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The beginning of it all - Episode 1
The beginning of the New York storyline - Episode 8
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Now settle back and enjoy the circus. It's the end of civilization, but the show...must go on.
Hostages to Fortune
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the Animal Handler
Rumsey, New York City
"We need Ginger. Right.
Right!" Given an order, Isaac's mind began to work. To get to
Ginger in time, he needed a fast horse.
He ducked out of the doctor's
tent, took a deep breath of fresh air, and walked briskly toward
where Lacey kept her horses corralled. He wanted to run, but there
were policemen everywhere. More emerged every minute. Years of being
a disreputable outsider in every small town the circus passed through
had taught Isaac that policemen were like big cats: either running or
freezing in place would provoke an attack. The best plan was to keep
As he passed one pair of
patrolmen, he overheard, "Find the commissioner's wife and get
her out of here."
Make that two fast horses he
needed, Isaac thought. Ginger and Mrs. Guirard both needed to be here
to keep things from going bad, if it wasn't already too late.
the Whitefaced Clown
Sasse Family Zoo, Manhattan
In Ginger's experience, nothing
important went smoothly. Mrs. Guirard's zoo visit was going so well
that when catastrophe interrupted, it seemed inevitable.
In this case, catastrophe came
as they were bidding the Sasse family farewell. It arrived in the
form of Isaac and two lathered horses.
"For you and the
commissioner's wife," Isaac explained to Ginger, as he slid off
his horse. "You got to get back. The police are taking over the
port. They ain't going to wave us on our way, 'specially not if they
think we got the commissioner's missus. Hope your plan works."
"What?" Papa Sasse
The circusfolk looked to
Ginger, shock writ sharply on their faces.
Ginger bit back the curse that
tried to rise to his lips. "I thought we had more time. Mrs.
Guirard, if I can come up with a way for your husband to change his
mind without seeming to back down, do you think you can sweet-talk
him into it?"
"Perhaps, but I don't
understand," Mrs. Guirard protested. "My husband thinks I'm
there. He'd never attack if I were at risk."
"He expected to get you
out first, ma'am," Isaac said. "They were looking for you."
Ginger nodded. "Everybody
knows how much he cares for you, ma'am. If the sailors know you're
visiting Port Rumsey, they won't expect him to attack. They have
their guard down. It's the perfect time to attack. I expect that
Commissioner Guirard used the circus as a pretext to sneak his men
into hiding on the docks last night. Lots of strangers were coming
Mrs. Guirard nodded slowly.
"He's always been one to take any opportunity he sees. It's what
saved us, after . . . after." She met Ginger's eyes. "If he
sees this scheme of yours as a way to get what he wants without
risking any of his men, he'll want to try it. Get me to him, and I'll
persuade him. But what is your idea? What do you want me to
say? Chocolates won't persuade him to back down, no matter how
delicious they are."
"I'll figure that out on
the way. The rest of you," Ginger looked at Isaac and the other
circusfolk, "stay here with the Sasse family. Wait until it's
safe to return to the circus."
"I'm not certain that's a
good plan," Papa Sasse said slowly. "Do you really think
you can make him listen to you now, after he's committed his forces?"
"What other choice do we
have?" Ginger asked him. "If Commissioner Guirard is
willing to take on the sailors, he won't stop there. He'll strip our
circus bare. I don't think keeping quiet will save the zoo anymore,
either. Sure as shooting, he'll come for you too."
Mrs. Guirard regained her
customary spirit. "You men, always fussing! It won't come to
that. I've talked him down from worse." She laughed, a bubbling,
infectious laugh that invited them in on the joke. "Not that he
thinks I knew what I was doing, of course."
Ginger chose not to think of
what "worse" might mean when it described the intentions of
a man who left bodies dangling from the lamp posts of his city.
Instead, he offered Mrs. Guirard a small, respectful bow. "Of
course. We must get you to him as soon as possible."
Isaac held out the reins of the
two horses he'd brought. "Here you go."
"Hold up there!" Papa
Sasse interrupted. "You're right, Ginger. The way things are
going, there's no point anymore in us sitting on our hands and hoping
that the commissioner forgets we exist. We've already thrown our lot
in with yours. If things don't go according to your plan, could be
that a few more men on your side would make a difference."
Ginger knew that he should act
appreciative and inspired, to seal the bond between them, but he just
felt irritated. These people and their good intentions were slowing
him down. He barely managed to keep the irritation off his face
as he said, "Could be. I'll always welcome your help, but Mrs.
Guirard and I need to go now."
Papa Sasse gave him a sharp
nod. "We'll follow behind as close as we can. Excuse me. I need
to get everybody ready to ride." Without waiting for a response,
he strode off to do just that.
Ginger took the reins from
Isaac. "Listen to me," he told him. "This is very
important. Have they sealed off the port?"
"Yeah, I reckon so."
"How did you get out,
"I rode right past 'em."
Isaac gulped. "I thought they were going to shoot me, but I
heard one of them order the others to let me go. Said the
commissioner told them to let the small fry swim away, and that
they'd sweep me up in the net later."
Ginger nodded. "That's
what I'd do. Commissioner Guirard controls the city. If people stay,
he can pick them up any time he likes. If they flee to the
countryside, that means there are fewer mouths for him to feed. It's
good for us, too. If they don't care much whether people leave, I'll
wager that they didn't bother to block all the entrances either."
the Whitefaced Clown
Rumsey Port, New York
any occasion that he found himself in new surroundings, Ginger made a
habit of taking long walks at two o'clock in the morning. As he would
freely tell any and all official-looking persons, he suffered from
terrible insomnia whenever he was sleeping in a new town. Simply
As a result of the wakefulness
that could be achieved by drinking four large glasses of water
immediately before bed, he knew of three entrances to the docks that
were more alley than street and were, accordingly, more likely to be
Ginger and Mrs. Guirard rode to
within eyeshot of the first entrance before dismounting and walking
their horses into the front parlor of an abandoned boarding house.
Hopefully, nobody would think it a likely place to find valuable
livestock. Ginger shifted his weight as they walked out of the house,
feeling the reassuring press of his bowie knife against the small of
Mrs. Guirard gathered up her
skirts and darted into the shadows. Ginger mentally rolled his eyes.
He'd found that no matter how tense the situation, a man casually
walking into it was much less likely to be shot than a man--or
woman--sneaking through the underbrush or climbing over a fence. He
walked after Mrs. Guirard at a brisk but not overly hurried pace. He
caught her arm before she could attempt to sneak up on the
unsuspecting alley. No doubt she would have dashed from shadow to
shadow and attempted to hide behind street lights and other entirely
"No hiding," he said
in a quiet voice that avoided the attention-catching sibilance of a
whisper. "Pretend that you have every right to be here and that
you don't know anything unusual is going on. Stand here, in the
sunlight, and look at the ground as if you're searching for something
you've lost. Keep your head down. Move a little, but not too much.
Let me check the alley."
A flush burned her cheeks, but
she nodded. That was good enough for him. He chose a path
perpendicular to the alley mouth, one that would allow him to see
down the alley while still clearly heading somewhere else.
Two alert-looking special
patrolmen stood guard at the other end of the alley. Their attention
was on the docks, where they expected any trouble to come from. As
soon as he saw them, Ginger averted his gaze. It made no logical
sense, but sometimes people really could tell when they were being
watched. He did not allow his footsteps to speed up as he passed the
alley and circled around to return to Mrs. Guirard's side.
"Not that way," he
said shortly. "No--try not to look anxious."
Her face instantly smoothed
into a charming smile.
"That might catch too much
attention too," he said dryly, "but it's better than
looking worried. Come on. It's a bit of a walk to the next
likely-to-be-overlooked entrance couldn't even be dignified by
calling it an alley. Years of drunken sailors staggering back to
their berths had worn a footpath between two buildings. No patrolmen
guarded it. Ginger sauntered down the footpath, knowing that he was
heading for trouble. Mrs. Guirard followed him before he could tell
her not to.
When they emerged onto the
docks, Ginger saw that he'd arrived too late to prevent hostilities.
Or perhaps he'd arrived just in time, since Lacey had yet to use the
sharp point of the hoof pick dimpling the skin of Commissioner
On the city's side of the
docks, ranks of regular policemen stood shoulder-to-shoulder with
special patrolmen marked by their blue armbands. If he were a
gambling man, Ginger would have said that the police force's
disciplined and uniformly armed troops, experienced leadership, and
sheer numerical advantage made them the odds-on favorite. If Lacey
hadn't taken Commissioner Guirard hostage, it seemed likely that they
would have already overrun the sailors' defenses.
Ship-side, the sailors formed a
ragged brigade armed with everything from crowbars and knives to
muskets and rifles. They scowled fiercely at the policemen, as if
they could be outfaced like bullies picking a barroom fight. Those
still aboard ship must be scrambling to prepare for battle. Despite
the menacing scowls of the sailors on the docks, the real threat came
from the ships behind them.
Ship cannon boosted by aether
catalyst could strike deep into the heart of the city. Shatter bombs
would unfurl into a lethal ivory mist of bone aether darts. And
although their use was banned by every maritime accord, some of these
ships might even have fire aether splashers, which burned unstoppably
through ship hulls and human flesh alike. Of course, that was if the
aether armament onboard the ships still worked. It might, if the
ships were at sea when the murderous storm struck. Or it might not.
Anyone who used aether-powered devices took their own life in their
hands. Ginger shuddered as he remembered the horrific accidents
they'd seen when they first docked in Boston.
Lacey and her hostage stood
midway between the ships and the main road to the port, near the
circus tents. The open space between the two forces gave Lacey an
empty arena. She might have been a ringmaster at the center of his
ring, if she weren't so obviously failing to control the situation.
Commissioner Guirard's weapon lay at his feet. She had a hoof pick to
his throat. And she still didn't look like she was in command.
A hoof pick made a poor weapon,
so Lacey hadn't planned this ahead of time. Something had pushed her
to this state. It was pretty easy to guess what. Commissioner Guirard
must have seen the circus, given an order--and Lacey overheard it.
Now she held a weapon to the throat that had issued that order.
"I won't let you take
them!" she yelled. "My horses are my life! All I want is
to be left in peace. Why does nobody understand that?!"
Ginger winced inwardly. That
was not the sound of a person who could be reasoned into lowering her
weapon. Experienced policemen would hear the same
pushed-past-the-breaking-point desperation in her voice that he did.
Indeed, when he looked for the officer in charge, he spotted
Commissioner Guirard's deputy standing beside a man holding a
sharpshooter's rifle. The sharpshooter had a calm, distant look on
Ginger wracked his wits. He
needed a distraction to buy time. It must be something that they
wouldn't perceive as a threat. He couldn't afford to make this mess
worse. He needed something unexpected but nonthreatening, something
that would make them lower their guard. He needed, he realized, to
make them laugh. He had just begun to concoct a plan when an
indignant voice shouted, "Halt or I'll shoot!"
The policemen tensed, readying
themselves for action. The sailors surged forward and then stopped
when they realized that nobody was threatening them. Lacey's hand
jerked. A thin ribbon of blood unspooled down Commissioner Guirard's
It was in this delicate moment
that the Sasse family and company made their entrance. The source of
the shouting turned out to be a storklike young special patrolman
guarding the alley the Sasse family emerged from. "Stop right
there!" he ordered again. His Adam's apple bobbed convulsively
as he swallowed.
Papa Sasse looked determined.
Mama Sasse looked embarrassed at being so easily caught. The rest of
the Sasse family wore expressions that were elaborations on the
theme--and indeed, they had brought almost their whole family, from
children barely old enough to be trusted to point their guns in the
right direction, to oldsters who had avoided fighting in the War
Between the States because they were already considered too elderly.
Even Miss Anderson, the aether-sick cousin, had roused herself to
join them. She'd been abed when Ginger visited the zoo, but he
recognized her by the signs of her sickness. Her body shook like a
leaf in a high gale, and thin strands of saliva dripped untended down
For once, Ginger thought wryly,
it would have been nice if the circus members hadn't made a
grand entrance. Alas, they had all trailed along behind the Sasse
family. Their reactions to being caught varied. Isaac's eyes were
wide and scared. The strong man's dark face was as impassive as a
lifetime of hard experiences could make it. The roustabouts wore
surly expressions, like they'd just been given a nasty job of work.
Madame Tonya Wershow looked meek and scared, as if she were a Sasse
family member dragged along against her will. She'd even thought to
move closer to the family, separating herself from the rest of the
circusfolk. Ginger approved. Under the circumstances, she was doing
everything she could to avoid drawing further attention to herself.
Nobody should be looking at her, except--
Except one person among the
small cluster of performers that had gathered by the circus tents. At
the edge of the group, Rajesh stared at Madame Wershow as if he'd
seen a ghost. Taken by surprise, the Indian mahout's unguarded
expression was as good as a confession. Ginger took it as such. In
order for them all to live long enough for him to pass sentence on
the guilty party, however, Ginger had to do something that went very
much against his nature.
"Excuse me!" Ginger
said, stepping forward with his empty hands spread wide.
Everyone stared at him.
"This is all a terrible
misunderstanding," he babbled, as he approached Lacey and her
hostage. "Nobody needs to do anything unfortunate." He
waved his hand toward the ranks of armed policemen. "A very
natural reaction to your wife going missing, Commissioner," he
said, blithely papering over the timing of Commissioner Guirard's
offensive and what Ginger knew to be his true motives. Ginger phrased
his next sentence carefully, emphasizing the words he wanted to
linger in Commissioner Guirard's mind. "Now that your wife
is here and unharmed, as you can see, you decide what
wife can see what happens next.
Men who loved their wives
wanted to appear worthy in their eyes. Ginger gambled everything on
that simple truth. Loving husbands didn't want to be seen as despots
willing to slaughter everyone who opposed them. They wanted to
protect their wives' delicate sensibilities, assuming that they
believed their wives had such things.
"Lacey, set down the hoof
pick," Ginger continued, switching targets. "There's no
need for that now. Let's not do anything rash before the commissioner
has had a chance to talk to his wife. Let him go."
"If I let him go, there's
nothing to stop him from taking whatever he wants. The only leverage
we have is what we hold. If I let him go, we have nothing."
She'd stopped shouting. She
sounded calm and she made a logical argument, but her eyes were wide
and staring. He might have talked her back from the ledge, Ginger
thought, but she was still on the rooftop.
"The commissioner is a man
of the law," Ginger told her, feeling his way toward an argument
that might work. "I am certain that we can trust him to abide by
any agreement he makes, particularly with his own men as witnesses."
Lacey scowled at him, but she
eased the hoof pick away from Commissioner Guirard's neck. Just a
fraction, just enough that the point no longer dimpled his skin, but
enough to give Ginger hope. After all, he didn't particularly care
what Commissioner Guirard agreed to, or whether he planned to honor
that agreement. Ginger's aim was to keep Commissioner Guirard
unharmed--mostly unharmed, he amended--until Mrs. Guirard could bring
gentler methods of persuasion to bear on her husband.
"Sir," Ginger said,
"surely you wish to speak with your wife and reassure
yourself as to her well-being! I understand how much you must have
feared for her safety, once you realized she was missing. This is all
an unfortunate misunderstanding. Lacey was also in fear when she
seized you." Ginger continued talking, painting a picture of
fragile, terrified womanhood, as he eased toward the
not-at-all-fragile and increasingly angry-looking woman holding
Commissioner Guirard hostage. "You know how impetuous women can
be when their protective instincts are aroused. I'm sure she realizes
that it was a terrible mistake. If you reassure her, Lacey will put
down the hoof pick. Perhaps if you give her assurances that her
horses will remain untouched and that the circus can depart your
jurisdiction as soon as--"
Commissioner Guirard and Lacey
both responded angrily and at the same time, their sentences stepping
on top of each other.
"You can't--" "I
will not--" "--trust a man who--" "--bend
to a threat simply--" "--hangs his own civilians!"
"--to protect myself!"
Lacey jammed her weapon back
against Commissioner Guirard's throat with such force that a fresh
trickle of blood ran down his neck. Commissioner Guirard's face was
red with rage and his hands were fisted tight by his legs. They both
glared at Ginger. The air thickened with the promise of violence.
Ginger saw Commissioner Guirard's right hand twitch, beginning to
signal his troops.
Ginger had gambled everything .
. . and he'd lost. Soon, the silence would shatter. Nothing he could
do would change what was about to happen.
That knowledge felt like
freedom. Because it would make no difference, he broke the final and
most important rule of how to be a clown, Rule Number 20: Look only
at what you wish to draw attention to, because your audience's eyes
will follow yours. For those in a more dangerous line of work, that
translated to, "If you don't want your enemy to see what is
precious to you, ignore it."
Ginger looked at the circus. He
looked at the patched tents and the bravely gaudy circus wagons, at
the painted canvas posters with their cheerfully outrageous lies. He
looked at the men and women who put everything they had into making
those lies real. With hand-sewn sequins and endless practice, they
transformed cheap canvas tents into an enchanted wonderland, if only
for the length of a show. He feared not all of them would survive
what was coming.
be continued in
Episode 21: The Killing Ground.)
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This episode is brought to you by the generous donations of Alice Marks and Pablo Virgo for Barbara Hobbes.
The Circus of Brass and Bone
is written and recorded by Abra Staffin-Wiebe. My main website is at
is courtesy of Vermillion Lies. Go to their website at
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