My name's Michelle, Michelle Hammer. I'm an ex-cop turned P.I. The working hours are of my choosing and the pay's adequate for my needs, plus I meet a lot of interesting people.
I've enjoyed the circus ever since my folks took me to one when I was six years old. The sights, the sounds, and the smells combined into one kaleidoscope of fun that day and I never forgot it. So when McGinty (my tavern owning friend) received some free passes to the Ringding Brothers and Bunkum & Blarney Circus that was in town I grabbed one.
I had some time to kill before the show started so I wandered down the midway looking at the side shows, games and food stands, but mostly the people.
"Hey Michelle, long time no see," said a voice behind me. I turned and saw a familiar face. Lawrence Peters aka "Larry the Lunchbox" was standing there grinning. I'd busted him a few times for sale and possession, but usually he was out on the street again before I'd written his arrest report thanks to jail overcrowding and a lenient judge.
He got his street name from carrying his 'merchandise' in a tin lunch bucket like construction workers use. He was a low level dealer usually carrying a few nickel bags, some rocks, nubs and B-Bomb's for the Saturday Night street crowd. What was he doing here?
"Hey Larry," I jokingly replied, "Did you run off and join the circus?" "Yep, I'm a clown," He replied. "I used to perform at birthday parties for extra cash when I had a job, then the layoffs came and I started dealin' to make a quick buck. I finally ran into a hanging judge and after my stay in the Barbwire Hilton I wised up and went straight. A buddy of mine helped me get this job and here I am." "Good for you," I replied, "How you likin' your new life?" "I'm likin' it fine. I work two, sometime three shows a day, I've got three hots and a place to flop, the pay's pretty good, I get to travel and I make folks laugh. Look. I gotta get in costume for the next show. Good seein' ya, Michelle." "Likewise Larry," I handed him one of my cards, "Gimme a call when you're back in town, we'll have a beer." "Can do," he said and ran off. Life sure takes some weird turns.
McGinty had scored some good tickets, one row back from the center ring. It was like being a kid again watching the aerialists, animal trainers, acrobats, jugglers, and then it was time for the clowns. They rode in a little car, with others running alongside, into the center ring. As they cavorted and played tricks on each other, one of them looked right at me and waved. It was Larry, white face, greasepaint smile, red nose, baggy pants, big flat shoes and all. I waved back.
Two days later I was going through some paperwork in my office and my desk phone buzzed.
"Hammer Investigations." "Michelle?" It was Larry.
"Yeah Larry, what's up?" "There's some sort of scam going on around here. A guy I'm in the clown show with is involved somehow, I'm sure of it. We make good money, but he's acting like an overnight millionaire. Buyin' rounds in the taverns, wearin' fancy street clothes, I know all the signs.
The show's owner's a good guy. He gave me a chance when he hired me and I owe him one. Would you go with me and talk to him? You might get some work out of it." It was a pretty flimsy premise, more of a hunch on Larry's part, but business was slow and it'd give me a chance to hang around the circus so I said sure.
Emilio Fortuna was both relaxed and friendly. He stood over six feet tall and had the build of a wrestler. His head was shaved, but his bushy eyebrows and a luxuriant moustache made up for it. He'd been a circus strongman on his native island of Sardinia and had traveled through much of Europe with the Grimaldi Brothers Circus.
Unlike many of his fellow performers, Emilio saved his salary and invested wisely. When Ringding Bros. was offered for sale after a heated dispute among their heirs, he was able to fulfill a lifelong dream of owning his own circus.
He listened intently to Larry's suspicions and then said "I think you're on to something." He had noticed the same behavior and was starting to wonder if something underhanded was going on. The account books balanced, so no one was stealing from him, but he was also aware of the increased frequency of travel on the part of his animal trainer to Africa and South America to obtain additional big cats for the circus.
He hired me on the spot to snoop around and see what was going on, since they were booked for another six days in town. I was 'hired' as a new assistant to the Comptroller and given the name 'Mary Dell', which gave me free rein to poke around without arousing suspicion.
I had joined the circus.
I took a day or two getting to know my way around what was, in fact, a traveling city. Of all the acts and attractions, the big cats had always interested me the most; even cooped up in their cages they exuded strength and nobility in one disarmingly languid package.
I struck up conversations with some of their handlers who had them on display on the midway. They regaled me with anecdotes about their charges and their individual moods and peculiarities. I learned several of the lions, tigers, jaguars and leopards were recent arrivals and still needed training; replacements for others that had died suddenly. Big cats in captivity were usually long lived. I made a mental note to talk to the circus' vet later.
I had dinner with Larry and some of his fellow clowns in the mess tent. The food was simple, filling and delicious. Table talk was the usual gossip and chatter about other circus members and the town they'd be playing in next.
My ears perked up when they began ribbing one clown they called 'Beanpole', since his gig was to walk around on stilts and long trousers, about how many rounds he was going to buy the group the next time they went bar hopping.
Beanpole started bragging about how the drinks would be on him, but I had stopped listening. I glanced at Larry and he raised an eyebrow, maybe he was our in to whatever was going on.
Things got hectic as the performers and roustabouts got ready for the evening show, so I made myself scarce. I asked Emelio for the last three years travel vouchers and after a couple of hours of digging I uncovered something interesting. Each time one of the big cats died, the lion tamer made a trip to collect a new animal by himself.
Larry had said the causes of the big cats deaths had been listed as 'undetermined' so I decided to pay the circus veterinarian a visit.
Scott Burrage, everyone called him 'Doc', had been the circus vet for eleven years. I listened to several anecdotes about the animals, and then asked him about the rash of deaths among the big cats. He'd examined the corpses, found nothing observably wrong, wrote 'undetermined' on his report and forgot about it. His job involved keeping the live animals healthy, not being concerned about the dead ones.
I asked him if he had saved any tissue samples from the autopsies and he said he had. I asked him if he could run toxicology tests on the samples. He said he didn't have the equipment, but there was a lab in town that could. I told him Emilio wanted them run ASAP and he said he'd get on it in the morning. I had an idea what was going on, but I needed evidence.
When I went back to catch the end of the show I saw an EMS unit at the performers' entrance of the big tent. The Techs' were loading a gurney inside while group of clowns watched. Larry saw me and I asked him what had happened.
"'Beanpoles' dead Michelle, he fell off his stilts and we thought it was a new routine he was trying out, but he didn't move. We goofed around acting like it was part of the act and carried him outside. He's dead as a doorknob." The cops had arrived by that time and were asking questions. Something clicked in my mind and I asked Larry where 'Beanpole's' stilts were. They had been left by the performers' entrance so I went to examine them.
I almost overlooked them, but where each foot plate joined the stilt a small spike, more like a hypodermic needle, stuck out an inch at a forty-five degree angle. The feet of anyone walking on these stilts would eventually come in contact with the spikes and whatever was on them.
I grabbed them up, buttonholed one of the cops and showed him what I'd found. He called a detective over whose face looked familiar and showed him. He looked skeptical but said he'd impound them as evidence.
"I'd run a toxicology test on those needles," I said conversationally. He stared then said "Michelle?" "That's me." "I remember you from the 9th Precinct, I was a patrolman then." A memory popped up; "Sandy Dugan; you and I worked that big dope bust on the south side a few years back. How've you been?" "Not bad, I heard you'd become a P.I., what brings you here?" "Workin' a case for the circus' owner: I'm guessin' that mans' death is connected somehow." "I'll get the crime lab right on it and let you know what they find." "Thanks, Sandy, I owe you one. Drop by McGintys anytime and put it on my tab." "I'd rather hoist one with you." "Flatterer," I grinned.
I told Sandy about the tox tests Doc was having run on the dead animals tissue samples and that I'd fill him in. I had a hunch all the deaths were caused by the same substance.
Since all the presumed clues seem to center around the big cats, I decided to pay them a visit at home. They were sequestered in one area of the encampment presumably so their smells wouldn't disturb the other animals. They had an unmistakable scent alright that was musty, spicy and just plain funky; it must be all that fur. They were kept in cage wagons that gave them just enough room to pace back and forth, but most were lying down looking disinterested.
Three men appeared wheeling carts laden with raw meat so I got to watch the feeding. Seeing them rip into those bloody chunks with yellow-white fangs sent a chill down my spine. I imagined our ancestors running from beasts such as these until they figured out how to make spears and clubs.
The dudes handing out the meat weren't very talkative and then another man approached me who was. He introduced himself as Hans Strausser aka 'Hans the Magnificent', who had top billing as lion tamer extraordinaire.