LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, BOYS AND GIRLS... welcome to the big top blog of Douglas McPherson, author of CIRCUS MANIA, the book described by Gerry Cottle as "A passionate and up-to-date look at the circus and its people."

Friday, 12 November 2010

Murder at the Circus

Part 2

by Douglas McPherson

A clown has met a sticky end and a serial killer is stalking the circus. In the second part of this comedy crime caper, which first appeared in My Weekly, can former police chief Evelyn and her doughty friends in the Blue Rinse Brigade catch the villain and save the day? (If you missed Part One, scroll down to find it below)

Murder at the Circus as it originally
appeared in My Weekly
The drums rolled, the music struck up and spotlights spun around the inside of the big top as six leggy dancing girls, clad in feathers and sequins, skipped into the circus ring for the opening spectacle.
While the dancers flashed their toothy grins, Luigi the strongman stood in the spotlight and ripped a telephone directory in half.
Backstage, there was just as much of a performance in progress.
Amid the jostling circus stars waiting to take their turn in the ring, former police chief Evelyn, retired pathologist Pam, former spy Jane, wartime codebreaker Maude and self-defence instructor Tony examined the split in the tight-wire used by Evelyn’s granddaughter, Tamsin.
"That saw cut looks like the work of someone who knew what they were doing," said Pam. "My guess is it would have only broke when Tamsin was half way across."
"Sabotage!" said Helga, an Amazonian blonde dressed in the red tailcoat, top hat and black tights of a ring-mistress.
"This isn’t sabotage," Evelyn declared, "It’s attempted murder."
"But who would do such a thing?" The gravel-voiced speaker was the aptly named Big Ted Telford, the circus owner. He was a big, grizzled man with a grey quiff, wearing an electric blue Teddy Boy jacket with a black velvet lapel.
"It was probably the same person who dropped a kitbag of cement on Rory the Clown, earlier," said Evelyn.
"Then that proves Tommy wasn‘t the murderer," said Tamsin, who was wearing a skimpy, yellow sequined costume, ready for the ring. "He might have fallen out with Rory, but he’d never do anything to harm me."
"Who else had access to your equipment?" asked Evelyn.
"It could have been anyone on the show," Tamsin shrugged. "I just left it here with all the other props."
As if to confirm the constant to-ing and fro-ing through the backstage area, the music grew briefly louder as Luigi’s muscle-bound torso emerged through the sparkly curtain from the ring. Two evening-suited magicians ducked past him to take their turn in the spotlight.
"It must be the Varneys!" Helga said, fiercely. "Messing around with our equipment so we start blaming each other."
"The Varneys?" Jane enquired.
"A rival circus," Ted explained. "They’re in the next town and they’re always trying to spoil our business."
He took the half-sawn-through tight-wire from Evelyn’s gloved hands. "But I can’t believe even the Varneys would stoop to this."
"I wouldn’t put it past them," Helga said darkly.
"Either that or it was someone closer to home," said Evelyn.
"More to the point," Helga addressed Tamsin, "Have you got another wire?"
"In my caravan."
"Then go and get it," Helga snapped. "The show must go on, and you’re on after me."
"Are you sure you’ll be alright up there after the shock you’ve had?" Evelyn asked her granddaughter.
Tamsin hesitated, her eyes wide with fear. But Ted said, "Helga’s right. We’ve already lost the clowns, we can’t afford to drop another act from the show."
"Don’t worry," Tamsin reassured her grandmother, "I’ll be alright."
"That‘s my girl," Evelyn said proudly. "As you can see, Pam, a stiff upper lip runs in the family."
As Tamsin hurried off, Evelyn turned to Ted.
"If you’re running short of performers, Mr Telford, I may be able to help you."
Ted gave her a dubious look. "What do you do, ride a unicycle?"
"We form a human pyramid," boomed the 91-year-old Maude, straight-faced, from where she was sitting on a plastic chair nearby.
"Not us!" Evelyn said, hastily. "Tony here is the funniest clown since Charlie Cairoli."
Tony dropped his candyfloss and turned to Evelyn with his mouth hanging open in disbelief.
"See what I mean?" said Evelyn, "Perfect comic timing! If you’ve got a spare costume he can start straightaway."
"Now hang on a -"
Before Tony could complete the sentence, Evelyn said, "This is no time for false modesty, Coco. The circus is in trouble and we must all rise to the occasion."
Ted didn’t look convinced but said, "I suppose I could try you out with the old escaped gorilla routine."
"The old escaped...?"
Evelyn put her heel onto Tony’s trainer and sank her weight onto it, causing him to whoop like an ape: "Oow, oow, oow, oow!"
"The escaped gorilla routine is his speciality," Evelyn smiled.
"Oh, I saw that at Bertram Mills in the 30s," Maude put in, brightly. "I could be a plant in the audience and you can pretend to steal my handbag."
"Perfect!" said Evelyn
"Alright then," said Ted. "You can have Rory’s gorilla suit and I’ll put you on in the second half. Helga can be the straight woman and you can work out the details between you in the interval."
Helga rolled her eyes and grumbled, "As if I’m not doing enough in the show with the hula hoops and the sword-swallowing!"
"That’s because you’re the star," Ted mollified her. "The public can’t see enough of you."
Tony, meanwhile, suddenly looked a little keener at the prospect of teaming up with Helga. She was quite a looker, even if her face was far from friendly.
"By the way," he asked, "What happened to your last clown?"
"Oh, didn’t anyone tell you?" Pam said breezily. "He was murdered."

As the music from the big top wafted on the balmy evening air, Big Ted ducked under the police tape that surrounded Rory the Clown’s caravan.
Evelyn followed him, a little more stiffly. As she straightened up, she took a closer look at the circus boss.
"Didn’t you used to be a singer?"
The grey-quiffed showman smiled for the first time since she had met him.
"Big Ted & The Teddy Boys," he confirmed. "We had a few hits in the 60s... although everyone mixes us up with Showaddywaddy."
"What made you run away with the circus?"
"Blame my ex-wife. She was a trapeze artist. The rock’n’roll was drying up a bit, so I thought I’d give it a go. As it turned out, the circus thrived but the marriage didn’t."
"And you got custody of the big top?" Evelyn surmised.
Ted nodded. "Cora didn’t think I’d be able to make a go of it without her, but I leave a lot of the day-to-day management to Helga. She cracks the whip a bit with the performers, but she knows the business inside out."
Following Evelyn and Ted past the lorries and throbbing generators that circled the big top, Jane slowed Tony down so she could whisper to him without being overheard.
"It’s what we call a honey trap - and you’re the honey. Use your charm to get as pally with Helga as you can. Find out all the show‘s secrets, one artiste to another. Think you can handle it?"
Tony thought of Helga‘s statuesque figure and said, "I‘m starting to look forward to it."
Ted let them into Rory’s caravan and said, "The police have taken a lot of his personal things away, but luckily they left his costumes."
Ted held the furry gorilla suit up to Tony and looked a little misty eyed as he said, "Rory would have wanted it to go to a good home.
"You‘ll need this, too." Ted shoved an outsize handbag into Tony’s arms and said, "The washing line’s inside."
"Washing line...?" Tony was baffled.
"For when you rummage through the contents."
Ted reached into the bag and pulled out a pair of polka dot bloomers that would have fitted an elephant. They were attached to a washing line with a pair of stripy socks, an enormous bra and a whole series of other comedy underwear hanging from it.
"Are you sure you’ve done this before?" Ted frowned.
"He’s just a little rusty," Evelyn cut in. "He spent the last two years on the Chinese State Circus and they speak a completely different language."
Turning to Tony, she said, "Why don’t you put it on outside. You’ll have more room to practise your monkey moves."
When Tony was gone, Evelyn gazed around the interior of the caravan, looking for insights into the life of the man who had lived there.
"What was Rory like?" she asked, casually.
Ted smiled, fondly. "Trouble Brothers was about right. They were a right pair of tearaways, Rory and Tommy both. But he was a good lad. It was never more than youthful pranks."
"What sort of pranks?" asked Evelyn
"Well, like I said, there’s always been a bit of antagonism between us and the Varneys - papering over each other’s posters and things like that. If ever anything like that was going on you can bet Tommy or Rory were involved."
With a chuckle, Ted added, "We’ve had a few jealous husbands looking for them as well. Rory in particular was a bit of a ladies man."
Evelyn and Jane exchanged a look. Evelyn said, "Were they ever in more serious trouble? Anything the police might be interested in?"
Ted looked shifty. "What makes you ask that?"
"I just wondered if there was anything Tommy wouldn’t have wanted to be questioned about? Anything, other than the obvious, that may have made him flee the scene of the crime?"
Ted glanced from Evelyn to Jane, then admitted, "We had the Old Bill sniffing around recently. There were some cat burglaries in the last town and some bright spark had the idea it might have been circus performers. You know, people good with heights and ropes.
"But I can’t believe Rory and Tommy would be involved in anything like that. I put it down to a malicious tip-off by someone trying to blacken our name."
"The Varneys?" Evelyn guessed.
Ted nodded. "Although the bad blood was really between the Varneys and my ex-wife’s family, the Flynns - two old circus families who’ve been at each other’s throats since the 20s. Since I split with Cora I thought all the trouble had died down."
"How long have you been divorced?" asked Jane.
"A year ago today. This would have been our 30th anniversary."
Evelyn‘s eyebrows shot up. "What went wrong after all those years?"
Ted looked sheepishly down at his blue suede shoes. "Er, that was when Helga and I discovered our love for each other."
At that moment, the James Bond signature tune filled the caravan. Jane pulled out her iPhone and went outside to take the call.
"I think the tension is starting to take its toll on the performers," boomed Maude, who was stationed backstage. "The Hungarian tumblers have just come out of the ring arguing furiously with each other."
"What about?"
"No idea," Maude said dryly, "Hungarian isn’t one of the six languages I speak.
"But we did notice Marko the Magician exchanging dark whispers with his assistant. Pam’s followed them to see if she can earwig anything pertinent to the investigation."
"Good move," said Jane.
As Jane put her phone away, Evelyn came out of the caravan and cast a critical eye over the six-foot gorilla cavorting rather unconvincingly nearby.
"Can’t you act a bit more ape-like?" Evelyn asked.
His voice muffled by his mask, Tony said, "I feel like a narner, to be honest."
"Well that‘s a start," said Jane. Reaching into her handbag, she offered him the banana she’d been saving as a snack.
Bang! Bang! Bang! As Ted locked Rory’s caravan, three loud reports cut through the music coming from the big top.
"Gunshots!" Jane drew her pistol, ready for action.
"I don’t suppose it’s part of the show?" Evelyn asked, without much hope.
"Not as far as I know," said Ted.
As the foursome hurried towards the backstage area, the source of the bangs suddenly became clear.
A spluttering, backfiring vintage car was racing around the perimeter of the tent and heading straight for them. It had an open top, brightly coloured paintwork... and no driver!
"Evasive action!" Evelyn commanded.
As she spoke, the rickety little car veered to one side of its own accord, crashed through the police tape and came to a halt with a clang against the corner of Rory’s caravan.
Luigi the strongman came running around the tent behind the car. He was holding a remote control handset with a long, floppy aerial.
"Sorry boss!" he panted. "I thought we could still use-a the clown car without-a the clowns."
"Not until you’ve had more practise," Ted said darkly. "We’ve had enough fatalities for one day."
"Luigi!" snapped Helga, running up behind the muscleman, "Put that car back where you found it!"
Luigi fiddled with the remote control and the little car backfired as it reversed away from the caravan, just missing one of the guy ropes that held up the big top.
"Give that to me!" Helga snatched the handset from the muscleman’s grip. "Just drive it normally, before you cause any more damage."
As Luigi got into the car, muttering like a scolded child, Helga pointed her whip at Tony and said, "As for you, Cheetah, we’ve got fifteen minutes to work out an act. Quick march!"
As Helga stalked off, with Tony lumbering behind her in his gorilla suit, Ted let out a loving sigh. "I love it when she takes charge."
While Helga put Tony through his paces, Evelyn, Pam, Jane and Maude convened for interval teas at a table near the hotdog wagon.
"Unfortunately they don’t sell biscuits," said Evelyn as she set down the tray of plastic cups.
Like a conjurer, Maude reached into her bag and produced a packet of Hobnobs.
"Never go on a mission unprepared," she intoned.
As all hands reached for a sugary fix, Evelyn called the meeting to order.
"So what have we got?"
"If Marko the Magician can be believed, Helga has to be among the suspects," said Pam. "The other performers don’t like her because she rules them with a rod of iron. And because she’s thirty years the boss’ junior, some of them think she’s only with him to get her hands in the till.
"Marko overheard Rory accuse her of just that and reckons Helga dropped the kitbag on him to shut him up."
"She certainly looks ruthless enough," said Jane.
"But it wouldn’t explain her cutting through Tamsin’s tight-wire," said Evelyn.
"Perhaps Helga was jealous of her," Jane ventured. "After all, Tamsin’s one of the rising stars and Helga likes to be queen bee."
Evelyn rubbed her chin and said, "Something doesn’t smell right."
Pam sniffed the air. "Actually, something about those hotdogs doesn’t smell too good."
"Smells like they’re burning to me..." Maude boomed.
Four blue rinsed heads turned in puzzlement. Their mouths dropped open in horror as they saw an enormous plume of black smoke rising into the air. The girl serving clearly hadn’t noticed, but the back of the hotdog wagon was on fire!

Next week: What other disasters await the circus? And can our plucky heroines catch the felon responsible?

Click here to read the next thrilling installment!

For more adventures of Evelyn, Pam, Jane and Maude, download the new ebook The Blue Rinse Brigade from the Kindle Store.

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