He dodged each and every one of them. And then we had nothing left in our armoury.