by Douglas McPherson
Roll up, roll up as ex-detective Evelyn and her fearless friends return for another thrilling adventure.
|Murder at the Circus|
as it originally appeared in My Weekly
"Are you certain?" asked Jane.
"Positive. Six letters, third letter ‘r’, couldn’t be anything else."
There were advantages to having a friend who had been a code-breaker in World War Two, thought Jane, as she filled in the cryptic crossword.
Mind you, it was handy having been a spy in the Cold War herself, she reflected, as she completed 13 Down: E-S-P-I-O-N-A-G-E.
As Maude turned back to her own newspaper, the peace of her sunny conservatory was disturbed by the sound of her mobile phone ringing with the theme song from Dad‘s Army.
She had the sound turned up to maximum because at 91 she was more than a little deaf. But she had no trouble recognising the ever crisp tones of her friend, the former Scotland Yard detective Evelyn Winstanley-Hughs.
"How do you fancy a trip to the circus?" Evelyn asked without preamble.
"Sounds fun," said Maude. "What time does the show start?"
"As soon as we get there. A clown’s been murdered in front of 500 witnesses and Mervyn’s arrested the wrong man!"
Evelyn’s maroon and cream Citroen 2CV was at Maude’s door within five minutes.
"We’ll rendezvous with Pam in the high street," said Evelyn, as she pulled away. "Ah, there she is, right on time!"
Mentally back in her youth, as the first woman leader of the Met’s Rapid Response Unit in the 1970s, Evelyn swung her rickety little car up to the kerb just as retired army medic and police pathologist Pam Saunders stepped out of the Dye Hard hairdressers with her freshly blue rinsed ‘do.
"It’s not quite dry," Pam said crustily, "But a Code One is a Code One."
"Reminds me of East Berlin," enthused Jane, who enjoyed some James Bond-style chases behind the Iron Curtain in the 60s.
"Let’s hope you won’t need your Licence to Kill," said Maude, dryly.
Jane whipped a miniature revolver out of her handbag and assured her friends, "I’m locked and loaded, just in case."
Evelyn made the tyres spin and soon the fearless foursome were bumping up onto the grass of the village green.
An orange and blue-striped big top dominated the green, like a pointed fairytale castle surrounded by a circle of lorries and caravans.
A blonde girl leaned out of a pink wagon marked ’box office’ and shouted ’Hey! Have you got a ticket?’ as Evelyn drove straight past her and right up to the front of the circus tent.
Two uniformed police constables guarding the entrance looked up in alarm as the little car chugged and bounced across the grass towards them.
"Who are these clowns?" one PC muttered.
His colleague snapped to attention as Evelyn climbed out of the car. "Good afternoon ladies. Please go straight through..."
When the ladies had gone into the tent, the better informed PC explained to his baffled colleague, "That’s the Blue Rinse Brigade. Led by the Guv’nor’s mother-in-law."
With a smirk, the policeman added, "Mervyn will be happy..."
The big top was empty, and dark except for the spotlights trained upon its central sawdust ring.
Evelyn marched around the perimeter towards the sparkly curtains at the far end as fast as her 81-year-old legs would carry her.
Pam, who was a year younger, trailed behind, using her walking stick to compensate for a hip overdue for replacement.
Jane, who was the youngest of the friends at 75, brought up the rear because she was holding the arm of Maude who was no longer as steady on her feet as she used to be.
Sweeping aside the sparkly curtain, Evelyn found her son-in-law, Inspector Mervyn Pickles, drinking tea from a paper cup and chatting to a uniformed constable in a small backstage area crammed with circus apparatus.
On the grass at their feet, a tarpaulin covered the unmistakable shape of a body. Two enormous red and white clown boots protruded from under one end.
"Never too busy for a cuppa and a good gossip, I see," said Evelyn.
Caught off-guard, Mervyn said, "Actually, we’re waiting for the police pathologist."
"Well you’re in luck," said Evelyn, "Because I’ve brought the best in the business."
"I mean the real police pathologist..." Mervyn began.
Before Mervyn could stop her, Pam reversed her walking stick and used the handle to lift one edge of the tarpaulin.
She winced at what she saw.
"Looks like someone dropped a ton of bricks on the poor fellow."
"That’s not so far from the truth." Mervyn indicated an army-style kitbag on the grass by the wall of the tent.
"At the end of his act a bag full of feathers was supposed to fall out of the ceiling and burst on his head. Unfortunately someone replaced the feathers with that kitbag. It’s full of cement."
At that moment, Jane and Maude caught up with the others. On the way, Jane had picked up one of the plastic patio chairs that formed the ringside seats.
She set it on the grass beside the tarpaulin, and Maude sat down, saying, "Have we missed much?"
"Just one badly flattened funny man who appears to have brought the house down," said Pam. "On his head, unfortunately."
Mervyn said to Evelyn, "Not that I should be telling you lot what‘s going on. How did you hear about this so quickly, anyway?"
Evelyn gave him a triumphant look. "You’re forgetting that your niece is also my granddaughter. When she saw you‘d made such a hasty arrest, she thought the case needed a fresh pair of eyes."
Mervyn bristled. "Now look here, Evelyn. I know you and your friends were very helpful with that dreadful business at Christmas, but that doesn’t give you permission to poke your noses into any investigation that takes your fancy."
"Poke our noses...!" Evelyn protested. "Do I have to remind you of my twenty years at Scotland Yard, ten of them leading the murder squad...?"
"I think you’ve reminded me quite often enough," Mervyn sighed.
"But in this instance your assistance will not be needed. As it happens an arrest has been made but this is an ongoing inquiry and I don’t want you trampling all over it."
Before Evelyn could respond, her mobile rang, with the theme music to The Sweeny.
"Hello my dear," she answered. "I’m in the big top right now. I’ll come to your caravan directly."
Evelyn pocketed the phone and gave Mervyn a smile of mock-innocence.
"Are you forbidding me to pay a social visit to my granddaughter on the rare occasion she comes to town...?"
Mervyn rolled his eyes and wondered if he’d ever win an argument with the formidable leader of the Blue Rinse Brigade.
"Oh, Granny Evelyn, I’m so glad you’re here!"
Tamsin Connor’s cheek was wet with tears as she wrapped her grandmother in a fond embrace.
"There, there," Evelyn soothed the girl. "Why don’t we go inside and have a cup of tea and you can tell us everything that’s happened."
The little caravan rocked and squeaked as the four blue-rinsed ladies followed Tamsin through the narrow metal doorway.
The inside quickly filled up, but somehow there was room for everyone to sit down. As Jane took charge of the kettle, Tamsin regained her composure.
Evelyn remembered when the raven-haired tightrope walker was a child. She used to love nothing more than playing with toy police cars while Evelyn regaled her with real life tales of catching murderers and bank robbers.
When Tamsin ran away to join the circus, her parents didn’t approve, but Evelyn told her, "If ever you’re in trouble, just call Granny Evelyn."
"I couldn’t believe it when Uncle Mervyn arrested Tommy," Tamsin said, as she wiped her eyes. "I told him Tommy would never hurt anybody, but he wouldn’t listen."
"Leave Mervyn to me," Evelyn said briskly. "Now, if I can just get the facts straight, I take it Tommy is the other clown?"
Putting on her reading glasses, Evelyn leaned towards a framed picture on the wall beside her. It showed Tamsin in a sequined leotard flanked by two handsome young men.
One was wearing a brightly coloured clown suit but had yet to apply his make-up. The other was clad from the neck down in a furry gorilla suit and carried the head under his arm.
"They called themselves the Trouble Brothers but they weren’t really brothers," Tamsin explained. "Tommy’s the one in the clown suit and Rory’s the one who... oh, I can’t believe what’s happened to him."
Tamsin started crying again and Pam handed her a tissue, saying "Chin up, girl."
"It’s all my fault," Tamsin wailed as she dabbed her eyes. "I should never have got involved with someone on the show, it only ever leads to trouble. But when your job moves to a different town each week, who else do you meet but the people you travel with?"
"What happened?" Jane asked gently.
Tamsin took a moment to gather herself, then said, "I joined Telford’s Circus at the beginning of this season. Rory showed an interest in me from the beginning but, like I said, I didn’t want to get involved with someone on the show.
"Rory seemed to accept that. But then Tommy asked me out and, well, I broke my own rule."
"How did Rory react?" asked Evelyn.
"Badly," said Tamsin. "He and Tommy were very competitive and he couldn‘t accept that I‘d chosen Tommy over him. He kept pestering me to go out with him and, of course, that made Tommy jealous."
"It must have taken the fun out of their clown act," Pam ventured.
"Helga, the ring-mistress, thought I was breaking up the star act. I think she had a word or two with Big Ted, the circus owner, trying to have me thrown off the show. And now... and now this has happened."
For a moment, Tamsin looked on the verge of tears once more. Instead, she fixed pleading, make-up-smeared eyes on Evelyn.
"But I’ll never believe Tommy killed Rory," she insisted. "Yes, he was angry with him, but he’s not a violent man. You have to believe me, Granny Evelyn. Tommy wouldn’t hurt a fly."
As it was such a sunny afternoon, the caravan door was open - and at that moment a shaven headed giant with a huge handlebar moustache shoved his muscle-bound torso through the gap.
"Justa letting you know, Tamsina," he said in a gruff Italian accent. "Big Ted say the evening show willa be going ahead as normal."
Word of the murder hadn’t reached the general public. When the lights went out and Rory the Clown was dragged from the ring, the audience thought it was all part of the act.
As a result, there was a jolly mood among the families strolling across the green for the evening performance.
The sun was still high and Pam and Maude watched the arrivals from a table beside a hotdog wagon.
Jane joined them, saying, "The circus loos are very clean."
"It’s zoo loos you’ve got to watch," Pam chuckled. "It was the zoo loos that did for Michael Caine."
As Evelyn returned from the hotdog wagon with four teas, Pam said, "You’ve got to admit Mervyn’s got a good case against young Tommy."
"Poppycock!" Evelyn snorted.
"He had the opportunity," Maude pointed out. "There are witnesses to him winching the bag of supposed feathers into the ceiling."
"That was after last night’s show," Evelyn reminded her. "Anybody could have switched the bag in the meantime."
"He also had a motive," Jane said gently. "If Tommy thought Rory was a rival for Tamsin’s affections, that could have driven him to murder."
"Tamsin told Tommy she wasn’t interested in Rory," Evelyn countered.
"She admitted that hadn’t stopped Tommy and Rory arguing, though," Jane returned.
"Then there’s the little matter of Tommy doing a runner immediately after the deed," Pam said darkly. "You have to admit that looks suspicious."
"He probably panicked," said Evelyn.
For a long, pointed moment, nobody spoke. Eventually, Jane said what Pam and Maude were clearly thinking: "I can see why you want to believe your granddaughter when she says Tommy wouldn’t do it..."
"But...?" Evelyn challenged her, icily.
Jane hesitated, then said, "Do you think you might be too close to the case?"
"I’m no closer than Mervyn," Evelyn retorted. "Tamsin’s his niece - and he clearly doesn’t believe her. No, I’m quite capable of looking at this case impartially.
"As it happens I do tend to believe Tamsin’s assessment of Tommy’s character. But whether she‘s right about Tommy or not, there’s no harm in looking into the matter and satisfying ourselves that Mervyn’s got it right for once."
"Where do you propose we start?" asked Pam.
Evelyn opened a circus programme and turned to the cast list. "Well, these are our suspects..."
"That Italian strongman has to be in the frame," said Pam. "He’d have no trouble manhandling a kitbag full of cement. What’s his name again?"
"Luigi," Jane said warmly. She held up her iPhone to show a picture she’d snapped of the shaven headed visitor to Tamsin’s caravan. "He’s quite a dish, isn’t he?"
"I expect you’re volunteering to pump him for information, Mata Hari " Pam chuckled.
Jane held up her hand to show a diamond ring, and said with mock primness, "I’ll thank you to remember that I’m engaged."
"Remember that you landed the millionaire owner of Burbridge’s department store?" Pam scoffed, "I don’t think you’ll ever let us forget!"
"Jealous as always," Jane said smugly.
"Getting back to the matter in hand..." Evelyn cut in, "I propose we divide ourselves into two pairs to interview the artistes."
"Will they talk to us, though?" said Pam. "Mervyn’s made it clear we’re operating unofficially, and I’ve heard circus people are a clannish, secretive lot."
"Perhaps we should launch an undercover operation," Jane enthused. "Infiltrate their secret world and overhear things they‘d never tell an outsider!"
"Good suggestion," said Evelyn.
Maude gave her a level look and said, loudly, "If you’re suggesting we disguise ourselves as the world’s oldest trapeze troupe I don’t think my knees are up to it."
"We could call ourselves the Wheezy Chesty-coughs," joked Pam.
"Or the Flying Zimmer Frames," Jane said, playfully.
"If we could all be serious for a moment," Evelyn rapped her knuckles impatiently on the table. "I don’t think we need to dig out our leotards. But we do know the circus is short of a clown. So who do we know who could fill his outsize shoes?"
"Have to be someone fit enough to do a bit of tumbling..." said Pam.
"And who wouldn’t mind getting the odd custard pie in the face..." said Maude.
"Afternoon ladies, fancy seeing you here."
The four friends looked up to see Tony Size, the fit young self-defence instructor better known to the ladies of the WI as Tony Thighs.
As four light-bulbs lit up in the air above the heads of the Blue Rinse Brigade, Tony’s stick of candyfloss froze half way to his open mouth.
"Er, why are you looking at me like that?"
Evelyn turned to her friends. "Now that looks to me like a young man who always dreamed of running away with the circus."
"A daring young man on the flying trapeze if ever I saw one!" Jane enthused.
"The roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd," cackled Pam.
Tony instinctively put his free hand on his behind.
"If this is another of your missions..." he began warily, "I’ve only just recovered from the mauling that boxer dog gave me at Christmas..."
"Oh, this wouldn’t be anything like as dangerous as that," Evelyn reassured him.
"Just a bit of clowning round," Pam said breezily.
"Well I might as well tell you straight," said Tony, "that I’m really not..."
Before he could finish, the theme music from The Sweeny burst loudly from Evelyn’s pocket. She whipped out her phone.
"Hello my dear..." Evelyn abruptly fell silent, a serious look on her face. "We’ll be right there," she said, and cut the line.
"Tamsin was checking her tight-wire backstage," Evelyn explained. "Someone’s sawn halfway through it and if she’d walked on it, it would have snapped. At 30-feet up, the fall could have killed her."
Pam pointed her walking stick at Tony. "So Sherlock, are you going to stand there and ignore a damsel in distress? Or are you going to help me get out of this chair?"
Next week: Is a serial killer stalking the circus? And will our four friends crack the case before the murderer strikes again?
Click here to read Part Two!
For more circus fiction visit Polka Dot Dreams