Welcome to The Circus of Brass and Bone.
Now settle back and enjoy the circus. It's the end of civilization, but the show...must go on.
The Equestrienne's Worst Fear
Download MP3 podcast
the Whitefaced Clown
Headquarters, New York City
requisitioning your horses for the good of the city," the
Commissioner said gruffly. "What other animals do you have that
are edible or capable of being trained to work?"
silence swamped the room. Ginger glanced sideways at Lacey Miller,
the lady equestrienne. He had observed that in every situation, her
first thought was for her horses. They were who she was.
What threatened them, threatened her.
rim of white showed around her eyes as she stared straight ahead. Her
hand clenched and unclenched. Ginger wouldn't have been surprised if
she pulled a knife and attacked the Commissioner.
they let the Commissioner take the horses, the circus would be
trapped in a city that didn't have much use for them. If they tried
to stop him, they would lose more than their horses.
had to untangle this mess. If he were still in the military, Ginger
would have dumped it all on the captain's lap and been glad to be rid
of it. But here he was, in a company without a captain. Ginger missed
the old ringmaster. He had been good at sorting out messes before
they threatened his profits, even if his solutions tended to resemble
Alexander the Great's answer to the Gordian Knot. He'd always put the
profitability of the circus first, the effectiveness of its spies
second, and the welfare of its members a distant third.
These thoughts flew through
Ginger's mind in the minute of dead silence that followed the
Commissioner's demand. No sign of them showed on Ginger's face. Rule
Number 11 of being a clown: Your face is a canvas. Keep it blank when
you're not using it.
hand was straying toward the hoof pick tucked into her waistband.
reached out and caught it. She looked at him with wide eyes and then
blinked down at her hand, as if she had been unaware of its slow
write up an inventory for you, sir," Ginger told the
Commissioner. "We'll be going now. Don't want to take up any
more of your valuable time." He ducked his head respectfully,
took Lacey's arm in a grip more vicelike than it appeared, and swept
them out of the Commissioner's office before she recovered enough to
do anything truly unfortunate.
tried to tug her arm away. "I have to explain," she said.
"I have to explain to him why he can't take my horses."
Ginger continued to tow her along.
dug in her heels. "You don't understand. He
doesn't understand. I have to explain to him." She spoke in the
same tone that a hysterical person would use to insist that they were
perfectly calm, thankyouverymuch.
"Not now." He leaned
in close and kept his voice low. "I'm working on something. You
have to stay calm. You're no good to your horses if you don't stay
She focused on him. "They
don't like it when their handler is agitated."
they were on the stone steps in front of Central Police Headquarters,
Ginger stopped and patted his pockets. He painted a look of mild
distress across his face. "I dropped something. I'll be right
back. Stay here." He met the strong man's eyes as he said the
last words, and was rewarded by a fraction of a nod. The strong man
understood, and he wouldn't let Lacey do anything foolish.
Ginger eased open the door, the Commissioner looked up and frowned.
"I thought I made myself clear," the Commissioner said. "No
special exemptions will be made for you people. Simply by offering to
allow you to stay, I'm stretching our resources to the limit."*
nodded. "Yes, sir. About the circus. . . ." He pulled a
pair of tickets from his pocket. "I hope you and your wife might
enjoy our performance tonight."
Commissioner's eyes hardened at the mention of his wife. Perhaps it
was a warning, perhaps it was an involuntary response. "The
circus will get no special treatment."
may find it a pleasant diversion, sir." Ginger waited.
a moment, the Commissioner swept up the tickets and gave a curt nod
seemed more ominous that he didn't feel the need to say, "Don't
try to leave town." The corpses dangling from the lampposts made
that message clear.
didn't need much preparation for his clown act. As the rest of the
circus bustled about the docks getting ready for the evening
performance, he tackled the next part of the mess.
rough-looking sailors were sitting on packing crates watching the
circus. Ginger ambled amiably up to them. "Afternoon,
gentlemen," he said.
biggest of the sailors grunted an acknowledgment, the oldest raised
an eyebrow, and the youngest and friendliest of the three said,
like watching the circus set up?" Ginger leaned back against one
of the packing crates.*
much else to do," the older sailor said noncommittally.
big sailor roused enough to grump, "You trying to run us off?
'Cause the last time somebody--"
no," Ginger soothed. "I'm in need of distraction myself,
you see. I've watched this a million times." He waved his hand
in the direction of the roustabouts hoisting up the king pole for the
main tent. "I'm thinking of going to the zoo that my compadre
was so fired-up about, but I don't want to go on my own. One man,
alone, if those special patrolmen get to feeling their oats. . . ."
He manufactured a grimace.
zoo?" The young sailor perked up. "We're stuck on this
pox-rotted dock, and New York's got a zoo?
Think they'd sell me a monkey? I've always wanted a one."
"I'm pretty sure all their
monkeys are spoken for," Ginger said hastily.
The young sailor looked
downcast for barely a moment before he brightened. "What are we
waiting for? Let's go!"
The older sailor put out his
hand. "Hold on, young buck." He squinted at Ginger. "What's
Ginger intentionally relaxed
his body. No tension here, not hiding an ulterior motive, no
sirree. "My pal said the zoo owners would be grateful if I
put a little business their way, if you know what I mean."
The young sailor nodded, but
the older one wasn't so easily convinced. "Why don't you want us
to go to your circus instead?"
"I don't figure it's a
competition. Besides, whatever the circus takes in goes to keep it
running. I won't see hardly any of it." Ginger shrugged. "Take
some nice trade goods down with you. The zoo gets customers, you get
entertained, and I get a cut. If you like what you see, tell your
friends. I'd be happy to guide them there, too."
As Ginger had hoped, the
explanation was close enough to the truth to satisfy them. Of course,
once one group of sailors knew where the zoo was, there'd be no need
for a guide. As long as they believed he hadn't figured that out,
they'd think they had one up on him. That tended to put people in a
The older sailor shrugged.
"Fair enough. Trade goods, huh? I've got a few things they might
be happy to see."
"Delighted to hear it."
Ginger cleared his throat delicately. "You might want to put on
clothes more like what the cityfolk are wearing these days."
The young man looked like his
pride had been offended, but the big sailor snorted a laugh, and the
older one cracked a smile. "We'll take your advice on that."
dressed and following Ginger's example of "how to walk like a
landlubber," they made it to the Sasse family zoo unaccosted.
The big sailorgrinned when a trousered young woman challenged them at
the gate. "Scrappy," he said.
girl scowled and raised her rifle, which only made the big sailor
grin more. "Who are you, and what are you doing here?" she
stepped forward, hands raised pacifically. "I'm from the circus.
My friends said such wonderful things about your zoo that I just had
to visit it myself."
girl scowled. "Uh-huh."
I brought sailors!" Ginger said brightly, in the same tone he
might have said, Look, I brought flowers!
"And trade goods!"
"Oh?" The girl edged
a bit closer to the gate.
Ginger tugged the young
sailor's bag out of his hands and pulled out a bolt of shining silver
cloth. "Hey!" the sailor protested.
Ginger ignored him. "See?"
"Oh, that's pretty,"
the girl admitted.
"And there's more. Why
don't you go get your father? We'll wait right here. We don't want
any trouble, just a tour."
another longing look at the silver cloth, she nodded and trotted
she was out of sight, the younger sailor hissed, "She was
wearing trousers! It ain't proper."
the big sailor rumbled. "You've seen sailor females wearing
different. Proper women don't."
big sailor grunted. "These days, proper's only good so long as
it helps you survive. I reckon she'll survive."
looks like she's no better than--"
big sailor cut him off. "Don't."
big sailor growled, a low, menacing sound that silenced everyone
until the girl returned with her father.
they are, Papa," she said.
gentlemen," her father said. "I'm Mr. Sasse, and this is
our family zoo. What's this about the circus and sailors and trade
stepped forward. "I'm from the circus, sir. Some of my
colleagues visited you last night, and they said very good things
about your menagerie."
did they now?"
smiled and hoped it didn't look pained. "Absolutely. These fine
gentlemen are sailors from Port Rumsey. They hoped to tour your zoo,
and they brought trade goods to pay for the privilege."
consider it a favor," Ginger tried.
you now? That's mighty interesting." Mr. Sasse took a long, slow
look at Ginger. "Mighty interesting. All right. Rosie, you run
and warn the family we've got visitors."
Sasse waited to open the gate until Rosie returned with her taller,
bigger brother. Then he waved Ginger and the sailors inside. He led
them past the peacock enclosure, where the males strutted and fanned
their plumage. He walked them past an alligator pit, which inspired
the older sailor to tell a story about seeing a gator down South tear
a cow apart in under a minute. And he ushered them over to the monkey
cage, where the younger sailor's fumbling attempts to buy a monkey
were politely rebuffed.
noted that a couple of the monkeys didn't seem to be feeling well.
Muscle twitches, odd bumps on their limbs. . . . He shivered and
Sasse and her brother led the sailors on to the next part of the
tour, but Papa Sasse stayed back.
here about that runaway circus monkey, aren't you?" Papa Sasse
said. "Here to try and take him and Marigold away? I tell you,
like I told the other fellow, Rosie's the one you have to convince!"
and no," Ginger answered. "I don't want Isaac pining away
for the monkey he left behind. I don't think he's convinced your zoo
will be here in a year. There might be something I can do about
Sasse snorted a bitter laugh. "You'll be lucky if you can get
your menagerie out of this town intact. You think you can
persuade the Commissioner to see us as something better than exotic
meat on the hoof?"
raised his eyebrows and smiled slightly.
You do, do you?" Papa Sasse leaned forward. "Tell me more."
a minute. First, though, can you explain why Isaac didn't just take
his monkey? I don't understand it." Ginger allowed a plaintive
note to creep into his voice.
that. It comes down to love. It so happens that. . . ."
they walked through the zoo, Papa Sasse told Ginger the tale of two
monkeys in love. When he was finished, Ginger told Papa Sasse the
tale of how one powerful man really loved his flighty wife. Though
they stayed behind the sailors, Papa Sasse took Ginger along a
slightly different route. There was at least one stop on Ginger's
tour that he figured the sailors didn't get.
they strolled past an ornery pair of ostriches, Papa Sasse led Ginger
into a small clearing. Birds sang in the trees nearby. Two handmade
wooden crosses were planted in the ground. As soon as Ginger realized
what he was looking at, he took his hat off to show respect.
small cross is for Rosie's littlest sister," Papa Sasse said.
"She got real sick after the storm, and she just kept getting
weaker and weaker. I risked my life to get a doctor in and
everything, but there was nothing the doc could do. He said the storm
had pulled bone aether right out of her flesh and hadn't left enough
to keep her going. He would have given her a transfusion, but his
bone aether was all spoilt." Papa Sasse's tone was so
matter-of-fact that it hurt to hear.
"I'm sorry--" Ginger
Papa Sasse held up his hand to
stop him. "My second-oldest son went out to look for bone aether
that was still good. My little girl died a week after he left. My son
never came home again, and so I added a cross for him. " He met
Ginger's eyes. "My wife lay in her bed and cried for a week. I'd
never seen her cry before, you understand? Once she picked herself
back up, we sawed off the zoo sign, put up blackout curtains, and set
a guard. We haven't lost another baby since. Now you ask me to open
the zoo back up. The Commissioner has ignored us so far, but you want
to bring him into my home and show him everything that he could take
away from us. Why would we do that? We're safe here."
Ginger met Papa Sasse's eyes
levelly. "No, you're not. I'm sure the Commissioner knows you're
here. Anyway, being ignored isn't going to keep you safe for much
longer. You'll need the Commissioner's help to survive. You want
him to see you as a unique and precious resource."
Papa Sasse's bushy beard
bristled indignantly. "And why is that, pray tell?"
"Is anybody in your
household sick?" Ginger asked. "Irritable? Over-energetic?
Given to muscle twitches and spasms?"
"One of the cousins,"
Papa Sasse said slowly. "His muscles spasm so much he can't
hardly move. He complains of terrible pain in his joints. He stays
abed most of the day. My wife has muscle problems herself. It started
in her right hand, but it's spread up past her elbow now. She still
manages. I think it's a lingering ailment caused by that aether
storm. Half my zoo animals have it, too. Their appetite is healthy,
though. That's a good sign in a sick animal. It means they'll recover
on their own, given time." His eyes pleaded with Ginger not to
It isn't. And they won't," Ginger said, with a brutality that
was its own sort of kindness. "Did you hear about the battle on
of the women we barter eggs to had some ridiculous story about
monsters and an Indian war elephant. Without the newspapers, nobody
knows what's really going on. The craziest rumors get started."
Papa Sasse shrugged, but his eyes remained worried.
story was true. When our circus was crossing High Bridge, monsters
that used to be deer attacked us."
to be--? I don't understand."
aether sickness drove them mad with hunger and changed them into
monsters. Their bodies warped until they were almost impossible to
kill. It was like the Grey Steel Regiment during the war. You
Sasse was shaking his head. "No. It can't be."
wrong. My wife isn't like that. She isn't a monster. She just has a
little nervous problem with her arm. That's all. It will go away on
might," Ginger allowed. He was no doctor. For all he knew, it
might be true. "But there are worse cases. In the next few
weeks, they'll get hungrier. From what I remember during the war,
they'll be super-strong. And they'll be able to jump really high."
can cage the sick animals separately from the healthy ones. I have a
deep pit I'd planned on using for a pair of elephants. And there's
plenty of extra fencing--strong enough to withstand a bull gorilla,
so it ought to do." Papa Sasse managed a smile. "Never get
rid of anything that might be of use, that's what I say."
want to use some of that fencing to reinforce the wall around your
zoo," Ginger suggested.
Sasse's smile wavered and vanished. "Yes. Right. Against those
poor souls who are so much worse off than we." It sounded like a
need all the help you can get to protect your family," Ginger
pressed. He hated himself a little for the next thing he said, but he
didn't allow that to affect his tone or expression. "You don't
want to add more crosses." He gestured to the children's
graveyard with a sweep of his arm.
Papa Sasse said hoarsely. "No. What's your plan?"
took his arm. "The sailors should be finishing their tour soon,
right? Take all the trade goods they offer. Save them for me."
right." Papa Sasse stumbled into motion.
noticed that a few of your monkeys suffer from the aether sickness.
Might you let us take them? Our doctor needs subjects to study."
Sasse fixed his eyes on Ginger. "You think there could be a
is cured eventually," Ginger assured him. He didn't add that
death cured all ills.
found everyone by the gate: the sailors, Rosie, Rosie's brother, and
what must have been the whole Sasse clan. A tall, rawboned woman
surveyed glass jars of spices with all the delight of a kitten in a
yarn basket. The other females oohed and aahed over the bolt of
silver fabric. Children held up glass beads and cats-eye marbles to
see the sun shine through them. An older gent blissfully inhaled the
aroma from an open tobacco pouch.
Ginger said, "keep all the trade goods in one place for now.
Don't use them or barter them away."
Sasse huffed a laugh. "That may be trickier than I thought!"
the two of them approached, the tall woman waved her hand in welcome.
Her arm shook slightly with palsy, though it was nothing Ginger would
have noticed if he hadn't known to look for it. This was Mama Sasse,
have cinnamon!" she told Papa Sasse happily. "I'll be able
to make your favorite apple pie the way it's meant to be." She
laughed. "I may have to have one of the girls roll out the pie
dough, though, if this arm of mine doesn't behave!"
and fear flashed across Papa Sasse's face. Ginger looked away.
is it?" Mama Sasse asked, in an altered tone. "What's
now," Papa Sasse told her. His words sounded choked. He cleared
his throat. "I'll tell you later. What do we have here?"
Sasse gave him a sharp look, but she went along. "These boys
brought a choice of things to pay their way. The younger girls fancy
that silver cloth, and I admit it would be terribly becoming on
Rosie, but I think spices are a better investment, and--hey!"
She pointed a steady finger at the old man with the tobacco pouch.
"Don't think I didn't see you inching that toward your
pocket. Put it back in the pile! We don't have an agreement yet."
circled around the trade goods. Could it be--yes! He pounced, pulling
out a brown paper bag with Chocolate hand-printed on the
outside. He allowed himself a triumphant grin. "I'll take this,"
beg your--" Mama Sasse began.
Sasse rested his hand on her arm. She gave him a quizzical look.
"Later," he repeated.
the time Ginger returned to Rumsey Port, circus tents billowed in the
breeze. Talkers strutted in front of their pitches, practicing the
spiels that would lure marks into giving up their hard-earned
coin--or, in this case, food. Posters announced the wonders and
marvels to be found within the tents. A pair of ostriches strutted
along the dock, ostensibly being "exercised," but really
serving as a walking advertisement for the menagerie. A handful of
costumed circus folk roamed nearby. Now and then, as if on the spur
of the moment, they did rolls or flips, to the assembling crowd's
by the size of the gathering, word had spread that there was
something new in town. The ticket wagon blocked the main road
entering the port, and the line of customers stretched up the street
and around the corner. As Ginger approached, the wizened old ticket
taker ended an argument with a customer by leaning out of his window
and pointing to a hand-lettered sign pinned up between a poster
advertising Madam Miller, The
Fabulous Lady Equestrienne Who Defies the Fiery Rings of Death! and
another that boasted of The
Conjoined Murray Sisters, a Medical Miracle Alive Only By God's
Grace! In large letters, the handwritten sign admonished,
"No Cash Money! No Ration Coupons! Barter ONLY!" followed
by a list of suggested barter items. Even the man brandishing a
handful of useless paper currency must not have been surprised; after
a heated back-and-forth with the ticket taker, he shrugged and
reached into his coat to produce a jar of peaches.
made a mental note to have someone keep watch for the Commissioner
and his wife, so that they could be kept away from the ticket wagon.
Many of the cityfolk had begun comparing trade goods while they
waited, and the line was beginning to resemble a black market.
glimpsed a familiar face--it might already be too late. The
Commissioner's aide wasn't wearing his police blues, but Ginger
recognized him by his reddened face. This time the red was caused by
the cold instead of the exertion of chasing down the Commissioner's
wife, but the effect was distinctive. The Commissioner already had
tickets. Had he sent Mr. Akrill here to spy?
Mr. Akrill sneaked a look around him, opened his coat, and revealed a
small jar of molasses to the old woman standing next to him. Not very
long on common sense, Ginger mused. If Mr. Akrill wasn't the police
spy, then he should have expected that someone else in the crowd was.
Ginger shook his head sadly. Rule Number 10 of being a clown: Know
who your audience is.
waiting long enough to allow Mr. Akrill to finish his illegal black
market transaction and long enough again to let the man relax, Ginger
sauntered up to him. "Sir!" he said, as if seeing him for
the first time. "Whatever are you doing waiting in line? There's
no need for this! Come along with me. Here, this ticket is yours."
He placed a ticket in Mr. Akrill's palm and closed his fingers around
well, I don't want any special favors," Mr. Akrill protested
feebly. "I'm not an important man like the Commissioner, you
see, and I don't want anyone thinking--"
Ginger threw his arm over the man's shoulders and guided him away
from the rest of the crowd. "I was hoping you could do a small
favor for me--for the Commissioner, really," he amended hastily,
when the aide began to look stubborn.
be continued in Episode
17: A Small Favor)
This episode is brought to you
by the generous donations of Peter Akrill, Alice Marks, Tracy
LaChance, and Ben Cragg.
The Circus of Brass and Bone
is written and recorded by Abra Staffin-Wiebe. My main website is at
www.aswiebe.com, and I blog at
is courtesy of Vermillion Lies. Go to their website at
to hear more.