In between shows was the hardest time for me. I sent my grandmother newspaper clippings and pictures in every city with her promise that she was pasting them into a scrapbook for me. My grandma, Tesla Stark, found fame when she wasn’t much older than me and completely filled up a scrapbook with her own adventures. She went on safaris in the African grasslands with her father, learning the mysterious secret to taming a beast’s heart. She taught it to me as soon as I was old enough, against the wishes of my mother, Mia. Mom wanted a normal life for me but I from the moment Grandma Tesla put Kaveh and Ensi in my arms to nurse, I knew I’d never leave them.
Our circus owned a train with many compartments that took us from state to state, and a pair of buses that took us from the train station to whatever venue the tent would be set up at. On top of those, we had a large semi-truck to move the elephant and the two lion cages back and forth between the train and the tent, and a stretch limo that the Admiral rode in. I knew if it was tiring for us humans, it was even more so for the animals.
Wiseacre’s employee policy states that we perform 6 months, and have 4 months off. I had gotten Kaveh’s and Ensi’s bodies used to the schedule, but it was going on 8 ½ months on and Wiseacre still wasn’t calling time off. A few times I attempted to corner him on the subject but he always managed to slip through my grasp. I was more than okay with being overworked but I’d be damned if he didn’t respect the wellbeing of my cats.
The crew was packing up all the equipment onto the buses. I had just left the semi making sure that Kaveh and Ensi were comfortable and safely strapped in. I was about to board the first bus and take my usual seat when I thought of something. There was probably a better chance of me cornering Wiseacre while we were in transition rather than trying to get to him once we were all on the train; no one else had access to his train cars aside from his creepy, bald assistant Orzo.
Buttoning my sweater up against the impending cold, I ducked behind the semi and headed straight for Wiseacre’s car. Just as I was about to walk into sight of the car, a large hand cupped my mouth and pulled me back out of sight.
“Nixie, stop struggling! It’s me,” said Aaron, holding me tight as I struggled to break his hold. Slowly he let me go when he was sure I wouldn’t yell.
“What the heck are you doing lurking like that?” I whispered angrily. “You almost gave me a heart attack.”
“I didn’t mean to scare you, there have just been some really strange things going on around the circus lately. Peek around the corner a moment and tell me if you’ve seen that man before.”
Shaking my head I slowly peered around the truck in time to see the Admiral shaking hands with a man in a suit wearing dark sunglasses even though it had been overcast all day. The man’s hair was too long to be any sort of professional, and his nails were long too. There was something sinister in that man’s smile as he walked in the opposite direction.
“I think I saw him in Des Moines, but it also could have been any number of grungy old creeps that look alike,” I shrugged, taking a step towards the Admiral.
“Wait, Nix, don’t go over there,” Aaron said, grabbing me by my shoulders. “I’m telling you he’s up to something shady. Every time that that man shows up we suddenly get a few new recruits.”
“But we haven’t had new recruits in ages.”
“That’s because he brings them in before any of you notice, but once we get to the destination city the new recruits vanish.”
Personally I thought Aaron was being a little paranoid, but his father was known for engaging in activities that weren’t exactly legal or ethical.
“Okay, sweetface, I’ll make you a deal,” I said, pinching the bridge of my nose. “I’ll keep my eyes open and my ears to the wind when we get to the next stop, but right now I need to talk to your father about ending the circuit. The cats are going to go crazy if they’re cooped up any longer.”
“No, you need to get on the bus. I’ll talk to him for you.”
The look on his face was so genuinely concerned that all I could do was agree. “Alright, but don’t kill yourself over this, guy. It could totally be a misunderstanding.”
Aaron didn’t look convinced but he nodded at me and gave my shoulder a reassuring squeeze before leaving to join his father. On the second bus there was only one empty seat next to a pretty girl with black hair that I recognized from the trapeze.
“Hey, do you mind if I sit here? Everywhere else is full.” I offered her a smile that she didn’t return, but she did move her bag and free a seat for me. I noticed that the girl was clutching her bag so tight that her knuckles turned white. “Don’t be nervous, it’s really nice in Louisiana this time of year.”