Authors: Patricia Watters
Copyright 2011 by Patricia Watters
Printed in the United States of America
Previously Published as DAY OF RECKONING
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and
incidents are products of the author's imagination, or were used fictitiously and are
not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved. The republication or utilization of this work in whole or in part in any form by any electronic or mechanical or other means, not known of hereafter invented, including xerograpghy, photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, is forbidden without the written permission of the publisher. The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without permission of the copyright owner is illegal and punishable by law.
Memphis, Tennessee — August 1895
Steam screeched through gauge cocks and thick black smoke tumbled from the two tall stacks straddling the pilot house as the sternwheeler,
, chugged past warehouses lining the riverfront, its giant paddlewheel churning the muddy waters of the Mississippi River into a yellow-white foam. Beneath the morning sun, gilded spires and open-mouthed gargoyles shimmered brightly, and garlands draped between balusters gleamed white. As the sternwheeler drew near the dock, the calliope began pumping out
, the notes sending little puffs of steam belching from the bank of brass pipes, the lively refrain announcing the arrival of
Porter Brother's Vaudeville Extravaganza
From her perch on the promenade deck, Joanna Livingston stood with one hand on the railing, the other pressed atop her head to keep the wind from catching her new straw sailor hat and tossing it away. She felt stylish in her tailor-made, with its navy-blue cut-away jacket, shirt-style blouse sporting a manly collar and tie, matching ankle-length skirt, and sensible new oxford shoes. With her dark hair swept back and caught in a twist at her nape, she was pleased with her new image, the one she'd taken on to expunge the foolish, reckless woman she'd been when she'd first joined the show and found herself rushing into a relationship with Karl Porter. Thankfully she'd recovered her wits before it was too late. Karl was in her past now, and her act with Otto and Gene was her entire focus. She would not be distracted again.
As the bow nudged the dock, she looked down at a wharf choked with horses and buggies and people waving top hats and handkerchiefs, and saw the usual covey of newspaper reporters waiting to interview the star performers. Making her way to the cargo deck, she joined the entertainers funneling down the wide stage to the landing, and when she stepped onto the wharf, reporters gathered around her. From among them, a ruddy-faced man with a waxed mustache called out, "You're Joanna Livingston of the Flying Marquis, aren't you?"
Fingering a roll of paper under his arm, the man said, "Is it true that the Flying Marquis are leaving Porter Brothers because of personal problems between you and Karl Porter?"
Joanna looked at the man with a start. She might have expected a counterattack from Karl when she'd broken their engagement two months before, but she'd assumed that was behind her now. "The Flying Marquis have no plan to leave Porter Brothers," she said. She stepped around the man and quickened her pace.
He cut her off. "But isn't it true that you were involved with Karl Porter, even shared his quarters, and when you moved out he threatened to terminate your act?"
Heat rushed up Joanna's face. She'd been betrothed to Karl, co-owner of Porter Brother's, but she had certainly not shared his quarters. Or his bed! But it seemed he was spreading the word that she had. "I never discuss my personal life," she clipped. She walked faster, hoping to elude the man, but he darted ahead and planted himself in front of her.
"I'm surprised you'd consider another season with Porter Brothers," the man said, "mindful of the fact that the Flying Marquis no longer hold top billing."
Joanna glanced around at the onlookers, who seemed to be closing in around her. "The Flying Marquis hold top billing for the entire season," she assured the reporter.
"Not according to this." The man slipped the roll out from under his arm, allowing a placard to uncoil. Joanna stared at the colorful rendering of a heavily-muscled man, bare-chested but for a brightly-colored hussar vest, and wearing dark trousers tucked into high black boots. The man brandished a whip while urging a snarling lion through a fiery hoop. Bold block letters across the top of the placard announced: NEW AND GREATEST FEATURE ATTRACTION FOR PORTER BROTHERS VAUDEVILLE EXTRAVAGANZA: STEFAN JANACEK—KING OF THE GYPSIES VERSUS KING OF THE JUNGLE
Joanna stared in disbelief. The Flying Marquis had top billing for the entire season. Yet, the placard gave performance dates, the first being their next stop. Looking up, she saw triumphant pleasure on the man's face.
"You seem surprised," the man said. "Certainly Mr. Porter told you?" He rolled the placard and offered it to her.
Joanna barely managed to find her breath. Not only had Karl failed to mention it, he'd deliberately withheld it to heighten the impact of this moment. He'd warned her. When she'd broken their betrothal he'd threatened to end her career. Taking the placard from the man, she fixed her public smile on her face and said, "Excuse me."
While looking for an escape through the crowd, another reporter called out, "How does it feel to be replaced by a gypsy?"
"Excuse me... please," Joanna urged. Finding an opening, she pushed her way through and headed for the
, a side-wheeler that pulled the barge that carried the dressing wagons of the star performers, the horses and elephants and other animals and the huge canvas that made up the exhibition pavilion along with other show paraphernalia. Marching up the wide stage connecting the wharf with the steamer, she rushed into Karl Porter's office, hurled the placard on his desk, and said in an agitated voice, "You paid that reporter to humiliate me."
Karl rested back and steepled his fingers. "Why should I pay anyone? I signed a new act and there was no reason to keep it from the press. The queen of the air no longer has top billing, but the king of the gypsies does. When the greatest vaudeville show in the country takes on a new feature act, reporters are eager for such news."
Joanna eyed Karl's neatly-trimmed mustache and mutton-chop whiskers, but instead of the flutters she once felt when looking at him, she felt loathing. "You won't get away with this and neither will—" she stabbed a finger at the placard "—Stefan
...check," Karl enunciated. "Janacek's already under contract so you'll have to face the fact that you've been replaced by a band of gypsies, including a fortune teller and a juggling act. Janacek and his cats didn't come cheap."
"Gypsies don't have a very good name," Joanna shot back. "He will not command the respect of your audience."
"The audience will soon overlook the fact that Janacek is gypsy," Karl said. "When I signed your act it was nothing. The only reason the Flying Marquis have a name now is because I put the lights on you. Now, I'm shifting the lights to Janacek." He moved around the desk and trailed a finger along Joanna's cheek."Of course, if you were to reconsider us."
Joanna jerked her face from Karl's touch. How naive she'd been. When they joined Porter Brothers she'd rushed into a liaison with Karl, blinded by his charm. Overnight, the Flying Marquis went from small-town mud show to vaudeville extravaganza as featured act. But as time passed, Karl grew jealous of any man in her presence, including members of the troupe. Gradually, his initial charm faded, replaced by unfounded accusations of unfaithfulness when she began to snatch time away from him to be alone. And when she ended their betrothal, he threatened to tarnish her name and end her career. At the time she'd thought his words an empty threat. How wrong she was. She fixed her eyes on him. "It's over between us. Your threats won't change that." She turned and started for the door.
"What's over is your act," Karl's voice trailed after her. "Word travels fast in the entertainment world, and when I bump an act, it rarely makes a comeback."
Joanna digested that comment wondering what
Karl had planned. The Flying Marquis had a contract for the rest of the season, whether he liked it or not. Yanking open the door, she left. Hot anger rose as she realized her encounter with Karl meant their last season with Porter Brothers. But one thing was certain. She would not rejoin the mud show they'd left. Travelling in the comfort of the most luxurious sternwheeler on the Mississippi—a vessel that touted electric lights, steam heat, and hot and cold running water—spoiled her for that life.
Anger roiling inside, she left the
and headed for her quarters, where she intended to change into her practice tights and look for Otto and Gene Marquis. If they didn't know about Karl's act of vengeance aimed at her, they'd soon find out.
Scurrying up the stage of the
, she climbed the wide sweep of stairs to the boiler deck and walked down the private passageway leading to her stateroom and the double staterooms across the passageway from hers that Gene and Otto occupied. As she approached, she met two roustabouts carrying one of Otto's large steamer trunks. "What are you doing?" she asked them.
"Moving the Marquis brothers to the
," one of the men replied.
"Who told you to do that?"
"Mr. Porter's orders." The men stepped around her.
"Do Gene and Otto know what you're doing?" Joanna called after them.
"Don't know about that," one of the men replied, "but I've got my orders." They continued down the passageway.
Joanna turned and saw a man standing outside Gene and Otto's double staterooms. He'd removed their nameplates from the door and was attaching a new one. Completing the job, the man eased past her and left. Joanna stared at the large, ornate brass nameplate displaying the name, STEFAN JANACEK, the heat of suppressed rage creeping up her face.
In less than twenty-four hours a gypsy had moved into featured act, served as Karl's puppet to destroy the Flying Marquis, and was quartered off her private passageway. Karl's next ploy would be to spread word that the queen of the air was bedding down with the king of the gypsies, and no one would question Karl's word.
Fifteen minutes later, she located Gene as he rushed out of the wagon housing the promotions office. "Have you seen this?" He thrust a handbill toward her. "After I wring Karl Porter's neck, I may feed him to
...check," Joanna corrected, then wondered why it should matter. She took the handbill and eyed the cover, the same rendering as on the poster. Opening it she read the piece about Stefan Janacek, noting that this was his sixth season working with lions and tigers in the same ring, but his first to include a black leopard. Continuing, she learned that he owned property near Memphis, with vast pens for housing his big cats.
Gene jabbed the handbill. "I refuse to step down for a goddamned gypsy!"
"There's nothing we can do," Joanna said. "His act is in, and ours is out."
"Don't be so sure," Gene said, his tone carrying a threat.
Joanna eyed Gene with trepidation. "What are you talking about?"
"Fate," Gene said. "It moves in mysterious ways, especially in the death-defying arena of show life when an act can be terminated like—" he snapped his fingers "—that."
Joanna caught the look of cunning on Gene's face. He was ruthless in his ambition. He'd challenge anyone who stood between them and the top. And there was no question, Stefan Janacek held that lofty position... Along with Gene and Otto's staterooms on the Aurora. She did not want to be present when they learned that their spacious quarters had been taken over by the unsavory-looking gypsy on the placard.
Joanna spent the next hour with her acrobatic students, but afterwards she joined Gene and Otto for their practice session. As she walked toward the huge canvas exhibition pavilion,
the Mime—Sally Britcher between performances—shuffled up to her in pantaloons and a bouffant skirt, and said, excited, "Have you seen Stefan Janacek yet?"
Joanna looked into blue eyes framed by white stars. "No," she clipped.
"Well, I just saw him sitting in a cage with a tiger, looking inside its mouth," Sally said, in an excited voice. "And when Mr. Janacek got up, the tiger put its paws on his shoulders and licked his face. The man must be incredibly brave."
“Or incredibly stupid," Joanna said. "I'll wager he's another narcissistic superficial man basking in the glory of his adoring fans."
Sally smiled. "He deserves to be. He has it all. He may be gypsy, but he's also handsome as the devil. And those eyes. You won't believe it when you see them."
Joanna stared at Sally. "I can't believe you! You're mooning over a lion-tamer!"
Sally smiled. "I admit I have a fascination for a profession that pits man against beast."
"Then why didn't you run off with Wendell what's-his-name. The rat exterminator!"
"Excuse me, but it seems we have touched on a ticklish subject. Stefan Janacek."
Joanna sighed. "I'm just so angry that Karl would do this."
Sally shrugged. "You have a right to be, but things will work out. You'll see."
"The only way things can work out is if Stefan Janacek's lions make a meal of him and Karl Porter drops dead. My luck being what it has been lately, I doubt either will come about. Meanwhile, I have to meet Gene and Otto, so I'll see you later."
As Joana entered the giant exhibition pavilion, the sharp clank of metal startled her. "Seats!" a deep voice commanded. Inside the barred walls of a huge cage, two lions and four lionesses rushed past their trainer and leapt onto wooden pedestals. Joanna scanned the man's back, her gaze moving over a khaki shirt that stretched across a pair of broad shoulders, down narrow hips clad in black breeches, and resting on scuffed brown boots. When the man turned, she noted the intensity in his eyes, the determined set to his mouth.
Her lips tightened with disdain. So this was the great Stefan Janacek!
Ahmed! Rafat! Seats
!" the man commanded. The big cats jumped to their pedestals. Raising his whip, the man looked at each animal, his body turning slowly as he spoke soft words Joanna couldn't discern. Giving a little flick of his whip, he cued a lioness and the animal jumped from her pedestal and sat before him. He cued another, and another, and soon four huge felines sat in a line in front of their trainer. He raised the whip and the animals reared. Another cue and they crouched. Then, with a turn of the whip, they rolled over in unison. "Good Sophie...
," he said, praising each cat. "
!" The animals scurried to remount their pedestals.