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Send in the Clowns, a Detective Mike Bridger novel

 

 

Send in the Clowns

A Detective Mike Bridger novel

 

By Mark Bredenbeck

 

Copyright 2015 by Mark Bredenbeck

Book design by Mark Bredenbeck

Shakespir Edition

“This book is a work of fiction. Names, Characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, governments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.”

“All rights reserved. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission. The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the author is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.”

 

 

 

 

Otago Witness, Issue 1266, 4^th^ March 1876

 

 

 

 

Part One-

 

-The Acrobat

Chapter One

 

The trumpets’ sounded and the noise of the audience died away to an excited hush. The mixed scent of candyfloss and animals permeated the air. The canvas, surrounding the crowd, flapped quietly in the breeze. All around was darkness, broken only by the insensitive glow of the occasional cellphone, but no one cared. The children were on the edge of their seats, the adults’ attention drawn between the darkened ring and the look of exited wonderment on their child’s face. The sounds of the trumpets’ became urgent, building to a crescendo, but were then silenced by the stabbing beam of the spotlight, piercing the darkness and shining down from high above. A booming voice echoed in the bleachers.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls… Welcome… to the Big Show”

The crowd erupted into applause as the Ringmaster stepped into the small circle of light with a swish of his red satin cape. Carnival music, piped through the speakers placed above the wooden bleachers, adding to the atmosphere. A child started crying.

Tonight, we have a veritable feast of entertainment, brought to you from far and wide… You will gaze in wonderment at the exotic creatures…, laugh in merriment along with the Jesters…, and gasp in awe at the daring exploits of the trapeze artists… So…, for now…”

The Ringmaster stood in the dead centre of the spotlight, surrounded by his darkened audience, arms held wide, revelling in the moment. The carnival music died away, leaving silence. No one dared speak.

‘Ooh-Gah’, the sound of the old-fashioned car horn broke the hushed anticipation. The Ringmaster gestured towards the noise with another swish of his cape.

Send in the Clowns…”

The ring lit up with flashing lights, the music returned in frenzy, and a child size car ambled onto the sawdust-covered circle in the middle of the Big Top. Four colourful heads with painted smiles swayed back and forth, as the little car careered around in figures of eight. The old horn was blaring out its merriment and the Clowns clung on for dear life.

The Ringmaster stayed where he was, watching the Clown Car with practised amusement. The Clowns were shooting water guns into the crowd as they moved around the ring, the noise of the small 50cc engine drowned by the squeals of delight thrown out from the darkness. One of the Clowns fell off his precarious seat, rolling head over heels, as the little car turned sharply. The other Clowns laughed silently at him and made their escape as fast as they could. The stricken Clown tripped over his large shoes and rolled again as he gave chase to his callous chums. The laughter from the crowd grew, the music played on.

Outside the tent and unseen, restless animals, stomping irritably in their cages, waited for their turn in the spotlight. The generators under their cages providing power to the concession booths were belching diesel fumes, adding to their confined agitation. Further away, on the roadside, silent objectors stood motionless, their faces anonymous behind masks. The silent protest vigil ignored by the majority, only there for the spectacle, not the morality. Back inside the tent, lithe bodies dressed in tight sparkling spandex climbed rope ladders into the darkness above.

The Clowns tired of their amusement and tried soaking the Ringmaster with a bucket of water. The children loved it.

Away with you… we have no time for your shenanigans” The Ringmaster brushed off the Clowns with another swish of his cape, and they retreated with mock admonishment like chastised schoolboys. Turning back to his audience, he raised his hands, “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls… please turn your attention skyward and prepare yourself to be amazed.”

The lights turned up, illuminating a muscular man and a petite but strong woman standing high on wooden platforms either side of the ring. They were looking at each other across the darkness between them, a seemingly impossible gap. A slight nod of their heads, a trust passed between them, the crowd fell silent again. The dull thud of a drum bounced like a heartbeat around the bleachers, slowly building intensity, the crowd stamping their feet in approval. The drums stopped leaving an eerie silence in its place. The man swung out across the ring, thirty feet in the air. The crowd drew breath as he dropped from his perch and expertly caught the cross bar with his knees, swinging back towards his side, upside down. Carnival music returned to the bleachers.

Holding her own swing, the woman leapt gracefully from her platform on the opposite side and then swung towards the now returning male. It was a practiced move, delivered for the audience hundreds of times. It was a simple jump and catch, no need for a net… She let go with confidence.

The crowds’ collective breath held… There was no meeting of hands, no strong arms to grab her and take her to safety. She was tumbling in front of the shocked audience, watched by the male as he swung away helplessly. A child screamed…

The sparkly spandex clad woman landed with a dull thud at the feet of the stunned Ringmaster and then lay still. The carnival music played on…

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

Two shadowed figures walked through the quiet empty carnival, the shutters closed on five-dollar amusements. An animal’s agitated snort came from somewhere in the darkness, making them jump. Laughter and music floated out from caravans dotted around the edge and the smell of exotic cooking teased at their nostrils. Both felt the shallow prickle in their spines as large unseen eyes followed their progress in the dim light from behind the steel of cold cages. Before the prickly feeling became too much, the darkened tents and cages gave way to mobile living arrangements, the eyes disappearing back into the darkness. Caravans of different sizes betrayed the occupants’ private interactions through millimetre thick aluminium walls. Raised voices became apparent from one of the larger caravans near the back. The bigger of the two shadows motioned to the other. They both stopped and listened.

I’m telling you, the ropes were shortened.”

Why would someone do that?”

You know bloody well why? It is obvious that they are jealous, anyone can see it”

Jealous…? Of what exactly? You are all in the same business…, as am I.”

The angry voices were audible from inside the thin walls of the caravan. Gillian Holler looked at her partner. Steve Kirkland just shrugged his shoulders in the darkness and knocked on the thin door.

“Police…, can we come in?”

The voices silenced and the door opened. A red-faced male stood in the opening; his satin jacket was unbuttoned revealing a slightly damp white chiffon shirt. Behind him stood a smaller male, he was wearing a sparkly spandex suit that complemented his more muscular build, with features that had aged well. With the look on both of their faces, it was obvious they had not finished the particular conversation they were having.

“Come in.” The red-faced male said, standing too one side. “It’s good of you too come; maybe we can get this sorted now.”

“Yes, maybe we can. It’s about time we did,” the other male said, as he moved further inside the caravan too allow the Police officers space too enter.

The interior of the caravan was relatively luxurious, although on a small scale. There was a leather lounger on one side of the visible living space, facing a large flat screen television. A small glass topped table sat to the side of the lounger. Gillian noted two tumblers on top of it, each with at least two fingers of the Scotch from the bottle sitting open next to them. Smoke curled lazily from a cigarette resting on the side of an ashtray.

“My name is Sergeant Gillian Holler and this is Constable Steve Kirkland,” she said, by way of introduction, before inadvertently looking back at the Whisky.

“You will have to excuse us, Officers, we are both pretty on edge, as you would expect. The Whisky is just helping us relax… Would either of you like one?”

Gillian looked at the red-faced male and wondered just how many he had already had that evening. Twenty odd years as a Police officer had given her a good sense of when someone had a bit of a drinking problem “No thank you, Mr…?”

“Wilson… Michael… Irish Mick too my friends.” He looked at his companion as if for confirmation. The man in the spandex suit just looked back, expressionless. “And this is Anthony Gonzales, our high ropes expert and performer extraordinaire.” The theatrical gesture with his hand did nothing for his partner’s obvious mood.

“Don’t forget ‘Partner’ in this godforsaken venture,” Anthony Gonzales pouted slightly as he spoke.

“Quite right Ant…, Anthony is also my business partner…, we run the Circus together.”

Gillian took in the sight of the two men standing before them, still dressed for the show, unless they dressed like that all the time. She had no idea about the lives of Circus performers. “So Mr Wilson, are you the ‘Wilson’ in ‘Wilson’s Circus’? I saw the big sign out the front with that name on it.”

“That’s right; there has been a Wilson in this Circus ever since my great, great grandfather Cyril Wilson. He began performing with his animals back in the late eighteen hundreds. They used to set up across the road from where we are now, on the Market Reserve…”

Gillian could detect a small amount of pride in his voice as he spoke. She heard Anthony clear his throat before Michael Wilson continued.

“Of course there was a Gonzales at the beginning, but until Anthony, we have not had any other members of his family in the intervening years.”

“So, are you a descendant of one of the original Circus members too?” Gillian looked at Anthony and just caught the look he directed at the man who had called himself Irish Mick. It was almost intimate but contained an ounce of jealousy or it may even have been hatred; she could not be sure of which.

“That’s right,” he said, not taking his eyes off Michael “Juan Gonzales was my great grandfather, but he had a falling out with the Wilsons and left the troupe.”

“It’s all ancient history now Ant, isn’t it. The police don’t want to hear about all of that.”

“I thought people ran away too join the Circus, but it seems you are born into it after all.” Steve Kirkland had butted in, sensing tension between the two men. “You learn something new every day…”

Gillian saw the smile on her partners face, but could not tell whether he was joking or not. “Perhaps we should get too why you called us…” She looked back at Michael.

“Maria Staverly… the other half of Ant’s act, she fell tonight… she is up at the hospital now.”

“That’s awful Mr Wilson; I hope she will be okay, but from what I have been told already it sounds like an accident too me, so it’s not really a Police issue. We would normally put this down to a workplace accident and let the Health and Safety people deal with it.” Gillian Holler was usually pretty patient with people, but as the supervisor for her depleted staff of five on one of the busier nights of the week, she had little patience for time wasters. “I can give you a number to call if you like.”

“See, I told you Ant, it’s not a Police problem, now, can we let them get on with their evening and get up to the hospital.”

Anthony ignored his friend and looked directly at Gillian “Sergeant, the ropes we used tonight to secure the swings, they were shorter than they should have been, I checked them myself after Maria fell. There was no way she could have made that jump if she wanted too. Someone did that on purpose…”

Irish Mick mumbled something under his breath, which Gillian did not catch, but the look on Anthony’s face darkened.

She looked at her watch, there were four more jobs waiting for attendance in the police dispatch system, all of them had people wanting something from them. This is all we bloody need. The thought was nothing new to her; sometimes she wondered why she came in to work, just to put up with other people’s problems. It was going to be a long night.

 

Maria Staverly looked down at the growing cast on her wrist, the Nurse was expertly adding layer upon layer of what she had called a ‘knitted fibreglass bandage’, impregnated with polyurethane. She did not really care what the Nurse had called it though, it meant nothing too her; she did not even mind the pain in her wrist. All she saw was the next six weeks where she would not be able to perform. She had to perform. It was all she had. She was part of the greatest show on earth…, if you believed the hype. They still had eight nights left on the card in Dunedin, and then it was back up north too Auckland. She loved Auckland, the crowds were bigger, the nightlife even more so.

At twenty-six she was still in excellent shape, her figure was as good as when she was twenty, something of which she was proud. Her strength and fitness was better than it had ever been. It was that, which had saved her this evening, she was sure of it. She had walked away with a slight concussion and a broken wrist; a weaker person would have broken more, but she was strong. The physical trauma did not bother her; but the memory of the fall was vivid in her thoughts. It was uncontrollable, but at the same time, it was avoidable. It was something that Ant had drilled into her, ‘Always check your equipment’. She had dropped the ball tonight and that did bother her. She was getting a bit lazy, Ant always checked, she trusted him, she had fallen, and that scared her.

When she had woken, she was face down in the sawdust and had struggled to turn herself over; she had felt the pain in her wrist immediately. The lack of air in her lungs had made it hard to breath. Ant had been leaning over her, fussing as he always did, pretending too care. Bloody Mick was more worried about his audience than about her, she had seen the last of them drifting out of the tents front entrance as she lay there and he had been hovering around them like an angry blowfly. Then those bloody Clowns, she had seen them on the other side of the ring, gathered around their pathetic little car, laughing and joking as if nothing had happened. She had lain on the sawdust-covered surface for fifteen minutes before the ambulance had arrived, looking at the unfamiliar view, realising just how high the swings actually were from the ground. The Clowns did not come over once…

“That’s you all done then… how are you feeling?” The Nurse had a slight Scottish accent.

Maria looked back at the nurse blankly. The question had thrown her, how was she feeling…? She had no idea.

“The Doctor has cleared you to go home once I have finished putting this cast on. Is there someone to pick you up?”

The thought hit her without warning, along with a wave of loneliness; there was no one here to pick her up. “The same old shit,” she mumbled under her breath. It never changes.

“Sorry? I missed that” the Scottish Nurse looked slightly confused. Maria did not bother to reply; instead, she looked down at her cast and then tried for a smile. The Nurse took this as something and stood up brushing her skirt down over her thighs.

“Well, you were a lucky girl tonight; it’s not a very safe line of work you are in… I always thought it looked quite glamorous you know, but now I’m not so sure.” The Nurse smiled thinly when Maria did not reply and shrugged her shoulders. “Make sure you sign out with the Nurse on the front desk before you leave.”

Maria watched the Nurse’s overly efficient backside as it practically waddled out of the treatment room and disappeared down the corridor. You need to get some exercise you fat cow; the unfair thought came too her as naturally as air. She knew she did not feel compassion for other people the way she should, but her life did not lend itself to feelings of such a nature. She lived in close confinement with forty other people on a daily basis but did not really feel a connection too any one of them; it had been that way for most of her life. Reaching into her tiny skirt, covering the spandex leggings and top she was still wearing, she retrieved a little blue pill from inside the waistband and popped it into her mouth. He smiled too herself, better than painkillers, she knew she would be flying and feeling no pain in a short while.

She sat in the now empty treatment room. She was alone; no one had come for her. Ant or Mick should have been here, they owed her that. Then they probably had one too many whiskies, as usual, and would be holed up in his trailer doing god knows what, and pissed as farts in the process. They thought they had kept it a great big secret, but she knew.

Breathing in the sickly sweet air laced with disinfectant and germs, she stood up; stretching her back, she felt her spine click into place, easing the tension in her neck. With a quick glance around the room, she saw nothing worth taking, but pocketed a couple of bandage rolls, just out of habit. Walking out into the corridor, she bypassed the front desk and stepped out through the front door and into the night. The cooler air felt good in her lungs after the stuffiness of the hospital. The magic was starting to move around her body and she felt tingles run up her spine. She did not want to go home, not just yet.

She knew from past visits to the city, if she could call it a city, that it thrived off the student population. She also knew that they seemed too congregate around the north end of town. That is where she would go; she would try to salvage something from her evening, such that it was. It did not even matter how she was dressed, that would work in her favour, something she had learned from experience. A small smile played out on her lips as she recalled the memories and then the pill started to take effect.

Crossing over Great King Street, she walked over towards the old Hercus Building. There was an alleyway somewhere here, more of a driveway than an alleyway, which led around to the rear. Someone had told her once on a previous visit that it was where the old mortuary had been. The dead travelled through here in all of the states that death had found them. Obsessed over by pathologists, the empty shells would have been stripped of its secrets and then returned to the grieving. The bodies would have left, but the spirits would always remain. Not a place a young woman should be walking at night, sharing space with hundreds of lost souls.

She did not care, old ghost stories were just that, silly stories… nothing too be afraid of at all. This way was quickest; it led right up to the rear of the Robbie Burns Hotel, with a bar she knew would be full of her kind of people. She did not even look back as she stepped into the darkness cast from the shadow of the building; and she did not notice the equally dark figure that had fallen into step behind her as she disappeared from the safety of the street. The little blue pill had taken its hold and she did not know much of anything, except anticipated pleasure…

 

 

 

Chapter Three

 

Mike Bridger saw the glow of the cellphone light up in the darkness before it even made a noise. The vibration brought it closer to his outstretched fingers and he was able to shut it off before Beethoven got into full swing, the ninth symphony being his ringtone of choice, something with which he could not quite put his finger on why he liked it. The first stirring of anger started to raise the bile in his throat; he could not be bothered with interruptions tonight. He felt a little relief in that was not ‘on call’, and so whoever it was could wait until morning. He had things that were more important on his mind.

Not checking the caller details, he put the phone down on the bedside table. To stop any more unwanted interruptions he turned up the music playing on the small speaker, which was streaming from an application on his iPod – Dave Matthews Band – Grace is Gone, music that suited the evening’s activities, mellow guitars and a melancholy voice.

Turning back towards the centre of the bed, he saw her shapely silhouette, lying on her side, arms outstretched invitingly… “Now, where were we?” he heard a small giggle and made a grab for the nearest lump he could see.

The phone rang again, just loud enough to make itself known over a lull in the music. The clash of melody breaking the moment, he watched her shrink back under the covers with a frustrated sigh.

“Bloody cell phones, you can’t get a moments peace.” Wishing he had turned it off he grabbed the phone from the bedside table, stopped the music, and sat up on the edge of the bed before pressing the answer key. “Bridger.” Whoever it was had better have a bloody good explanation. There was a slight pause on the other end of the phone. “Well…?” He grew impatient.

“Detective Sergeant Bridger?” a slightly harried voice questioned.

“I thought I had got that part out of the way already.” He knew in his heart that this would mean work; he could hear the telltale signs of the Police dispatch room in the background. He also knew that if it was work calling then he could kiss the rest of his night goodbye. He looked over at the inviting lump hiding under the covers next to him and gave in with a resentful groan.

“What can I do for you tonight then…?” His unusually good mood was fast evaporating.

 

It had taken him less than ten minutes from warm bed too cold alleyway and he did not quite have his head around what had just happened. The guilty feeling he should have been feeling for running out on her yet again was fighting against the more primal feeling of frustration. How many more chances would he have, she was willing, but from warm body too cold it was a sharp contrast, and looking at what he could see, Bridger knew that it was going to be a very long night.

“Bloody hell Grant, who could do something like that…?” The broken mess lay silently in front of them.

Detective Grant Wylie smiled in his direction, never one to be too squeamish “You’re right there, Mike; it is a ‘Bloody’ hell. Either that or we have stumbled onto the set of a B-grade horror movie.”

They both stood silently in the darkness of the alleyway, just outside the circle of the high-powered lights, contemplating what was lying against the red brown brick of the old Hercus building and why it was there. Grant’s description of a horror movie set was not far wrong. Bridger could not see where the body finished and the blood started. It looked like an overzealous set designer had misinterpreted what his brief was and designed a cliché instead. He could see that the blood would have stopped flowing from the head wounds post mortem though. If the concaved scull did not cause the death, then the loss of what looked like of all of the blood a body can hold, would have. Pooled in a thick red puddle around the head, a small trail was making its way slowly towards the gutter. The depravity that some people were capable of did not usually affect him, but some scenes were stranger than others were.

“Is that some sort of Circus costume?”

“I’m not sure Mike, fancy dress maybe?”

Whatever it was, it added a slightly macabre feeling too the cold corpse lying in front of them. The sound of someone clearing his throat turned Bridger around. He was still dizzy from the sight of all the blood and it looked like the smiling face of the portly Simon West was floating above a white cloud in the darkness behind them, or it could have been a snowman. In the frontal lobe of his frustrated brain, nothing was making sense for Bridger tonight. He rubbed his tired eyes and looked again.

Simon West was one of the scenes of crime officers in Dunedin and was dressed in his customary white coveralls. His large girth gave Bridger the cloud impression when contrasted against the dark background.

“Mike, it’s good to see you again.” Simon held out his gloved hand.

Bridger looked down at the hand shrouded in off-white latex. There was no way he was going to shake that. Knowing Simons taste for the gruesome, he knew that he would have already been ferreting around the body looking for his trophies, so those gloves could be contagious. His distaste must have shown on his face as Simon also looked at his glove and withdrew the offer.

“Quite right… I wouldn’t shake it either.” There was no offence in his voice. “Anyway, I would say death was caused by the blow to the head…”

“Let’s leave that decision to the Pathologist shall we.” As much as Bridger respected the job that Simon did, he was still upset at the disruption of his plans for the evening, and he needed to take it out on someone.

Simons face fell. “I was just saying… never mind…” He turned back towards the body and Bridger almost felt ashamed at his treatment of him. Simon was a simple man with simple needs, give him a gruesome death scene too deal with and he was in his element. He would also work all the hours needed and would not complain, unlike some of Bridger’s other colleagues who had not answered their phones tonight. That problem had left him standing here in the cold alleyway between the body and the now unhappy snowman. Bridger relented a little.

“Sorry Simon, I do value your opinion… What have you found so far?”

Simons face lit up and the excited little boy returned to his voice. “If you would care to step this way…” He indicated towards the corpse, pale under the cold glow of the lights. It was in a half sitting position with its back against the bricks. What was left of the face was staring out from within a crushed mask of red. The expression cemented on the ruined face for eternity was one of fear and shock.

Simon crouched down next to the body. “I had a quick look and can’t find any identification on the body…, so that’s no real help… I have collected a few cigarette butts from the immediate area, I cannot say at this stage how long they have been there though.” Simon showed them a small evidence bag before he turned his attention back to the body. “As you can see, the victim was assaulted with what looks too be a blunt instrument around the head and face. There was a fair amount of force put into the attack, resulting in what looks too be multiple fractures of the face and scull…” Simon looked up from his lecture and smiled, before turning to one side and lifting something off the ground next to him with his gloved hand. “I would say that this is the weapon used in the attack…”

Bridger looked at the innocuous piece of timber in Simon’s hand. It was a rough sawn piece of four by two, around half a metre long and covered in blood, matted with patches of dark hair, which had stuck in the bloodied splinters on the end. Simon was looking up at him, obviously pleased with his find, like a puppy looking for praise.

Bridger took a breath “Well done Simon, I would say that you are probably right…” He was trying his best to sound neutral about hearing something as obvious as Simon’s conclusion. Looking around for anything else that was obvious he noticed a pile of similar pieces of timber off to the right of them, obscured slightly in the dark. “It looks like our assailant found this piece of wood here though, so it was more likely a weapon of opportunity, rather than premeditated.”

“So we might be looking at someone trying to protect themselves and then getting a little carried away in the process… a lovers tiff maybe.” Grant said, standing behind them and sounding like he had no issues with obvious conclusions.

Bridger looked at Grant and wondered if he was serious, it was unlikely a female had the strength to subdue and beat to death the male before them, which gave him pause as to the probable sex of the offender. A strong female maybe…, but most likely it would be a male. “Maybe Grant, but we won’t know until we find the offender, and to do that we need to know who this gentleman is, lying here, very dead, and dressed in his finest clothes.”

Bridger looked at his watch; it would be another eight hours before the rest of the team started in the morning. Thursday night in Dunedin, no one was going to be sober, the pubs would be full of people, hundreds of potential witnesses, but nowhere to start. He saw an opportunity to sneak back to his own evening and salvage what was left of her good will. Motioning to a uniformed officer that was hovering in the background looking nervous and slightly sickly, he quickly formulated a plan in his head.

“Lock down the scene, let Simon and his crew finish up and then get photography too record it all. Keep a scene guard on this until morning. That body does not move until we can get a better look when its light.” That ought to do it; he felt his night coming back to him with his quick thinking. His mood lifted slightly.

The uniform nodded gravely with the importance of it all. “No problems Sergeant…” Looking like he wanted to say something else, Bridger gestured with his hands for him too spit it out.

“Gill Holler and Steve Kirkland made an enquiry earlier tonight, at the Circus over on the Oval. There was an accident and the trapeze girl fell from her swing. She was not seriously hurt, luckily…”

Bridger wondered where all this was going, nodding along as the uniform spoke, but half thinking about whether she would still be awake. The uniform continued.

“They said there were a couple of men from the Circus who were arguing about whether the girl fell by accident or by design. Steve said they were the owners, but he thought they were dressed a bit like the Village People… this guy might be from there…” he could see the uniforms cheeks reddening in the darkness as he indicated the clothing worn by the corpse.

Damn it to hell, why did every Constable want to be a Detective these days. He could not ignore this though, keeping his voice even, so as not to give away his frustration, he replied. “I wasn’t aware there was a Circus in town…, that was a good call Constable, and it’s worth looking into.” Bridger just saw his plans evaporating before his eyes as he looked at the grateful smile on the uniforms lips, but they were not the lips he wanted to be seeing right now though.

He glanced back at Grant, who by the look on his face had also worked out he would not be going home just yet either. “Fancy a trip to the Circus…?”

 

 

 

Chapter Four

 

Struggling with the mind crash that she always experienced after a heavy night, Maria was finding it hard to walk in a straight line. Stumbling and nearly falling she had to stop on a number of occasions to regain her balance. It was not the drink, nor the drugs; she just did not react well to either, especially when they mixed. Last night she had to mix, she wanted to forget, and that was the only way she knew how. The heavy cast on her wrist was a sharp reminder though. She desperately needed the toilet, and some food, but did not know which order would be best. Hearing birdsong in the trees as she walked told her that it must be early morning; she had not eaten since yesterday afternoon, just before her performance. The trees that were lining up along the road which she had been using for balance were sprouting green foliage which obscured the last efforts of the streetlights, giving a slightly dimmer path too her intended destination. However, there was a small glow glinting through the leaves, from the emerging sun. It was rising slowly, over by the raised railway tracks. They were visible on the other side of the motorway at the rear of the Oval. She knew them well, the noise of the passing trains kept her awake every time they set up in Dunedin. The sun was trying its best to dissipate the darkness around her, but it had not built up enough power yet and the cold air was getting colder with the dawn. As a result, her breath was causing a little condensation in the slight chill.

As she got nearer to the southern end of the Oval, she could see the top of the main tent through the trees. A horrid yellow, it had always made her slightly ill too look at it. This morning her churning stomach made it even worse. Looking at her wrist, trussed up in its protective cast, she knew she remembered that happening, but realised little else of last night was clear in her mind. It had been dark in the room she had woken in; she had sensed a presence lying next to her, male or female? She could not tell. The fragrance suggested female but she knew that was a stereotype these days with what some of the men she knew wore on their wrists. Not one for the morning after niceties, she had quietly climbed out of the bed and gathered her skirt off the floor. She had still been dressed from the waist up.

It must have been a male; the rye thought crossed her mind. Very romantic… but needs must.

It had taken her a couple of hours to find her way back here, she had no money on her for a taxi and she hadn’t been able to find any back in that house before she left. Feeling cold and tired, she just wanted her bed. Something caught her eye near the road… As she got closer, she saw there was a number of darkened police cars parked against the curb.

Shit, the Clowns must have been fighting again.

She thought about turning around and finding a place that was open, maybe get a coffee, the last thing she wanted to do was speak to the police, but the draw of her bed was overpowering and she found herself walking into the surrounds of her makeshift temporary home anyway. She was only a few yards from her caravan. The police were probably just here to deal with the silent animal rights protesters that followed them around wherever they went. She could not see any of the usual lot, standing silently, hiding behind there animal masks. Maybe the police chased them off…

“Maria…, Maria it’s awful… He’s dead Maria” The short fat woman that did most of the cooking had stepped into her view. She was looking at her and crying. Maria could not remember her name but knew she always had the smell of boiled cabbage about her. She did not keep track of the help normally, only her rivals.

“Who? Who’s dead?”

“Irish Mick…. Michael, he’s been murdered.” The woman sank further into her tears and tried to give her a hug. Maria brushed her off in shock.

“Micks dead? How?”

“He got bashed in the head last night in some alleyway, left for dead… well, left dead anyway…He was on his way to the hospital too see you… did you not see him?”

A cold chill ran down her spine, Mick had come for her; maybe she was wrong about him. An image of a cold dark alleyway fought its way into her mind, there was something familiar about the picture but she could not place it. She could remember nothing after stepping into the colder air outside the hospital last night. That was the pill, one of the downsides. She knew what she was doing when she was flying but she did not always remember it in the morning. She realised that the fat woman was staring at her in a funny way, staring at her costume. Looking down at her midriff, she saw spots of red blood scattered around in random places on the white spandex.

Shit, where in the hell did that come from? Her mind drew a blank, anything could have happened to explain the blood, but the pill always hid the truth from her. Maria’s first reaction was denial, a sort of self-preservation. It was something she had learned at a very young age. Attack the suspicion that she could see in the fat woman’s eyes.

“Its blood from my nose, you nosey slag, from when I fell last night. I haven’t been able to clean myself up yet…” She turned and walked away before the fat woman could say anything in reply, but she could feel her eyes on her back as she closed the door on her small metal quarters. The space was small and comfortable, but it did not block a lot of noise from outside. She could hear the sound of sobbing, angry voices, disbelief… and a clown’s laugh.

“What the hell have I done?” Maria screamed at the wall, her fingers running down the front of her bloodied top.

Mick is dead. The realisation hit her and she sank down on her small bed and fought back the tears. Had he actually come for her last night? Did he really care that much…? She did not think so. All he was interested in was the bottom line. He was always playing everyone off against the other, who made more money for the show, who did not. Comparing the Clowns with the artists like her and Ant…, Jesus, even a bearded lady would be funnier than those dreary mime artists. No one found Clowns funny anymore. It was danger and excitement they craved, and that was what she and Ant provided.

Ant… he would be taking it hard, she thought about going too him, he would need comfort, but then again it might be a bit difficult… A knocking on the thin metal door made her jump.

“Who’s there?” She did not want any more well meaning Carnies offering her comfort or sympathy.

“Police”

Shit, she looked down at her costume with the specks of blood clearly visible against the white of the material. An unnerving feeling of guilt washed over her… bloody pills messing with her emotions again. Grabbing her silk gown from the side of her bed, she covered herself before opening the door.

“Can I help you?”

“Police, can I have a word Miss…?”

The police officer in front of her was wearing plain clothes; he was holding his identification out in front of him. It looked like he had not slept recently and there was a dark growth starting on his cheeks. It made him look quite sexy; she liked that sort of thing, even though he may have been a little older than she was. Standing aside, Maria tried to breathe in his essence as he stepped inside the door. He felt fatherly, strong, and confident. She liked this man, she felt safe. Wrapping the gown tighter around herself, she tried for a smile.

 

 

 

Chapter Five

 

Detective Sergeant Mike Bridger stood in front of the restless group; he was dressed in the cleanest shirt and tie he could find in his fast depleting clothing closet. Living alone for the last few months had taken a toll on his appearance, and with last night’s interruption, it looked like it may stay that way for the near future. Looking at the young and snappily dressed gaggle of reporters, he realised he hated this part of the job. The vultures in front of him were just waiting to pick at any dead piece of information he tripped over, bugger the facts, and just make the Police look incompetent. They had all been at the scene this morning as well, when he had returned in the cold light. Thankfully, the night shift Constables had put the cordon in the right place, obscuring any view of even the longest telephoto lenses. Press photographers had a habit of taking the most gruesome photos they could these days. They fed on the worst of human endeavour, mashing it up and reproducing it in an even more gruesome light. They fed this concoction to the public, but instead of nourishing them with informative life and death stories, they only created more anaesthetic for the perverse that needed a harder and harder fix of the gruesome. It was a vicious circle.

At the scene, the deceased was still dead and had looked even worse than the night before. The blood had become even more thick and sticky, and Bridger had noticed a couple of brave flies hanging around, waiting for a free meal. He had needed to get things moving before there was any unwanted contamination of the body. Becky Wright had replaced Grant at the scene and so he nominated her officer in charge of the body. She would have to oversee its removal, and any evidence found under or around it. Then she would have to make herself available for the subsequent autopsy and again collect any relevant evidence. Not a pleasant job, one that Bridger was glad to delegate. The rules of evidence dictated that there is a clear chain of evidence between locating it and presenting it in court. It was always easier if there were less people involved in that process. Looking at his wristwatch, he noted the time. The scene should almost be clear by now, hopefully cleansed of the bloody remnants of the unfortunate victim. In the last 12 hours, they would have taken more photographs of that one particular area of the alleyway than any time in its history, a bloody snapshot in time.

It was time to get on with things. Taking a deep breath, he faced the microphone on the lectern in front of him. “The deceased’s name is Michael James Wilson; he is fifty seven years old and is part owner of Wilson’s circus, which is currently in occupation at the Oval in Princess Street. He was found dead in the alleyway behind the Hercus building in Great King Street at about eleven thirty last night. The reason for the deceased’s presence in this location has not yet been established. At this stage, the police are treating this as a suspicious death and will be following all possible avenues of enquiry. That is all I have for you at the moment.” Bridger did not want to let on anything about the injuries received by the victim just yet. There was no need to cause any undue panic until they ascertained whether this was a random attack or something more intimate. He turned to leave and the vultures swooped.

What about the girl that was injured on the trapeze last night, is that connected somehow…?”

How was he killed…?”

Do you have any suspects…?”

What are the police doing about the growing violence in the north end…?”

Was Michael Wilson gay? Is this a homophobic attack…?

The last question gave him pause as he went to close the door on the squawking wake. Was Michael Wilson gay? He had not considered that angle. Then what difference did that make anyway. Looking back, he saw the question had come from an attractive blonde reporter, dressed very businesslike. She had a serious look on her face and was staring in his direction, she actually expected him to answer. Not likely, it was always best not to tie yourself to one piece of speculation. He closed the door and filed the thought away just in case. Any piece of information, no matter how small, could be the key to finding the killer.

“My office…” The order barked from the end of the hallway. Bridger cringed and raised his head in the direction of the call, just in time to see Acting Detective Inspector Amanda Allison disappearing into the elevator without waiting for him.

‘Ma’am’, as he was told she insisted on being called even though she had not been officially promoted, was three years younger than he was, and had graced them with her presence from Christchurch where she was on the fast track too greatness. He had no issues with females in the police service normally, everyone was equal in his eyes, promote on ability alone, no matter what gender. What got him upset was using her gender to further her career. He had not known her long, so her work ethic was untested, but what he did know was she had very little experience as a Detective before shooting up the ranks, giving rise to his doubts. However, that would not be an issue hopefully; she was just plugging a hole until Inspector Gregg Matthews returned to work, when she would then hopefully slither back too Christchurch for another promotion.

Bridger yawned and rubbed his eyes; he was dog-tired, only having had a couple of hours sleep before returning to work. He knew it was unfair for him too think this way, and was overly grumpy due to the unwanted interruption to his love life last night; maybe he was just jealous of her ambitious nature, he did not really have one himself. The old saying he had heard somewhere just kept popping into his head every time he saw her though, ‘Never trust a person with two first names’. He smiled at his little joke as he stepped into the elevator and pressed the button for the third floor.

 

“Now, as you know I have been charged with overseeing Inspector Matthews’s workload while he is on gardening leave, and as part of that I am in turn responsible for his staff and their welfare.” Inspector Allyson’s voice was soft and non-judgemental.

Bridger stood on the opposite side of the desk in the small stuffy office that used to belong to his former boss. It smelt better than it used too, with a subtle scent of flowers instead of musty and stale cigarette smoke. He did not quite know where this was going, so remained silent.

“Sit down Sergeant, I don’t normally defer to formalities.”

What about the Ma’am thing then – Bridger sat on the chair opposite and saw a slight smile on his boss’s lips, and her body language seemed to relax slightly. He did not think he was that sort of person to make someone feel uncomfortable in his presence, especially not a senior officer, but felt better about the interaction now he had the upper hand.

“I have been going through the Inspectors files and I came across this one…” She laid the file out on the table in front of him. “It was buried in the bottom of the filing cabinet.”

The name on the brown cardboard folder containing various papers was clearly marked in large red letters. Jonas Clifton. Shit. The name hit him like a sledgehammer. He knew where this was going now and he no longer had the upper hand.

“Do you recognise the name Sergeant?”

“Yes Ma’am.”

“Then you know what this file relates to…”

“Yes Ma’am.”

“Stop calling me Ma’am, you make me sound like my mother, Amanda will do.”

“Yes Ma’… Amanda.”

Bridger had lost all train of thought, was she playing with him? He knew this skeleton would come back to haunt him one day, but had managed to push it to the back of his mind, the longer nothing had been done about it. Now he knew why. Matthews had buried it, literally, in the bottom of the filing cabinet.

“I thought that had been dealt with”

The inspector shook her head in reply. “I have read through the file, from what I see there is not a lot too it. But it does need to be dealt with Mike.” She was using his first name now. “You cannot just assault someone in your custody and not expect it to come back on you in some way. And from what I read, it does not look like just a slap either, by the way”

Bridger just nodded, slightly embarrassed that she had uncovered some of his dirty washing. He was also slightly thankful that this was the only thing she had dug up.

“I have spoken with Jonas, and he has reiterated that he does not want it taken any further, as he told us at the time. The circumstances surrounding that incident speak for themselves though. You were under a lot of pressure to recover Marion Watson, which you did manage to do. There is also the fact that Jonas had a sizable indoor cannabis operation in his warehouse when you arrested him… Overall, you are probably going to get away with a note on your personal file. However, that is not my decision… I have arranged for you to be interviewed by the Independent Police Conduct Authority. We have to air this Mike, just so we are transparent about it. If this came out any other way, it would be another piece of ammunition for our detractors sitting comfortably at home with their pens, or computer keyboards at the ready, to take another shot at us.”

“I understand.”

“I knew you would Mike…, you have a lot of support in Dunedin from what I can see, I have been told you are a good Detective. I will put in a recommendation before the interview; hopefully it will not be too drawn out. You do have another murder too solve unfortunately. Speaking of which, let’s hear where you are at with that enquiry…”

 

Bridger left the Inspectors office with a little bit of guilt at his earlier thoughts about her lack of experience. After putting his mind at rest in relation to the Jonas Clifton incident, ‘Ma’am’ or Amanda as he was now aloud to call her, had been quite open to a civilised discussion on the progress of their inquiry, a marked improvement on the dictatorial style of Gregg Matthews. He was surprised at some of the suggestions she had put forward and found himself slightly impressed with her interpersonal skills, making him feel relaxed in her presence was never going to be an easy task after the Jonas Clifton thing. Although he was now expecting a call from the IPCA, he actually felt quite upbeat as he entered the small office area housing his team.

Jo Williamson looked up from her desk and smiled as he entered the room. Although she was on light-duties, and office bound, she still managed to keep up the impression of being engaged in her work, and that impressed him. Jo was on an attachment too his squad from the uniform branch, but one he was reluctant to let go of, even in her fragile state. The reasons were very sharp in his mind. It had been an ugly run in with some local gang members and no one really spoke about what had happened, preferring not too relive those moments, but he knew it would be going through Jo’s mind every day.

The other glaring reminder of that time was the obvious empty desk at which Detective John Mouller used to sit. He had not been so lucky that day, as a result he had not been able to return to work yet due to some debilitating injuries. During a visit too John’s flat recently he had let it slip too Bridger that he was thinking of getting out of the job and trying something new. John had confessed that he felt like he had let Jo down by putting her in a bad situation and then not protecting her. He had told him he could not help questioning his ability as a police officer and even a man. Bridger did not blame him for thinking this way but told him that his job was waiting for him when he felt ready to return; he just had to heal first. In the mean time the rest of the team had begun to use his desk as a file tray and it was littered with paperwork and other assorted items. The sight of his empty desk reminded Bridger that Inspector Allyson had asked him to visit John this evening and nail down a more definite timeline for his return to work. He was sure the answer would still be the same, but he had to follow procedure. He was also a little worried about John’s state of mind; it was more of what he did not say when he spoke to him last that had he was worried. Males, by nature, needed to feel effective, to be in control, the hunter and provider. John’s confidence was at an all time low, he was questioning himself and his ability. It was a dark path to tread for anyone, let alone an injured police officer, who blames himself for his and his colleague’s injuries. Bridger got his cellphone out sand sent a quick text too Johns mobile letting him know he would call in on the way home.

Pocketing his cellphone he looked up again, Brian Johnson and Grant Wylie were standing beside the whiteboard attached to the rear wall. It contained a collage of pictures and scribble, the sum total of the murder inquiry after twelve hours. It did not look like much more than a child’s picture of an abstract octopus, but it would start too spread its tentacles once they had completed more enquiries using the information already on that board. It was an old-fashioned method and seemed outdated in the modern computer era, but there was nothing like a visual indication of the crime you were dealing with, to help the thought process.

“Sorry about last night Mike, I was out with Mrs Johnson for our anniversary and had my phone switched off.” Brian was the oldest Detective on the squad and a hard worker. Bridger also thought of him as a bit of a mentor, there was no need to apologise, but he knew Brian would still feel the need.

“Not to worry, we managed to borrow a couple of uniforms to help us with the enquiries at the Circus, but we need to revisit most of them this morning as just about everybody was too intoxicated to be of much use last night.” Brian just nodded as Bridger spoke.

“They are a pretty hard living crew, the stories about Carnies and their ‘lifestyle’ certainly rang true last night.” Grant added. “Speaking of last night Mike, you did not tell me how your date went with your wife…”

Bridger looked at Grant, he had asked the question with no agenda attached, and he genuinely cared about the answer. “It looks like Laura and I will be back to square one after last night. I had to walk out on her in the middle of our date to come back to work. Never ‘being there’ was one of the reasons she left me in the first place.” That and the heavy drinking, he thought, with a sense of regret. At least he had sorted the drinking out, but he could not do anything about his work. It was always going to be an uphill battle.

Brian looked at the whiteboard intently as if he did not expect such an honest answer to Grants question. “We don’t have much, Mike. I have sent someone downstairs in search of Gillian and Steve. They attended the job at the Circus a few hours before the body was found, something about an accident on the Trapeze. They spoke with our victim last night, so they may be able to add something.”

“Thanks Brian…Grant” Bridger looked at them both in turn, and then down at his wristwatch “Briefing in ten minutes.”

Bridger’s cell phone beeped in his pocket indicating a call and he excused himself, the number on the screen was withheld.

“Detective Sergeant Mike Bridger…” formalities were a work thing, even though he thought it was John Mouller returning his message.

“Sergeant Bridger, this is Keith Joyce from the independent police conduct authority, have you got a minute?”

That was quick, his admiration for his new inspector diminished slightly. He had hoped she would give him a couple of days at least to progress the current enquiry before throwing him to the wolves.

“I’ll give you two…” He could not help himself. He did not like the sound of the man with two first names on the other end of the line. What was it about those name combinations and positions of power?

“Right… Well Sergeant, we have received a file from Inspector Allison regarding an historical incident involving yourself and a detainee. I would appreciate a meeting at your earliest convenience to discuss this matter. You may contact your association representative for advice and he or she may be present at any subsequent meetings.”

It sounded like he was reading from a cue card, typical bureaucracy; no one could afford to put a foot wrong these days and Keith Joyce had the added difficulty of dealing with a Detective who knew the rules. Bridger decided to play for time.

“I’m a little tied up at the moment on a homicide investigation, it’s hard to tell how long it will take, or when I will have a spare moment. Can I get back to you?”

Keith Joyce was not playing the game. “I’ll be in Dunedin for three days this week from tomorrow. Shall we say eighteen hundred hours the day after tomorrow, which should give you enough time to speak to someone… if you want to that is?”

His tone of voice left Bridger with no room to negotiate. “Okay Mr Joyce, I can spare you thirty minutes, where is the meeting?”

“That’s the spirit Sergeant. The meeting will be on the third floor conference room in your police station. I will look forward to it.”

The phone went dead in Bridger’s hands. Staring at the little black device, the content of their brief conversation tumbled inside his head. He could not read Keith Joyce’s motives or preconceptions, which worried him slightly. Was he the friendly assassin plotting against him? He would find out either way in two days. That skeleton, born of frustration and unwarranted anger directed at someone who was probably deserving, was finally coming back to haunt him. It was the remnants of his tumultuous first few months of promotion, or if he was honest, the last couple of years, flaring up before dying and finally being put to rest. It was a bit like hotspots in an extinguished forest fire, just there to make the harried fire fighter’s job that much more difficult. This was not what he needed right now but he knew he had to face up to his past if he was truly going to move on.

The sight of Gillian Holler entering the room forced him to push the thoughts to the back of his mind; he had a murder to solve.

Two days…

 

 

 

Chapter Six

 

Reece Coster hated the way they did things these days. It was all too passive, where was the passion? P.A.A.I.N was no longer the group he had joined five years ago. The People Against Animals In captivity Network had sounded good too him as an idealistic student. Their colourful recruiting stand during University orientation week had attracted him right from the start. Pictures of past demonstrations, and ‘Operations’ they had been involved in, promised a lot of excitement to those that genuinely cared about animal welfare. It indicated they would go to any lengths to get their point across, something that excited him. There were plenty of girls hanging around as well, so that was an added bonus. Of course, they were only there for Bruce Millar, the charismatic self-styled leader that he had idolised back in the day. As it turned out, Bruce Millar was only there for the girls, he did not really care about the animals at all. The pictures from the stand were mostly bullshit as well. As soon as Bruce graduated, he disappeared into the corporate world and was rumoured to be working for a company that tested on animals. A few of them had kept the group going, but no one else seemed too have any heart for it anymore. After Bruce left, the group dynamic changed, the females in the group became more serious. They got uglier and talked about things with which he had no interest. It did not matter much anyway; they seemed to exclude him more and more these days. They became secretive, not inviting him to meetings as often as they should…, as often as he was entitled as a paid member. What was so secret about what they were doing now? The group who claimed to be behind the lions release from a Circus in Lawrence back in the seventies reduced too passive protest. He no longer cared about the girls, he could have as many of those as he liked, and that Circus slut last night had proven that. She was so easy. What he craved was excitement.

Standing around outside the Circus now, wearing animal masks, was not doing it for him anymore. He stared at the collection of tents and caravans across the road. The Circus was far from his favourite place, memories of the terror filled visits his parents subjected him to as a child bubbled in his head. Those animals scared the shit out of him and his parents made him sit there and enjoy it. Snorting, slobbering, and breathing, with their massive scary heads, the big eyes that told him to be scared. He did not know it then, but he did now, those animals were blaming him for their subservience, just waiting for an opportunity to jump over the ringside and inhale him into oblivion. Caged terror and hate, it was a crappy existence.

Silent protests were shit; he wanted more direct action, those animal abusers needed to learn some lessons. Last night was just a start, what he had in mind for today was going to make everyone stand up and take notice. He would follow in his forebears footsteps, animals did not belong in captivity; the Circus should only be for Clowns.

 

“Well done on your promotion Gill, it’s about time”

“Thanks Mike, although I still haven’t got used to the sound of Sergeant Holler, yet. I didn’t think I would ever take the step, but now I have, I sometimes wish I hadn’t.”

You and I both, Bridger thought. “You will get used to it Gill, you just have to learn to ignore anything rolling downhill from the third floor and just get on with the job.” Even as he said it, Bridger knew he had not learned anything about that particular piece of advice yet either.

“We’ll see… anyway, Steve is away at Armed Offender Squad training today, so it’s just me. I’m not sure how much more I can add.” Gillian took out her notebook and faced the rest of the group. “The Circus has been in town for three days. It was their first performance last night. Gonzales called us, after a Maria Staverly fell from her trapeze. She went too Dunedin Hospital A&E with minor injuries. When we arrived at the circus, we heard Michael Wilson and Anthony Gonzales arguing. Gonzales is Wilson’s business partner and one-half of the trapeze… He was blaming the Clowns for shortening the ropes they used, causing Staverly too fall. There seems to be a bit of a rivalry between different factions of the Circus. It is not all fun and laughter in the ranks apparently. From what I could see, both Wilson and Gonzales were intoxicated and continued to drink while we were there. It was not making much sense as a legitimate complaint and I advised them that it was not really a Police issue… He was still in his caravan with Gonzales when we left” Gillian looked at each one of them in turn but no one questioned Gillian’s decision of whether it warranted Police action or not, they all respected her abilities and decision-making.

“Do we know why Wilson was in town last night?” Grant asked.

“I think he must have gone too see Maria Staverly in the hospital, he kept going on about that to Gonzales.”

“That makes sense,” Brian said. “The alleyway he was found in is almost directly across the road from the Accident and Emergency entry.”

Bridger moved back too whiteboard and picked up a marker pen “Right then…, from our timeline we see two persons of interest we need to speak too and firm up their stories… Anthony Gonzales, possibly the last person to see Wilson alive and Maria Staverly, whom he was possibly on the way to see. I spoke with Staverly earlier this morning; she was coming off a big night and had just arrived back, apparently. She seemed upset at the news; one of the cooks had informed her of it that morning. She could not tell me much about her night after leaving the Hospital apart from saying she had not seen Wilson. She would have had a sleep by now and may remember more. So Gonzales and Staverly is where we start this morning then…”

A knock on the office door interrupted their discussion and a red-faced uniformed officer put his head in the door, puffing slightly. “Sergeant Holler, there you are, we have a problem… Someone has released all of the Circus animals down at Wilsons Circus on the Oval. Four horses, a Chimpanzee, two Tigers, one Lion and an Elephant…” The officer was counting them off on his fingers.

The situation sounded comical but the implications were clear, wild animals and people did not mix well, in any circumstance. Bridger’s stomach boiled with adrenalin, which had dumped into it without warning. He looked at Gillian’s calm unflappable face as she replied to the officer.

“Where are the animals now, Constable?”

“The Clowns have one of the Tigers cornered in the back of the Oval, over on the motorway side. The others have scattered far and wide…”

 

Standing beside Steve Kirkland, who was dressed from head to toe in his black coveralls and was bristling with weapons, Bridger could almost imagine he was in a war zone. Apart from the silent protesters, who refused to move, the streets around the Circus were deserted and eerily quiet. Everybody they could reach, in the short time they had too cordon the area, was instructed to stay indoors and report any strange animals directly to the Police. The petrol station attendant across the road had shut his doors and stood behind the glass, staring out at the oval, eyes searching for the excitement.

Bridger tried to do a mental calculation of where the animals were and how many were still outstanding. The Elephant had not gone very far, the Clowns rounding it up while it was helping itself too a few delicacies off the surrounding trees. A couple of the monkeys had stayed within the confines of the tented area, content to swing in the rigging. It was the more exotic ones that had them worried; the tigers were roaming somewhere, searching out a free meal no doubt. A cold chill ran down his spine at the thought. Thank god for people with guns, he just hoped that his colleagues aim was true.

Steve had been happy enough to forego his training day for the chance of some excitement; he was standing beside him and shuffling from side to side. The rest of the Armed Offender Squad had dispersed themselves around the surrounding streets, along with just about every person they could round up from the Police Station.

“I’ve shot a couple of sheep before, and a horse once too, but never a wild animal.” Steve’s voice was sombre but with a trace of excitement, he found himself wondering just how much pleasure Steve actually got from his role as a firearms officer.

“Well you might get your chance today Steve, I don’t think you can reason with them, so talking them down is not really going to help us.”

“Those pretend animals over there should be shot and all.” Steve indicated the small huddle of masked protesters standing across the road. “Either that, or leave them for the Tigers.”

Bridger could see a couple of tiger masks and at least one horses head. “I would say that it is a pretty good bet that it was one of our friends over there that released the animals in the first place.”

A male approached them from out of the huddle of caravans before Steve could reply.

“Excuse me officer,” The male addressing Steve instead of Bridger “I hope you won’t shoot any of the animals…” he paused at the stony look he received from Steve “I see…, well if you find any, let me know immediately and I can deal with it. They really are very tame. We have lost too much already too lose the animals as well.” The male looked like he was fighting back tears.

“I am Detective Sergeant Mike Bridger, I’m not sure that we meet this morning.” Bridger held out his hand in greeting, and the male looked at it as if he was inspecting it for germs before offering his own weak grip in return.

“Anthony Gonzales… I am part owner… I’m…” A single tear leaked down his cheek. “I’m the owner of this Circus.”

Bridger felt slightly uncomfortable with the show of emotion. “We are doing everything we can to find out what happened Mr Gonzales, and we will try not to shoot any of the animals… if we don’t have too.”

A single shot rang out, followed by two more in quick succession, and the colour drained from Anthony’s face. He looked back at Bridger with obvious distress but underneath Bridger could not help notice a slight hardness that he did not see in him earlier.

“Heads up…, the Tigers heading this way…” Steve was listening too something through his earpiece. “The lads took a shot at it, but missed. It’s running back towards the cages…”

Despite Steve standing there with a firearm, a chill ran up Bridger’s spine and he scanned around in an effort to find the approaching threat. Mauled to death by a tiger was not the way he wanted to go. The small group of silent protestors standing across the road scattered, giving away the path the Tiger had chosen in his bid to escape. They all dived into the relative safety of nearby cars, all except one. This sole figure remained motionless, face hidden behind the mask of a Zebra, staring in silence back towards them. He raised his arm and pointed directly at Anthony Gonzales, keeping his arm straight. The image was slightly unnerving, only broken by the flash of orange brown that ambled into Bridger’s peripheral vision.

He had not seen a Tiger up close before, but this one lived up to all his frightening boyhood images. It was a huge breathing mass of muscle, with a deep angry rumble coming from its throat. It was standing between them and the fake Zebra, its massive head switching between them both, specks of animal saliva misting from its mouth as it breathed heavily. He could not take his eyes off the massive beast. It gave out a quick snort, making Bridger jump; he could feel Steve tense up beside him and caught the barrel of his gun rising up out of the corner of his eye. Anthony Gonzales saw it too.

“Don’t do it, he’s just scared that’s all, just give him room…” There was no trace of fear in Anthony’s voice. The Tiger just stood there, looking back and forth, snorting and growling at everything around him.

“If that thing moves, shoot the bloody thing…” Bridger was talking out of the corner of his mouth, trying not to make any sudden movements. It was one moment in his life that he felt completely helpless. If the Tiger took a liking to any of them, it would be all over quicker than he cared to contemplate. He felt like a seven year old faced with an angry dog, only ten times worse, a guttural fear that he could not articulate, but it chilled him to the core. He just hoped that the tiger could not tell the zebra mask across the road was a fake.

Steve had raised his Bushmaster rifle up too his shoulder and was pointing it directly at the dirty orange beast. Bridger could sense that he wanted to shoot, but something was stopping him from pulling the trigger. It was then he heard it.

A strange clucking sound came from behind them, he heard different noises on either side of him, and then four partially dressed Clowns came into view. The noises coming from the Clowns throats were alien too him but the Tiger reacted instantly. Its regal head cocked too one side like a curious cat and its breathing slowed. Friends were near. The Clowns moved in from either side, one of them carrying a large leather collar and leash, one of them held a bullwhip in his gloved hand. The other two were making calming gestures with their arms.

Bridger was sure that one of them had said ‘Move back behind us’ as he passed, or that might be what he wanted to hear, he couldn’t be sure. He moved backwards anyway, Steve stuck close to his side and retreated along with him. The Clowns moved forward as one, all speaking the strange animalistic dialect. The Tiger crouched on its hind legs and then lay down, submissive in its posture as the Clowns placed the lead over his massive head.

“See… there was no need to worry at all, he’s not dangerous. They are just misunderstood creatures really.” Anthony’s voice spoke up from behind them. Bridger noticed he was using him and Steve as a partial human shield, so much for being misunderstood animals.

“Is that all the dangerous animals accounted for then Mr Gonzales? We do have other business we could be getting on with.” The horses and chimpanzees did not worry him too much; someone else could take care of those.

“All the animals are domesticated, Sergeant, not dangerous at all, but yes we have the elephant, lion and now both tigers back. But they would not have been in danger in the first place if it wasn’t for those bloody silent protesters.” Anthony was glaring in the direction of the sole protestor still standing silently over the road. “They will be the ones responsible for this; I hope you will be speaking with them as well.”

Anthony’s demeanour had gone from distraught at the loss of his former business partner too outright rage, it was a strange distinction in such a short space of time, and Bridger wondered which show of emotion was more believable. He had a sixth sense, which he had learned to rely on. He liked too think he could tell when someone was hiding something, or trying to deceive him in some way and something was not quite right with Anthony Gonzales. He made a mental note to explore his theory further.

“We will be speaking with them Mr Gonzales, in the course of our enquiries into Michael Wilsons death.” He did not think the release of animals from the Circus was quite as important. “And we also need to re-interview quite a few of the people here at the Circus, including you.”

There was a flash of something behind Anthony’s eyes, “We can make ourselves available for you any time you need Sergeant, but you should be concentrating on those idealistic waste of time protesters over there. They have more to gain by hurting us, as they have just proved…” Anthony indicated in the direction of the silent protesters again, most of them had come out of the safety of their cars and were now standing in a solemn line, staring at the circus from the safety of distance. Bridger did not take the bait and Anthony continued. “I have cancelled all the remaining Dunedin performances but we won’t be leaving just yet. It seems somehow inappropriate to go while the killer is still out there somewhere.”

“Thank you Mr Gonzales, we will be speaking with the protesters this morning, so how about we arrange it for about one o’clock this afternoon.”

“That’s fine; I will make sure everyone is available.”

Bridger noticed a strange indifference in Anthony’s tone as he spoke, no real trace of grief now for his lost partner, cementing his doubts about Anthony’s emotional responses.

“Mike…, the Clowns are going to kick off…” Steve was pointing in the direction of the protesters. Somehow, the Clowns had materialised across the road and were lining up, almost nose to nose, with the masked group. Bridger had not noticed them walk past him.

The Clowns looked hopelessly outnumbered against the cast of fake animals who were standing their ground in silence, but their posture was menacing and confident. It was a surreal standoff; the faux jolly faces of the clowns now looked threatening, destroying any boyhood images he may have had of fun loving jesters. These Clowns were serious. Bridger did not fancy getting between them, but did not want it to escalate any further, whatever he thought of the reasons for both parties’ actions.

Walking slowly towards the standoff, he could not hear anything passing between them; everything displayed in their stance. The Clowns were not going to back down; they had one group in their sites for releasing the animals and they looked like they wanted to make a point. The Zebra mask stepped forward, chest puffed, and stood right in front of the middle Clown. He saw the Clown lean forward slightly, his bushy red hair obscuring his face so he could not see if the Clown spoke or not, he would still be too far away to hear anyway. Whatever it was that had passed between them, it had an effect on the Zebra mask, as his chest deflated a little and he took a step backwards. One by one, the fake animals turned and walked away, watched by the Clowns.

Bridger and Steve reached the line of Clowns just as the last protester got back into their vehicle. The Clowns did not speak. Turning, they walked back towards the Circus in silence. Steve shouldered the rifle he had been carrying at the ready and stood beside him.

The protesters got back out of their vehicles, removing their masks in the process. A diverse group of people stood before them, with sweaty hair pressed to their scalps. Bridger could see them glancing nervously between Steve and his gun and the Circus tents behind them. The Clowns had disappeared; almost as if they had melted back into the world they lived in, within the various tents and cages. He looked at the group; all but the Zebra mask had revealed their identities to him.

“Right…, who wants to start?”

 

 

 

Chapter Seven

 

No one had confessed to releasing the animals. It had taken less than ten minutes to determine that all but one person from the group that called themselves P.A.A.I.N had an alibi for the time of the murder. They had tucked themselves away in a small suburban house in the northeast valley, which doubled as a makeshift headquarters. They all affirmed that they were planning their next move when someone was attacking Michael Wilson, and they all swore blind that it was not releasing the animals, as had happened. As hard as Bridger had pushed them they were not willing to say what it was they were planning. He was not sure about the animals, as that was P.A.A.I.N’s main purpose, but it was very unlikely that the murder would have been a group effort.

The person they had all noted for his absence at their meeting was now sitting across from him in the stuffy interview room. He was a very entitled, smug looking, twenty something male. He was dressed in jeans and a leather jacket, the irony of him wearing an animal skin not escaping his attention, but without the Zebra mask, which was sitting on the desk in front of them. He looked like the type that would make a stand on anything that might end up in a scuffle.

The Clowns had tried to sort him out today though. He would have thought that having a something with a smiling painted face put him in his place with nothing more than a short interaction would lessen his stature a little, but it did not seem to faze him at all.

Reece Coster now had a smirk on his face that was trying for nonchalant, but Bridger saw right through it. He saw the nervous twitch next to his right eye. What was he hiding?

It was not implausible to link what had happened that morning to the events of the other night. Releasing the animals and the death of Wilson achieved the same outcome. Both of them had an effect on the Circus, however, the question would then have to be, why? What did this arrogant young man sitting in front of him have to gain by killing someone, and why did it happen back to front? Normally these things would escalate, ending in a death, not the other way round. This one made no sense. Nothing surprised him normally, but he did not like the timeline.

Detective Becky Wright entered the room carrying a tray of coffee; the aroma of cheap instant granules filled the small room. She had completed what she could with her dead body at the mortuary and would not need to be present again until the autopsy. She had volunteered to help with the interview to take her mind off it in the mean time.

“Two with and one without…” Becky held the black coffee out too Reece who took it and placed it on the desk in front of him, before leaning back and putting his hands behind his head.

Bridger read the preamble off the printed card sitting in front of him outlining their seemingly relaxed guest’s rights while being spoken too by police. Although he was not under arrest, they wanted him to stay and provide a statement in order to determine his involvement, if any, in the attack on Michael Wilson or the subsequent releasing of the animals from his Circus. Reece just nodded along as he spoke, and grunted when asked if he understood. The arrogance of this young man got right up Bridger’s nose but he tried not to let on.

“Mr Coster… Let us start with what happened this morning at the Circus. Did you or your colleagues have anything to do with the release of those animals?”

Reece snorted through his nose “No…, our mission is to protect those animals, releasing them would put them in all kinds of danger. The biggest threat too them would be you lot and your guns.”

“What does P.A.A.I.N stand for?”

“People against animals in captivity network… we have been around for over sixty years.”

“Is this not the same group that claim to be behind releasing those Lions from the Circus in Lawrence back in nineteen seventy eight?” Becky asked.

“And look what happened, the local Policeman shot them both. Sultan was trying to return to his cage, but could not get in, and Sonia was just cornered. If they had given her space, she would have returned to her captivity. Those Lions did not know anything but the two by four cages they spent their short lives in, performing for the enjoyment of the ignorant, day in and day out. So no, releasing animals is not something we like to do these days… for obvious reasons. Maybe you should look a bit closer to home… open your eyes and see.” A knowing smile spread across his face and then he stretched his arms revealing a scripted tattoo of the word PAAIN on the inside of his forearm, before yawning and looking at his watch.

Bridger was not sure he believed what he was saying, it sounded too scripted too be something he actually believed in. He had also seen many guilty people display the same indifferent actions when they were hiding something. “So what do you do when you are not saving animals Mr Coster?”

“I’m at the university…”

“You said you have been a member of P.A.A.I.N for how long?”

“I didn’t… but six years in total…, if you have to know.” There was a slight pride in Reece’s voice.

“P.A.A.I.N recruits first year students don’t they? So you must be doing a Masters degree by now, or even a Doctorate?” Becky had a slightly puzzled tone.

Bridger caught the reaction on Reece’s face as it went from pride too something else. Darkness descended in his features, as if he was ashamed of the answer. The question had obviously struck a nerve. He wondered why Becky had asked it.

“I never completed my first degree…, I am attending different lectures at the moment, trying to find something that interests me, but with my commitments to P.A.A.I.N it gets a bit difficult…”

“Ok, so you are unemployed, you’re not enrolled in a degree course and spend your time saving animals… Where were you last night, Mr Coster?” Becky had jumped straight in and asked the only question left to clarify.

Reece took a deep breath and looked at each one of them in the eye, as if contemplating how to phrase his answer. “I was at the pub; the Robbie Burns, plenty of people saw me… I even pulled.” He directed a sleazy look towards Becky “And before you ask, gentlemen do not kiss and tell, but if you want to know more, take a look at the P.A.A.I.N website this evening.” He folded his arms and leaned back against the chair with a satisfied smile. They were not going to get anything else from him today.

 

Bridger and Becky were walking back up to the office after they had released Reece Coster and told him they would be checking his alibi. They had what they needed from him for now, even if Bridger found it hard to believe he was not holding anything back. “Thanks for agreeing to look after Mr Wilson this morning Becky, it’s never a pleasant task.”

“As long as you note it down for my next appraisal, Mike.” Becky actually smiled as she spoke, the morning’s gruesome detail obviously not affecting her too much.

“You will get a glowing report Becky… Hey, what were all the questions about Reece’s degree courses?”

“I’ve met his type before; they pretend to be something they are not. Failed students who cannot quite let the life go, hanging around for one cause or another. His just happens to be animals; I bet he does not even believe in what he stands for. He is just there for a bit of action. He will be behind releasing those animals. All his spouting on about putting them in danger… he does not believe that, but he has to keep up the pretence or his fellow activists might oust him.”

“I would say he is good for releasing the animals…, but murder? Do you see a connection with what he says he believes in, and that?”

“I’m not sure Mike, but he needs to be added to our list of suspects.”

Bridger nodded his reply as his phone beeped in his pocket. Pulling it out, he saw the name ‘Laura Bridger’ displayed prominently on the message icon. He stopped walking.

Mike, can we meet this afternoon. Need to talk about last night. I do not want to compete with your work again. L’

Shit… He was afraid this would happen. It had taken him weeks to convince Laura to come out for a meal, it had taken longer to reach the point they had last night. Things had been looking up for their marriage for the first time in at least a few years. They were still living apart, but he had seen some hope in her shy willingness. Now the same old rot had set in, but this time she was still gun-shy and looked like she wanted to pull back before his work got in the way again. He loved his wife, but needed his work. When it all came down to it, he knew he would not be able to choose easily.

“Mike, are you okay?” Becky’s voice broke into his thoughts.

“Sorry Becky, what were you saying?” Bridger put the phone back in his pocket, and tried to suppress the feeling that had started to make itself at home inside his head. He knew that the current murder enquiry would take up a lot of his time, he could not predict for how long either. Becky just shrugged and walked into the office with her back to him.

Walking into the office behind her, he saw Jo Williamson sitting behind her desk; she looked to be at a loose end for once and was gazing out of the window. He clicked back into work mode. “Jo can you make an enquiry at the hospital, see if you can dig up any CCTV footage of the entrance to the accident and emergency ward. We need to nail down the period of when Wilson came and went from the hospital. It makes sense that he may have entered the alleyway shortly after leaving the hospital.”

Jo looked back from the window and just nodded her reply, a slightly vacant look on her face. He had seen this look before on his own face, a look he had caught in the reflection of a window when he was not expecting it. Maybe it was not such a good idea for her to be back so soon, but then he had needed work as a way to escape in the past, so maybe she was in the right place. He spoke a little softer.

“Can you also dig up as much as you can on Reece Coster; there is more too him than meets the eye. Check with staff at the Robbie Burns Hotel; see if they can recall him being there. The rest of us have another trip to the Circus.”

 

The scene could not have been more different from what he had seen earlier in the morning. The interior of the Circus encampment almost seemed like another world now. They had circled the wagons against the outside world, the occupants hidden from view by the thin metal walls of their mobile homes and caravans. Temporary gates, shut tight against excited children and overzealous silent protestors, had a makeshift sign on them that read ‘Circus Closed’. No other explanation was given. The battlements drawn, the Oval was now a medieval wall of caravans’ and cages, and right in the centre of it all was the yellow ‘Big Top’ standing as proud as a castles keep.

Bridger stood with Brian, Becky and Grant in a small huddle and felt like he led a hopelessly outnumbered invading force that had no idea of the world they had entered. The smells and noises coming from behind canvas shrouds were a stark reminder of the animals they hid, animals he had seen at close range earlier in the day. Groups of strangely dressed people milled about in an ordered society known only to them. Bridger looked around at the strange breed of people. There was a subtle hierarchy at play, which seemed outdated, but obviously worked well for the inhabitants of this Circus.

The Clowns he recognised from earlier were jostling each other and laughing beside a large motor home on the far side, happy in each other’s company. A group of woman, dressed similar to the peasants of old, were gathered around a steaming pot under a canvas awning, toiling away their time. A couple of young men without shirts were leading various animals in and out of the big tents canvas doors, sweat glistening off the backs of human and animals alike.

A very small man had intercepted them at the front gate and had told them he would advise Mr Gonzales of their presence, before scurrying away in a strange shuffling motion. Bridger had no idea whether it was still appropriate to use the word ‘Midget’, but could not think of any other way to describe the little man. There was no sign of the rest of the performers. It looked as if everyone had his or her jobs to do in this travelling show and did them without complaint, a society at its most base level.

“Do you think that those women have a big pot of steaming cabbage cooking over there?” Grant was indicating the group of cooks as he spoke, and was smiling too himself. “Or maybe it’s an ancient spell…”

“Grant, that’s not very appropriate, is it.” Becky’s tone was sharp. “I didn’t think you stooped to using baseless stereotypes.”

Bridger decided the word Midget was probably not appropriate either “Alright you two, no arguments please, we are here to do a job.” Looking at Brian for backup, he saw he was looking slightly puzzled. “What’s on your mind, Brian?”

“I’m not sure Mike…, it’s just this place is strange. When the animals were out this morning, the Clowns took care of it. They knew what they were doing and just got on with it. Anthony Gonzales looked like he was out of his depth, yet he is now the only boss. He did not interact with anyone within the Circus that I saw during that whole episode, but the Circus Midget ran off too get him as if he was a King. Michael Wilson has only been dead for less than twenty-four hours. I don’t know, it is just a feeling I get, but something’s not right.” Brian shrugged his shoulders and indicated over Bridger’s shoulder. “Here he comes now…”

Bridger looked behind him and saw Anthony Gonzales approaching with the Midget trailing behind him. He was dressed in a velvet waistcoat and trousers and carried a walking stick, which he clearly did not need. Anthony was oblivious to the looks he was getting from his subjects but it did not escape Bridger’s attention. The Clowns were the worst of all, not bothering to hide the contempt in their eyes.

“Sergeant, it’s good to see you again.” He held out his hand, limply, like an old friend. “I would like to thank you again for your help this morning; none of the animals seem too have suffered in their ordeal.” He looked Bridger in the eye as if seeking conformation that he was saying the right thing. Bridger noticed a slight bruise around his eye, something he had not seen earlier.

“It’s just a shame that it happened this morning Mr Gonzales, we do have more important things too deal with at the moment. This brings us to what we need to do now. It is just a formality, but we need to speak too everyone here. Depending on what they have to tell us, will determine whether we need a formal statement or not.” There was no point in dressing it up as sympathy over the death of Anthony’s friend, they had a job to do and it was easier for everyone if they just got on with it.

Anthony looked over his shoulders at the groups surrounding them; they were all watching their discussion intently “Okay Sergeant, where would you like to start.” There was a slightly nervous look on Anthony’s face.

“Let’s start with you, Mr Gonzales. I understand that you were with him last night, here at the Circus… Some sort of argument?” Bridger saw the flash of anger behind Anthony’s eyes, quickly replaced by another look he recognised all too well… fear.

“Okay Sergeant, we can use my caravan.” Anthony turned and retreated towards his caravan without bothering to wait for a reply.

 

Jo Williamson shuffled in her chair while the phone rang in her ear; she hated being stuck in the office, with its daily reminders of what she was missing. The job was her life; she had enjoyed every bit of it…, until it had happened. She just sat there now, day after day, watching her colleagues go about their lives, oblivious of her thoughts and fears, while she was stuck at a desk clearing someone else’s files. Bloody light duties. Of course, she could not blame them, she had not told anyone of how she felt. She was scared, scared of contact with anyone out in the real world, of herself, but most of all, she was scared of her dreams. Her dreams showed her the truth that her mind would not let her remember. That ugly tattooed face, framed with dreadlocked hair, came too her every night and smiled at her. The smile told her everything she needed to know, and now she was an emotional cripple. The face had started to make her despise men, how was she too trust a man if what this face showed her was true. Not knowing just made it all the more difficult.

She had not slept properly since that day and she was only just managing too hold herself together, but she could not let go of the job. She would disappear over the edge of sanity and never return if she could not come into work every day, it was her lifeline. She forced herself to concentrate on the task. A brisk sounding Scottish female answered the phone just as Jo was getting impatient.

Five minutes of forced banter with the nurse, while pretending to be efficient and together, and Jo had all the information she was going to get. She even managed to get the Nurse to email her an electronic copy of the CCTV footage she needed, thank god for modern technology. She clicked open on the file folder and a surprisingly clear image appeared on the screen in front of her. The front door of the Hospital and out into the car park were in plain view, every few seconds someone would enter or leave through the automatic doors. The nurse had told her that Maria Staverly had left the hospital at around ten o’clock on Thursday night; twenty two hundred hours in Police speak. She found the curser and scrolled forward to that time. Maria Staverly walked through the doors on the screen, still wearing her costume, slightly unsteady on her feet, and sporting a large cast on her left arm. Jo watched her recorded image as it stopped just outside the doors and then look up towards the camera as if she knew it was watching her. Maria Staverly smiled directly into the camera, a strange haunted smile that put a slight chill in Jo’s spine. Something behind the smile touched her, like a kindred spirit who could share her burden. She watched as Maria pulled what looked like rolls of bandages out of her pockets and dump them in the rubbish bin beside her, before walking away out of view. Less than thirty seconds of footage.

She moved the curser again and replayed the scene repeatedly, each time trying to read the smile on her face as Maria paraded herself for the camera. There was something there; she knew she needed to talk too Maria. She needed to know what it was that she saw in her smile.

 

 

 

Chapter Eight

 

Bridger and Grant stood awkwardly in the cramped interior of Anthony’s caravan; it smelt of stale whisky and sweat, with an undertone of recently smoked Cannabis. Anthony looked only slightly less uncomfortable in his own surroundings, his eyes darting around the small living space. Bridger noticed them linger a bit longer on the small table sitting beside a small leather sofa. He followed his gaze and saw the remnants of a Cannabis cigarette stubbed out in a dirty ashtray. Not something, he could be bothered with, but he looked back at Anthony, catching his eye, raising his eyebrows in question. Anthony opened his mouth as if to say something but decided better of it and looked at the floor instead. It was not a very fair thing to do, Anthony was not a suspect at this point, but Bridger had found it was better to put someone on the back foot before starting an interview; they were less likely to try to pull one over him.

“Please, sit down…” Anthony had regained some of his composure and was indicating two of the small chairs next to a very small dining table. He took a deep breath as if he was trying too steady himself. “You will have to forgive me Sergeant; it’s not been a very nice couple of days and I’m not sure how I can be of much help… I feel so useless…” he sniffed and turned his head away again.

Bridger was not sure he believed Anthony’s depreciation of himself, his voice sounded too mechanical and practised. The man was a performer, he would know how to play to a crowd, it made sense he could pretend to be anything he wanted, in anyone’s company. “Mr Gonzales, if you could go over the events last night leading up to the last time you saw Michael Wilson.”

Anthony sat down opposite them, put his hands on the table in between, and spoke quietly. “We set up for the performance last night as usual, the Clowns do most of the labouring, it leaves me able to get in a few practice swings before the show. Mick was in his caravan warming up; he needs a bit of quiet time to get himself in the right headspace…” Anthony’s voice caught in his throat, “He needed space… I still cannot believe he is gone…” A tear glistened on his cheek and he sniffed loudly.

This time his emotions were not for Bridger’s benefit, they would not get very far if he broke down. A bottle caught Bridger’s eye, the amber liquid a very familiar sight. Without thinking, he reached over and picked it up, along with a small tumbler sitting next to it. It just seemed a natural thing to do. He poured a generous two fingers with a practiced hand as Anthony watched over with the subtle eye of a drinker, nodding his approval when the tumbler was almost three quarters full. Bridger pushed it towards Anthony without speaking and he grabbed it up with both hands, imbibing deeply. He watched as Anthony’s shoulders visibly relaxed and calmness descended over his features. Bridger felt everything Anthony did in his head, as only a fellow drinker could. He felt the pull of the bottle, tugging at his senses, and he had to screw the cap on quickly too stop himself taking a pull. His own sobriety was something he had control over now, which was more than he could say for other parts of his personal life.

Bridger noticed that Grant did not say anything, as he no doubt watched the interaction between the two of them. Instead, he saw that he had taken out his notebook and pen, waiting for Anthony to speak, his features not giving anything away about whether he approved of this action or not. Good man, he was glad of the support. He looked back at Anthony.

“Thank you Sergeant.” Anthony looked at the tumbler in his hands. “Mick was a very important part of our lives here at the Circus, as well as being the owner he was also our friend… a very proud man… proud of the legacy of this Circus. He does not have any children; he was the last Wilson in a very long line. I’m not sure where we go from here.” He took another smaller sip of the whisky. “Mick’s great, great, Grandfather Cyril Wilson started this Circus, with just a few animals and some Clowns… quite a small affair it was back then. Then I guess travelling with a big operation in those days would have been too difficult. It was not until my own great grandfather arrived from the old country that they could really offer a good show though. He was only seventeen years old and a gifted athlete; he practically pioneered the acrobatic styles we have today. He put Wilsons Circus on the map; he was the one they all came to see. The Clowns had nothing on him…” A pride was evident in his voice. “The crowds grew bigger and bigger, my great grandfather’s performance got better with each show. Soon he was a household name; no one came to see the Clowns anymore. They wanted thrills and that is what he gave them, it is what we Gonzales’s have been giving them ever since.”

Bridger saw Grant shuffle in his chair impatiently as did Anthony who stopped talking and looked at his lap. They probably did not need any of the back-story Anthony was providing, but he knew by letting him talk he would relax, and then they were more likely to get the information they needed. “Go on Mr Gonzales, any bit of information you can provide may be helpful.

Anthony looked up again; his expression had changed slightly, taken on a harder edge. “After one of the performances here in Dunedin, an errant newspaper article surfaced. I forget who wrote it, but in essence, it laid waste to everything about the circus, calling it an ‘average circus’ going on to say it contained ‘nothing striking’. In particular, it portrayed the Clowns in a poor light. My great grandfather got a glowing mention for his skills though, which incensed the Clowns no end. It caused a real shit-storm within the Circus, the Clowns rallied against him. They had been part of the troupe longer than he had, so they made up stories about him and went too Cyril. He had to side with the Clowns out of a misplaced loyalty and so my great grandfather left the troupe after that… Listen to me… I should not be going on about that, it is all ancient history now. You want to know about last night, not any ancient grievance…”

Grant looked up from his notebook, which Bridger noticed had not seen a single entry. “That would be good Mr Gonzales; you were telling us about what you were doing before the show last night?”

Anthony looked at the now empty tumbler in his hands and Bridger took the unspoken cue. Pouring another two fingers into the glass, he watched as Anthony added a splash of water from a decanter sitting on the table. His taste buds tingled slightly, and he swallowed an imaginary dram. It was the closest he wanted to come to the nectar he had been so fond of, but he still missed the burn. Anthony continued speaking.

“The show went as it always did, starting with those dreary Clowns, followed by Maria and I. We always do a couple of easy jump and catch routines at the beginning, sort of a teaser for what was too come. Get the audience in the mood. Except last night…, Maria fell, as you already know, and that ended the show.

I stayed with Maria until the ambulance arrived, Michael looked after the audience, and the handlers went back to the animals. After Maria went to the hospital, I went and confronted the Clowns.” Anthony touched the bruise on his eye “They were the ones who set up the ropes… they were too short, I know it. We have done that jump hundreds of times and never had an accident. It’s just like all those years ago… the Clowns aren’t happy with their lot and they feel threatened…”

“Why would they feel threatened Mr Gonzales?” Grant butted in.

“Look, the Circus is losing money… it’s a tough world out there now. We have to compete for attention. It is hard to drag the kids away from their computers and games. You can see all sorts of things on the internet for free, why would you want to pay for the same stuff.”

“I still don’t see what that has to do with the Clowns feeling threatened.”

“The Clowns know that they would be the first to go… no one comes to the Circus too see Clowns anymore. What is a Clown going to do in the real world? Michael had already spoken too us about possible redundancies and that has them scared. It makes sense they would tamper with our act.”

Bridger did not really follow his logic. “We will look into what you have told us about the Clowns when we speak with them, but for now we have to concentrate on Michael Wilson’s murder. Can you tell us what you did after confronting the Clowns?”

“The Clowns did not take too kindly too me accusing them of tampering with the ropes.” Anthony touched his eye again. “But that is for another time… I returned too Michael’s caravan, I wanted to call the police, he told me not too. We argued about the reasons…, he said it was not worth it, that Maria was okay. He did not want to stir up any trouble. I think the Clowns have something on him; he lets them get away with so much. I called the Police anyway, but when they arrived the female Sergeant told us it was not a Police issue and left it at that.”

“She was right Mr Gonzales, unless we can prove anyone tampered with your ropes then it is just that, an accident. Did you check the ropes yourself before you jumped? I would have thought it’s the first thing you would do…” Bridger did not want Maria’s accident too bog them down.

“Well… no, no I didn’t, but we don’t usually have too. I check them when we first put them up, then periodically through the week’s performances. I see we will have to review that policy in light of what happened.”

“Ok, Mr Gonzales, let’s move on to what you did next.” Bridger could not tell whether Anthony was deliberately trying to steer them away from what happened last night or that he just felt strongly about his assumptions of Maria’s accident.

“The Police left and Michael said he would go into town… too see if Maria was alright.”

“Did you go with him?”

“No…,” Anthony shifted slightly in his seat. “He said he wanted to go on his own, he said that he needed some space. He said he had things to think about… He wouldn’t tell me what they were… he… he didn’t come home… that was the last time I saw him and we argued…” A single tear ran down Anthony’s cheek and he quickly brushed it away, downing the rest of his whisky in one gulp. His voice took on a hard edge “Michael is dead… now I am in charge. I have to be strong… making this work, for him. The Circus needs to go on.”

Bridger looked at the man in front of him. His demeanour had changed dramatically throughout their brief conversation; it had gone from grief stricken through all range of emotion until what he saw before him. He was an actor, but one with a motive? He could not see one. “Thank you Mr Gonzales, we will be in touch.”

 

The white board in the office was almost full. Michael Wilson, the man they called Irish Mick, in all his chiffon glory, was staring out from a promotional picture placed at the top of the board. No one at the Circus could come up with a proper picture of him and Bridger hated using crime scene photographs so had procured the small poster as a substitute. Beneath the poster, a tangle of lines drawn with marker pen, spread downwards like cobwebs, and at the end of each line was an enquiry. Each enquiry had a name or heading and whether it had been completed or not. The entire team had gathered in the small office and were staring at the board, trying to decipher any potential clues that might magically jump out. The elephant in the room was the word ‘Motive?’ written in the centre of the board and circled in red marker pen. Bridger was staring at the word.

“What motive would anyone have to kill a Circus Ringmaster, aren’t they supposed to bring people happiness?”

The rest of the room remained silent as if waiting for Bridger too answer his own question.

“Putting aside a random attack, what do we know about those at the Circus? Could any of them be involved?”

Becky spoke up from the back of the room. “Maria Staverly was, by her own admission, in the area, but I don’t see her being able to do something like that. She told Gill, and me, that after she left the hospital she went into town. She cannot remember much after that, but I cannot see her wanting to walk through the alleyway behind the Hercus building too get too George Street, not even the students walk through there at night, drunk or not. She told us that she returned home early the next morning to find the Police at the Circus enclosure, which was when she heard about Mr Wilson.”

“Good Becky.” Bridger looked over at Jo but she did not hold his gaze “Jo did you manage to nail down the timings for when Maria or Wilson left the hospital?”

Jo made a show of consulting her notebook. “It was twenty two thirty hours Sergeant, she came out the door on her own, still wearing her costume, looked around, and then walked out of view.”

“You said ‘She’? Jo, what about Wilson.”

“No sign of Wilson entering or leaving the Hospital while Maria was there, but you can check, in case I missed him.” Jo clicked a button on her computer and sent the file up to the projector. The file started playing on the white screen to the side of the room.

Everyone’s eyes were on the screen as Maria walked out of the front door, on her own, and dressed in her crisp white spandex circus outfit. There were sparkly bits all over it and the tightness accentuated her shapely figure. She paused, threw something in the bin and then looked up at the camera briefly, before walking from view. There was no sign of Wilson.

The sight of her circus costume brought back the memory of Wilson’s corpse, lying in the alleyway, dressed in an equally flamboyant way. Bridger shuddered with the memory. Maria showed no embarrassment about wearing her revealing costume in public; Wilson had been equally as comfortable in his costume, not taking it off before ending up in the alleyway, a long way from the big top.

“Thanks Jo…So, Wilson didn’t make it to the Hospital after all.” Bridger filed the small fact in his mind and carried on “Grant and I spoke with Anthony Gonzales. He is part owner of the Circus and last saw Wilson when he went into town, apparently going to see Maria… from what we have just seen, we can infer that he never made it to the hospital. Wilson and Gonzales had argued, but it was over a trivial matter… not enough to kill over.” As Bridger spoke the words, he thought about all the trivial matters that people actually did kill over; he decided to defer his own judgment on that point. He looked at Brian who took his cue.

“The Clowns were a pretty strange bunch; it was almost as if they had forgotten how to be anything but Clowns. They kept finishing each other’s sentences, slapping each other on the backs, slapping themselves, that sort of thing. They did not seem too upset about Wilson’s death though, but I guess that even in a place as close knit as a Circus, you would not be close to everyone. They did let on that they had a heavy drinking session after they cancelled the show. The night was a blur too them after that. They do not remember seeing Wilson after the show, but they did say they had a visit from Gonzales. Apparently, he tried to blame them for the accident. One of them pointed to his purple size fifteens and made a kicking motion before laughing silently. I took that too mean they did not receive the allegation well.” Brian shook his head and sucked in a breath. “They may be drinkers, and a bit violent too boot, but I can’t see them as our killer or killers. They all had copies of the Holy Bible placed beside their camp beds. Besides, they don’t go anywhere without each other, so for them it would have to be all of them…, or none.”

Bridger looked around the room; he saw that all eyes were on him. “Reece Coster is the only other name that comes close to a motive, stretched as it would be. He has an implied angst against the Circus, in that it keeps animals in captivity. For those that do not know, Reece Coster is a member of P.A.A.I.N, a university action group. People against animals in captivity network. P.A.A.I.N, or Coster working on his own, will be behind that little incident this morning at the Circus, no one else has anything too gain. He denied any involvement in that and in Wilson’s death when we put it to him. Putting that aside, his alibi is weak. He may have had a run in with Wilson at some point. He saw him in the alleyway and settled a score. Things got out of hand and he ended up killing him.”

“He does not strike me as that radical though Mike” Becky spoke up, “He pretends he cares, but all he likes is the action, not the cause. It is a long bow to draw, for us too think he would kill over it.”

“I agree on that point, but it’s worth keeping in mind. There is more too this, something we are missing.” Bridger looked at his watch. He was dog-tired and could feel his head getting thick and sluggish. He wanted to be able to look like he was interested in saving his relationship when he saw Laura that evening. They had done what they could for the day; they would gain nothing by rehashing what they already knew. He made a decision “Let’s sleep on it, come back in the morning with a fresh pair of eyes. We will revisit the crime scene and see if we can dig up any more CCTV footage from the surrounding area. I hope that our killer will show up on that. We need to find out how everyone fits together in the puzzle.” He looked around the room for any questions, but saw that no one disagreed, as each started to gather things on their desks and put them in piles. Everyone likes an early day, even when there was a murder too solve. Bridger noted the time in his notebook, twenty hours since he attended the scene in the alleyway and he had been on duty ever since. Walking out into the hallway, he saw Inspector Allison coming out of the lift. He ignored her questioning look as he made his way towards the stairs. Murder or not, he needed sleep, and time with his soon to be ex wife.

As he crossed the threshold into the stairwell the air temperature changed slightly, there was a slight chill, which he attributed to the onset of autumn, with winter fast approaching behind it, or it may have just been tiredness. Bridger thought about the whisky from earlier. It was his favourite winter tipple, it ‘was’ his favourite tipple, full stop. He missed the warm lethargic feeling it gave him, but did not miss the angry, self-loathing low it gave him the next day. He had not touched a drop for over six months and wanted to keep it that way if he could. He took the steps one at a time, hand touching the handrail for support. The thought of seeing his wife was fighting for space in his head alongside the details of the investigation. He knew he had too clear his head if he was too give Laura his full attention; she deserved to see him, not someone who was distracted.

As Bridger left the stairwell on the ground floor, he almost collided with the slender frame of Jane Little.

“Hi Mike.” A smile radiated from her lips. Bridger noticed to his annoyance that they were devoid of any lipstick but still managed to look bloody inviting. Jane noticed what he was looking at and gave them a cheeky little pout. “How did you get on with Coster the imposter this morning?”

Bridger lifted his eyes to meet hers. “Coster who?” The question had thrown him a little; he had not seen Jane since he and Laura had sat in her office and agreed to defer divorce proceedings and see how things worked out. It had been an uncomfortable meeting. One that Jane, who was acting as Laura’s lawyer at the time, looked like she had actually enjoyed. Bridger had sat through the whole thing praying she would not let on that they had been seeing each other behind her back. Jane was Bridger’s only addiction that he had not managed to give up.

“Reece Coster, the animal activist… A friend of mine from the office knows him from around the university. They call him Coster the imposter because he is not a real student anymore. He just hangs around, making himself known to all the new female first year students. Bigging himself up too be some sort of activist, but it’s all just a front to impress the girls.”

“Coster… Right, we did not get very far with him. He denied involvement in both inquiries we questioned him on.”

“Look at you and your ‘Cop speak’ Mike. Both inquiries… you are forgetting that I am a defence lawyer and already know more about ‘Both enquiries’ than the Police. You do not need to hold anything back from me. In fact, P.A.A.I.N has secured our services to represent Coster, and the group as a whole. They are afraid the police will try to pin something on them in relation to the animals, or even the death of Wilson.” The playful smile had disappeared from her lips and she was back too being all business. She was a good lawyer, with a sharp and devious mind. It almost scared him, except he had seen her naked. He had been on the receiving end of her deviousness in the past though, despite that fact.

Bridger toyed with the idea of asking Jane for some advice in relation to his upcoming interview with the independent police complaints authority, but quickly dismissed the idea, partly in embarrassment for his actions, and partly because it would be just more thing she would have on him. “So I guess I will be seeing a bit more of you then.” He could not think of anything else to say as he looked into the eyes that had shown him so many different depths. This was just another layer of tape that bound him into her confused world of passion and indifference, yet he still felt that slight tug of arousal she always drew out of him.

“I guess you will Mike…” The smile returned to her lips and she gave him a wink, before turning her back on him and walking away. Bridger stared at her backside as she disappeared around the corner, left standing in a cloud of her scent. He closed his eyes and saw an image of Laura in his head, and she was crying.

 

 

 

Chapter Nine

 

Jo Williamson left the Police station and retrieved her bicycle from the basement garage. She lived on the flat area of south Dunedin, built on an ancient swamp and wetlands; the water table was so close to the surface you did not have to dig very far to find yourself back in the salty mess. The area was a miss mash of dilapidated workers cottages and fine homes, the rich and the poor alike. The lower socio economic tended to gravitate towards the cheaper rentals offered in the area, and so her house was very close to some of her less social clients. It was something she normally did not worry about too much, but since it had happened, she had lost a lot of her naive trust in the sacred line that most people did not cross. The police were supposed to be out of bounds.

She knew different now though, however her financial circumstances at this point in her life would make it difficult to move anywhere else. At least the flatness of the reclaimed land made it an easy ride. She enjoyed the luxury of a quick cycle too work with then had the added bonus of no parking trouble.

She was younger than most of her colleagues in the office, not even a proper Detective yet, just a uniform attachment gaining some experience. John Mouller was the closest to her in age, but even so, she still saw him join in with their funny looks when she walked into the office in her cycle gear every morning. That was when he was at work, before it had happened. The image of his broken body strapped to a chair flashed in front of her, another memory she could not shake. Pushing her bike out of the garage, she pushed her electronic key tag up against the gate release. She wondered if she would grow out of her fitness routine in time, as her colleagues obviously had. She hoped not, it was the only thing keeping her sane now. It was a way of releasing the stress of her life, if only for a short time. The fresh air would clear her head, making room for more positive happy thoughts.

Strapping on her helmet and slipping on her gloves, she took a deep breath. Straddling the bike, she pushed hard with her legs, the bikes momentum picking up as she moved out into the alleyway beside her workplace. The bikes gearing was set on the largest cog, granny gears were for wimps. It would only be a quick ride up through the Octagon and then onto Princess Street. From there, barring traffic lights, it was a straight ride down towards south Dunedin and home. She increased her pace as she cleared the last set of traffic lights, where five roads met in one tangle of directions, at the southern end of the central business district. Up ahead she could see the yellow of the Big Top come into view as she closed in on the Oval. As she continued to ride, legs pumping strongly, Maria’s smiling face came to mind; she remembered it staring up at her from within the lens of the camera that had captured her image. The image haunted her thoughts, what was she trying to say with that look…? She almost collided with a bus pulling from the curb and had to brake sharply, the shot of adrenalin focusing her mind once again. As she got closer still, an aroma of fresh straw and animals found its way into her senses, the smell of exotic cooking floated just below. Without thinking, she dismounted her bike as she got alongside the encampment, and walked it slowly along the footpath. She could hear the occasional grunt, or snort, as well as more human noises coming from behind the canvas of the tents as she progressed. There were caravans that she could see towards the rear, behind the big yellow main tent. That was where she would be. One of those caravans would house Maria Staverly. Jo felt something unseen tugging at her, trying to make her deviate from her path. She went with the feeling and placed her bike against the tree, not bothering to lock it. Her body felt like it was moving of its own accord but the feeling did not worry her. This was the right thing to do and Maria would know why she was there.

Too any casual observer it probably looked as if she chose the caravan at random, maybe she had, but something had drawn her too this one. She knocked on the thin metal door, and felt the metal frame flex, even under her minimal pressure. The door did not open. Listening, she could not detect any movement from inside. A flash of doubt crossed her mind, why was she actually here? She could not think of a single reason other than the face she had seen in the camera.

“Are you looking for me?”

Jo spun around, stepping backwards as the body behind the voice came into view. Maria Staverly stood a few feet away with a quizzical look on her face. She was wearing black tights and sports top and there was a slight sheen of sweat on her forehead. The only thing out of place was the coloured cast on her wrist. She looked beautiful, like a porcelain doll, but the eyes where what captivated her. They were the eyes she had seen in the CCTV footage, dark, brooding, knowing, and full of secrets.

“That’s my door you were knocking on…”

Jo did not know what to say, she had not thought this through. She knew from the file that she and Maria were about the same age, but the sight of Maria in person made her feel slightly uncomfortable. She could see in Maria’s eyes a lifetime of experience that far outweighed anything that she had done.

“Well?”

She could feel Maria’s eyes appraising her, and realised she would not look remotely like a police officer. She was wearing cycle shorts and a T-shirt, and had an ungainly helmet on her head. She did not need to know what she did for a job; she just wanted to talk to her.

“Can we talk?”

Maria shrugged her shoulders and reached for her door, as if she did not care either way. “Please yourself.” her bare arm brushed against Jo’s as she stepped up and into the caravan. “I’m going to take a quick shower, make yourself comfortable.”

Jo stepped up into the caravan in time to see Maria disappear into a tiny room at the rear, leaving the door slightly ajar. She could see a flurry of movement in the gap as Maria took off her clothes. She looked away, slightly embarrassed. Taking a seat on one of the chairs next to a small table, she stared back at the door. The angle she was sitting now hid any more view into the gap. Maria had not shown any curiosity as too why she was there, but strangely, that did not bother her. She felt herself relaxing as she heard the water start running, watching as the steam started to play around the edges of the door. She did not know what came next, but whatever it was, it felt right.

 

Bridger looked at his wristwatch and knocked again, he was starting to get a little irritated, and he did not have time for this, he needed to see Laura as well tonight. It had taken him a good half an hour to drive out to Portobello towards the northern end of the peninsula. The coast road was narrow and hugged the shoreline of the harbour as it wound its way out to the little village making for a slow trip. It was a nice enough drive, but only if the final destination for the night was Portobello. Something that was obviously true for the occupants of the cars that he had to follow slowly around the bays, stressed workers inside winding down after a hard day’s work.

He knocked again. John had acknowledged the text message that he had sent him earlier; he knew he was going to be coming too see him this evening. He had seen John’s flashy yellow motorcycle in the garage as he had come on to the property, not that he could have used it in his current state. The door to the garage was open in John’s typical ‘look at me’ style, so that everyone could see the bike when passing by. Alternatively, it may have been just poor security, either way, it gave the impression that John was actually home and just not answering his door. An uneasy feeling in his stomach replaced the irritation he had felt.

Bridger tried the door handle but found it locked. Knocking one more time, but this time louder, he waited for a couple of seconds before moving to the side of the house, looking for a way around the back. There was a small gate with no lock, opening that, he saw a concrete path leading to the rear, which he followed cautiously.

John’s state of mind had not been evident the last time he had seen him. He did not think that he was the type to do anything like harming himself, but who could be sure these days. You never really knew what went on inside someone else’s head until it was too late. He had seen numerous colleagues go down that path in the years he had been in the job. Each one of them had just reached the end of their own paths, and could not see their rights from their lefts. No one had seen those decisions coming, but the decision was always final, there was no coming back from it.

John had been through a lot in the last few months and the prospect of not being able to do this job anymore would be hard to take. Bridger hated too think how he would feel if he could not do his job. As he continued to the rear he was hoping that John would be in the shower and just not have heard the knock, but as he passed under what looked like the bathroom window he could not hear any noise.

Reaching the back, he saw a large glass sliding door, but a net curtain obscured the view into the house. Trying this door, he found it locked as well and tried peering through the glass into the murky interior. He saw a square of light flickering, but could not quite make out what it was, possibly a television, or computer monitor. As his eyes adjusted, he saw a dark bulky mass beside the flickering light. It was not moving but had the unmistakable shape of a person sitting down. Straining his eyes, he realised with a start that it was more slumped than sitting. It had to be John.

Dread replaced his uneasy feeling; he banged hard on the glass panel, and called out, trying to get John’s attention. There was no movement. He shook the door desperately, trying to dislodge the lock. Sliding doors were notoriously bad for security, the locks tended to give way with a little persuasion. John was obviously well aware of this though. Bridger saw a piece of wood jammed into the lower rail on the inside, too stop the door sliding, even if it became unlocked. He called out again, vainly, but John did not move. He cannot be that stupid, he would not have harmed himself. His injuries were severe, but he would recover, he had too. Bridger knew he needed to find a way in. He could not see any insecure windows at the rear, so he jogged to the side of the house. Breaking a window was his last resort, but he would if he had too.

Half way down the side path, he saw a small window, which was slightly ajar. It was higher up than he would have hoped, but it would do. Grabbing a small planter box, which was nearby, he pushed it over, emptying the contents onto the path in a mess of soil and weeds. Dragging it under the window, he used it as a step to gain the height needed to access the window. Pulling himself up, his feet scrabbled against the old weatherboards for purchase, as first one shoulder, then another, levered inside the window frame. Pushing his head all the way through, he knocked something off the ledge. It clattered, and then splashed, as it ended up inside the toilet bowl below him. He did not want to end up in the same position as the air freshener he could now see bobbing around in the blue water, so placed one hand on the cistern and the other above him, gripping the small overhanging ledge of the window frame. He would pull himself inside then spin around and sit up on the windowsill, which would make it easier to bring his legs inside under control, and then lower himself to the floor.

He braced himself for the movement and pulled himself as far up the wall as he could. His finger strength gave way before he could complete the movement and he let go of the ledge above. The weight of his head and upper torso falling forward pulled him half inside the window. His chest collided with the edge of the cistern, knocking the wind out of him, just before his chin and head hit the toilet seat. Breathing heavily, with the salty taste of blood on his lips, he took stock of his situation. It would be almost comical, if it had not been as serious. He was stuck with his head inches above the blue water in the bowl. He could not move backwards and could not pull himself all the way inside. At least John had flushed the toilet recently.

“Mike? What the hell are you doing?”

Bridger pulled his head up and twisted it sideways too see John standing there holding onto a baseball bat.

“I thought someone was trying to break in… What are you doing?”

“John…? I thought… Never mind, help me down would you.”

 

Bridger was standing behind John, who was sitting at the table in the dining room, the same place he had seen him slumped through the haze of the lace curtains. He was feeling a little bruised and battered after his encounter with the window frame, and he rubbed at his hips trying to get the blood flowing again. “What have you found John?”

The flickering light he had seen had been a computer monitor, glowing in the slightly dim room. John claimed not too have heard when Bridger knocked at the doors, as he had on a pair of earphones that was noise cancelling. He had been doing a ‘bit of surfing’ on the net and always wore his headphones. Apparently, it gave him a more immersive experience. Bridger did not care either way, as he took in the voyeuristic action displayed on the screen before them.

John was oblivious to his question. “This high definition screen is pretty good aye boss; you can almost see the sweat drops on their bodies.”

“How did you come across this John? Is this what you were watching when I came in…?”

John sunk a little lower in his chair and shrugged his shoulders slightly. “I have been doing a bit of follow up on P.A.A.I.N…, you know… just too keep my hand in. Grant has been keeping me informed of developments at work. I just thought I could help out in some way.”

John looked slightly embarrassed, but Bridger could not tell whether it was because of the content they were now viewing or the fact he was working at home while on sick leave.

Bridger had completely forgotten Reece Coster’s words from his earlier interview. If you want to know more, Look at the P.A.A.I.N website later… Staring them in the face was an ugly Zebra mask; the ill-fitting rubber contorted around the wearers face, obscuring half of the eyes, as the head moved back and forth in a rhythmic motion. The body attached to the mask was on all fours, the only thing marking it as female was the shape of small breasts moving visibly behind a tight top. An upright naked torso was behind the body, head just out of view above the camera lens, hips below. It was moving in time with the zebra, small gasps and guttural breathing providing the soundtrack. It was obscene and slightly enthralling at the same time, the camera angle capturing just the right image to show the domination of the fake Zebra.

The mask was the same as the one worn by Coster that morning. The clothing of the Zebra looked familiar as well, but Bridger could not quite place it. A male’s voice spoke over the heavy breathing ‘If you support the Circus, you may as well be screwing the animals… Make your choice” The torso behind the Zebra leaned too one side, lowering its head. A wicked red smile on a white painted face grinned at the camera, the false red nose fell off onto the floor and the wearer picked it up quickly, putting it back in place, before continuing his dominant thrusts. Bridger and John watched silently as the movements became more urgent. The psychotic looking clown gripped the zebra around the throat, and then pulled her onto her knees as he gave a final thrust. The noise coming from his throat making both Bridger and John cringe inwardly. The clowns arm then came across the screen and flicked a switch out of sight, and then the screen went blank.

Bridger stood and stared at the blackened screen, the final image seared into his brain. He had almost missed it; his mind had gone into autopilot while he watched, as it did many times before when watching such images, a reaction to protect his emotional response. However, this time it was the final image that stuck in his mind, not the actions themselves. What had he just seen, there were two things, but he had to be sure.

“Play that last bit again John…”

John looked up at him strangely. “I wouldn’t have picked you for a ‘money-shot’ sort of guy Mike.”

Bridger gave him a look that said he was not in the mood for any crude humour. “Just do it…”

John fiddled with a couple of buttons on the keyboard with one hand and moved the mouse with the other. The semi-pornographic image appeared back on screen a few seconds before the ‘money-shot’, the zebra was just about to rear up onto her knees. “Pause it there John.”

The image froze, the zebra had risen and the clown was reaching for the switch. Bridger stood and stared, adrenalin building in his gut… It was all there for him to see, a scripted tattoo on the forearm of the clown reading ‘PAAIN’, Reece Coster in all his sick glory. However, that was not what excited him most. Plainly visible on the tight spandex suit of the zebra, and contrasted next to a coloured cast on her wrist, were little droplets of blood, splayed out in an upwards spray pattern, and all displayed in high definition. It was the same spandex suit he had seen Maria Staverly wearing when leaving the hospital and it was blood, which had not been present when she had left. The hospital was only a few hundred meters from where Wilson had met his demise, and just to top it off, there on the cast covering her injured wrist, was a small droplet of blood.

“What is it Mike, what do you see?”

Bridger ignored Johns question and instead pulled out his cellphone. He was a long way from motive, but this was too much too ignore. Maria had some questions to answer and they needed to seize that top as soon as they could. If that were Wilson’s blood, then the motive would become less important, as physical evidence outweighs ones denial in most cases. Reece Coster was clearly on intimate terms with Maria as well, they would most likely be in it together. Simon West had said it; a male had carried out the killing. However, Bridger was willing to bet a strong female could have taken Wilson by surprise, or was it both of them.

The phone was answered after the forth ring and Bridger set the wheels in motion as he was walking towards the front door.

“Thanks for coming…, next time use the door…” John called from the back room.

Bridger did not reply as he closed the front door on his colleague’s musty existence. He had forgotten that he had only stopped by briefly to check on John’s welfare and with his intention to return to work, he had completely forgotten his next appointment with Laura, his mind was already thinking about the next steps towards catching a killer… or two.

 

 

 

Chapter Ten

 

Jo’s head was spinning a little as she watched Maria twirl expertly around a rope tied to the roof of the big top, unseen in the darkness above the lighting that had been set up in the middle of the ring. She moved casually and without fuss, almost intimately, as music played quietly in the background. The cast on her wrist was giving her no trouble as she gripped the rope tightly with the tips of her fingers left free of constraint.

“This is how I relax” Maria said, as she locked her long legs around the rope and lay backwards. Small drops of water were dripping off her still wet hair and landing in the sawdust at Jo’s feet. “Lie down on your back, below me… on the ground.” Maria pointed with her free hand “You will get a better view from down there.”

They had not said much too each other since Maria had finished her shower. They had skirted around each other for a short time back in the caravan, Maria not even asking why she was there. She had stared into her eyes, and had seen herself reflected in the depth of colour and experiences of this girl. The interaction betrayed a life of hardship and sorrow. Maria had broken the eye contact and went to say something, but stopped at the last minute. Instead, she had taken a tiny box from on top of a shelf. Placing it on the table silently, she had retrieved two small pills from inside. The pills were tinged blue and were the size of peas, Maria had placed one on her own tongue, before pushing the other into her hand and closing her fingers around it. The touch of her skin had been like a little electric shock. “Take it”, she had said, before turning and walking out of the caravan.

Jo had followed her as they had passed darkened cages, shallow agitated breathing from within, the smell of dung and straw. They had bypassed a small enclave of caravans circling a campfire; she had seen a group of Clowns among the sparks and embers, poking fun and angst at each other as they drank merrily from bottles and cans. Clowns gave her the creeps, ever since that horrible film when she was younger, a killer clown that delivered sick jokes instead of delight. They had left the clowns where they were and now she found herself enthralled by Maria’s seductive movements on the rope, twirling under the big top, as the small pill dissolved into her bloodstream. She felt nice; a long way from the last time, a different trip, one of her own choosing. Smiling, she lay down on the sawdust-covered floor and looked up at the floating angel above her. Maria’s loose white cotton shirt was billowing around her as she moved back and forth. Her sports bra was visible beneath the sheer fabric and she caught glimpses of Maria’s flat stomach as the shirt splayed open slightly. She did not feel embarrassed and did not divert her eyes, as she normally would have. She was mesmerised by the sheer sexiness of her movements, her strong body moving fluently despite the cast on her wrist. It was a foreign feeling, but one which she felt oddly comfortable with.

A small drop of water landed on her face making her blink, but she did not wipe it away. Instead, she savoured the sensation as it tracked its way down her cheek like a tear. She closed her eyes, trying to preserve the feelings of peace. She had not felt this way in a long time. Maybe it was being here with Maria, maybe it was the pill. She did not care; all she wanted right now was this feeling too remain. Maria’s smile had been right. This was right.

Jo felt hot breath on her cheek where the droplet had been, the sensation drying the wet track. She opened her eyes, Maria’s own eyes were inches from hers, but they were the wrong way up, making her appear attractively foreign.

“What do you want?” Maria said, as she hung upside down, their faces’ almost touching.

Jo could smell her just-washed scent of shampoo and soap, and damp locks of hair tickled at her face. “I…I don’t know…” was all she managed.

Maria’s eyes narrowed and she sucked in a deep breath before folding in the middle and raising her arms back up too her legs. She grabbed the rope and swung herself violently around, the ropes, swinging wildly as she twirled faster and faster. “You’re a copper, aren’t you…” a slight catch in her voice betraying her efforts.

Jo did not know what to say, how did she know she was with the Police? She had not told her anything about that. Maria had given her the pill with no shame or guilt; she must have known it was against the law. But then she had taken it so easily… so much for the law.

“Well?” Maria let go of the rope and flipped her lithe body over, landing on her feet beside Jo. “I don’t really care either way… just be honest.” Her breathing was only slightly faster than normal.

“How did you know?”

“I can just tell… although you lot are normally not so attractive.”

Jo felt Maria’s eyes sweep up and down her figure, and she felt herself get smaller as her body tried too shy away from her sudden appraisal. Sitting up, she hugged her knees too her chest. “Thank you… I guess. I…” A sudden rush of blood to the head pulled her up short. A pleasurable sensation shot through her system… The little blue pill had dissolved completely into her, paired with her pleasure receptacles, and started spreading the good news around her body. She looked at Maria, her eyes were lost on their own journey, but they still managed to connect with hers, and hold them, trance like, as the smile spread on her face.

Maria and Jo sank down onto the sawdust next to each other, their hands touching slightly, as they navigated the pleasure spreading through their bodies.

Unseen, in the shadows beside the ring, dark eyes on painted faces stared intently at the show.

 

Bridger sat in front of his office computer waiting for delivery of the message he was expecting; he had called John back when he could not manage to find the P.A.A.I.N site on the internet. His computer knowledge ran as far as the on button and the email system. He still had trouble navigating his way around the Police National Intelligence Application, even though he had been on more than one training seminar. While waiting he had managed to raise Grant Wylie, Becky Wright and Brian Johnson and they were all currently en-route to the office, all be-it with an ounce of reluctance. Becky had been on a date, Grant was somewhere in the Ross Creek forest mountain bike track and had sounded very out of breath, and Brian was relaxing with Mrs Johnson. He had not been able to raise Jo, although she was on light duties anyway, and by rights should not be involved with the operation he had quickly formulated in his head. Everybody, it seemed, had a life except for him, something that drilled home after receiving a curt text message from Laura telling him not to bother showing up, she was going to have a drink with a friend instead. He had only just remembered his intended liaison that evening after walking through the front doors of the police station. He had been about forty minutes late at that point and decided not to text, out of guilt, or it may have been fear that Laura was right. Late was late though, he had no real excuses. It was something he was beginning to regret now, but he knew things would never change. Work sometimes had to come first, Laura had to know that, or it would never work between them anyway. The thought did not stop him retrieving his phone again and searching the message for any hidden meanings, other than the obvious angst it had portrayed.

The computer beeped a notification, breaking his inward thinking. As promised, John had sent a copy of the link containing the footage of Coster and Staverly together, in their disturbing tryst. Putting his phone away reluctantly, he scrolled the curser down to the little envelope icon on the email system and pressed open. The page displayed a line of incomprehensible letters and characters, which John had explained was the ‘hyperlink’, along with a short message. ‘Don’t linger over the ‘money shot’… enjoy.’ followed by a smiley face. Very droll, he thought, before clicking on the link. The screen shot changed, as another window opened up, revealing the P.A.A.I.N website in vivid detail. His eyes glanced over the short bio at the top of the screen.

People Against Animals In Captivity Network are an organisation that stands against cruelty to animals in the form of immoral incarceration. We as a people should not get too decide the fates of those who cannot speak for themselves. It is infinitely worse when we do it for our own pleasure. Circuses and Zoos must be held to account. Please join us in our struggle to free our lesser cousins. Remember, in the big scheme of things, we are all just animals…

Sitting just under the caption was the link to the video, aptly named, ‘Taming the Zebra’. Bridger’s mind flashed back to the images he had viewed at John’s house, Coster certainly fitted the description of an animal, but not one that the bio portrayed. He decided to wait for the others before subjecting himself too the footage once more.

Studying the rest of the page, he saw a list of names, most probably the members of P.A.A.I.N, and at the very bottom, he saw Coster’s name. There were pictures of animals, whipped by smiling men wearing funny clothes. There were bears wearing tutus and standing on their hind legs, and there was a wild-eyed elephant holding a manic faced clown off the ground with its trunk while the clowns smiling mates tormented it with water guns. The images were stark, taken in just the right light too imply something sinister about what they showed. It was quite captivating and enraging at the same time. Underneath the pictures, a simple statement read ‘How can we be so cruel…’

Bridger had not really thought about how you could mistreat an animal in a circus by forcing it to perform. He had always seen it as just another form of entertainment. They always looked well cared for and obedient. Looking at the pictures displayed, he could see how they would be a call to arms for the right type of person. Whips used to maintain obedience, animals doing unnatural things. It did paint a certain sort of picture although you can manipulate anything to appeal to your cause. However, that was the point of this website to stir up support, and it did that well. Humans and animals have always had an obscure relationship.

Glancing over at the promotional picture of Michael Wilson, dressed in his over the top finery, pasted onto the whiteboard on the far side of the room, he drew a breath and held it. Even from where he was sitting, he could see something in the practiced smile on Wilson’s face, which echoed the pictures he saw on the screen. He looked like a man who commanded obedience in every living thing. Would that be enough to drive someone to commit murder? Did the pictures stir enough passion for that? He could see Coster’s reason for being involved, but why would Maria join in? She was part of the problem, if you believed the website. An inkling of doubt spread into his reasoning, but he quickly squashed it. He had seen many people do extreme things for little or no reason. Maria was probably no different. He clicked play on the little icon in the middle of the screen and the Zebra began its torment once more.

“Hi Mike, what is the big mystery?” Brian said, as he walked into the office followed by the rest of the team. “You sounded pretty rushed on the phone…”

Bridger jumped at the interruption, releasing the breath he had held unconsciously. He looked up to see Brian standing behind him staring at the screen; Becky and Grant were on either side of him and had their eyes fixed too the screen as well. The action was only half way through but there was enough displayed too see what was going on in vivid detail. Bridger scrolled onto the volume slide and increased the sound. The Zebra was making little mewing noises, which seemed somehow out of place with its species but fitted nicely within the context. The Clown’s voice overlaid the Zebra soundtrack and kept repeating in a deep breathy voice, ‘Get some, you dirty little Zebra slut, get some”, with every thrust. Bridger had not heard that during his first viewing back at John’s house. It was starting to make him feel a little dirty, sullied by someone else’s perversions.

“Geezuz Mike, where did you dig this up from?” Grants voice was slightly higher than normal. “Who are those two?”

“That’s Maria Staverly behind the Zebra mask, I recognise the sparkly top she is wearing, and I can see the top of her cast in the bottom of the shot.” Becky spoke up, obviously analysing what was in the scene, and not what it portrayed. “But who is the dodgy clown behind her?”

Bridger stopped the action on the screen just as the Zebra reared up and the Clown revealed his arm. “That’s Reece Coster…,” he said, pointing to the P.A.A.I.N tattoo on his forearm.

“And that’s blood on Maria’s top…” Brian said, nodding his head, the answer to his question of Bridger given in that moment.

Bridger looked at his three colleagues, they had all reached the same conclusion as he had, and he did not need to explain it any further.

Grant spoke up “I’ll start typing out the search warrant application…”

 

 

 

Chapter Eleven

 

Reece Coster stood in the shadows, just outside of the big yellow tent. His breath was making small white puffs as he breathed as slowly as he could while trying to make as little noise as possible. He had watched the Clowns file into the tent a few minutes earlier. If he was honest with himself, it had freaked him out a little, seeing the Clowns sneaking about in the darkness. They looked just like Clowns, did they not have days off? Their normally jolly painted faces certainly looked more sinister at night, but those big oversize shoes, feet the size of elephants, moved with the deftness of mice.

Each too thy own, he thought. Crazy Fuckers.

For his part, he was dressed from head to toe in his ‘Mission Gear’. A pair of plain black tracksuit pants, a plain black long sleeve top, and a black balaclava on his head, rolled up onto his forehead. Although it would be much cooler to have the mask cover his face, just like the movies, he hated to have his mouth covered by the wool. The animal masks were fine but the balaclava always made him feel claustrophobic.

Looking down at himself in the darkness, he admired his covertness. He really did love these clothes, it added a bit of realism to his missions, making his fantasy come to life. He was like some clandestine freedom fighter, a man with floors, but able to get the job done. He loved the missions. The mission’s were all part of the bigger fight, and he was the only one taking the fight too them in any meaningful way.

An animalistic snort came out of the blackness behind him, making him jump. Standing still in the darkness, he could feel his heart rate increasing with the excitement. An image of an angry Lion popped into his head. Muscular and fierce, waiting in the darkness behind him, waiting for any sign of fear, fear he would not show. He remembered another animal, Maria Staverly; her supple but strong body came to mind, making him smile. Last night had been fun… it… no she, had been so easy, and now the world knew how easy she was as well. Of course, it had been bloody, at first, but then it had become easier. She had relaxed into it, letting her inhibitions go, putting everything she had into it, putting on a real performance. Somebody had to do the hard yards.

He gripped the tin he was holding in his left hand a bit tighter and shook the contents for the umpteenth time that night. The liquid sloshed around inside, and he smiled some more. He imagined the surprise of his cautious colleagues, his supposed ‘brothers and sisters in arms’. For all their big talk, they did not really do ‘direct action’. He was sick of that; his kudos relied on the stories of daring-do he always brought out when the time was right. Hell, he would tell them too anyone that would listen, whatever the time. Women wanted him and men wanted to be him, when he told them about how cool he was. Fuck yeah… he was getting amped now. If the mountain will not come to Mohamed, then Mohamed will go to the mountain, or some shit like that, he could never quite remember quotes. It did not matter though; he was doing well, and tonight would put the final nail in the box he was constructing around the evils of the Circus. He was going to burn it all down. Did he care about the animals…? Did he fuck, but it helped him get laid, and after tonight he would ‘get laid’, ad-infinitum. He just had to wait for those stupid clowns too leave the tent.

He crouched down behind a wooden barrel filled with some sort of animal feed, the stench making him gag slightly, and waited in the darkness. He was prepared to wait all night for this. It would only make things sweeter. As it was, he only had to wait a few minutes before movement caught his eye, over where he knew the tent entrance to be. Shuffling his position, he peered around the barrel cautiously…he did not want to be seen. Not now, it was so close. He counted the shadows as they moved away from the tent. Four, he had seen four go in and now he had seen four come out…, it was time.

 

Maria lay on the ground next to the girl called Jo, a police officer no less… Despite her mistrust of the cops, this girl was different. She very much doubted that she was here on official business, not now she had taken the pill so easily. What was her story? Did it really matter? There was a connection she had felt almost instantly when she had seen her standing at the door to her caravan. It was something in her eyes, unspoken, but very descriptive. The same as it had been with the first girl she had ever been with, all those years ago. It had scared her back then, the new feelings she was having. Girls were supposed to be just friends, not that she had ever had many. It was the travelling lifestyle not lending itself too long-term liaisons with anyone. This girl had been slightly older; she was more confident in herself than Maria had been back then, lived a different life. It was an intoxicating combination. She had been with many girls since and many boys as well. She felt the muscles tighten in her cheeks, smiling in the semi darkness. There was no point in limiting her options.

It was nice though, laying here with the police officer named Jo, a comfortable easy feeling flowing through her body. Helped no doubt by the pill… she needed this. Mick’s death had affected her more than she wanted it too. She needed the escape, and this was about the only way she knew how. Emotions did not come easy too her, she knew she was a cold person, and lately she had been finding out that she was capable of things that normal people may find abhorrent. Then what really was normal these days?

Mick… poor Mick, he did not deserve to die as he did. She knew things had been getting worse between them recently; he had started to get demanding of her. Acting more like the father she never had. She had never met her real parents; she was a child of the circus. It was an accepted fact that her parents had died and left her an orphan when she was just a baby. They had been circus performers, just as she had eventually become, and so the circus took care of their own, but no one spoke of them… ever.

She remembered the Clowns, how they used to be; they had apparently taken her in, raised her into her teens. They had shown her love and nurturing, what a child would not give to live with a bunch of Clowns. It had been a blissful childhood, but then they discarded her like a used ticket stub left on the bleachers. She remembered it vividly; it was just after she started performing with Ant. She remembered being lost, an empty feeling she could not shake. She wasn’t a clown; she wasn’t anything, just a girl with no history. She had found herself drawn to Ant, his act looked so exciting, and the way he had looked at her…, like a father.

They had not really spoken to her since. She hated the Clowns for that.

The circus was her family though, and Mick was… had been… the head of the circus, and now he was dead. She had been searching her memory for any glimpse of what happened the night Mick had died, but the pill had made sure nothing came back. She was not stupid though, she knew she had left the hospital and gone into town. She would have gone to the Robbie Burns Hotel, as she always did when they were in Dunedin. She also knew the fastest way to the hotel from the hospital was through the alleyway that Mick had died in. The blood was what worried her most, where did that come from? She could not remember seeing it after she fell, but then she could not remember much else of that night either. The pill gave her another kick of pleasure, muddling her thoughts, as if it was reminding her why.

The girl called Jo, stirred beside her. She had been willing at first, but the pill had taken a bigger effect on her than normal. She was obviously not a big user. Looking at the girl beside her, eyes closed, slight smile on her face, she wondered if Jo thought about sexuality in the same way as she did. Maybe Jo was experimenting with something inside of her that needed to be fed, just as she herself had done all those years ago. Either way it was probably for the best that it went only as far as it had. Jo would be well aware of a woman’s monthly cycle, not a pleasant introduction to the fairer sex for anyone, and if this was an experiment, she did not want her period to affect any of her conclusions. She wanted to see this girl again. A Cop and an acrobat, it was not the most likely combination, but stranger things had happened in her life.

The tail end of the pills pleasure was waiting in the periphery to invade her again, so she let go and sank into the happy place she always went too, beside her newfound companion.

Both girls lying on the sawdust covered ring, curious in thought, safe in each other, but totally oblivious to the black smoke that had started to curl and climb up the sides of the tent choking the already dark ringside.

 

It was not very far by car from the police station to the Oval. The time of night was making it even faster with the lack of traffic, and the fact the blue and red blinking lights in the grill of the car pushed what vehicles there were too the side of the road, giving them a clear run. Bridger looked into the rear vision mirror, out of habit; just too make sure Brian was not falling behind. He was not expecting any trouble, but it always helped, the more people you had to rely on, if things started to deteriorate. Desperate people could do stupid things and so he wanted boots on the ground as soon as they arrived on scene.

As he accelerated down the very gradual decline of Princess Street, the blue and red lights reflecting off the surrounding buildings, Bridger had too force himself too slow his breathing, as the adrenalin started to build in his system. An early arrest, another killer off the streets, this is what it was all about, catching the bad guys. His earlier misgiving on Maria’s motive properly quelled the more the team had discussed the apparent physical evidence. He was already planning the direction of the interview he was going to conduct with Maria once they picked her up.

Up ahead, he saw a Police vehicle arrive on the south side of the Oval, although it was a clear night, its flashing roof lights seemed obscured somehow in a thin dark fog. That would be Gillian Holler and Steve Kirkland, who had been at another job nearby and had put their hands up too help when Bridger had asked. Anything to get them away from the faux suicidal ramblings of an intoxicated and lonely old man, according to what Steve had told him over the phone; leave that to the junior members of the team.

What was that smell of smoke?

The deep rasping sound of powerful air horns, coupled with the insistent red flash of an emergency beacon joined their procession, heading in the same direction.

“Looks like the Fire boys have a job on” Grant stating the obvious, as Bridger pulled the car to a stop at the bottom of South Road.

A large red fire engine passed close by, the displacement of air rocking the car slightly. Up ahead, Gillian’s patrol car had completely disappeared in a haze of choking black smoke, which was now threatening to swallow them as well. Bridger looked over too his left; the same dense fog had enveloped the Circus and had it a central core of red heat pulsing through it. He could feel it prickling at his skin through the glass in the door. Putting the car in reverse, he drove backwards, blindly hoping Brian had not followed him into the quagmire. The smoke had come out of nowhere; the fire had obviously just taken hold as they had approached. He had certainly not seen anything unusual less than thirty seconds ago.

Coming free from the smoke, Bridger put the car into park and flung his door open. The rancid smell of smoke and burning rubber stung his nostrils and the back of his throat, making him cough uncontrollably. He moved further back from the circling Black Death surrounding the area the circus occupied on the Oval. Grant had done the same, while trying vainly to cover his mouth and nose with a windscreen cloth he had taken from the car. Brian and Becky had stopped a safe distance back and were standing off to one side.

“That smoke just came out of nowhere Mike. When you disappeared into it… well, that’s when I thought it best too stop where I was.” Brian almost looked sheepish as he spoke.

“It looks like the main tent is on fire.” Becky said, pointing above the trees. The top of a once yellow tent had angry orange flames licking at the seams, the wall of heat and destruction roaring up from the sides and culminating at the top, making it look like a large bonfire. “I hope there was no one inside when the fire started, nobody could survive that.” She had to speak up a little louder over the immense roar of the fire, which sounded alive and very angry. They could do nothing but stand there and watch as the drama unfolded.

As Bridger stood with the group and watched, out of the thick wall of smoke appeared large shapes, dark and foreboding; they pushed their way into the fresher air that was further into the Oval. He realised that they were the cages containing some of the animals. The Clowns, assisted by a few others, were pushing them too safety. The frightened noises coming from the pacing animals within, only just audible over the fires roar. No sooner had the Clowns pushed one too safety, they disappeared back into the choking mess for another. One after the next, the fresh air at the centre of the Oval started filling with cages. It was a surreal sight, a makeshift refugee camp of caged fright, presided over by sooty faced clowns. The animals pacing, the clowns in charge, the others bent double trying to catch their breath. The Clowns did not go back into the smoke this time; they did not even pay any mind too their more human helpers. Instead, they turned their attention to the animals in the cages. Bridger watched the strange scene, as one by one the animals bowed to the Clowns and settled. He could not hear what they said and their actions were unclear in the smoky haze, but whatever it was they did, it had an immediate effect.

The roar of the fire suddenly changed too an angry hiss, the smoke went from filthy black too an ugly grey, and then steam cooled the fierce dry heat of the flames within. Bridger could see two fire fighters struggling with a writhing hose moving along the side of the tent putting up a wall of water. The flames responded instantly, and shrank into themselves as they struggled to maintain any heat.

“Fire is a living thing you know.”

The voice turned Bridger’s attention away from the action; Station Officer Jack Perry was standing beside him watching his men work the fire. “What’s that Jack?”

“Fire… It is a living thing, and the three things that it needs to survive are, oxygen, fuel, and heat. Take away one or more of those things and it will die.” Jack Perry was indicating the hissing and steaming monster beside them. “Fortunately a tent has little substance and provides little fuel; the fire is easier to control. What is inside has me slightly worried though. The wooden bleachers might be harder to deal with, all those wooden planks and such. I guess we will see very soon…” Walking away from Bridger, Jack Perry was already throwing out more directions too his struggling men.

Bridger had known Jack for a long time; they had attended many of the same incidents when Bridger had been a response constable and Perry a lowly fire fighter. He had heard him spout that little piece of information numerous times in different forms and every time he had delivered it with the gravitas of an expert to a layman. All Bridger ever saw were grown men playing with hoses and spoiling the fun of the voyeurs that always gathered like moths to a flame. How much of an expert did you need to be?

Just like a magic trick, the smoke turned completely too steam and drifted into the sky, the noise died away and the buckled and twisted skeleton of the bleachers rose from the smouldering ground as the steam cleared, creating an eerie spectacle. The only sound now was that of the fire pump providing the water to the hoses. He could see pieces of still burning canvas doted around some of the twisted steel girders.

Bridger heard Jack call more instructions to the fire crew. “Clear the bleachers before they ignite as well. Do a full sweep and damp down all of the hotspots you find.” He could see another three hoses trailing away from the screaming pump on the fire appliance. The two-man crews on each line, visible now after the tents destruction, were struggling under the weight of a hose full of water to get it to the right place. A few minutes of what looked like a huge effort ensued before he saw one of the fire fighters raise his hand and call ‘water off’. The noise of the pump receded, leaving a ringing in his ears, the smell reminding him of November bonfires doused by spring rain.

“Well that’s that then… Time for your input I think Mike.” Jack had returned too where Bridger was standing with the others “It’s not often we get beaten to a fire by the Police who were not told about it in the first place, and for you to be at work at this time of night it must have been important.”

The question threw him for a second, with all the excitement he had almost forgotten about Maria. The reason they were there in the first place. Bridger looked around at the pockets of soot-blackened Carnies milling around the edges of the burnt out Big Top. Maria would be here somewhere, but whatever had caused the fire had just made their job that much harder. “We need to speak with one of the Carnival workers in relation to the death of Michael Wilson…” Bridger had an uneasy feeling building in his stomach the more he looked at the blackened mess. The evidence they needed was here somewhere. “Do you think any of the caravans have been damaged in the fire Jack?”

“I think they have been lucky tonight, the caravans look to be okay, the fire seems to have been contained in the area of the Big Top. Although anything inside that would be a goner, it would have been over a thousand degrees in there.”

Boss, over here…, we have got a couple of Crispies’

Bridger’s blood ran cold, the insensitive call from one the fire fighters had just told him something they did not need right now. A ‘Crispy’ was the wrong end of black humour, used by fire fighters to describe a death by fire. They now had two burnt bodies on their hands.

Jack Perry was already jogging over to the middle of the charred ring, Bridger and the others followed suit. Some of the Carnival workers had also heard the call and started too edge forward, wondering what the commotion was. Bridger saw Gillian and Steve approaching from the other side. “Keep everyone back from here will you Gill. They don’t need to see this.” He turned his attention back to what ‘this’ was.

Two blackened and charred forms lay huddled beside each other, what was left of their bodies fused together. Two inhuman heads, wizened and charred, were grinning at them from the mess of fat and black tissue. The smell of well-cooked meat was overpowering.

Bridger turned away and sucked in a deep breath in an effort to stop himself from vomiting.

 

 

 

Chapter Twelve

 

Bridger looked down at the hideous two-headed creature, birthed by fire, which was lying before him. He had cleared everybody away from the immediate area after the fire brigade had set up spotlights too light up the grizzly scene in a cold clinical light. The lights were now making it impossible for him to avoid any of the vile detail under their brightness. Becky was the only other person with him. Brian and Grant had taken the opportunity to move back to a safer distance, further away from the smell… and the horror.

“Who do you think they are Mike?” Becky’s stomach had obviously held stronger than his, her voice did not sound any different, despite the circumstances.

Bridger cleared his throat “I’m sure we will know soon enough once the word gets around, they will realise someone is missing and then we can start the identity procedures just too confirm that they have lost more of their friends.” Even as he said it, he knew it sounded clinical and detached, but what else could he be. This was not a happy Circus right now and things were just getting worse for them. He changed the subject.

“Can you smell that slight sulphurous smell, Becky?”

“Is that the one that is turning my stomach? Or is it the one stinging my eyes? There are a lot of things I can smell Mike, and I don’t like any of them.”

Bridger ignored Becky’s tone “The sulphurous smell comes from burning hair; there is an amino acid which has sulphur as a component inside the Keratin which is in our hair. When that burns, it gives off the smell…” realising Becky was looking at him in a strange way, he did not bother explaining any further “Anyway I can smell it quite clearly, these two possibly had a lot of hair…”

“This would mean they had long hair, nothing else, Mike. Men have long hair as well, these days; it does not mean these two were female.”

“You’re right Becky; sorry… it was just a theory, more something to say, really.” He did not want to think of the poor souls before him as female either; if he was honest with himself, he did not want to think of them as having been human at all.

“Oh my, Oh… what a terrible, terrible waste. You wouldn’t wish that on your worst enemies would you. And these poor souls never stood a chance.” Anthony Gonzales had pushed past Gillian and Steve and had approached from Bridger’s right. “You poor, poor souls…”

Bridger watched as Anthony crouched down beside the black glutinous pile, and put his hands out as if too stroke the hideous beast. Before he made contact, he stood up abruptly, inspecting his hands as if for contamination. “I guess we can replace them…,” he said, brushing his hands off “but it doesn’t make this any easier, does it.”

Bridger saw Becky tense up, and take a deep breath; he knew she was going to say something to Anthony about what she had just heard. She would not be able to help herself. Bridger decided to get in first. “Do you know who they were, Mr Gonzales?”

“Arielle and Arrabella…, our two performing Apes. They were the only two of their kind in New Zealand. We always keep their cages inside the main tent at night, its warmer for them and they get less agitated. They are… uh, were, more like us than you know Sergeant.”

Bridger actually felt a flood of relief wash through him, they were not human, and as hard as it sounded they were now not his responsibility. He saw Becky visibly relax as well; her earlier agitation at Anthony’s callous comment had apparently gone; now she too knew they were not human. “It’s still not a very nice thing to happen Mr Gonzales, what with everything else going on. They must almost be like pets to you and your colleagues.”

“Y-Yes, I guess they were.” Anthony’s eyes betrayed a slight indifference as he spoke his words. It was as if he did not really care either way. “Anyway, I’m sure you will do your best to find who started this fire. It certainly was not an accident; we are very fastidious about safety around here. You have to be with everything we have invested in this enterprise. If it hadn’t been for our Clowns then it could have been a lot worse.”

“What do you mean, Mr Gonzales?” Becky spoke up.

“Maria Staverly and one of her…uh… conquests…, they were in the tent when the fire started. They were away on one of Maria’s Trips. They were both apparently so far gone, as is usual for Maria, that they would not even have known what was happening. The Clowns dragged them too safety, just as the fire really took hold. A few seconds later and you would have been looking at four bodies in here.”

“Where is Maria now?”

Anthony pointed over to the roadside, where an ambulance sat with blinking lights in the darkness. “They are both over there in the ambulance, no real harm done apparently.”

Bridger did not wait for anything else from Anthony, motioning to Brian and Grant to join them; he started walking purposefully towards the ambulance. He could feel Anthony’s stare drilling into his back, but did not care; he had a killer to lock up.

“This-Mon-keys-gone-to-heaven… This-Mon-keys-gone…” Grant’s not very tuneful voice was a little louder than it should have been in the circumstances. Bridger saw Becky look back at Grant reproachfully.

“What…? It’s an old Pixies song…, you must remember it Becky…”

“Not now Grant.” The smile on Grants face faded as Bridger put a stop to their conversation. He found himself smiling just a little in the darkness though; Grants black humour, well timed as always, broke the seriousness of the situation so his mind would deal with it a little easier. It cleared his head and made room for the next thing he had to do. As he got closer to the open rear doors of the Ambulance, he could see two figures sitting either side of the narrow space. The one with the coloured cast on her wrist was his intended target, but the other one drew his attention. She was familiar. He knew this girl. When he reached the open doors, he stood, unable to think why he was looking at Jo Williamson sitting opposite Maria, face covered by an oxygen mask, her eyes showing slight confusion.

 

There was a slightly smoky odour in the confines of the interview room, even though it had been over three hours since the fire. Bridger could not tell if the smell was clinging to him or the sullen girl on the other side of the table. He found himself wondering if he had any clean clothes for the next day.

Maria Staverly was sitting across from him with her legs crossed and arms folded. There was a look of ‘I dare you’ on her face and she had an arrogance about her that got right up his nose.

It had thrown him a little too find Jo Williamson in the ambulance alongside Maria, it bought back the vivid memory of her in another ambulance at another frightful scene, not that long ago. Thankfully, it was second time lucky, he just hoped he would never have to see strike three and you’re out. He knew Jo was going through a tough time, but she still had some explaining to do about tonight. That was for another time though, as he had enough on his plate with this girl called Maria and her involvement in the death of Michael Wilson. He forced himself too concentrate on the task.

Neither Maria nor Jo had said what they were doing in the tent before the fire, and then the ambulance had taken them both to the hospital for a check before he could push the subject any further. They had not even found the top they were looking for in the first search of Maria’s caravan. He had inspected Maria’s cast for the drops of blood he had seen, but it was covered in soot and dirt, not surprising considering, but she would have cleaned it anyway, he was sure of it.

He was at a loss with what to do about Jo, so had sent her home with Becky after being checked over at the hospital. He had then persuaded Maria that it was in her best interest to come into the police station, just too talk. She was not under arrest, as he did not feel he had enough evidence yet, without the top, but she had requested to speak with a lawyer anyway. They were currently sitting patiently in the interview room, awaiting her duty lawyer too arrive.

Bridger studied the girl in front of him, she had relatively clear eyes considering. One of the Ambulance officers back at the fire had told him that they had given both girls something to bring them down. It must have been powerful stuff, as whatever it was that Maria and Jo had taken, it looked too have completely worn off. The magic of modern medicine could rectify the overindulgence of the curious and the hardened user alike, a sort of safety net for an unfortunate human condition.

She had a slightly cherubic look, which almost endeared her too him, he could not imagine her being able to kill, but still, the bloody top he had seen her wearing spoke volumes. She certainly looked strong enough. She had to speak up for the evidence against her, give an account. It was the way policing and investigations worked.

He had wanted to start this conversation before her lawyer got involved. Most lawyers would just advise to say nothing if police did not present enough evidence to hurt their clients. The fact the lawyer had wanted to come in personally and not just dish out advice over the telephone, as was the usual custom, slightly puzzled him. Lawyers did not usually like leaving their office space, or their comfortable homes, especially at this time of night. Police stations were places they had very little control over, their office was their environment, just like the courtroom. It was where they felt most comfortable. The custody sergeant had arranged everything for Maria though and so he had no say in it.

He remained quiet, with the sullen girl staring back at him. A slightly awkward silence between them, like a father and daughter, in the throes of well meaning advice dished out about an unsuitable boyfriend.

A knock on the door turned his head; Jane Little breezed into the room as only she could. Her sultry fragrance was the second thing he noticed after the high hemline of her skirt. Jane must have caught the direction of his gaze and she cleared her throat. Raising his eyes too hers, he could see a slight smile on her face.

“Hello again Mike…, can you give me some time with Miss Staverly please.” She was all business, but he had always found that slightly attractive about her

Bridger stood up as Jane brushed past him in the small room, her hand lingering on his hip a little longer than was appropriate. He found himself getting slightly aroused and then silently scolded himself for how appropriate that was. “I will be in the office when you are done.” Bridger was speaking to Jane’s back as she sat down in front of Maria, she acknowledged him without turning around with a wave of her hand. He caught an amused look in Maria’s eyes as he backed out of the room and closed the door.

Why did Jane always make him feel like a little boy? Even Maria had sensed it; he had seen her appraising him with a puzzled look. He knew it was those feelings that had ultimately led to the dismantling of his marriage. Should he be feeling guilty right now? Laura had made it clear they were not going anywhere fast, but he could not help it. He needed to concentrate on Maria, and the blood on her top.

Walking into the office he saw Grant and Brian standing in the corner by his desk computer, they were watching the Zebra clip from earlier.

“Did you find the top?” Bridger saw them both jump in the semi darkness.

“No sign of it Boss” Grant looked a bit sheepish “We were having another look at it on the clip, just in case we missed it. You know how all girls clothes seem too look alike, and she had a lot of costumes in that caravan.”

“I’m pretty sure we did not miss it, Mike” Brian spoke up “If it is still there, I reckon she has hidden it…, or destroyed it.”

Bridger agreed, “Which makes her even guiltier in my eyes… How about Reece Coster, any sign of him?”

“He’s not at his flat, we don’t really know where else to look. Stan Walton and his surveillance boys are working on a few possibilities, they will let us know if he shows his face anywhere. I have given them my number, and Gillian and Steve are working all night, so they can make the arrest if he shows up.”

“Cheers Grant, it would be good to have them both here before we start any interviews, it’s easier to compare stories that way.”

Jane Little walked into the room behind them and cleared her throat. “Good evening gentleman, I hope I’m not interrupting anything.”

Bridger turned and saw her eyes wander over to the computer monitor that was currently displaying the image of the defiled Zebra. Raising her eyebrows, she looked back at him.

“Miss Staverly denies any involvement in the murder, she wants to cooperate but only if you treat her as a witness and not a suspect.”

“She has blood on her top, and cast, that were not there when she left the hospital, she has too explain that at least. She has to be a suspect.”

“There is no blood on her cast now, Mike, and you don’t have the top.”

“Not yet”

“Maria is willing to let you know where the top is, just too show good will, but only if you listen to her side of the story. She says she did not kill Mr Wilson; I have no idea of the veracity of that statement. That is your job to work out. But right now that is all you are going to get.”

Bridger did not like having someone dictate the rules of the game, especially by someone who has the evidence stacked against her, but right now, he was grasping at straws without the top. “Okay, I’m willing to listen, but I’m not making any deals with her. If she gives us the top, the blood turns out to be Mr Wilsons and her side of the story does not stack up, then she has to take her chances in court.”

“I will let her know…” Jane’s eyes bored into his “Two more things Mike, first, as she is not under arrest, she would like to go home for the night and return voluntarily in the morning.”

Bridger did not like that idea, but could not see any way to keep her in overnight without charging her. “And the second?”

“She will only speak with Jo Williamson…”

 

 

 

Chapter Thirteen

 

Reece Coster opened his eyes and a sharp pain shot through his forehead almost immediately, making him wince. Bloody hell…, he needed a drink of water, his mouth felt like it was full of cotton wool, and his limbs felt weak and useless. That drink might have to wait just a little bit until he woke up more. It was just a typical hangover though, nothing he had not experienced before. There was a strong smell clinging to his clothes and dank hair, sniffing distastefully he detected a hint of smoke sitting over a stronger odour he could not place. The fire came back to him. He had actually done it, direct action that would make everybody sit up and take notice. He wanted to savour the thought, but last night’s mission was a bit hazy; he remembered setting light to the tent, although he could not recall what he had done after the fire. Whatever it was, it must have been awesome. Hangovers like this did not come along every day.

Hair of the dog is just what the doctor would order. Stuff the water; he needed another real drink, keep celebrating last night’s victory. More of the spectacle came back to him. Those flames were so pretty, they had spread faster than he thought, and that tent was gone in a matter of minutes. Faster than any fire engine. The heat and the brightness were intense, a very sharp contrast to where he was now. Looking around, he noticed the room was unusually dark, he could not see much past his nose and somehow he had ended up sleeping on the floor. Maybe he had pulled… and the girl had kicked him out of bed at the last minute. It had happened before; he was no good for anything when he had too much to drink. What was that rancid smell? His hands automatically went to his pants, just in case he had soiled himself. There was nothing there, but there was stuff all over the floor, it felt like straw. Maybe he had torn his mattress, and that is why he ended up on the floor. He tried to speak, just see what the girl sounded like, or if she was still pissed at him. He hoped she was hot; he hated having to pretend he was interested when she looked like a bush pig. That is what the smell reminded him of…, animals. The same smell as the circus. Maybe he was with the circus slut from the other night.

“Hello sexy, are you up for a dawn breaker?” He spoke into the darkness. Might as well get right to the point, if you don’t ask, you don’t get.

There was no reply. Maybe she was still asleep; he wondered what time it was. It was still dark here on the floor. He fumbled for the side of the bed, arms flaying in the black space before him. Not feeling anything, his sluggish brain kicked into gear, a slight feeling of fear started to seep into his consciousness. Kicking out, his foot collided painfully with something solid, hidden in the darkness. Sitting upright, he reached as far as he could to one side. Cold steel grazed his touch; reaching to the other side, he felt the same sensation. What in the hell is this…

 

The media were in frenzy, there were reporters from both print and television camped under the large front awning of the central police station. Cameras were blinking at serious presenters with serious by-lines and shocking sound bites to inform the masses over breakfast of Dunedin’s latest atrocity. Bridger, seen before he had the chance to slip inside the safety of the building, could only watch helplessly as the media scrum pushed its way in his direction.

Sergeant Bridger, is the tent fire connected to the murder?”

First the murder, then the animals, now the fire, there must be a connection…”

Pushing his way through the mêlée, he could only nod and shrug his shoulders. He did not want to comment at all. He had no idea himself what was going on. Circuses were supposed to be fun; this one was imploding more with each day and he felt like he was chasing his tail.

What about the protesters? Surely they would be suspects.”

Has there already been an arrest in this case that you are not telling us about?”

Bridger knew that many reporters had friendly police officers that gave them the odd titbit of information occasionally, but this reporter was just fishing. No one outside of his team knew about Maria and he trusted each of them not to speak out of turn.

Have the police lost control of this investigation…?”

Trying his best not to rise to the bait, Bridger made it to the front door and pushed his way into the relative quiet of the foyer. Steve Kirkland was behind the front counter, his eyes puffy and bloodshot with tiredness. Bridger was glad he did not have to do night shifts anymore. He needed his beauty sleep too much.

“Morning Mike”

“Morning Steve, any sign of Reece Coster overnight?”

“Not a dickey-bird. Although, if he was the one who set that tent on fire, then he will probably be laying low. That was one big burn…, it reminded me a bit of the bonfires we had as kids…” Steve’s face went a little red. “Except, it was only Guys that we used to burn… forget that… I know they were only Monkeys… But…”

“It’s okay; I know what you mean Steve. I am glad they were only Monkeys. Two more bodies is something we do not need right now.”

“Yeah, that’s one thing I suppose.” Steve looked less uncomfortable now “Inspector Allyson is in the back office waiting for you. She has a reporter with her, told me to send you in as soon as you arrived.”

Bridger cringed inwardly; two things that he disliked the most were bosses and reporters. Now he had both in one room together, there was not much he could do about it now though. Putting on his best, ‘I care’, face, he straightened his tie a little before going through the internal doors. He needed this distraction just as he needed a hole in the head.

“There you are Mike; I was beginning to think you had slept in.”

Inspector Amanda Allyson’s voice was friendly and business like in one breath, something that put Bridger on edge. Looking at his wristwatch he saw the time was only seven fifteen in the morning, early by his standards. He was going to say something about that, but stopped himself, he did not know enough about his temporary boss to know how to read her mood. “Sorry Ma’am, I got held up out the front by that wake of vultures…” The words had left his mouth before he thought about them. The petite female dressed in a crisp skirt and jacket standing next to his boss smiled thinly at him. Her face was slightly familiar.

“Sergeant, this is Kate Atkinson, she is with the Daily Times.” The inspector’s voice had lost any friendliness it had and was now all business. “Kate would like to speak to you in relation to the enquiry you are currently pursuing. I gave her permission to take some of your valuable time this morning. Please make yourself available.” She turned to Kate “Don’t worry, he won’t bite…”

Both females laughed before Inspector Allyson turned and walked towards the elevators, leaving the reporter he had just insulted standing there looking at him with a look he could not quite interpret. He did not know what Miss Atkinson could offer that would give her more access to his time than the other birds of prey outside the front door, but whatever it was, the Inspector had spoken. He had about two hours before Jane Little and Maria would be here to speak with him.

“Miss Atkinson…, would you like to come up to my office?”

“How about we go to that little café around the corner, grab a coffee.” Kate smiled and looked around “Police stations always make me nervous.”

 

Because of the early time, the streets were full of busy people in pressed suits on their way to busy jobs. They all had takeaway coffee cups in one hand and briefcases or purses clutched precariously with one finger underneath the mandatory cellphone. Coffee and social media looked like the breakfast of choice for the working masses.

They had slipped out the back door to bypass the media scrum packed down at the front. Kate Atkinson had not said a word on the way to the café, even though she was walking beside him and he began to feel a little uncomfortable. Had he actually angered her with his comments back at the Police station? He hoped not.

Something flashed in his periphery and a Clowns image jumped off the wall beside him, making him stumble slightly. His heart started to race a little before he realised sheepishly that it was just a poster. The face smiled at him, but with a sinister undertone, one that spoke of there being a price to pay for his joviality. He shook the thought from his head and glanced back at Kate; she did not appear to have noticed his boyish fright at the poster and was engrossed in negotiating the busy footpath.

She looked so ordinary, pretty, but ordinary. Why Kate, out of all of the others, had access to their information escaped him. He nearly walked into the back of her as she stood to one side to let a group of suits high on caffeine jostle their way back onto the street. Shaking his head again, he had to force himself to concentrate. The coffee shop Kate had led him too was directly across from Jane Little’s office building and he found himself subconsciously trying to stay out of the sightline for her office windows on the second floor as they waited for the mêlée to clear. Once inside, Kate chose a table beside the window and sat down. He could not read her expression as she already had her face buried in a menu.

Bridger put on his best placating smile and sat down in front of her. “Miss Atkinson, I’m sorry about my comment before, I don’t really think you are all vultures… I open my mouth before thinking sometimes.” He was actually glad she had chosen the café so he did not have to apologise in front of his colleagues back at the office.

Kate smiled, with more warmth this time. “It’s okay Sergeant, you should hear how we speak about you lot in my office sometimes… Please, call me Kate, and for the record, I do think we can be a little over zealous at times.” She had a slight lilt in her voice and she rolled her R’s a little, like many did in this part of the country.

“It was you…, the other day, weren’t it?” Bridger had remembered where he had seen her before, the serious face, the lilt in her voice. “You asked me if Michael Wilson was gay. Why was that?”

“Let’s just say a girl can tell sometimes, and no… you are most definitely not… in case you were wondering…” Kate smiled slightly as she spoke, and waved the staff member over. “I asked because I think he is gay, although he has never let on to anyone that I know of. He and Anthony Gonzales have been… were, in relationship. It is the worst kept secret in the Circus, although no one has ever come out and told me, more sort of innuendos. I am not so sure it makes a difference though…, each too their own and all that.”

Bridger was beginning to like this reporter; he just hoped he had not been staring at her chest too long, realising where his eyes were resting.

“What can I get you two this morning?” The middle-aged woman standing in front of them looked at Bridger and raised her eyebrow as if he and Kate made an odd couple.

“Just a coffee for me…” he looked at Kate who proceeded to order a large breakfast off the menu.

“You are paying aren’t you?”

Bridger instinctively felt for his wallet, wondering if she was joking or not. He could see the middle-aged woman smirk as she turned and left with their order. He turned his attention back to Kate.

“So, Kate, what brings you to see me this morning…?”

He watched as she reached into her handbag and pulled out a folded A4 size piece of paper. Placing it in front of him, she opened it up, smoothing it down with her hand.

“This…”

Bridger could see it was a photocopy of what looked like an old newspaper article; he looked back at her questioningly.

“It’s an article from the Otago Witness in 1876; I found it years ago while I was studying for my degree. It is about Wilson’s Circus… at least, what was Wilsons Circus back then. This is the same Circus as the one in town now.”

“I’m sorry Kate but I don’t follow… how do you think this can help?”

“Well…,” Kate looked uncertain now that Bridger had expressed his doubts. “I guess it may give you an insight into how this Circus actually operates. I have done numerous interviews and stories on this Circus whenever it comes to town and I even spoke with Irish Mick last time, which is why I think he was gay, or at least bi-sexual. He didn’t say anything, but I could just sense it.”

“What sort of stories do you write about the Circus?”

“It all stems back to the article, I like the historical nature of it all, it is as if I am continuing to document what the author of this article started all those years ago, sort of like a Circus legacy. I wanted to see if what was written affected the Circus in anyway. If you read the article, you will see it is not exactly a glowing review. I guess that these days it does not matter so much… less competition. Did you know that Wilson’s is one of only two Circus’s based in New Zealand?”

“No I didn’t Kate, but I still don’t understand how this helps.”

He saw Kate look at him like the long-suffering mother of an idiot child and felt his cheeks flush. What did she expect; she was not being very clear about where this was going. On the other hand, was he not seeing something that he should?

Kate sucked a breath in and spoke slowly. “Let me run you through this…”

 

Bridger had left Kate at the café to finish her breakfast. She had actually refused his offer to pay for it, telling him she was going to eat there anyway. The smell of her food had made him hungry as well and he had picked up a sausage roll on the way back to the office. Flakes of pastry had fallen on his desk and he brushed them onto the floor with his hand, feeling only slightly guilty that the cleaners would think he was a pig. He had briefed Brian, Grant, and Becky, on the outcome of his lecture from Kate Atkinson. She had been right, the Circus did not sound like a very happy place. She had not just covered the show itself when writing her articles, but the very nature of what it was like to live that life. The hardships of touring an act on a shoe string budget. Big animals, bigger personalities, dwindling audiences, it all led to a very unhappy place. There had even been a suicide after an affair between the troupes members had surfaced; Kate could not elaborate much more on this, as no one had really been willing to speak much about it.

Unfortunately, this information had just widened his pool of suspects; each with their own reasons for wanting Irish Mick, the Ringmaster extraordinaire, out of the way. Dead was always another story though and in his opinion, it was mostly those closest to you that would deliver the fatal blows. What he had discovered about Maria certainly changed his attitude towards her guilt, but which way, of that he was not so sure of anymore.

Brian had suggested they revisit the living quarters of the deceased and see if they had missed anything, and had taken the other two with him. All he needed to do was sort out Jo Williamson before the interview with Maria.

“What I don’t understand Jo, is why you were there with Maria in the first place?” Bridger was sitting on the edge of his desk with Jo standing in the middle of the office, looking slightly sheepish. The phone rang, behind him, but he ignored the call, trying to give Jo a chance to explain her actions.

“I don’t know Sergeant…, I am a little blurry on everything after I got there, but I went in because I needed to ask her something.”

“What about?”

Jo did not answer straight away, instead she looked at the floor, and Bridger could see her biting on her bottom lip. “It’s… its personal…” She spoke to the floor in a small voice.

“Personal or not, you could have compromised this investigation… you do realise that?” He saw Jo nod her head slightly, eyes still down. “Luckily for you Maria seems to have some sort of bond with you.” Jo’s cheeks flushed as he said this. As hard as Bridger tried, he could not get angry with her. She was obviously ashamed of her actions, and knew the last thing she would have done on purpose was disrupt an investigation. “I know you have had an extremely rough time of it lately, so if you don’t feel up to it, just say. We don’t normally let suspects dictate the terms of an interview.”

Jo looked up and held Bridger’s gaze. “I am up to this Sergeant, I need to work. Last night was…, was…” She looked to be struggling with the word she wanted.

Bridger let her off, “Just tell me when you are ready to Jo”

There was a knock on the door, which turned their heads.

“Excuse me Mike.” Julie Downie’s friendly smile looked in on them “Ms Little and her client are here to see you; she told me you had an appointment?” Julie Downie was a civilian employee; she did a number of things around the police station, including fetching errant police officers who did not answer their phones. Looking at his wristwatch, he realised the time. Bridger felt slightly bad that he had made her come up to the second floor just to tell him something he should already know.

The previous evening, Jane had talked him into releasing Maria into her care, guaranteeing she would have her come back of her own free will this morning to speak to them as arranged. It was not ideal, but he had no option, he did not have the evidence to arrest her. There had been an ulterior motive behind her request as well though; she thought it would be better to have a certain Detective Sergeant in her house to help keep an eye on her. Bridger sniffed at his smoky clothes, he wished he had had enough time to go home and change this morning before work.

He thanked Julie and motioned for Jo to follow him out of the office. Whether or not Maria were guilty would come clear in the next couple of hours, she had already indicated her denials, but if she provided the top as promised she would have a hard time explaining the blood on it. There were also other things to clear up, thanks to Kate Atkinson and her judicious reporting of the life and times of Wilson’s Circus. He looked forward to hearing Maria’s story.

 

 

 

Chapter Fourteen

 

Reece Coster wanted to scream for help, he wanted to be out of this dark, smelly place, he wanted to go home, but he could not do either. He had felt steel walls on every side of him, close enough to touch with his arms outstretched, and when he had yelled for someone to help, all he got was a deep rumbling reply. An animalistic sound that had intensified with every shout he made. It frightened him, the noise, hidden in the darkness. It had to be the lion, he must be very near, and so he remained silent, sitting against the cold wall, staring into the darkness. He could hear it breathing and snorting, moving from side to side. Agitated and trapped. If he moved, he knew the Lion would sense it, and it would tear him to bits. Better to remain silent.

Six years with P.A.A.I.N and he had not actually thought a lot about the reality of what they stood for. He felt it now though, trapped, caged, and scared. The darkness closed in on him and he started crying. The things he had done came back to him, bad things, not done for the animals, but only for him. P.A.A.I.N had just been a way to feed his ego, build his legend. He wanted to go back and start again but he knew it was impossible. He was sorry for the fire. He was sorry for the girl; she did not know what she was doing. She was so out of it on something; he was able to do as he pleased with her. He was most sorry for not speaking up though; telling someone, anybody, what he did that night. Telling them how that Circus man had died.

“Why did I go into that alleyway…, it all started there.” He felt his breathing quicken, he was getting a little panicked. “It is not too late, I can put this right. I just need to tell the truth…” He was talking aloud, looking into the darkness for his saviour. “If I get out of here that is the first thing I will do.” Closing his eyes against the blackness he did something he had never done before, he started praying. “Please God… or whoever in the hell you are up there; get me out of this shithole. I am sorry… I want to go home now.”

 

Maria Staverly sat across the table from them dressed in sweat pants and a t-shirt. Jane Little was sitting on her right, she had dressed in a more business like jacket and skirt, which was different from what Bridger remembered her wearing that morning. Then she was not wearing much when he had left her flat just before seven, something Bridger was trying to put to the back of his mind. Maria was glancing furtively at Jo who was sitting next to him and he noticed Jo was starting to blush and kept looking at the notes she had placed in front of her. Jane was all business, but she had brushed his foot beneath the table with hers as they had sat down. The atmosphere in the small stuffy room was electric.

“Right, let’s get started then…, Maria, do you have the item of clothing you promised us?”

Maria reached down beside her chair and lifted the bloodied costume onto the table. “This is the top I was wearing the other night…, when Mick died…. It has blood on the front…, I have no idea whose blood it is or how it got onto the top. I’m here to answer your questions as best I can…” Maria’s voice sounded mechanical and she looked at Jane for confirmation.

“That’s right,” Jane was looking directly at him “as we discussed Mike, Maria is here of her own free will and will answer your questions to the best of her ability. However I would like it formally noted that she denies having anything to do with the murder of Michael Wilson, and she does not know the current whereabouts of Reece Coster.”

Well that was him told. Bridger took the package with the top, placing it down beside him then looked at Jo to start the interview as they had discussed. Jo began speaking in a semi formal manner and he switched off slightly as she went through the process of outlining Maria’s various rights while she was with them, his mind was already contemplating what her answers would be to the questions they had for her now. He looked closely at Maria, the arrogant look was still evident but a slightly nervous slant had found its way in. The way her eyes kept glancing around, not making contact with his, and the way she kept wetting her lips with her tongue. These things he had seen before on the guilty and the nervous alike. Which was she? He could not tell. Reading the female species was not his strong suit.

He tried to imagine her on the ropes, doing what she did for the audience on a nightly basis. She looked physically fit and strong enough, but then she would have to be. When he was a child his parents’ had taken him to the Circus, everything and everyone had seemed larger than life. The Clowns, the Acrobats, the animals, it was a magical world. The girl sitting before them just seemed so ordinary in comparison, was she an ordinary killer? She was denying it. Her response to Jo’s first question was to claim amnesia, due to having been on extremely strong painkillers. She could not remember anything after leaving the hospital. From what the medics had told him last night about her drug of choice, it was not surprising she did not remember anything when she took them.

Maria had fallen asleep as soon as she reached Jane’s house the previous evening, a side effect of the drugs pumped into her system to counteract the ones she had taken. She had no idea Bridger had stayed over with Jane.

Would Maria be capable of the killing in that state? It was possible, but Reece Coster was now his first choice as killer, possibly working with Maria…

Jo had already shown Maria the CCTV footage of her leaving the hospital, and had now started the clip of her and Reece from the P.A.A.I.N website. Bridger watched her face to gauge any reaction. Jane was trying not to look at what the flickering screen portrayed, an unfamiliar redness was showing on her cheeks, but Maria was starring at it intently. The look on her face was one of interest, not one of embarrassment or repulsion at having her intimate actions broadcast for all to see. He even saw a flicker of a smile, very brief, but still a strange reaction to her predicament.

Bridger heard Jo draw in a deep breath beside him. “As you can see, the top you were wearing does not have any blood on it when you leave the hospital, but it is plainly visible in this shot, can you explain that?” Jo’s voice was sharp and she looked embarrassed, or it may have been a slight anger in her expression, having watched the clip for the first time in front Maria.

“Are you Jealous?” Maria’s smile had a cold edge to it. “I didn’t ask you to come over last night, you just turned up.”

“Answer the question please.”

It sounded like things were about to get heated between the two younger females in the room. He saw Jane was biting her bottom lip. It was something they needed to clarify for the record so Bridger waited for her answer.

“If it makes you feel any better Jo, I’m seeing this for the first time myself, and I don’t remember anything about that night. I don’t even know who that is…” Maria looked at Jo and Bridger in turn, then at Jane. Jane’s expression did not give anything away; she just nodded at her client and Maria continued. “I don’t know how the blood got onto my top. You have it there, test it and see whose blood is on it, I have no idea. I cannot explain it.”

Bridger believed her that she did not remember, but ignorance or incapacitation is never an easy alibi to sell. She would have a hard time explaining to a jury why it was she did not recall, especially as, if the blood belonged to Wilson then the evidence clearly pointed to her being at the scene of his death. Bridger just had to work out what her involvement in it would have been. He looked at Jane. “Can I speak with you outside a moment, Ms Little.”

Jane nodded and they both stepped out of the room, Jane brushing close to him as she went through the door. Bridger closed it behind them, leaving Maria with Jo. “Jane, would your client be open to revisiting the scene? Maybe walk through the area from the hospital to where it happened. It may jog her memory a little, she may remember something she saw or heard.”

Jane looked back at the door to the interview room and pursed her lips. “I don’t see a problem with that; it would be good to get out of that stuffy little room. You still smell faintly of smoke and its playing up with my sinuses. Maybe you should have changed your clothes this morning.” She smiled conspiratorially “When do you want to do it?”

“Now would be good.”

 

It did not take long to drive from the central police station a couple of blocks north to the entrance to the accident and emergency clinic at the Dunedin hospital. Bridger parked just inside the ambulance entrance, in what was normally reserved for staff, there were no free spaces on the roadside anywhere near the hospital at this time of the day, and he had seen a parking warden prowling nearby on his motor scooter. Jane had followed him in with Maria and parked a few spaces along. Bridger and Jo got out of the car and stood beside it, waiting for Jane and Maria to make their way over. Jo hadn’t said anything on the short journey, she may have been still slightly embarrassed about their earlier talk, either way it suited Bridger as he was at a loss as to her behaviour and would not know what to say to her at this point anyway.

“Are you sure this is okay Mike” Jane said as she approached, indicating their parking choice.

“It won’t take long Jane, we just need as quick walk through, by the time they realise we are parked here and arrange for someone to do something about it, we will be gone again.”

Jane grinned. “That’s what I like about you Mike, your devilish attitude to rules.”

Maria stood off to one side; she was glancing around the place, as if she was a little nervous. Jo had stayed on her side of the car, as if using it as some sort of barrier between her and Maria, very odd behaviour.

Bridger addressed Maria, making her jump a little, as he interrupted her nervous glancing. “Right Maria, we need to walk you through what happened the other night. The purpose of this is to see if it will stir a memory, you may see something that may help.” Maria just nodded. “Let’s start over by the door of the hospital shall we?”

Jo had taken out her notebook as she joined them by the door and began writing, Bridger had not thought to bring his, and not one for note taking normally he tried to rely on his memory. He would sometimes miss things if he spent too much time trying to record every detail, so had given the practice away. He was still glad Jo was taking some notes.

“Maria… Maria, look over here please.” Bridger recognised the lilt in the voice and looked behind them to see Kate Atkinson standing with her camera. How did she know what they were doing? He looked at Jane who would not catch his eye, preferring to look at Maria.

Maria stood in the doorway of the hospital, except for the clothes it was almost like watching the CCTV footage, and Kate was clicking away on her camera capturing a similar scene to that of the other night. Maria had noticed the camera and her demeanour had changed slightly, the performer taking centre stage once more. Her movements became almost practiced, more precise, as if she was following a script. Bridger watched as she looked up at the CCTV camera and smiled, exactly as she had the other night. Maria began to move, almost trance like, placing an imaginary item in the bins before walking slowly out towards the road. Kate followed close behind, her camera working overtime. All Bridger could do was to follow the performance a short distance behind, along with Jane and Jo. Whatever affect Kate’s camera was having on the young acrobat, he did not want to break the moment.

Maria moved onto the road, not caring too much about the passing cars, deftly weaving between them as she crossed too the other side. Every so often, she would glance up, appearing to gaze into the sky for no reason. Bridger followed her line of sight and saw what she was looking at. Tiny CCTV cameras were looking back at them; he had not seen these before. There was one on a pole at the entrance to the car park, and another on the old Hercus Building across the road. Positioned to view the street outside, it would look directly at the entrance to the alleyway.

“Jo, do you know who these cameras are controlled by?”

“I’m not sure; maybe the council for the one looking at the gate area, but the Medical school may have something to do with the camera on the building. Wouldn’t we have retrieved all the footage from the cameras in the immediate area already?”

“I’m sure I haven’t seen anything come across my desk relating to anything outside of the hospital.” Kicking himself silently, he made a mental note to retrieve the footage as soon as he could.

Maria had moved into the alleyway, she was working on autopilot now. She had already told them she did not remember anything outside of the hospital, but being here now, it looked like she had practiced this route before. Maybe she had walked this route before. Bridger had no idea how many times she had visited Dunedin in the past. If she had, a girl of her age would have sampled the nightlife. It made sense. Many students used the alleyway as a short cut to reach the Robbie Burns Hotel; her peer group would have included those students. They were the ones who would have offered the good times she wanted. She would have been through here before. If she had done it before, she could have walked this way into town in any state of sobriety. Her story of not being involved seemed to be unravelling the more she walked.

Maria stopped suddenly and looked blankly at the brick wall to her left, lifting a hand to it and stroking it downwards. Bridger looked at what she saw and the same Clowns face that he had reacted to earlier with Kate stared back at him. There were a lot more of them this time, lined up side by side on the wall, like a ramshackle army of false smiles and laughs. They were nothing more than advertising posters – Wilsons Circus gives back, come and see the life of a travelling carnival as we march down George Street – for some sort of parade. Maria started moving again, taking his attention from the small print.

He felt himself tense up a little as they reached the area where Michael Wilson’s cold pale body had lain in a pool of bodily fluids less than a few days ago. There was no sign of him now though, not even a stain. The cleanup crew had sanitised the place well, well enough for the hordes of students to walk through oblivious, telling each other the ghost stories that would now have a ring of truth. Life goes on.

It looked as if Maria’s subconscious had given her pause, Bridger watched her stop and look around. Watching her eyes as she looked at her upturned palms as if reading something, and then as she turned and looked towards the fence behind her. Her eyes became confused for a second before she turned and looked at one spot in particular. Her eyes did not move and her body began to tremble slightly. Bridger realised that she was staring at the empty space against the brick where Wilson had been. The pavement was slightly cleaner in that area, not surprising with the scrubbing it would have had, but still it would not have been immediately obvious…, unless you knew where to look. Maria knew where to look, she had not been shown any photographs, and she looked directly at it without prompting. Maria had been involved.

Sometimes the most obvious answer was the right one. You did not have to be too clever about things, or over think them, it just complicated a simple answer.

“I have seen enough…” Bridger addressed Jane. “Maria will be coming back to the police station with us Jane.” He heard Jo suck in a breath beside him. He spoke again before Jane could reply. “Jo, will you conduct the arrest please.”

Jo moved towards Maria and placed a hand on her shoulder. She spoke quietly “Maria Staverly, I’m arresting you in connection with the death of Michael Wilson.”

Maria did not reply, instead she stared back defiantly, with a fire behind her eyes.

 

 

 

Chapter Fifteen

 

Maria had said nothing to the police throughout the procedure she had just undergone. It was so demeaning, almost intrusive. They had even taken her DNA by mouth swab. She had half expected to be strip-searched and have her cavities inspected as well. Although she would not have minded so much if Jo Williamson had been the one to do that. She quickly scolded herself for having such a thought while confined in the little concrete room they had put her.

Jo had been so forceful in her voice when she arrested her, but she could see the uncertainty in her eyes and the slight pinkness of her cheeks. She knew Jo did not have the conviction of her actions. It was plain to see. Sitting on the edge of the small bed, she looked at the concrete wall a few feet from her eyes. Thoughts of denial kept bouncing around in her head. Did she deserve this? Had she actually done something? Had she hurt the only man who was like a father figure to her? A single tear ran down her cheek, wiping it with her hand she licked the salty taste off her fingers. Crying was an emotional response that she found strange, not one prone to the more girly side of her gender. Were they Crocodile tears, or tears of guilt? She had no idea. Her little blue friend had seen to that, just as it had seen to most of her life, shielding her from reality. Irish Mick was murdered, and they arrested her, there had to be some truth in that. She felt her stomach tighten as a sob forced its way upwards making her body heave as she let herself go. Floods of tears came now, real tears, tears only for herself, for her life. She had to cling on to the thought of Jo; she would sort this whole thing out. Jo would know what to do. She would cling to that.

 

“There is an actual Clown standing outside in the alleyway, beside the back gate.” Brian said, as he entered the office. He walked over to the window and looked down towards the street; Bridger moved over and stood beside him. “He is just standing there. I asked him what he wanted but he did not say anything, he just looked back at me with that silly painted smile they have. His eyes looked fiery though, it was unnerving. Don’t they ever get out of character?”

Bridger had no idea, so just shrugged his shoulders.

“I guess they have heard about Maria… Do you think she did it Mike?”

“I’m not sure Brian, but my gut says she did.” Bridger was looking out towards the alleyway but could not see the clown. “She knew exactly where Michael Wilson’s body was on the night. She has unexplained blood on her top. She has convenient amnesia of that time. It all adds up.”

“Well, I have tasked Grant and Becky to sort out the forensics on the top. The person I spoke too at the lab said they would fast track the testing. We should have the results in the morning.”

“Thanks Brian. I think it is certain to be Wilson’s blood; there are not too many other explanations that I can think of. All said and done, I think we have a strong case against Maria. ”

As he said this, something was bugging Bridger. The arrest had not brought the feeling of satisfaction that he normally got when turning the key on a killer. Looking at Brian’s calm features, there did not seem any doubt in his expression. He just hoped he had made the right decision.

“What about our friend Reece Coster?”

“We have to find him first Brian, he has gone to ground. Possibly because of the tent fire, but it may be more than that, given his interaction with Maria on the night of Wilsons death.”

Grant and Becky entered the office behind them interrupting the conversation; Bridger turned around and caught a strange look on Grant’s face.

“Did you know there is a Clown standing in the alleyway outside the rear gate boss?”

“Yeah, I did Grant, Brian told me he was there when he came in.” Looking out of the window again, he tried to catch a glimpse of the strange sight. The strangely elusive colourful figure must have been standing in the shadow of the building, just out of sight. “He would be harmless enough though wouldn’t he? He’s just a clown after all…”

 

 

 

 

Part Two-

 

-The Clown

 

 

Chapter Sixteen

 

The stares just kept coming, but he was used to it. He had been stared at most of his life. The stares of wonderment and joy radiating from life’s audience had danced before his eyes for as long as he could remember. It was a look of fun and innocent trust, given so easily. He loved it, the adulation of the children, but he knew those stares were something that would always be the domain of the very young. The stares grew more mistrust in them the older they got. When you were older, a Clown outside of the big tent was an anomaly. Trust always diminished in the perceived lack of reality that Clowns displayed openly to the safe little worlds of the old. He blamed the fiction spewed from the minds of Authors trying to scare their audience with outlandish bullshit that never aligned with reality.

It was reality to him though, even if it was make believe to others. He lived the life. It was all he knew. Others knew nothing about him; they just saw the painted smile. However, it always seemed that something different was a threat to them, it made them scared, he knew that. They had all believed once, bloody hypocrites.

The horridness of some of the people in the world that the old inhabited, gave them their mistrust in the same something different that always bought them back to the tent. They mistrusted it, but they would always flock to it in a bid to escape their own reality for a while. Theirs was a reality fed to them by the media. His was just reality. When life turned to shit for them, they turned to the Clown for some harmless make believe; and the Clowns ruled that make-believe world. The ones that stared at him could laugh at inside the tent what they were scared of on the outside. It was a bit of a paradox really, but one that kept him going, and kept the audience coming back for more.

Right now, he saw his existence as it was. He watched as every little worker ant that entered into their concrete lair to hide behind the huge walls throw him a funny look as they passed. Had these Police officers not ever seen a Circus Clown before? Did they not have childhoods? Then he thought they had probably been born into their uniforms just as he had been born into his own. They must look at him with a certain amount of mistrust, not believing in anything outside of the blue they always wore, hidden behind their mask of authority. It always took a certain type of person to do certain things; they could not help who they were.

Those that had discarded their uniforms for the shirt and ties were the ones you had to watch out for though, they thought differently. These ones had made a choice within their own worlds, which made them dangerous. It did not happen in his world, once a Clown always a Clown. To shed the painted smile was to shun one’s own family. You could no longer trust someone who no longer wanted to smile and jest. The police without the uniforms were the same, they did not smile any more, and he saw more mistrust in them. They made out they were open to others lifestyle choices, but he knew differently. They did not always play by the rigid rules of those in blue, but they still did not believe. They were a Judas to their own.

He watched the news on television just like everyone else. He was not backwards. Time after time, he watched the suited Judas’s make their assumptions and then act upon them, blindly. Yesterday when the animals got out, he had seen that one man in the suit standing next to the other one dressed in black. The one in black looked like a killer ant with a gun, but the man in the suit looked like he was the one who wanted to shoot any of the animals that came near him. It was the way he stood, stupidly brave and scared at the same time. It was not the animals fault; they did not want to hurt anyone. They were just doing what came naturally. This man looked like he would rather that they be back in their cages. Police had a thing about cages.

This man was the one who held her in the cage now. He knew that. He also knew that one man’s belief, bolstered by subordinates trained to mould the evidence to fit, could ruin another’s life.

His fingers bunched into his palms, sharp fingernails biting at the skin. The arrogance that one’s assumption is correct without looking at the bigger picture made him angry. Behind the thick concrete wall in front of him was this man’s assumption, held in a cage, displayed like an animal. She was no killer, she was Circus, and she had loved Irish Mick, as they all had.

He sniffed at the air around him, the faint odour of precipitation danced around his nostrils, blown in by small blustery winds preceding a front. The sky above was blue, but there was a storm coming. He had weathered many storms in the past and would weather this one as well. Twenty-five years he had been performing, all of them had been with Wilsons. He was born into the circus. He had been a good Clown. He had made Mick laugh. Mick had been there the whole time, he was a fixture, and he was their boss. Irish Mick, the great, great grandson of Cyril Wilson, had been the man who was in charge of his future. They had all trusted him, and even though there were serious rumours about the financial state of the Circus, he was supposed to look after them. The Circus was an institution, and Clowns were part of that.

Now he, and all his brothers, for they were brothers, if not the real family he craved, had been set adrift amidst the turmoil of a failing show. Mick was dead; the tent was gone. It had been reduced too embers by fire and hate, and two beautiful creatures of god were taken from them. Anthony bloody Gonzales, their own Judas, was now at the helm of a ship that was sinking fast, and they blamed Maria. They were blind. There would be a reckoning; the Circus took care of their own. They had failed her once before, they would not do it again.

He stood stock-still and stared at the wall, lips pursed in determination behind the painted smile; he knew what he had to do.

 

Anthony Gonzales had searched the caravan from top to bottom and still he could not find it. The small safe tucked discreetly inside the cupboard at the rear was also empty. He was sure Mick would have kept it there. He would not have liked anyone else to see it, not that it was a big secret between the older members of the troupe. Most of them knew, or thought they knew, but not Maria. She must never know. They respected that fact, the Circus was a family, and families have secrets. You kept a secret to protect others. Mick had thought so too, at least he used to. He had worked hard all these years to keep this secret, even though it had hurt him deeply.

Anthony recalled the determined fire in Mick’s eyes before he had stormed out of the caravan that night. He was going to tell her, he had been sure of it. Only his death had stopped him before it came out, as Maria had not said anything since. Then drugs could do funny things to someone’s memory, nothing is ever as it seems with a cocktail of chemicals for company.

Taking a last look into the small interior of the safe, the only thing he could see was an old copy of the contract he had signed with Irish Mick. An unassuming piece of paper naming him, Anthony James Gonzales, as forty percent shareholder and business-partner in Wilsons Circus, trading under the name of Big-Top entertainment holdings limited.

That had been a great day in his life; he had finally made it to a point that he could make a difference for his family name again, revive the legacy. However, the things he had done to get there, things he was still doing, took a lot of the shine off that memory.

He looked out of the window at the smoking mess where the tent used to be, a sinking feeling in his stomach. The Police had just finished their examination and removed all of the tape that had cordoned off the area before leaving them with the scorched remains of their livelihood. The insurance policy, attached to the contract he had found, was weighing heavy in his hands. He did not want to open it, but knew he should. Slowly unfolding the document, he stared at the cover letter. The figure, glaringly obvious, would only cover about half of a replacement at today’s prices. It was a policy, which Irish Mick looked to have taken out in the nineteen eighties and then never reviewed. Typical Mick; he was not the smart business mind he had portrayed himself to be. Another great fault, he should have checked himself. Without a tent they were nothing but a collection of oddities, he had no plan B. This was his life, he needed the Circus…, or he at least needed the money from it to live a comfortable retirement. Mick had screwed him again. The dream was fast slipping away from him, and he could hear the clowns laughing.

Despite his growing uneasiness about his future, the sight of the contract stirred old memories. He had spent half his life at this Circus. So many years now, he could not remember. Some of those years, especially at the start, were good years, the years before it had all changed. He could almost hear Irish Mick laughing from inside the stainless steel drawer he was now in. He felt a twinge of guilt, and a bit of sorrow, but could not help thinking, who’s laughing now, Mick?

The other half of his life, before the Circus, he had been just floating. He had been an apathetic young teenager. Leaving school early with no qualifications he drifted from one dead end job to another. Small towns, big cities, he went everywhere looking for something to do, but nothing ever seemed to stick. He had had no plan for his life back then; he had felt restless but did not know why.

He remembered he was just shy of his twenty-first birthday when his dad had told him. Maybe it was the fact that his father had terminal cancer and wanted to pass it on before he died or maybe he just felt it was time, he never found out.

The Gonzales family used to be a proud family, his father had told him; back in the eighteen hundreds, they were performers, acrobats and tightrope artists. They could ride horses and do amazing feats of bravery. It went back generations, people loved them; they were big names wherever they went. Then two things had happened. In Dunedin, a newspaper article poured cold water on the Circuses performance and so the already struggling act imploded on itself as the various factions fought over who was more important. Apparently, the Clowns won the argument and the Gonzales family split with the troupe. There had not been a performer in his family since.

His father had been a proud man as his father before him had been, but they were proud in the wrong way. It was that pride that had kept them from their true calling, and that made them miserable and bitter old men. He had listened to his father closely as he recounted the story and in one moment realised what he had been missing in his own life. His father had died days later without knowing the gift he had given his son. The story had stayed with him all these years, feeding his desire to get back his family name and restore the pride.

Fate had taken care of the rest after his father’s death, and in some ways, it helped with the grief, as he had watched the same Wilson’s Circus from his father’s tale, roll into town soon after the funeral. Thinking a lot about what his father had told him he watched as they constructed their world out of nothing, a feeling growing inside his stomach. This was what he needed, a new world, and there it was camped on the outskirts of town. It was larger than life, colourful and loud. There were big personalities and even bigger animals. The energy was intense and very infectious. This was something he wanted, something they owed him for the treatment of his great, great grandfather. After less than a day, observing the goings on, he had plucked up as much courage as was possible and gone to see the man in charge.

He remembered how Mick Wilson was back then, the man, the character they had all called Irish Mick. He was not much older than he was, but seemed so much bigger and so much worldlier. His charismatic ways drew him into the circus world in a way he had not felt before. It was a calling, he knew it then and he still knew it now, he needed to perform. It was in the Gonzales blood. Within days, he had become part of the show.

However, that was then, he had been a naïve twenty something from a small town, the Circus had changed him, and now…, he had no idea.

He gave up looking; the cops probably took it when they searched the caravan anyway. They took a lot of paperwork with them when they left, but they would not realise the importance of it, he hoped. The circus was his; he did not want anyone to take it from him. He had been with Mick for too long now, he had paid his dues to Mick’s perversions and wanted his golden ticket.

 

Bridger put his cellphone away in his pocket. The pictures he had just seen, sent to him via text, had been very clear. They showed him and Kate Atkinson, entering the café’ on Moray Place. One picture saw his hand placed absently on the small of Kate’s back as they had negotiated the busy Suits leaving the door. Another picture showed him and Kate sitting in the window seat side-by-side, looking down at something and smiling. It all looked very intimate when seen in the context of a long-range photograph, but it was all very innocent in his mind. Laura did not think so apparently. The photographs, accompanied by a large question mark and the simple phrase ‘We need to talk’ said it all quite clearly.

He mentally kicked himself; there was nothing to the photographs, he was not engaged in some illicit deceit with Kate Atkinson, but the person who would have taken them was a completely different story. The viewpoint of the photographs were obvious, Jane Little’s office was just across the road. Was she jealous of Kate? She had said nothing about it the previous night; everything was exactly as it had been between them in the past. Simple, uncomplicated, and very open minded. However, the one reason she would have sent the photographs to Laura was to cause trouble between them. So much for uncomplicated, he was at a loss to say why he always ended up trapped in Jane’s tangled web. He hoped he would be able to convince Laura of his commitments to resurrecting their failed marriage when they met this evening, after his impending IPCA interview.

He looked around him; the office was unusually quiet; everyone was silently contemplating the new development in the case and all were unaware of his troubles. Maria Staverly, arrested for the murder of Michael Wilson, was sitting in a cell two floors below them. Whether she actually was the killer was a matter for everyone to come to terms with, and ultimately, bar a confession, for a jury to decide.

The evidence which they had collated and summarised on the white board at the front of the room did not sit well with Bridger however hard he tried to fit it onto Maria, and he could see the same doubts etched into the expressions of his colleagues. It was compelling though, and he could see most of it convincing a jury she was the guilty party, but the nagging doubt remained.

“Jo will be back any minute with the CCTV footage from the cameras that we haven’t reviewed yet around the crime scene.” Bridger watched as the heads of his colleagues raised up and eyes looked in his direction. “As soon as we get that and have a look we can eliminate the possibility of someone else being involved.” Even as he said it, he knew instinctively that it would not be that straight forward, it never was. “Hopefully Maria and Wilson will be the only ones seen entering the alleyway in the thirty minutes leading up to the time of death.”

“What about Coster?” The question had come from Jo as she came into the office.

“Yes Jo you’re quite right, Reece Coster is still in the equation. We know, from the video posted on the P.A.A.I.N site, that they were together after the murder” Bridger noticed the protective nuance in her voice towards Maria’s guilt. There was something between the two girls that he could not quite put his finger on. “If he was involved, the CCTV footage should show him entering the Alleyway, either with Maria, or on his own.”

Jo just shrugged and handed Bridger a thumb drive. “It’s all been put on here, three cameras that weren’t reviewed at the time.”

Bridger placed the drive into the side of his computer and clicked on the play all Icon when it appeared on the bluish background. All eyes were on the small screen as the images started to flicker.

The pictures, which were playing in three small screen boxes stacked on top of each other, were grey and jumpy. It looked like a typical security suite showing the various parts of an area that a paid security guard would monitor, except the pictures did not show private premises’, they showed public streets. Not designed to capture clear images of an intruder intent on bad things or the dishonest actions of errant employees, the camera placed at the entrance to the accident and emergency ward at the hospital looked like it was only to monitor traffic flow, and the quality showed that. The human forms were small and almost impossible to see clearly, so next to useless. The camera placed on the alleyway entrance next to the Hercus building across the road looked like it was for a similar purpose. The footage from the camera at the rear of the Robbie Burns hotel only was clearer, but only showed an image if the subject stepped into a small patch of light thrown out by the weak sodium glow of the only streetlight in the area. It was not exactly the breakthrough evidence Bridger was expecting, they would be lucky to identify anyone in the footage even if the camera did capture them in the area. He continued to scan the flickering images anyway.

Bridger had asked for the half hour before Maria had left the hospital to be included in the footage and put the feed on fast play to quickly scroll through, but not fast enough so they would miss anyone moving through the screen. He had to stop and go back a couple of times to eliminate each unsuspecting person appearing on the recording. No one had entered the alleyway yet.

The clock on the screen now read 10:34pm; four minutes after the original Hospital camera feed they had seized captured Maria Staverly exiting the front doors. The small and ghostly image of Maria appeared on the screen leaving the hospital grounds via the vehicle entrance; she appeared relaxed and even skipped a couple of times as if dancing with herself as she walked out onto the road and out of view. A couple of seconds later she appeared on the next feed down stepping onto the pathway on the other side and walking into the alleyway beside the Hercus building. Everyone held their breath.

A split second later, another figure followed her into the alleyway; Bridger stopped the feed before the figure went out of view and stared at the dark shape, stilled on the screen.

“Those clothes… can anyone make out what they are?”

Becky got off her chair and leaned over the keyboard in front of Bridger. Hitting a couple of keys, she made the image larger, before stepping back and looking.

She did not need to say anything, the image before them clearly showed who they were looking at. The velvet waistcoat and chiffon shirt were glaring back at them. Michael Wilson, in what would be his last moments on earth, had followed their suspect into the alleyway where he had met with the wrong end of a piece of rough sawn wood.

Bridger quickly scrolled through the next ten minutes of footage; he could not see anyone else entering the alleyway via the Hercus Building. The footage from the Robbie Burns hotel on the other side was next to useless, but from the minimal view they had it was unlikely anyone had come from there, unlikely, but not impossible. Either way, it looked like to Bridger that they had the right person sitting in the cells below them. They just had to prove it.

Glancing at the clock on the office wall, he realised that it was not going to happen this late in the day. He had to attend the meeting with the IPCA representative in an hour and it would be better not to keep Mr uppity Joyce waiting. Feeling a little dryness in his mouth, he wondered if he actually was a little more worried about the outcome of that meeting than he realised. He had come such a long way since then, did he deserve to have that taken from him?

Laura, Maria, murder, and an angry assault, all tumbled around inside his head, and all were fighting for equal attention. A drink would not go astray at this point, but the thought instantly bought Laura’s name to the front of the line. He did not want to go there; a coffee would have to do.

Taking a breath to steady himself he looked at the expectant faces in front of him, no one was speaking, just watching him with hidden thoughts that he could not interpret. He wondered how long he had been inside his own head.

There was nothing else to do, they would have to sleep on it and put it to Maria first thing in the morning. Everyone would be fresh, and a night in the cells might make Maria realise the situation she was in. “Alright team, time to knock it on the head, be back here at seven tomorrow morning. We will interview Maria then.”

No one needed telling twice, the office emptied quickly, leaving Bridger sitting at his desk staring at the picture of Irish Mick in his costume, smiling, as if he owned the world.

 

 

 

Chapter Seventeen

 

The Clowns were laughing and playing silly, just as they always did. They were making her giggle uncontrollably, her stomach felt tight with the effort. Looking up from the floor, she saw his great big red smile beaming down at her, his spotty arms with big purple hands were reaching down and tickling her around the waist. The others were singing silly songs, and she was laughing, so hard she wet herself.

It was not much, just a little bit had leaked out, but she knew. She could feel the wetness spreading, she could smell it… and so could he. Feeling ashamed but still looking up at him, she hoped it would be different. He had stopped tickling her, his spotty arms went to his hips. She could see the permanent smile was still there, but his eyes showed something else, something close to disgust. The laughing had stopped, the others were gone, and there were no more silly songs. “Don’t hate me… I didn’t mean it…” The purple hand raised in a blur of spots…

“Maria? Are you awake…? Maria.”

The look in his eyes was the last to go as the light switched on, invading the darkness in her head. Maria opened her own eyes and blinked as her pupils contracted and got used to the glare. Had she been sleeping? It had seemed so real. Why did she dream in such a way? It had been happening more and more recently, polluting her happy memories with dirt. The Clowns were her family; they were her carers in childhood and they were her friends now. It was only the one she feared.

“Maria, do you want anything to eat?”

She looked up blankly, looking for the person behind the voice. Who was this asking her about food? She could see only eyes, in a small slot, in a solid door. They showed indifference, not caring what her answer would be. They were the eyes of a captor, and she was captive. The cell she lay in crushed her senses as the reality of her situation came back to her in a rush. Jo’s eyes flashed before her now, the look that had passed between them when she had placed her hand on her shoulder and said those words. It was a look of betrayal.

“Fuck you… I didn’t do it… I didn’t fucking do it…” The tears were hot and wet on her flushed cheeks “Why does everyone hate me?” The sob burst out of her making her chest heave in protest. She curled up in a ball and let herself cry as the slot in the door closed, sealing her inside her misery.

 

The darkness in Reece Coster’s mind was absolute. The terror, brewed in his imagination, had tightened his muscles into spasms of pain. His body had wound itself so tight he dare not move, least he exploded outwards in an untangling of limbs that would give the animal in the darkness the target it was waiting for. He knew it was there, waiting for him, waiting to dine on his measly existence. There was just darkness, silence, the animal… and the terror.

Images of Clowns were permeating into his dread, adding to the mix of animal stench, fear, and cowardice. Feelings that kept him rooted to the cold floor of his cage. The ghostly faces, instead of being jolly, were angry sneers. Painted smiles smeared across flat angry thin lips. The eyes glaring at him were blazing below putrid smoking black curly wigs. Burn marks were visible on the pale faces he saw in his mind, there were little balls of spittle forming at the corner of their horrible mouths, dripping red makeup like drops of blood. They were all accusing him with their stares, and then they would disappear into a ball of flame, before returning more grizzly than before. Closing his eyes just made it worse; he could not escape their attention. For the first time in his life, Reece felt real fear.

Was it the Clowns; were they the ones who kept him here? He only remembered the fire clearly, but they had been there earlier though. He had seen them. A sharp pain in his head bought back a memory. He was walking away from the fire; he could smell the smoke that had started to float around him. He remembered the satisfaction of the successful mission, and then something had hit him from behind, a sharp pain in his head, the feeling of dizziness coming over him. Strong arms had grabbed him just before the blackness had set in and then he had awoken here. Why would they do that? It was only a fire and no one was hurt. A statement is all it was, cementing his legend.

Some legend he had turned out to be, he was scared, and the Clowns in his head just made it worse.

A slight metallic sound in the darkness rang quietly in his ears; followed by what sounded like paws scrabbling for purchase on the straw covered floor off to his right. The beast was moving. A low growl echoed around the dark space as the metallic sound got louder. Someone was pulling open a bolt or something. He wanted to cry out for help but stopped himself. If it was the people holding him, he did not want to show fear. He needed to stay staunch.

The animal in the darkness obviously did not have the same thoughts as he did. An angry animalistic noise bounced around the confined space, echoing fearfully inside his head. The fetid sour breath that came with it made him gag. A door swung open letting in a slightly dull light, enough to see the dirty brown monster staring at him from behind a caged divider. The Lion saw him as well and lunged at the bars, a giant paw pushing through the gaps looking for his kill. Reece fell back against the cold wall in panic, hitting his head but avoiding the swiping paw.

“Enough…”

The Lion cowered into the corner of the cage, blending back into the darkness. Looking over to where the voice had come from Reece saw the angry painted sneers of the Clowns from his head. All thoughts of staying staunch inside the nightmare evaporated as a warm and wet feeling spread around his groin and pooled around his buttocks.

 

Bridger felt the familiar vibration of his cell phone against his thigh. He fished it out of his pocket and saw John Moullers name on the small screen. Pushing the answer button, he held it against his ear as he negotiated the stairs, already out of breath even though he was descending. Outside he could see dark clouds gathering on the skyline from the windows of the stairwell.

“Mike? Is that you I can hear heavy breathing? You’re not still watching the money-shot video are you?”

Bridger felt his cheeks flush, whether it was because of his lack of fitness or what John was implying, he could not tell. “I was just on my way to get a coffee, what can I do for you John?”

“I have been looking at the P.A.A.I.N site. You know…just to see if anything changes… well anyway, I found another clip hidden amongst the sub files. No sex on this one I’m afraid… but it was interesting though…”

Bridger had stopped on the landing and was waiting for John to continue. He was never one to get straight to the point, which he always found slightly irritating. “Spit it out John”

“It was made by Coster again. He had that stupid mask on but I could tell it was him straight away. You would think he would hide the tattoo. It seems to be some sort of confession in relation to the tent fire last night. The only thing is it hasn’t been posted yet…”

“So?”

“So, you would think he would have posted the link by now, given his quickness with the other video. He craves attention for his actions, people knowing about what he has done is what drives him. This clip is still hidden in the sub folders, almost obscure.”

Bridger’s mind was working faster than his stair climbing ability and John’s inability to get to the point. “There is no way he would have missed the opportunity to release that clip if he could. Which means he is not able to access the site… and I know he has an internet capable phone, he showed me the P.A.A.I.N site on it the other day.” He could almost hear John nodding in agreement. “He is probably not in hiding then, which means he is most likely missing, and not of his own accord I would think.”

Bridger cut the connection on the phone before John had a chance to answer and stood looking at the small screen. What did that really mean? Why would someone take Coster out of the picture? Unless he had seen something, or done something, he should not have… He still had forty-five minutes before his meeting. Coffee would have to wait. He scrolled down the screen to another number in his contacts and touched the call icon. “Gill…, its Mike. Could you do me a favour? Get over to Reece Coster’s flat again, and this time I even need you to go through his underwear drawer.”

There was a deep rumble from somewhere outside in the distance, audible even through the concrete walls of the stairwell. Small droplets of water started pattering against the glass. Turning, he started climbing the stairs one at a time, the approaching weather not even registering in his busy head.

 

 

 

Chapter Eighteen

 

Anthony Gonzales was fifty-six years of age, only one year younger than Michael Wilson had been. His body was still strong, his mind stronger and he had an incredible thirst for life. This thirst had sustained him all these years, but he was not stupid enough to think it would last forever.

He took a long pull on the Whisky he had poured into his favourite crystal tumbler. There were only two pieces of ice in the bottom and they clinked together as he swirled the remaining whisky. Two cubes were just enough to chill it slightly, but not enough to water the burn. The burn was his vice, it was the only pleasure he took from it.

His mind had been working overtime since Mick’s death and the Whisky was slowing his thoughts, steadying them into line. He needed to be clear, if he could not make sense of it, it would all be for nothing.

Looking at the blank television screen in front of him, he saw the slight reflection staring back at him, its face was lined and the eyes were haunted. His name Gonzales, was Spanish, although he knew nothing of Spain, it was something given too his family many generations ago. The only thing left of this legacy now was borne out in the reflection he saw; but his once dark hair was thinning and unkempt. When had he gotten so old?

Swallowing the Whisky, which had been sitting on his tongue, he let the burn move from his mouth to his throat and then into his belly. He needed to start making some decisions. Mick was dead and Maria was in a cell. He knew she was in trouble, but hoped her chemical memories would continue to put distance between the Police and the truth of what had happened that night, for everyone’s sake. His thoughts lingered on Maria, sweet little Maria. She had no idea, and that was how it would stay, if he were to get what they owed to him. Besides, he had spent the last 25 years trying to make up for the past, a past that only a few knew of. Mick had known, he had bloody started all of this, but now it was only him and the Clowns. Maybe somewhere deep down Maria knew too, but she never let on.

He swilled the last dreg from the tumbler and held a shallow breath in his mouth, savouring the peaty taste in his mouth. There were things that needed doing; his first priority was moving what was left of the Circus off the reserve and into storage. He needed to contain it and stop the leakage. The Clowns were irritable and he did not want them to start spreading their hate. He knew of what they were capable. He had too much to lose.

A deep rumble came from somewhere outside and in the distance. The smell of rain was seeping into the back of his nose and a small pattering started beating an uneven rhythm on the thin roof above him. There was a storm coming, the animals would be agitated. He made his decision.

Stepping outside the caravan and into the light drizzle, he made his way over towards the Clowns enclave. He was sure he could hear a slight fizzing sound as the raindrops fell on what was left of the big-top tent that was lying in a scorched mess off to his right. The acrid smell, competing with everything else around him, made him gag slightly. The ground underneath him, already trampled over by hundreds of people in the last few days had become slippery where the grass had flattened against the hard earth. It would be mud in a few hours if the rain kept coming. Looking at the expensive leather shoes that he had on his feet he realised that no matter what he told himself, he really did hate this part of his life. That was why he had to move on.

As he neared the Clowns caravan he could hear music laughter and frivolity coming from inside. It was something you would expect from Clowns. To the outsider it would sound completely normal; to him it was hollow, underpinned with narcissism and hate. They would all be pissed off their heads on whatever cheap booze they could lay their hands on. Drinking and joking, laughing and hating, they were no better than the animals they pretended to care for.

He drew a breath and knocked on the thin door. The music stopped and he saw a flicker of light from one of the windows off to his left. A threadbare curtain moved aside and then closed. It was quick, but he still caught the flash of red visible against the white of the face behind it. A sneering apparition, or just a simple Clown, it was hard to see the difference. A full minute passed before the door opened, the Clowns obviously displaying their dominance by making him wait in the drizzle. They might as well just have pissed on him like an animal.

The door in front of him was now fully open but there was no one stood in the entrance. An eerie silence had replaced the normal frivolity of a greeting; it was as if the occupants had been spirited away. A shiver ran down his spine, but he shook it off. He was in charge here, not them. They were just playing silly, like they always did. That was what Clowns do; he knew that better than most.

Stepping up into the cramped interior, the smell of stale cigarettes and beer assaulted his nostrils. Someone belched and there was a suppressed giggle. The door shut quietly behind him and he stood in the middle of the cramped floor surrounded on three sides by a gaggle of painted faces smiling up at him from their seats. A gaggle of painted faces…and one very scared looking fake zebra boy, eyes covered with cloth.

 

Standing outside in the rear yard of the police station Jo Williamson could feel the rain starting to spatter on her cycle helmet. The slightly warm tarmac under her feet was getting darker as the drops increased and had started to emit a slight odour as only wet tarmac could. She looked up at the beige concrete walls above her and then down at the shuttered rear entrance to the holding cells. She was seething inside, Sergeant bloody Bridger had just ignored her hesitation of Maria’s guilt. Maria was just not capable of murder, end of… She had seen herself in Maria’s knowing smile as she had looked into her eyes the other night, which told her all she needed to know. They had both suffered in some way and now spent every day dealing with the consequences. It was an unspoken understanding of life that only victims would understand. They were victims, victims but not killers.

Jo shuddered a little, was that was she was, a victim? She hated that word, but it went with her job. Images of desperate people crying out for help from their pitiful existence. When she had first started as a Police Constable those people had been nothing more to her than someone to pity. They all led a different life than she, so in her world she would not ever be a victim. She knew differently now though. She knew, but did Maria? Some people were able to live life unaware that they were victims. Their behaviour would always reveal something in their lives that was not normal though. Maria was not a normal girl, she had suffered in some way, of that she was sure now.

If only Sergeant Bridger could understand that, look at the girl instead of the circumstances, then he would see. Jo silently cursed herself for not being able to verbalise her hesitations, but she still did not feel comfortable enough yet in the office to speak up properly. She found herself hoping his interview with the IPCA did not go in his favour, just to teach him a lesson. No one was perfect, not even him. He would feel the shame, just as she did, just as she was sure Maria did.

The drizzle turned to rain and a gust of wind sprayed the water over her bare legs making her shiver again. It was not fair of her to think this way; Sergeant Bridger was always open to ideas. She just needed to speak up, but to do that she needed to speak with Maria first. Leaning her bicycle against the wall, she went back up the stairs and into the building, bypassing the stairs she took the corridor towards the cellblock.

 

He watched her go back inside the building; he knew it was the same girl; she was the bicycle girl… the one they had watched the other night with Maria, in the sawdust, just before the fire. There was something between them, it was electric, it had been beautiful to watch, such intimacy. He had been happy for Maria; she needed some comfort in her life. He wondered if Maria remembered things from her past that made her act out the way she did. Was that the reason she was here in the cells? Could it lead to murder? Not Maria…

She was only a little girl when it was happening, hardly old enough to know. Even he did not know exactly what had happened, he was only in his infancy as a Clown himself, but whatever it was, it had pushed Anthony from their group. Anthony was the only Clown he knew to forgo the life of jest for something else. Once a Clown always a Clown was the norm, but he left anyway. Judas…

They had seen him take the zebra boy after the fire, they had seen him put that fake zebra in the cage, they knew what he wanted to do, but they were going to change his plans. Fake zebra boy would still have to face judgement for his actions, he had killed two of the family and used the Clowns image in vain, but Maria was their priority right now.

He looked to the sky letting the raindrops hit, and then run down his face. A flash of light lit up the sky in his periphery, slightly before a deep rumbling sound rolled in from the east. The storm was out at sea and gathering force. It would not be long now; he could smell the salt, blown in on the blustery wind. The gods were smiling; it would soon be time for action.

 

 

 

Chapter Nineteen

 

“Sergeant Bridger?” The non-descript, ill-suited man, stood right in front of him, the question sounding more like a statement. Bridger looked at the specimen in front of him. He had a thick pile of papers in one hand and a very expensive looking fountain pen in the other, which he was absently clicking in and out. This must be the IPCA investigator, Mr uppity Joyce, all very cliché.

“Mr Joyce” Bridger put his hand out. The investigator fumbled with his pen while trying to reciprocate and dropped it on the floor. He saw it rattle towards him in the corner of his eye and he shuffled his foot sideways pushing it further along the floor out of immediate reach. There was no reaction from the investigator and he was left feeling like a bit of a bully. He did not really care though, the investigator was early and he had better things to be doing.

“Call me Keith…,” he said, shaking Bridger’s hand vigorously. There was no embarrassment in his voice, as if dropping his pen happened all the time. “I’m a little bit early so I came to find you…” The investigator was looking at Bridger as if it should mean something, but Bridger remained stony faced. “Quite…” he carried on “Shall we get to it then? As I may have told you on the phone the other day, I have booked the third floor conference room. That should do us just fine.” He turned and walked towards the elevator without retrieving his pen.

Bridger felt as if he had no choice in the matter, so he picked up the discarded pen, put it in his pocket, and followed the shiny grey suit towards his fate.

The short ride up one floor in the elevator was uneventful, almost unnerving. Keith Joyce, not having anything to say chose instead to stare at the closed doors. Bridger, standing behind him in the confined space, could see his lips moving slightly in the reflection of the polished surface. The elevator stopped its accent and the investigator nodded deftly before stepping purposely out into the hallway. A wave of his hand beckoned Bridger to follow without instruction.

Entering the room Bridger saw that someone already occupied the space next to the head of the table. The subtle fragrance filling his nostrils’ as well as the natural blonde hair tied back with a blue band, registered her identity a fraction of a second before Jane Little turned and smiled at him. He thought he caught a slight smirk under her practiced persona as she sat stirring a steaming cup.

“I can give you and Ms Little some time to have a short conference if you like Sergeant.” The investigator was looking at Jane while he spoke, smiling flirtatiously. “I have plenty of time and don’t mind at all… I am only going to be staring at the walls of my hotel room tonight anyway.”

Bridger looked at Jane who appeared to be smiling suggestively back at the smarmy investigator. “I don’t think that will be necessary Mr Joyce, I didn’t ask for any representation…”

Jane cut him off. “I thought I would offer you some advice Mike… as a friend. I do know how these things can go -no offence meant Keith- and you do know that you can be your own worst enemy sometimes Mike.” Jane winked at him before turning back to the investigator.

“None taken Jane.” The smile on his face did not alter “I will leave you two for ten minutes and grab a caffeine shot of my own…’ he said noting only two cups in front of Jane. “I can’t start drinking anything heavier just yet… work and all that…” he let out a small girlish giggle and then turned and faced Bridger with a more serious look. “It’s a good thing to seek advice Sergeant; it clears up a lot of ambiguities and lets everyone know where they stand.”

Bridger looked back at Jane and watched as she stood and brushed down her short skirt, not making much of a difference to the length, before moving towards him with a cup in her hand. Standing slightly behind and to his side, she placed one arm around his waist and then lent over his shoulder. Her breath was hot on his cheek.

“I agree Keith; we don’t want any ambiguity, which is why I offered my services to help facilitate these proceedings. As I told you earlier, Mike and I go back a long way.” Jane’s hand moved from Bridger’s waist to his shoulder. Her fingers casually stroking the side of his neck as she spoke. “Drink this coffee Mike; I’ve made it just how I know you like it.”

The investigators smile faded, opening and closing his mouth several times. Moving his tongue around inside his cheek, he stared back at them, an angry but accepting look in his eyes at having his obvious advances callously spurned.

Bridger could only guess at what the conversation would have been between Jane and the investigator before he had arrived, and he did not really care. He took the cup from her hands in an effort to get her to move away, but her arm remained firmly in place. Jane was playing more of her silly games and he was actually frightened now of what she was trying to achieve. He felt the hair rise up on the back of his neck. He was in charge of what happens here, not her, she had no right. Shrugging Jane’s arm from his waist, trying to ignore the musky odour of her breath, he distanced himself from her clutch. “I don’t think your presence here is required Jane, I have nothing to hide” Jane’s eyes showed nothing but amusement, which angered him. “Please leave…” he could almost hear himself begging. “I can handle this on my own…”

Jane just smiled her sultry smile and picked up the other cup, which was still on the table. “Bottoms up Mike, the caffeine is probably just what you need.”

Bridger’s resolve was beginning to crumble. Drink the bloody coffee and then leave, she could not control his life. He put the cup to his mouth and sipped at the steaming liquid. The bitter nutty taste of the black coffee was evident but there was something else sitting just below it, almost acidic in taste. Crap water probably, he took another larger sip. All he got was coffee, but it must have been strong as he started to feel a little light headed. He looked at Jane whose smile had turned into a look of almost curiosity.

Light flashed across the room, casting quick pointed shadows on the floor. A deep rumble came vibrating through a second later, followed by the angry spattering of wind driven rain against the glass. The storm outside seemed to be right on top of them. Bridger was about to say something, but another flash of light illuminated the room, followed by an eardrum-splitting crack.

The lights in the room fizzed and died, surrounding them in darkness.

 

Steve ‘The Muscle’ Kirkland was sitting behind the reinforced service desk in the custody area at the Dunedin Police station. All concrete and steel, the only clue as to the weather outside was the sight of Jo Williamson’s shapely calves visible below her tight bicycle shorts, which were practically glistening with drops of water. He did not want to stare but she certainly kept herself fit.

“Raining outside is it Jo?” Even before he had said it, he knew it sounded dumb, but he had asked anyway, like a nervous child. Jo always made him nervous, all blonde hair and legs. Hell, most girls made him nervous if he really thought about it. Jo did not seem to notice, which gave him some relief. “What are you doing here Jo? Haven’t you knocked off already?”

“It’s raining… I need to see Maria… it’s… the case… it’s about the case…”

Steve looked at Jo as she spoke, she seemed distracted, not the same Jo he had known when she had worked in uniform with him. She had been so excited when Sergeant Bridger had asked her to move up to the second floor. For a while, she looked like she had flourished. She certainly wore better clothes these days, clothes that showed her off better than the uniform ever did, but he knew what had happened to her since though, and it looked like it was taking its toll. Who would be a Detective these days? Give him a baton, a can of pepper spray, and a good scuffle any day. Those three things, in any order, and he was a happy man.

“Okay Jo,” he tried giving her a winning smile as he handed her the cell keys “Maria is in female three, but I’m not sure what you will get out of her, she was pretty unresponsive when I asked her if she wanted any food earlier.” Jo did not respond to his smile, and took the proffered keys without replying. She turned and walked away.

Steve, reduced to watching her backside move inside her bicycle shorts as she walked into the concrete corridor towards the female cells, did not feel the need to avert his eyes. He was the only other person here that could see; everyone else was behind steel doors. Jo disappeared from sight, leaving only his overactive mind creating images that were not there. He went back to the magazine he had been reading, Men’s Health, what women really wanted from a man…

So engrossed in the details, he did not notice the slight chill blowing in from the corridor, bringing with it the salty smell of wet sea air, but the deep rumble that came next took him from his reading. The sound seemed to bounce around inside the concrete and steel, getting louder as it fought for an exit from its confines. He looked up, eyes scanning nervously, trying to find the origin of the noise. His eyes came to rest on a chilling painted smile, inches from his face.

He did not have time to react before the light sucked out of the cellblock along with the receding rumble. The cold concrete room was plunged into darkness, taking with it the image of a Clown he was sure he could not have actually seen.

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty

 

“The backup generator should have kicked in by now” Bridger was talking aloud more to convince himself, than offer any explanation as to why they were still in darkness. It was pitch black and he could not see anyone in the room, but he could feel a stray hand clamped tightly around his wrist as if letting go would result in being lost forever in the darkness. He tried to dislodge it, but instead it tightened a little more.

The dark stillness was slightly eerie; inside the room, it was absolute, with no ambient light shining in from outside either, as if the whole city had just shut down. The only evidence of something actually happening outside their cocoon was the almost silent beating of the rain against the double glazed glass. He felt a slight pressure building in his sinuses and his light-headedness got a little worse.

“How long does it normally take?” Jane’s breath was hot in his ear and there was a slight tremor in her voice. He would not have picked her to be scared of the dark. At least he knew who the hand clamped around his wrist belonged to.

“I’m not sure Jane, I don’t think we have ever had to use it for real, but it gets tested every other week so it should work” Bridger saw the small luminous glow of a wrist watch where he had last seen the Keith Joyce.

“It’s been more than three minutes Sergeant Bridger; I think it should have kicked in by now if it was going to.” The voice sounded indignant, almost accusing “We don’t really have time for this.”

“You’re right Mr Joyce; we don’t have time for this.” He had no idea why the power had not come back on, but it worked to his advantage. “We are going to have to reschedule Mr Joyce. I’m sure you will understand the reasons.” The hand clamped to his wrist turned into an arm around the waist. He needed to move.

Bridger began inching his way towards where he guessed the door would be. The arm around his waist got as little tighter and he felt its owner shuffling beside him.

“Don’t leave me here with him.” A voice whispered in his ear. He did not have time for her games either. Pushing Jane’s arm from his waist he reached out in the darkness and found the door handle, giving it a twist he opened the door and a rush of cold salty air flowed into the room, clearing his sinuses a little. Stepping out into the corridor, he could not hear or see anyone else, but at this time of night all the bosses would be indoors with their families doing whatever it was that bosses did to unwind. The only presence he felt was the over-sexed Keith Joyce and his present sexual tension in the form of a flirty Jane Little. Well they could keep each other company in whatever way Jane had led Mr Joyce to believe for all he cared. He let the door go, not caring if it closed and shut the other two in. Making his way down the corridor in the darkness he could not tell if he was dizzy or blind but he had to keep one hand on the wall to balance himself. He needed to retrieve his keys before he could set the ball in motion regarding Reece Coster and leave, and then with any luck, catch up with Laura. The thought of her stirred a memory. She hated power cuts. There was always a stack of candles and a lighter on the kitchen bench, and a torch stashed in every room, but she still insisted she was not afraid of the dark. He pulled his cellphone from his pocket to give her a call, just then remembering he could use it to provide some light. He would call her when he got down to the office. Feeling his mood lifting, he almost started whistling. His body was getting a warm fuzzy feeling, similar to the whisky rush he used to crave so much.

He was halfway down the stairwell when the lights flickered and came on again, followed by a screaming alarm that drilled into his head. That was the custody alarm, most probably triggered by the power cut, but you never knew. Squinting against the light, Bridger tried to shake off the dizziness in his head before he started to jog unsteadily down the remaining stairs to the basement cellblock.

 

Jo just stood there in front of him, mouth slightly open, not saying anything. Behind her, a cell door was wide open. Steve Kirkland could not figure out what had just happened. He had heard the blood chilling noise emanating from the direction of the female cellblock just before the lights had switched back on. He had banged the panic alarm and come straight down. His first thought was Jo, she was with a prisoner and that was always a risky time, they could be unpredictable. He looked her over. Apart from being unresponsive, she looked fine. He tried to match the noise to Jo’s face and could not do it. It had sounded more like an animal in pain, than anything a human could make. The Clowns image flashed in his mind and he shuddered involuntarily. Maria… where was Maria? Shit.

“Jo…” Steve shook her on the shoulders. “What’s happened to Maria? Where are the keys I gave you?”

Jo held her empty hands out, but did not respond.

He raised his voice to compete with the screaming alarm. “Jo, what’s the matter with you, where is Maria?” Steve could see the fearful look in her eyes, and he was beginning to panic himself. The last thing he needed was a missing prisoner on his watch. He shoved past her into the cell, the tangy scent of salt invading his nostrils. Coldness seeped out of the bare walls making him shudder, there was a presence tickling his forehead, but the room was empty. Shit. Shit. Shit…

Jo had slumped down against the concrete wall outside in the corridor; her face buried in her hands. Steve ignored her and started jogging back towards the charge room; he needed a phone to tell someone of the escape. He just hoped she was still somewhere in the cellblock.

 

Bridger almost collided with Steve Kirkland as he entered the charge room, the look on his face telling him something was happening, but not what. His mind was spinning and his reactions felt dulled slightly. He could see Steve’s mouth moving. “Mike, Maria’s escaped… Jo’s down there.” Steve was pointing in the direction of the female cellblock but he could not make out much of what he said over the noise. What he did hear caught in his addled mind. Jo was in trouble. Again.

“Kill that alarm, Steve.” Not caring if Steve had actually heard his instructions or not he started moving in the direction Steve had been pointing. The screaming alarm silenced, replaced by a loud rushing in his ears. The fluorescent strip lighting started streaming in his periphery vision, giving him the feeling he was moving fast. The light-headedness left him replaced by a feeling of intense clarity. Despite the circumstances, he felt better than he had in a long time.

Jo’s pitiful figure came into view, slumped against the wall. As he approached, she looked up and her eyes met with his. He did not need to see the open cell door to realise Maria was gone; Jo’s eyes told him that. He did not feel the need to ask her anything, an understanding passed between them that unfolded the events for him. Maria had taken the keys from Jo and then she had left. How that was possible was not even registering in his thoughts as he carried on past Jo and towards the rear of the cellblock. The air got colder and damper as he rounded the corner to see the steel door hanging open. Beyond the door, the vehicle-port used for transferring aggravated prisoners from patrol car to the cellblock, was also empty, the large steel roller door open to the outside. Beyond that was a wall of angry water falling from the sky whipped up by and even angrier wind. He could almost hear the laughter in the roar as he stared out into the storm. Maria was in the wind.

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty One

 

Bridger was standing in the alleyway outside the rear gate of the central Police Station. The rain had already soaked through the thin layer of his shirt, driven against his skin like needles. That Clown had been right there earlier, just standing and watching. Maybe he had known and waited for Maria to emerge and led her to safety. That did not make sense, there was no way the Clown could have know she would escape. The wind was mocking him, he could hear it, and blowing in different directions all at once, it was trying to lead him from his quarry. Which way had Maria run? He needed to make a decision.

Without knowing why, he started moving out towards Great King Street and the centre of town. As he approached the road at the front, a strong gust of wind threw itself at him, pushing him sideways. It seemed a natural thing to do to follow its direction. Moving with the wind now at his back he felt a little clearer, Maria had come this way, he was somehow sure. A loud moaning was coming from the sky as the wind fought its way through the surrounding buildings. Sharp bright flashes lit up the sky followed by loud cracking sounds, making the wind moan louder as it laboured to carry the storm through the city.

Another flash, this one slightly longer than the last, revealed the way ahead, before disappearing and plunging the road back into darkness. It was only then he realised that there were no other lights on anywhere. The city was in darkness. Turning, he looked back towards the Police Station. Even with the minimal lighting that the generators supplied, it was like a beacon of safety, towering above the darkened street. He knew it was a falsehood, inside that building, Keith Joyce and Jane Little would be conspiring in his downfall, aided by his ineptitude at controlling his emotions. He had kicked the bottle, but had not managed to get past that time in his life. Enraptured enough by Jane to be a slave to his base desires in weaker moments, it kept Laura on the periphery of his life, she did not deserve that. Another bolt of lightning reflected off the glass of the department store building next to him, the clap following assaulting his ears. Shaking his head, he looked at the sky. He knew he had not been drinking, but shit, he felt like he had. His head was spinning slightly, his thoughts thicker, having to fight through the pathways to his consciousness, the result slower than he liked. Maybe he was ill; he pulled his wet collar closer around his neck. Needle like rain was streaming along the street. Work came first, sickness or not, and he had a prisoner to retrieve. Another gust of wind slammed into his face and he turned with it and continued, ignoring the warmth and comfort and following the instructions of the storm.

Moving around the corner into St Andrews Street, the buildings provided a small respite from the wind, the rain was no longer driving at his skin and his ears stopped ringing. Up ahead towards George Street he could hear the sound of music. It was a strangely familiar score, underpinned by the sound of people. Lots of people.

Lights flickered in the darkness, not manmade, more natural, like flame. The smell of burning sulphur grew stronger the closer he got to George Street bringing back vivid memories of dead monkeys. Small pockets of smoke started playing around his nostrils. The music got louder, the gentle roar of an appreciative crowd slowly building in intensity and competing with the storms laboured path. He reached the corner and came up on the slick backs of adults and children alike. The needles had returned from the sky and were screaming along above the crowd, hitting unseen targets. He looked at what was in front of him; it was like a wall of raincoats, umbrellas, flaming torches and cell phones. The music was at frenzy, following the storm, and the wall of the audience was in rapture, completely ignoring his attempts to penetrate its defences. He needed to see what it was protecting. Why were these people here? Were they hiding Marion from him? Were they all enjoying the ineptitude of the police once more? His own failings?

Faces turned and stared as he tried to push his way through. Angry faces…, faces with questions, faces of children who mocked him, faces of people who believed. They were all just faces, and all of them were looking right through him.

Suddenly he found himself standing in front of the wall, the crowd behind him now, all standing and judging. Large angry eyes were looking at him from a short distance away. The eyes wanted help, but in the same instant recognised the futility and the animal they belonged to snorted and reared its angry head back, lifting its unsuspecting handler off his feet. A large piece of black leather cracked from the handler’s side and the elephant lowered the midget handler back to the ground and continued its performance. Carnival music was playing inside his head. What in the hell was going on. George Street was in darkness and there was no lighting coming from any of the streetlights or stores that he could see, but there were thousands of people lining the roadside. Cell phones competed against flaming torches to light up the middle of the road, and the road was adrift with animals and finery. The Carnival had come to town and all of Dunedin was here to witness it.

Moving along with the slow progression of the colourful mêlée, he tried to scan ahead and behind him. Maria would be here, it made sense she would return to her own, and they would protect her, but all he could make out were costumes and animals. Someone yelled in his ear, and he turned in time to see a stick insect of a man with long wooden legs scurry back into the middle and then over to the other side of the road to hunt for more prey to devour. The lights of cell phones kept waving out from the darkness lighting up the snaking show.

Pushing his way forward, faster than the spectre of a parade was moving; he tried to get a better view of where the head of the colourful snake was, but could not see past the larger floats up ahead. The beat of a thousand drums started to pulse at his back. He turned to see what looked like demented monkeys, writhing around in some sort of interpretive dance, followed closely by a larger than life image of a smiling Michael Wilson. Irish Mick and the dead monkeys, the legacy of Wilsons Circus.

Clowns came out of the smoke and darkness, angry sneering faces, daring the onlookers to laugh. They were surrounding the image of the dead Ringmaster, almost as if he needed protecting in death. Attached to something unseen, Irish Mick was moving in unison with the parades progress, and the Clowns moved with him. Bridger raised his eyes above the almost visible noise of the procession. There were three faces sitting in the darkened sky above the mess of the Circus below. Reece Coster sat on one side of the colourful trailer, Anthony Gonzales on the other, and in the middle, standing like a Queen between her Knaves, was Maria Staverly. He was too far away to see the expression on their faces.

He tried to move back towards the float but felt himself drawn sideways against his will. The flow of the parade had changed. It had reached the Octagon and the snakes head had split in two. He was moving down towards the lower half, where the bars and clubs had spewed patrons onto the streets. The trailer had gone right, dead Irish Mick leading the way. He watched as it moved slowly up towards the top half, where Robbie Burns sat guarding both the Town Hall and St Pauls Cathedral from the darkness. He could see them getting higher as he went lower; the crowds had grown bigger with patrons from the surrounding bars unable to stay indoors without power. The seething masses were moulding in behind the floats, closing any path forward, he could do nothing but go with the flow. Maria was disappearing from view, escaping again, and she was taking Coster with her. He needed to do something now. Both Coster and Staverly were instrumental in the death of Michael Wilson, and Maria was formally a prisoner now and needed recapturing. Looking through the trees on the other side of the central carriageway splitting the Octagon in two he could see the procession had paused, as if it had come up against opposition. It was more likely the crowds had just become too intense for further forward movement. Either way it gave him an opportunity. He could see Maria and her two Knaves still sitting in the air above the dead Irish Mick, still guarded by the ugly Clowns. They were less than one hundred meters from him. Maybe he could just fly up there and arrest them, for a short minute he though he just about could, and then the roar in his ears from the surrounding crowds brought him back to reality.

Pushing through a group of suited but intoxicated middle-aged executives, he tried to make his way towards the top. One old soak out of the group, too pissed to stand anyway, stumbled and fell backwards, landing heavily on his back. Bridger made to step over the writhing mess on the ground, intent only on his destination.

“Watch it you dumb prick,” the angry outburst came from somewhere behind him “what the fuck do you think you are doing, there are kids about.” Bridger did not want to get into any discussions about what would be appropriate for children to see with a bunch of self-righteous drunks and could not actually tell who had spoken, so tried to go around them. The fist came fast, but with drunken accuracy, glancing of his chin causing no harm. “Do you want a go mate? Uh…do you want try your luck… Fucken dickhead…”

Two of the fallen executive’s mates had moved in front of Bridger and were standing shoulder to shoulder, blocking his path but swaying like a couple of chorus girls. “Go on Spencer… Fucken have him mate… do it for Paul…” an expectation of violence written all over their faces “Yeah Spence man, fucken do’ im…” This time Bridger sensed the blow aimed at him from behind. He moved sideways and managed a smile as Spencer planted a great right hook square on the nose of his pissed friend, causing the chorus line to collapse, clearing his path. Another flash lit up the sky, followed by a crack that shook the glass in the surrounding buildings. The rain spat its fury at whatever it could.

Bridger blinked and suddenly he was standing face to face with the dead Irish Mick. His massive head was smiling at him from above the white oversized collar of his chiffon shirt, making him look like a decoration on a particularly nasty cake. He was at the front of the trailer that he had seen Maria on top of, a minute of his life missing. The crowds had thinned and the music had stopped playing in his head. Irish Mick winked at him from the large poster, lips curling at the sides. Rain ran from his made up cheeks as if he was crying and then a lion’s roar erupted from his mouth.

Bridger shook the image from his head. This could not be real. He looked up, but could not see the top of the trailer. Moving backwards to get a better view, he remembered the guards. No one stood in his way though, there were no Clowns… where were the Clowns? He moved to the side of the trailer to look on top but already knew what he would see. Maria and her two Knaves were no longer there. Shit.

He blinked again and found himself standing at the top of the stone steps of the Cathedral, the large wooden doors in front of him, flapping slightly in the wind. He had never actually been inside there before but felt compelled to enter, something unseen drawing him in. Pushing open the door, a gust of wind thrust from behind pushing him towards the inside. He stumbled through and another gust slammed the door behind him, sealing him inside the unfamiliar place of worship and locking the storm outside. It was eerily quiet; he half expected to see God standing in welcome, but all he saw was black empty mass. The sound of the storm was humming quietly around the vaulted wooden ceiling unseen in the darkness high above his head. Lightning scorched the sky outside sending little coloured rays of light through the stained glass lining the walls. He could make out rows of pews lined up facing the front lit up by the shards of light. He knew enough about churches to know the pews would all be facing the altar, the place where all the answers spewed forth every Sunday. He needed answers.

Moving slowly forward he felt the hardness under his feet of the slate tiles, the light flashing outside was enough to show him the way. As he neared the front, a salty odour teased his nostrils.

Sit…” The voice boomed out of the darkness, bouncing off the walls and coming back at him from every direction. Was this God?

More light flashed in from outside, coming through the very top arched windows it was shining directly onto a spiral stone staircase leading to a small pulpit above the altar stone. He thought he saw movement at the top… more a shadow standing above him and looking down, stained glass reflecting colour onto the dark shape. God or Clowns?

Feeling the air pressure change slightly beside him, something pushed at his chest from the darkness, his legs connecting with something hard, bending them in the middle. He did not fight the movement and sat heavily on the wooden pew behind him. Reaching out into the blackness, he could feel nothing. His head started spinning again and he closed his eyes, squeezing the bridge of his nose. He was feeling faint, like stepping out into the fresh air after a heavy session on the Malts.

Are you ready to listen…? Are you really open to hearing more than your own assumption?” The voice was all-commanding, coming from all around him it was making him confused. He opened his mouth but could not speak, his tongue glued to the roof of his mouth. “I will tell you… but you have to listen… then you will know that the one you seek is not the one you want, she is the reason.” Changing in pitch, as if there were more speaking as one, he did not know where to look. “Give me a sign. Let me know you will listen.” Putting his hands up in the darkness towards the pulpit, he hoped that they would see it. “Good… now open the Book.

Bridger found a book sitting on his lap, he had no idea how it had appeared there. He could not see what it was but it felt big and old. The weight of it was pressing on his thighs. He opened it, and the voice came from within.

The book of Daniel… I’m sure you’re not familiar with it, but it holds dear to us… it is the story of Daniel and the Lion’s Den as told in the Old Testament. The Old Testament is the birthplace of our faith. Daniel had to have faith in order to survive the Lions after being condemned to the Den for praying to his God. If what you believe is right and just then your faith will spare you. You see, the hating masses had tricked the King, Darius the Mede, into making the unjust law against praying and so God stepped in… We don’t need any God… we look after our own.

A deep rumble came from all corners of the darkened room making the hairs on his neck stand on end. It was more animalistic than anything nature produced. The voice continued, outside of the books constraints now, it was all around him again.

The book of Daniel is where it all started… our world. Throwing people to the Lions has been a form of Circus from the very beginning. In the beginning, they used it to control the masses, but it has evolved throughout the ages and now humans control the animals, there is no bloodlust. It is only to entertain, but in some ways, that is the same thing. Our Daniel was once one of us, but now he seeks to destroy us.”

Bridger felt like he had no control over the sermon he was being given. His attention drawn to the pulpit, flashes of light were revealing a human shape, but the voice continued to bounce around the stone pillars lining the walls, ducking up into the vaulted ceiling before rushing right back at him.

Our Daniel is our Judas. He had a responsibility once, even if it had come to him by deceitful means, but the way he bore that responsibility showed his true character to be lacking. Love is not always what it seems, it can give, it can hurt, and it can deceive. His love deceived and bore the fruits of responsibility, but he could not take the thought of that deceit and so she bore the brunt. We could not tolerate that in the end and so he had to go, but he did not go far.

She was so young, which was a blessing in a way, for she does not know. Now she is older she has a legacy, whatever her past, but our Judas seeks to stop her. He came to us with an unspoken ambition and now he seeks to fulfil his desire…, he wants it all.

Bridger heard a flurry of movement behind him as another flash of light came through the windows to his right, hitting the pulpit like a spotlight. The painted smile looking down at him made the marrow inside his bones shudder. As soon as he had seen it, it was gone, swallowed up by the darkness once more. The salty smell of brine returned. There was no more to the sermon; the changing voice had disappeared with the smile. He had no idea what it all meant, but felt too faint to care. His head was heavy and the muscles in his neck were struggling to keep it upright. He felt himself tipping forward, and then felt nothing.

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty Two

 

The Clown was right on top of him now, inches from his face, he could smell sour breath mixed with a slightly fruity odour. The Clown was trying to say something but he could not make out what it was over the sound of his putrid breath. It was like a steam train, slow and steady, but building in rhythm. He wanted to say something about Maria, ask the Clown where she was, but the weight of the Clown was putting pressure on his chest, making it hard to talk. He could feel sawdust beneath him, and could just about make out bleachers surrounding them. Voices began to call his name from the darkness. Was he their performance, was he thrown into the ring to satisfy a bloodlust? He started to feel a little panicked

“Mike…? Mike, are you okay?” The voice sounded familiar, but he did not know why. The Clown kept on pushing at his chest. A spotlight cast its hot glow from somewhere above and the Clown exhaled deeply, a disturbing and mournful sigh, before vanishing, leaving only the light in his eyes. “Mike…Wake up… its Grant.”

Bridger opened his eyes; someone was holding a torch in his face. “Mike…? What happened, you’ve been gone over an hour. How did you end up here?” Grants voice was questioning but concerned. A few things started coming back to him, costumes, and music, and people, lots of people.

“The parade, Grant, the bloody Clown parade, the one from the posters, Maria, Reece Coster, and Anthony Gonzales, were all there. They were on top of Irish Mick, protected by the Clowns. I followed them up here but they had gone…” Bridger looked around the room, some of the lights had come back on along the walls, and a few of the emergency exit lights were glowing in the darkness. There were no Clowns.

“What parade Mike? With the weather out there, they canned it. There was no parade tonight.”

“I saw it with my own eyes Grant, it was happening. The trailer they were on is parked right out the front. There were people everywhere…” Bridger saw the confusion in Grants eyes as he spoke and he began to doubt himself. He felt like he had just surfaced from a blackout after a heavy drinking session to find out he was not where he thought he was. The difference was he remembered his actions. “Never mind…, how did you find me?”

“The power has been out all over the City. People have been standing on the streets outside, turned out by managers scared of the fire risk while the electricity was out… Someone called in an assault outside one of the Bars on the lower Octagon, They said a middle-aged male had pushed one of their friends over and then scarpered up into the Cathedral calling out the name Maria. Everyone else is flat out dealing with weather related jobs and could not deal with it. I was down in the station gym as it was too wet for a proper ride, so I offered to help, but I didn’t expect to find you here Mike. Do you know anything about that assault?”

Bridger cut him off, the last thing he needed was another assault to answer for, and Keith Joyce would no doubt revel in his continued indiscretions. “Is Maria still missing?”

“It seems that way; we don’t have any spare staff to coordinate a proper search. I rang Brian and he was going to come in and pick Becky up on the way. Jo is still at work, but I’m not sure if she is in a very good state of mind.”

“Right… let’s get back to work then.” Bridger started walking, a little unsteadily, towards the door, not sure exactly what had just happened. The storm was still battling against the buildings in the octagon as he stood at the top of the stone stairs. Trees were tearing at each other, the debris of a busy city was tumbling across the pavement, wet intoxicated revellers were filtering back into the now lit up bars, but there were no Clowns, and no parade…

 

Brain and Becky were in the office as Bridger walked in with Grant close behind him. He could see that they were both very interested with whatever was on the computer screen in front of them. Kate Atkinson was standing off to one side talking on her phone.

“Where is Jo?” Bridger queried.

Brian looked back at Bridger and took in the wet shirt stuck to his body like plastic wrap. “Where have you been?” There was no judgement in his voice, only interest. “We’ve been trying to call you on your phone but you were not answering.” Bridger stayed silent and Brian took the hint not to ask further. “How did your interview with Keith Joyce go?” again Bridger did not answer, his head was still somewhere else and he was not sure if he actually knew the answers to either question.

Kate Atkinson put her phone away in her pocket. “Hi Mike. Looks like I’ve come along at the right moment. The parade I was supposed to report on was cancelled tonight so I called in here, just as the lights went out and everything started to kick off. I here you even lost Maria, is that right?”

“It’s all go tonight Kate” was all Bridger could manage, he needed to get back on top of things and the last little while had freaked him out slightly. He was positive he had seen the parade happening, along with thousands of other people, but now two people had told him otherwise. The drunken executives were real, they had actually made a complaint and if they were real then the Clowns at the Cathedral were as well, he was sure of that, but what did that mean? He was not actually sure they had Maria or the other two. He decided to keep quiet about what had happened. “Where are we at Brian?” Bridger looked at the screen over Brian’s shoulder. He could see the P.A.A.I.N website sitting idle on the screen.

“Maria’s still missing Mike, but John called and said he had found something interesting on the website. We were just going to have a look before you came in. Brian moved the cursor over to a link on the bottom of the page and clicked on it. Another window popped up smaller than the first. It looked like it had some sort of scanned document on it.

“Make that larger can you Brian.” Bridger thought he saw something. Brian moved the cursor again and the image filled the screen. It was a birth certificate, for Maria Francine Staverly. The name was clear but the rest of the image was poor, the resolution of the scan not capturing any more detail.

“Why is there a birth certificate for Maria on the P.A.A.I.N website?” Becky asked. “And how did it get there?”

Bridger’s mind started clicking into gear, there was a feeling he got when something was staring them in the face but was not always obvious and he was starting to feel the familiar tingle. “Brian, did Gillian and Steve carry out that second search of Reece Coster’s flat?”

Brian’s head turned and he looked over towards his desk “That is a bag of property they seized earlier, I’m not sure what’s in it, and I haven’t had time to look. There doesn’t appear to be much though.”

Bridger looked at the small evidence bag on Brian’s desk; it had to be inside that. He grabbed the packet and spilt the contents out onto the desk. Inside was a driver’s licence in the name of Reece Coster, a couple of condoms still in their wrappers, some scraps of paper with what looked like passwords and website addresses, all irrelevant stuff. There was also a folded A4 size document in a separate plastic bag with spatters of blood on it. That was it. Pulling open one of the drawers beneath the desk Bridger retrieved a pair of latex gloves and snapped them on. He opened the plastic evidence bag and slid the document out, careful not to finger the blooded areas. Unfolding the document he laid it flat on the desk in front of them. Everybody had gathered in front of the desk and was looking down at it. Kate Atkinson had retrieved her camera and held it in her hands, always the reporter. The document that was on the P.A.A.I.N website was sitting in front of them, but this time everything was on display. It was as if the Clown had just tapped him on the shoulder. “This is it. This is the reason…”

“What does this tell us, Mike?” Grant seemed unsure of Bridger’s train of thought. “And why did Reece Coster have it.”

Bridger had seen it immediately, the name of the father listed on the certificate. Michael Wilson. Irish Mick was Maria’s father. He laid his finger on the detail. The mothers name listed just above was Patricia Maria Gonzales (Nee Staverly).

His love deceived and bore the fruits of responsibility. The Clown sermon came back to him. Anthony Gonzales was – or rather had been – a Clown, he was the one the voice had spoken of. His wife Patricia must have had an affair with Irish Mick and fallen pregnant.

“Patricia…? That name rings a bell.” Kate Atkinson said. “She was the girl who committed suicide while travelling with Wilson’s Circus. I never met her, it was a long time before I started writing my stories about them, but she is spoken of a lot. I have only ever known her first name, but I bet that Patricia Gonzales is the same person.”

“And she is Maria Staverly’s mother.” Grant added, unnecessarily. “If Irish Mick was her father, that would make her entitled to his estate, wouldn’t it?”

“Only if she actually knew who her father was.” Kate continued, “In all the time I have known this Circus, Maria has never let on anything about her family. I think this is something that would be known by most of the troupe, so I would have heard about it if they wanted me to know. They have been together for a long time, most of them being born into the life. Maybe they were hiding it from Maria for some reason.”

Bridger could feel the answers sitting just outside his grasp. Reece Coster had the birth certificate at his flat, covered in blood, which he knew would have been from the crime scene. Maria had been at his flat, and they already knew that she had been at the crime scene. She was there after leaving the Hospital so there was no reason she would have had the document with her, so that would mean that Michael Wilson had it with him. But why? Maria, Anthony, and Reece Coster, were involved. Only one of them killed Michael Wilson, they had to find them to find the answer. He turned his attention to the others in the room “Maria, Anthony, and Reece Coster are together somewhere, if we find them we find the killer…”

 

 

Chapter Twenty Three

 

There was another person in the darkness with him now. After they threw him back in the cage, he had been sleeping, a fitful broken sleep. The wind had been rocking the cage like a ship at sea and the noise had been deafening, but at least it had drowned out the noise of the animal. When he had woken the angry weather outside had subsided slightly and he had heard the sound of stuttered breathing. It was not the animal; he knew that, there was no menace in the sound. It was not the Clown either. He had not said anything, he had not even moved, just lying still, he hoped the person would leave him alone. Reece Coster had been crying, he was scared, and he had shit his pants. He did not want anyone to see him in this state.

The door at the end of the cage opened and a dull light streamed into the darkness making the cramped interior visible again. The restless animal in the next cage lunged at the door, a sharp growl in its throat. Cut off by the cold steel bars, it swiped its paws trough the gaps. The man sitting a few feet from the animal’s claws did not flinch. Reece looked at the man’s features in the dull light; puffy and withdrawn eyes stared back at him. It was the man he had seen with the circus slut the other night, standing over the dead man.

“Out…” The voice came from outside his cage, the Clown with the eyes that spilled hate came into view. Reece did not move. He did not want to play this game anymore. They had made him post something on the P.A.A.I.N website earlier and he thought they would let him go after that, but they had just put him back into the darkness, next to the animal. They said ‘She must decide’, but he did not know who ‘She’ was.

“I said get out…” The voice was more forceful this time, but the Clowns mouth had not moved. The voice had sounded female, was this ‘She’

The other man in the cage stirred and looked up “Maria? Maria is that you…? I’m so sorry Maria. You have to believe me…” The circus slut stepped into Reece’s view and addressed the pitiful figure sitting across from him.

“My whole life I have had this dream, a Clown that did not care, a Clown that hurt. I did not know why until now. You took my family from me…, you made a choice. It was you all along.”

“No Maria, Mick took it… he took anything he wanted, his family have been doing it since this Circus started.” I was too young, too immature to deal with it; I took it out on you… and your mother.”

“Bullshit… Anthony, you and Mick were as bad as each other…” Maria’s voice cracked “I don’t have any memory of my mother, you two saw to that.”

The Clowns clambered into the cage exciting the animal next to them. They dragged the man from his place. Reece looked into the man’s eyes as he slid past where he was sitting. There was nothing there, a reflection of how Reece felt. He watched as they shoved the man from the cage and onto the ground. The Clowns turned for him as soon as the man hit the dirt. The animal in the next cage was at frenzy, pacing the wooden floor and swiping at the walls. He knew his time would be soon, he would have his turn.

Reece found himself standing outside the cage, the animal inside making it rock back and forth. In the dim morning light, he could see that there was a line of vehicles off to his right. There was no sign of the Circus; packed into the trucks it was ready to move too another town, where different set of eyes would watch the show unfold once more.

He looked at the circus slut wondering what was going to happen next, but she just looked right through him, no recognition in her eyes, instead, she focussed on the other man.

“This life is so incestuous Anthony, and you took advantage of that. Look at what you have been doing with Mick for the last twenty years… You disgust me…” She went to walk away, but then turned and faced him, her face inches from his. “Teaching me the rope, was that your way of making things up to me? Your way of penance, for taking my life from me? Why could you not tell me what you did instead? You were weak Anthony; you took it out on a little girl. You were Clown, but there was no jest with you. Well fuck you Anthony Gonzales; all that did was, make me stronger, strong enough to do this.”

The circus slut that the man had called Maria, turned and walked away, Reece watched as she climbed into the cab of one of the trucks. One by one, the trucks started, shiny exhausts belching diesel fumes into the air, and then slowly, one by one, the trucks drove away.

The cage trailer behind him continued to rock on its chassis, the angry beast within wanting his time in the spotlight. The dead face of a Circus ringmaster stared at their backs and Reece Coster found himself standing beside Anthony Gonzales as four Clowns stepped into view holding a large steel blade. Reece watched Anthony’s head slump, just before his own knees went weak and his vision blurred in panic.

 

The link flashed up on the computer monitor, a large flashing icon, showing a Lion roaring, repeatedly, demanding attention. Bridger saw it from the corner of his eye as he made to leave the office following Brian and the rest of the team. “Wait a minute Brian; something has put itself onto the P.A.A.I.N website.”

The team crowded back into the office and stood looking at the monitor. Grant reached over and clicked play. A face they all recognised filled the screen and stared back at them. His face was gaunt and his eyes were bloodshot. There had been crude makeup applied to his lips and eyes, almost Clown like. They all held their breath waiting for something to happen. Anthony Gonzales began to speak.

“I am the one you seek. I started this, and now I must finish it…” His voice sounded scripted “I am responsible for the death of Michael Wilson… I am going to pay the price… I was once a Clown and therefore deserve a chance… but it will be a proper ending either way.” Anthony’s face disappeared from the screen and a shot of a cage trailer in the darkness, lit up by a spotlight, came into focus. There was something wild moving inside, and as the camera panned in closer the beast’s eyes became visible, there was no sound but caged hate was evident in the wild darkened pupils. Still pictures of Anthony Gonzales and Reece Coster flashed onto the screen for a short time before it went blank. Words scrolled across the bottom of the screen.

Remember the book of Daniel; the Circus is only for the Clowns…

Bridger looked at the rest of the team; they all had confused looks on their faces. He had already received that sermon tonight and now it was going to become a reality. No matter what they had done they did not deserve this.

“We need to get down to the Circus right now…”

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty Four

It was only a few minutes from the station, but Bridger had no idea how long ago the clip of Anthony Gonzales was taken, and so did not know what to expect. He saw Steve and Gillian’s patrol car parked on the grass verge, lights still flashing. He got out of the car and pulled the jacket he had on tighter around his neck, but it made little difference with the damp shirt he was still wearing.

The early morning sun was struggling to make itself seen and the air was slightly chilled. It seemed a surreal ending to the last twelve hours, the calm after the storm. The Oval was empty now, except for the one lonely cage trailer, what was left of the green grass framing it in the middle of the muddy grounds. The oversized picture of Irish Mick attached to the front was staring back at them, the same dead eyes he was sure he had seen last night seemed haunted by something within. They were too late. He knew what had happened.

The dark grey clouds that came with the previous night’s thunderstorm had just started to recede, and shafts of sunlight were pinpricking the ground, highlighting the ruts and hollows left by the previous few days of use. Bridger could see the scorched earth where the main tent would have been. The memory of the two-headed beast lying in the burnt out waste was still fresh in his mind, making him shudder. He stood beside the car and took a breath.

“Whatever you think about them, the Clowns have done a decent job of packing and moving everything away” Becky was looking at the now empty space as she spoke “I guess they are used to it though, but the main tent was a real mess, that must have taken some time to clear.”

“Is that the trailer from the website…?” Brian paused as he looked at the trailer again “Although, by the look of it, it looks nothing like the Circus trailers that were part of the Wilson’s outfit. It almost looks homemade. And that picture of Irish Mick, it looks too staged… wasn’t that what you said you saw last night, Mike?”

Before Bridger could answer, Grant spoke up “Who’s that under the tree over there?” He followed the direction of Grants finger, which was pointing a little further away, nearer the pavilion. He could see the person Grant was referring too, hunched over and shivering with his head in his hands, he could have been anyone, but he recognised him straight away. The small burst of adrenalin on finally locating him was not enough to quell the doubts he felt about his involvement in Irish Mick Wilsons murder, despite the confession he had heard. However, his instincts had been wrong in the past.

“Take him into custody; I will deal with him as soon as I see what we have got over here.”

Turning back to the Oval, he could see Gillian and Steve standing on either side of the cage trailer, a sombre look on their faces, like sentries guarding a cenotaph.

“What have we got Gill?” He could see the whiteness on her face as he walked slowly towards them.

“It’s not pretty Mike, I’m not sure who went first, but for their sake, I hope it was them.”

“Is it male or female?”

Gillian shrugged her shoulders and looked at the ground. Bridger almost did not want to look inside, but knew that he had to. He took a deep breath and held it. Climbing up on the side of the trailer, he leaned over the top and stared into the belly of the cage. Separated into two compartments normally, the steel caged divider in the middle was now wide-open, giving access to both sides. The breath he was holding left his body in a rush and he felt the contents of his stomach trying to follow. Gagging, he let his eyes close in a protective reflex, but it was too late for the image to be undone in his mind. Opening them again, he could plainly see the carcass of the lion lying on the straw covered floor, blood seeping from a deep gash in its stomach. Its dead eyes were staring out from its toy like face and had turned a milky white. A torn Zebra mask was partially visible under the dead lion. The rest of the cage was a mess with the scattered parts of a human body, torn and ripped apart by an animal who knew nothing else. The muscular arm that still held the knife that had obviously delivered the animal from its captivity, was lying beside it. The torso it belonged too was on the other side of the cage, partially disembowelled, but still held together by a sparkly white spandex suit. They had found the lion from the P.A.A.I.N clip… and they had found Anthony Gonzales. In that instant he knew, Anthony had killed his life partner, and then found his own death inside the belly of a giant Irish Mick. It was both a grotesque and grizzly way to die. Anthony had lived and died within and because of the Circus. The irony of his death did not escape him though, Anthony had found out the hard way that this animal was not as domesticated as he had maintained. ‘Man is the cruellest animal’ Friedrich Nietzsche had penned his insight in the eighteen hundreds, but it was proven true in this moment.

Bridger had seen enough, he was about to step down when something caught his eye. A small piece of folded paper was pinned to the wall just below him. Picking it up carefully, he unfolded the paper. Inside he saw hastily scrawled writing.

This is real P.A.A.I.N. Animals will always do what comes naturally and they belong in the wild. It was too late for this one; it would never survive outside of its captivity, and so we gave this man a chance to set it free. We threw this ‘Daniel’ into the Lion’s den, as written in scriptures. If this poor animal’s captivity were just, then no harm would befall him. However, if you are reading this note and this ‘Daniel’ is no more, then you will realise that the circus is only for the Clowns…’

The biblical reference to Daniel and the Lion’s den shot a burst of adrenaline through his system. A feeling stirred in the pit of his stomach as his mind flashed back to the Church he had woken up in. Something was nagging at him but he could not quite place it. He looked back at the note. The Daniel he remembered was supposed to be a religious man, thrown into the den for praying. It was the praying that had saved him from the Lions. His God had looked out for him. Anthony was a murderer; he had no God, and so he had no chance at all. They had not thought this through very well, but then in the end no one would forget this statement in a hurry. Maybe that was the point. The Lion may have been responsible for Anthony’s death, but whoever had put him in this situation would have known the inevitable consequences. It was still murder. The second in less than four days, Bridger was beginning to hate the Circus.

With the note, at least they knew who was responsible, but he could not reconcile the various faces of the P.A.A.I.N membership with what he saw before him. They were such ordinary people; they just cared about animal’s welfare. Could their beliefs be that deeply seated? He knew Reece Coster was all about direct action, but even with that did it involve murder…? Maybe it was Reece Coster on his own, a huge step up from the burning of the tent. He looked over to where Becky and Grant had put Reece in the rear of their police vehicle. At least he would get to ask him…

“Mike… you need to see this…” Gillian’s voice sounded on edge

Bridger looked back from the cage and followed Gillian’s gaze. Less than ten metres away a silent group of four animal masks stood in a line, all of them standing with their hands clasped in front. Where had they come from? The heavy and cold grey cumulus clouds of the retreating storm hung over them, making it a slightly chilling and surreal sight.

There was a large banner unfurled and was lying on the ground in front of them; he could see it read, The Circus is for the Clowns, in large blood red letters. A gust of wind lifted it slightly and made it curl on one end before settling back on the ground.

Kate Atkinson was standing off to one side with a camera; she was ready to record whatever was going to happen next.

Bridger watched, as one by one, the silent animals took off their masks. They tossed them on the ground in front of them and kept their heads bowed. When the last mask came off, they looked up in unison, and the ordinary faces of the killers stared back at him. A bunch of serious looking emancipated men had just put their hands up to murder. Looking closely he could not help thinking that there was something familiar about the group kneeling before them, as if he had seen them in another time, in a more jovial way… It couldn’t be… Bridger shook his head at the thought. It made no sense, but it seemed these four were responsible, no matter whom they were.

Watching Brian move in behind the group with Steve and Gillian, he could not hear the instructions given, but he knew there would be some. He watched as the group all got down on their knees and placed their hands on their heads. That would be Steve Kirkland’s doing, with all his armed offender training, a little flashy in the circumstances, but typical Steve. He watched as the handcuffs locked onto their wrists and their heads bowed once more.

It was over…

Turning back to the trailer, he stared at the steel side, thankful the solid wall was hiding the grizzly contents. He thought of the last couple of days, a lot had happened, people had died, property destroyed, all in the name of an ancient entertainment form. Could society really outgrow the right of a child’s wonderment? Maybe the Circus had had its day, and more instant electronic gratification was now the new church. At least for this one the story was probably over, and according to what Kate had told him, that only left one.

He looked over to where Kate was standing. She had started moving around the group, who were kneeling on the ground; her camera was clicking away, recording her last illustrious piece on the history of Wilsons Circus, such that it was.

 

 

Chapter Twenty Five

 

Sitting in the enclosed space that served as an interview room, Bridger could still smell the acrid odour of smoke. He assumed it must be clinging to the clothes he was wearing, as it was something in which everybody seemed to delight in telling him when he wafted by. How is it that other people could do the simple task of laundering their clothes properly when he could not even figure out which wash cycle to put the stupid machine on. Maybe he should use the dry-cleaning allowance he was supposed to have as part of his employment agreement, but then that would probably mean filling out some sort of form and he could not be bothered with that. Anyway he had not even been home since the fire, so what was he to do. Four men had confessed to the killing of a killer, Maria Staverly had nothing to do with anything apparently. The Circus, what was left of it, had closed ranks and moved on, protecting their own as always. There was only one person left to sort out. He hoped, well he knew, that he would also clear up the matter of the fire, releasing the animals, and the unlawful sexual connection involving an incapacitated Maria Staverly. The media were going to have to report some good results for once.

Jane Little was facing him, a small table between him and the sly smile she had on her pretty face. He looked back at her, trying to gauge the truth in her eyes. Did she send him those photographs of him and Kate Atkinson; she had not let on when he had asked her straight, feigning ignorance. He thought about what had happened after the lights went out, after he had been in the same room as her. Could she have slipped him something in the coffee she had handed to him that had made him feel the way he had, or had it actually been something more sinister. She would have had the opportunity. What was her motive? Was it to stuff up his interview with Keith Joyce? Maybe…, either way, Clowns had never really worried him…, until now. He took a deep breath, he felt a little pathetic letting her get to him like she always did, but that was for another time.

Clicking record on the machine to his left, he looked over at the other pathetic figure sitting on the far side of the table. “So… Mr Coster, in your own words, from the beginning please.”

 

Maria was sitting next to the fat woman who always smelt of cabbage. Her name was Vivian. She had found out this and a number of other things that she was not sure just yet whether she cared about, but the fat woman just kept on talking. Vivian was more than just a cook then. She let the vibrations of the trucks rough chassis move her about in the old leather seat. It was something she remembered doing as a child on the endless road journey of her life.

They were a long way from Dunedin, travelling in a depleted convoy of dilapidated trucks and caravans. They were mostly just a misfit bunch of animals, labourers, and her. There were no Clowns, no Acrobats…, nothing really. They were all that was left of the Circus. A sudden sadness washed through her, and she felt alone. She had no real memory of her early life, but she knew that the clowns had saved her, then and now. They actually believed in her and they had proven that they would do anything to protect her. She did not understand, but they had said it was something that they owed her. Thanks to them, she knew whom the Clown was that she dreamed of now. He was no longer a Clown and would never haunt her dreams again. He was no longer, but that betrayal was something that would take a long time to forget.

She looked out the window at the passing scenery. The sea was glistening to her right and the lush green of native bush was rushing past on her left. Things had turned out all right really, she could not really complain. A small insect flew in front of her face and she brushed it away. The window was down, more to drown out the incessant talking of the fat woman than to breathe the salt air. She took a deep breath anyway, she was Maria, Maria Wilson, of Wilsons Circus, and she was going to take this show to the world…

 

 

 

 

 

Author’s note:

 

At the time of writing this story there are not many full-time Circuses’ operating in New Zealand and the fate of the real ‘Wilson’s Circus’ as written about in the article taken from the Otago Witness in 1876 is unknown. Animals, Clowns, and Acrobatics, however, continue to be an integral part of the entertainment offered by modern Circuses.

 

In 1978, two Lions, named Sultan and Sonia did escape from a Circus, which was performing in Lawrence, New Zealand, after someone had mistakenly left open the bolts on their cage.

It was just before the evening show began when the two lions made their bid for freedom and Sonia, believed to have scratched the face of a six-year-old child while fleeing, created panic.

Three-year-old Sultan, the male lion, actually tried to return to his cage a short time later but could not get back in. Due to fears for the safety of the public, the local Police Constable shot him dead, a decision endorsed by the manager of the Circus.

Sonia was eventually corralled in a local resident’s garage. Unfortunately, she escaped through a rear door before her recapture was possible and was later found in the Lawrence Hospital grounds. After two failed attempts to tranquilise her, she too was shot.

Both Lions underwent taxidermy procedures and are now displayed at the Otago Museum in Dunedin.

 

 

 

More in the Detective Mike Bridger series:

 

-Human Frailty, a Detective Mike Bridger novel (Book One). Published 2013

 

-Wasted Lives, a Detective Mike Bridger novel (Book Two). Published 2014

 

 

Connect with the Author:

 

 

On Facebook:

 

https://www.facebook.com/HumanFrailtyCrimeNovel

 

On Twitter:

 

[* Mark Bredenbeck @mbredenbeck *]

 


Send in the Clowns, a Detective Mike Bridger novel

When you give your life to the Circus, the Circus can take your life. 130 years of grievance comes to the fore in one travelling carnival when a member of the troupe is killed in suspicious circumstance. In a world full of captive animals, big personalities and silent protesters, Detective Sergeant Mike Bridger finds himself in the middle of a strange and ancient existance. An existance where everyone has an agenda and will stop at nothing to pursue it. Sometimes the Clowns don't laugh...

  • Author: Mark Bredenbeck
  • Published: 2015-12-21 06:20:17
  • Words: 60019
Send in the Clowns, a Detective Mike Bridger novel Send in the Clowns, a Detective Mike Bridger novel