By William Cohen-Kiraly, © February 2017
Chicken Cock Whiskey
It was a cold, dreary day. The sky was gray and a sharp, cold rain turned the trailer park roads to mud. It was the kind of spring day I used to suffer through as a kid in Ohio, not something you would expect down here in Florida.
It fit my mood perfectly.
I sat out of the rain underneath my door awning, holding my nose with my left hand and a bottle of Chicken Cock Whiskey with my right.
So the big show was folding its tent after all these years. As always, the men in the top hats were walking away with pockets full of money. The rest of us looked out at bleak futures of not doing the work we loved.
I chuckled mirthlessly to myself. Every night on the news, it seems, you hear about the auto workers and the steel workers losing their jobs to foreign competition. But you never hear about us losing our jobs to foreigners. The Cirque du Soily—however the hell you pronounce it—the State Circus of China, the Polish Warsaw Acrobatic Team, the Moscow Circus. They all come and tour the country and the TV stations and newspapers fawn all over them while homegrown American circus performers lose their jobs.
So there I was in this black mood, sitting in a broken lawn chair outside my mobile home in the rain, and drinking myself silly with clown water, when I see this big, brown UPS van bounce through the muddy ruts on our dirt roads. This surprised me because we don’t get a lot of deliveries in our neck of the woods. It surprised me even more when the van pulls up to my trailer and the driver gets out of his truck holding a big brown box, maybe two feet long. I put my nose back on and stood up unsteadily.
“You Mr. Clumbo?” the driver asked.
“I am,” I said, “but I didn’t order anything.”
“Got something for you anyway,” the man said, handing me the box.
My dog Blossom came yapping out from underneath the trailer. Like all little dogs, she was full of spit and vinegar and ran out barking and shaking her little butt violently from side to side. Blossom was a Malshi who was cute as anything, but boy, she had a mouth on her.
The man eyed her warily and said he needed a signature. I signed and he got in his van and drove off.
I took my treasure into my trailer, put it on the kitchen table and grabbed a knife to cut open the tape. On the outside, it was nondescript, a brown box with packing tape and a return address so smeared it was unreadable. The box was not too heavy or too light and it rattled like a lot of little loose marbles were bouncing around inside. ‘Jelly beans’, I thought to myself, and I was right.
When I opened it, hundreds of jelly beans were rolling around in the package. But when I saw what lay among them, my heart sank to a new low.
To most people, all clown shoes look alike but to those of us in the life, they are as distinctive as faces. I recognized the unusual length, the orange fuzzy balls on the toes and the unmistakable red, white and blue laces. These were the shoes of JellyBeans, my old friend and mentor—the man who taught me both of my careers.
The fact the shoes were packed with jelly beans was overkill. I knew the shoes and I knew the man they belonged to. I also knew that if his shoes were here on my kitchen table, JellyBeans himself had to be dead. They were a part of the man, he would never give them to anyone—not even me—and he would never willingly let them out of his control. I believe he had always planned to be buried in these shoes.
I’ve been a clown and a detective for thirty-five years, so I have a pretty thick skin. I’ve scared a lot of little kids in my time and upset a lot of bad guys. I have my share of people who don’t like me. But seriously, I’m sitting here looking at the end of both my careers. The Big Show, my employer Ringling Brothers, was closing and I had no current cases. Without the circus, who needs a clown PI?
Only master clowns could walk in shoes as long as my friend’s and not trip. JellyBeans had taught me to be a master clown and a master investigator. I fully intended to use those skills to find justice for him, even if it was the last thing I did. But as I gazed at the leather in my hands, I was scared I wasn’t up to the job. As good as I am, I might never match up to JellyBeans’ humor or his penetrating shrewdness. These would indeed be big shoes to fill.
I put the cap back on the Chicken Cock and stowed the bottle in the little drawer in my little kitchen. The first order of business was to find my friend. Like I said, I knew he was dead, but I had to check out the obvious first. I pulled out my cell and called his number. Voicemail was full; I expected that. I called his second-in-command, Mr. Teedles, his voicemail was full too. I tried the ringmaster, Leroy Gulch of the Great Atlanta Circus and he picked up. I explained I was looking for JellyBeans and he went silent as death for a moment.
“If you find that son of a bitch and his crew of painted buttons, you tell him he better be here for his next show or the whole lot of them are out on their baggy-pant asses.”
That surprised me. “You mean his whole troupe is gone? When was the last time you saw them?”
“Last Tuesday, we were in Wetumpka, Alabama. JB and the boys were going to the Wetumpka Crater to do some private drinking for the night. In the morning, the show packed up for Meridian and we expected the boys to meet us there, but they never showed. Right now, I got some of the laid-up acrobats tryin’ to be clowns. I thought anybody could be a clown, but these guys just ain’t funny.”
Sometimes people just don’t take clowns seriously. You’d think a ringmaster, of all people, would know that being a clown was as much a calling as being a trapeze artist. But I guess sometimes I think the same way. I figure it had to be easy being a ringmaster, all you had to do was talk your fool mouth off. I knew better than to say that out loud though.
“Hey, Clumbo, I hear you’ll be lookin’ for a job soon. If JellyBeans and his crew don’t come back tonight, I got a job for you.”
I thanked him but said I still had a few months left with Ringling Brothers before they closed. Gulch sighed and gave me a few more details. He said JellyBeans and his crew were in a yellow car and had tried to sneak into Wetumpka’s famous impact crater outside of town and that’s the last he saw or heard of them, He said yes, there was something funny going on with JellyBeans and his crew but no one would tell him what it was. Clowns are notorious for keeping their mouths shut about anything having to do with the life.
So I figured it was time for a road trip. I packed up my car with a few things I like to have with me and whistled for Blossom to hop into the front seat. I slipped my bowler hat on my head and twirled the little plastic flower for luck, then drove hell for leather to Wetumpka and made the seven-hour trip in five and a half.
I needn’t have hurried though. When I got to Wetumpka, it was pretty obvious that something big was going on. City cops, sheriff’s deputies and state troopers were all in a big circle near a bend in the Coosa River. Seems some fishermen looking for a secluded spot noticed a car sunk in the river. When the cops pulled it out, they found a badly abused, little yellow VW Bug.
I got to the police cordon on the road and showed them my PI license and said I think I know whose car it was. The trooper went to talk to the deputy detective in charge and came back and nodded to me. I put the windows down for Blossom and the trooper held up the yellow tape for me to go under.
I’m no stranger to dead people. The circus attracts a lot of people who don’t live with us for very long. Some die by natural causes, some are killed by the people they are running away from and some are killed by the circus itself.
For a moment, I stood there just staring, clenching my fists to keep myself under control. These were all my friends, every last one of them. But tears can run your greasepaint and do not look good on a PI. I swallowed the sob in the back of my throat and pulled myself together. I could grieve later, right now I had a job to do.
Three days in the river is horrible on maquillage and though I should have known them all, I would have had a hard time recognizing them save for their waterlogged uniforms.
One body caught my attention immediately through the haze of flies; it had no shoes.
The Sheriff’s Detective came up to me. “You’re Mr. Clumbo,” He said rather than asked. “I’m Deputy Detective Andrew Cargill, Elmore County Sheriff’s Department.”
“Good to meet you sir,” I said, taking his outstretched hand. “You know me?”
I nodded, accepting the compliment. It certainly was one of my more memorable cases.
“The Trooper says you may know who these clowns are.”
“Yes sir,” I said. “That one, without the shoes, is JellyBeans. He’s the Clown Crew Boss and a longtime friend of mine. He and his crew were clowns in the Great Atlanta Circus that was here last week.
“Were they lovers?” The detective asked.
“Probably, but I don’t know for sure. The life doesn’t always leave much time for couples, it’s a demanding job.”
He nodded like he knew what I was talking about. “Just like being a cop but we all still try.”
I named off the others, pointing them out by their distinct uniforms. “Fisheyes, El Marionette, Rambler, Gargles the Gargoyle—one of the ugliest men I had ever met and probably one of the nicest—Miss Rainbow, and Mr. Teedles.”
“You find them in the river?” I asked.
“Yep, all of them in the car. All of them in the trunk of the car. I don’t know how you guys do that and I never will.”
I ignored the implicit question. “How’d they die?”
“Don’t know, we’ll have to get them back to the morgue to find out. We can’t tell nothin’ with the bodies the way they are.”
I nodded curtly.
“Do you know anything about why they’re here?” Cargill asked.
“I know what the ringmaster told me. He said after the show in Wetumpka on Tuesday, they were heading up to the crater to do some after-show celebration. That sounds right to me; JellyBeans and his crew did enjoy drinkin’ a bit. Never while they worked, but after a good show, sure, they liked to celebrate.”
The deputy nodded. “There’s something you don’t know yet and this is not for anyone else to know. Sheriff Jenkins told me to trust you, so I’m gonna trust you with this, okay?”
“You have my word.” I said.
“It wasn’t just the clowns we found in the trunk. It also contained about twelve purses and twenty-some wallets stolen from people all over Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi. Money and credit cards were gone.”
It’s times like this that I’m thankful for the painted-on smile. I couldn’t believe what he was saying and if he could have read my expression, he probably wouldn’t have kept talking.
“There’s been a lot of reports of things gone missing at circuses in Alabama this year. ALEA has been ‘looking into it’” He used air quotes around those words. ALEA is the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, a kind of fusion of State Patrol and State Bureau of Investigation. We both knew that state politics often meant sweeping inconvenient local problems under the rug, “And”, the deputy continued, “there are some on the state level who would love nothin’ better than to pin this all on some dead clowns.
I watched his face closely. “But you don’t buy it?” I asked him after a moment.
“I don’t, I have a brother who’s in the life in Texas. I know clowns and I know most of you wouldn’t do that shit. Yeah, sure, I know about John Wayne Gacy and all the creepy killer clowns being arrested all over the place, but real clowns like you and JellyBeans and my brother Maximillian, you’re not like that. It’s not a clown thing to do. Call it a hunch.”
“I’ve known JellyBeans all my adult life,” I said, “and I know he’d never steal anything or countenance anyone in his crew thieving from the public. It was his goal in life to make the kids laugh and the bad guys cry. He’s the one who taught me how to catch the crooks and protect the circus. I knew JollyBelle too, and she was the same way, honest as the day is long. If they had that stuff with them, they were bringing it to the cops.”
For a long time, Cargill and I stood in silence and watched the crime scene techs imported from Montgomery measure this, weigh that, and dust something else for fingerprints. Then they started zipping the bodies into body bags for transportation to the morgue.
I couldn’t speak until the last of my brothers and sisters were loaded into the coroner’s van, but I finally broke the silence. “So, what are you going to do?”
“It’s still an Elmore County murder case. We gotta keep investigating it even if the state wants to sweep it under the rug. Our best lead is the circus. We gotta get someone there on the inside.”
I turned to look at him when he said this and he was already looking straight at me, a little smile on his face.
“Shit,” I said.
The High-Tension Dame
I agreed to help, to go back and see what I could find, but I asked Cargill not to let out just yet the identities or the lifestyle of the victims. He said that was no problem—they had to notify next of kin first and that could take as long as I wanted it to. The news that night picked up the story only that a car with eight occupants was pulled out of the Coosa.
I called Gulch and said I had reconsidered his offer. I told my own troupe at Ringling Brothers why I needed a leave of absence before the big top closed and they said they would cover for me while I searched out JellyBean’s killer. JB was a legend among clowns.
For the most part, other performers, especially the ringmasters, can’t tell what clown is which under the greasepaint. So, if one of us has to be away for a while without the bosses knowing, it’s rarely a problem.
I joined Great Atlanta in Meridian. Gulch wanted me to train the acrobats to be clowns so he didn’t have to hire anyone else. I asked him if the acrobats could easily learn to be ringmasters and that shut him up. I put word out on the Internet and within a day’s time, I had five interviews lined up.
The night before the first interviews, I was sitting in JellyBeans’ trailer. He didn’t have the taste to have Chicken Cock whiskey on hand, but his Judge’s Preference wasn’t too bad a substitute. I poured myself a glass and was sitting out under the awning when a dame walks up and, man, was she a looker. She was a tall glass of water with legs that went on for miles, and dark curly hair hanging loose all the way down her back. She had one of those long, severely elegant faces with high cheekbones and pouty lips.
I offered her a whiskey and she accepted and sat down next to me. “I am Uiliana Antonova Espinoza. You are Clumbo the Clown, yes?” Her voice was low and smoky with a strong Russian accent.”
“I am,” I said, “that’s quite a name.”
She smiled at me. “Is what happens when a good Russian girl marries a good Spanish boy.”
“And to what do I owe the pleasure of your company, Mrs. Espinoza?”
“This dog on your lap, is Blossom, yes?”
“Where did you get him?”
“Funny thing,” I said, “she was dropped off in a box on my doorstep. There was a note that said, ‘This is Blossom, I know you love dogs, he can’t stay with our circus anymore, please take care of him.’ Yeah, it was a funny thing, first because it ain’t a him. Second, because—though she may look like a circus dog—she didn’t seem to know any tricks, at least not circus tricks. But I took one look at that cute little face and couldn’t resist her. Pretty smart too. I’ve taught her some tricks so I think I’ll use her in my show.”
“You cannot do this.” She said emphatically. “No one here must know you have her. She is very important dog!”
My eyebrows went up at that. I continued to scratch Blossom behind her ears.
The woman pulled a folded-up piece of paper out of her bra and handed it to me—her skin-tight costume had no pockets. I unfolded it and saw a picture of Blossom under handwritten childish letters saying “Lost Dog” with a number to call and the words “$50 reward.”
“Wow,” I said, “I love the little pup, it’s gonna be hard for me to give her up. How did she get to me?”
“JellyBeans, he sent her to you with my husband Pablo. JellyBeans was great friend, even to us wire-walkers. But he was stupid to send dog with Pablo. Pablo was supposed to deliver message and he couldn’t come talk to you.”
“Why not, I don’t bite.”
“He thinks you do. Pablo is scared of clowns.”
I laughed, perhaps insensitively, “He’s coulrophobic and works in a circus?”
“Once he gets to know you a bit, he is okay. He hid from JellyBeans for a year but later is best friend. But Pablo can’t walk up to strange clown and talk so he forgets to give you important message.”
“Why would JellyBeans want to send me a lost dog? That doesn’t make sense.”
“Is not lost, is kidnapped.”
“Kidnapped! You’re telling me JellyBeans kidnapped someone’s dog?”
She must have misread my expression—easy to do with all the greasepaint—because she was waving her hands and saying “No, No, JellyBeans and clowns save dog. It was BabyFace and Cornelia who kidnap little dog. Clowns take dog from them and send to you because they know you will take care of him.”
“Her”, I said, pedantically.
“Whatever. I don’t know how, but clowns hear someone contact girl’s rich parents and want ten thousand dollars for dog’s ransom. Kidnapper thinks because parents love child, they pay big dollars to get dog back. JollyBelle say if parents not pay or go to cops then kidnapper will probably kill dog so clowns kidnap him from kidnappers and send him to you. Pablo is supposed to tell you to hold dog until they find rightful owner. But he tell me yesterday he never give you message.”
“Well, Mrs Espinoza, that explains a lot. How do you know all this?”
“People see us on the high-wire but they don’t know we see them too. I see dog stolen while girl in tent. I see BabyFace and Cornelia steal wallets and purses and other things from people.”
“And you didn’t do anything?” I asked incredulously.
“We are artists, we are above all that. We are here to do show. But JollyBelle and JellyBeans are good friends to us and when they ask us for help, we help.”
“So it’s BabyFace and Cornelia who are behind all this?” I asked.
“I don’t think so.” She answered slowly. “Between two of them, they almost have one brain. Someone else is running this racket.”
After she left, I thought long and hard about what she had told me. It made sense, BabyFace and Cornelia could easily be ripping off marks in the crowd.
The Great Atlanta Circus was a small circus, and as such, the freak show—now more politely called the sideshow—was actually an independent entity. It was kept around the back of the big tents like it was the circus’s unwanted smelly cousin.
I hadn’t had the time to go through their show yet, but I knew BabyFace and Cornelia. BabyFace was a little person, but the kind who looked more like a kid than an adult. Cornelia looked like any other attractive dame, but they called her Pretzel Girl because she could tie herself up in impossible knots.
Uiliana said the dog had been left outside the tent with a man who worked for the family, maybe the chauffeur, but Cornelia put the moves on him and while his eyes were otherwise engaged, BabyFace grabbed Blossom.
The high-wire people always rubbed me the wrong way, they always acted so high and mighty and usually kept to themselves. But Uiliana was right about BabyFace and Cornelia, neither was very smart, even on those rare occasions they were both sober. Somebody else had to be behind this crime spree and the kidnapping of my poor little Blossom.
Ahh, my little Malshi. Now I know what’s behind that sadness I always see in your eyes.
The Dame With The Button Nose
Okay, so I know a lot of you don’t know much about the life and how seriously we take our jobs. But here’s a hint. If you are interested in becoming a clown, do not show up at your first interview dressed in a three-piece suit!
That was my first interview of the day; the second was better. He had some experience, knew how to dress and by my lights, was reasonably funny and seemed like someone I could work with. I was pretty desperate, we had to have a show running within a couple days as per Mr. Gulch. So, I wasn’t trying for excellence and artistry as I did in Ringling Brothers. I hired Nimrod on the spot.
It was my third interview, however, that left me speechless and that’s pretty hard to do. I’m not one of those mimes.
It was another dame, but this one was really to my liking. She had this cute button nose—which she took off to drink the coffee I offered her. She had red hair sticking straight out at all angles, a bowler with a flower—my type of hat—and an ample figure just hinted at through her uniform. We clowns always like the matronly type. Best of all though, she had a laugh that would make everyone around her laugh with her.
I thought to myself that maybe, just maybe, I’d found my JollyBelle. Her name was AnnieBananie and the interview went like this…
“Do you have any experience?”
“I’m a graduate of the Emmett Kelly School of Clowning, 1993. I worked as a local clown for three years, doing parties, company meetings and even some weddings. I earned a Bubbles Award in balloon sculpting three years in a row and I’ve won several regional tricycle races. I trained my own clown dog, BoJangles, and when we weren’t working, we spent a lot of time volunteering for several children’s hospitals. I think Bo even pulled off a miracle with one of the kids. I can’t be sure, but she was supposed to be dying. Bo would climb into her hospital bed and lick her face every time we came to visit. The girl came back to visit me in 2004 to show me her own baby. I cried then, good tears, never took to the sad clown motif.
“Anyway, Bo and I got a job with the Chicago Three Ring where we worked for almost five years. But in 2007, Bo passed and the Chicago Circus closed. I met a guy after one of our shows and when the circus closed, he asked me to marry him on one condition—I had to give up the life. He didn’t want to take some clown home to meet his parents.
“So since then, I’ve worked at the Chicago Stock Exchange where I did pretty well—better than my husband in fact—and he couldn’t stand that, so he left me six months ago.
“With my money, I’ve endowed a permanent BoJangles Clown Residency at Chicago Hope and I miss the life, I miss it every day. If you give me a chance again, I’ll…”
I stopped her there and hired her on the spot.
After Annie, there were a few more I passed on. One mime, one sad clown and one really scary clown dude with fangs. Mimes and scary clowns don’t belong in a circus, and while I appreciate the skill of a sad clown, he wouldn’t fit into the act I was just starting to put together in my head.
Then there was a brother and sister act called Mumbo and Tumbo. I didn’t like that their names were so close to mine, but actually, they were pretty good. And five clowns was what the Gulch wanted so that’s what I gave him.
Putting On A Show
The next day, the five of us got together to plan our act. If I was going to be undercover here, we had to have a respectable show. Gulch was going to give us two fifteen-minute sets a day and wanted us to work the crowds when we weren’t in the ring.
First off, I’ve never seen acrobats more relieved when they got to give up their clown costumes and go back to tumbling. I suppose I’d feel the same way if I tried acrobatting.
When my new troupe got down to business, we came up with a pretty good couple of sets almost right away. It was the usual stuff with the little car, the fake cannon shoot, the clowns pretending to be elephants and ringmasters. Nothing that creative to start off with, but a good, respectable show.
Working with Nimrod and Mumbo and Tumbo was okay. They were decent enough. Right from the get-go, I could tell Nimrod had a thing for Tumbo and Mumbo wasn’t all that excited about it—and Tumbo didn’t like the idea any better than his sister. But that was okay, Nimrod wasn’t too pushy about it.
I was sorry as hell I couldn’t bring Blossom into the act. I’d trained her for it, and she didn’t really like being left alone all day but after Uiliana’s warning, I couldn’t take any chances.
Working with Annie, though, was a dream. Just when the other four of us were going to go with an okay show, she came up with a series of unique gags, sometimes just little tweaks, sometimes whole new avenues, and she turned our “okay” show into one we could be proud of. And she wasn’t kidding about how good she was with balloon animals.
Balloon sculpting is something I’m good at. I can make rocket ships, and a cat-dog from the old cartoon. When I really want to impress, I’ve got a series of movable hats of all kinds.
But Annie could actually do a peacock with individual feathers, Dory, Sebastian the Lobster, Ariel the Mermaid and every Avenger, including Dr. Strange with a removable cape.
Between the two of us and a lot of popped balloons, we got Nimrod who was already passable, and Mumbo and Tumbo, who needed a lot of extra help, up-to-speed sculpting some pretty impressive figures. Every once in a while, I tried to show off. I did a duck billed dinosaur and then Annie did the scariest T-Rex I’ve ever seen. I tried to do a funny Minion and she did the three girls from ‘Despicable Me’ holding hands. Whatever I made, she did me one better and blew me out of the water. I like that in a woman.
The next day, we were already doing our sets then milling through the crowd between performances, doing magic tricks and giving away balloon animals. It was a great setup for me because it gave me the chance to keep an eye on BabyFace and Cornelia who…
…did absolutely nothing out of the ordinary.
After the evening show, I took Annie out for dinner and a couple of drinks. We talked about everything, growing up as clowns, learning the business, how she left the life and how empty she felt in civilian clothes.
I talked about my long climb from the salt mines of Cleveland to the biggest of the big tops. I told her a little about working with JellyBeans in the circus, but I mentioned nothing of our investigative work together. I still didn’t know who I was dealing with, and I was afraid if I let anything slip, I could be putting her in danger. Whoever killed JellyBeans and his crew wouldn’t stop at killing my crew if they thought any of us knew anything.
We ended up in a country-western bar and for a short while, I was afraid the local toughs were going to start something with us. But Annie and I hit the dance floor and showed everybody what turned out to be some amazing moves together. I, for one, did not know I could actually two-step in size 24 shoes. Instead of getting thrown out, we had the crowd surrounding us, and stomping and clapping while we danced.
I was falling hard for this dame.
We had a show in the morning, so Annie and I walked back to the circus complex about midnight. I put my arm around her waist and she not only didn’t push it away, she leaned in to me for warmth against the evening chill.
I’m not a mover. I’m a bit shy with women and I’m a clown. Generally, those of us in the life are not used to dames, even other clown dames, falling for us on the first date. I was going to walk her to her trailer, but we had to pass JellyBeans’ trailer—well, my trailer now—first.
It was Annie who suggested we go into my trailer for some coffee and I had to fake a cough to cover my own surprise but needless to say, I didn’t turn down the request.
When we got to the trailer, my poor, much-neglected Blossom started crying behind the door. Though I had paid a couple of kids to look in on her and feed her and take her out when I couldn’t, she had grown very attached to me.
I opened the door and she bounded out. She ran circles around us, first sniffing Annie’s shoes then jumping up on me. I tried to pet her on the ground to say “hi”, but she virtually climbed up my body in her excitement, whimpering in joy, licking me everywhere then just rubbing her face in mine, knocking off my nose.
When I finally got her down, I looked over at Annie wanting to introduce them, but Annie had an odd expression on her face.
“So, you have a dog, hunh? A cute little brown and white dog?”
I nodded. “She’s really a loving dog” I said lamely.
“I can see that. How did you come to have a dog but not use her in your show?”
“Well, I can’t actually tell you that right now. Soon, I hope…”
“I’ll bet you can’t. Goodnight, Mr. Clumbo, I’ve had a very nice time, but I think I need to go home now,” and she walked away.
I stood there dumbfounded, holding the still wildly-squirming and face-licking Blossom, wondering what had just happened. Did she hate dogs? Well no, not from the stories she told. Did she love them and think I was neglecting Blossom?
I sighed, walked the little Malshi in the dark and went back inside for the night.
The next day dawned bright and slightly warmer. When the gates opened and the people started pouring in, me and my clowns were out with the milling crowds, entertaining the kids, folding balloon animals, or in Annie’s case, balloon masterpieces. You could see the parents were really impressed with what she made, and the kids were over the moon with their new toys.
Annie was pleasant enough with me and seemed to stick within seeing distance of me but she wasn’t particularly warm.
Even Nimrod noticed. Under his breath as we were folding some more animals, he asked “What the hell did you do to her last night. She really liked you yesterday and now she acts like you’re Pogo the Clown. Hope you’re not getting arrested. I like this gig.”
I didn’t dignify that with an answer.
We did our matinée show and were soon back out working in the crowd. Annie stayed watching me as I tried to watch BabyFace and Cornelia.
But this time, I hit pay dirt. BabyFace was dressed in what looked like kids’ clothes and he walked up to women standing by themselves. He was always holding a big stick of cotton candy. He’d ask them something or talk to them for a few minutes then gave each one a big sticky hug. While the women were trying to disentangle themselves from the overly affectionate boy and wipe off the sticky residue, I saw his hand slip into their purses and come out with a wallet.
I was pissed. You don’t treat paying customers that way. I dropped any pretense of folding animals and moved like a thunderstorm towards BabyFace. He saw me coming and started running. Then I heard Annie scream my name, but I wasn’t going to drag her into this now.
That’s when the lights went out.
The Really Big Dame
The sideshow had an ancient, out-of-tune, out-of-rhythm calliope that played all the time the circus was open. The sound was bad enough across the circus complex. When I woke up, I was in what must have been the storage tent right next to the calliope. That distressing noise, along with a horrible, pounding headache, made me want to knock myself back unconscious.
I was tied tightly in a chair, back-to-back with someone else also tied to a chair. Worse, I knew who it was. I don’t know how, maybe her scent, maybe something else subtle, but it was Annie.
It was a smallish tent, there was one electric light bulb hanging above us and a lot of boxes scattered around. On one of these boxes, sat BabyFace smoking a cigar with one hand, holding a pistol in the other. Despite the encumbrances, he was also holding a magazine with an unfurled centerfold. The lucky bastard had a pair of headphones. I tried to shout some insult at him, but Annie answered me, screaming at the top of her lungs “He can’t hear you. I already tried.”
I tried to yell back “I’m sorry” but I’m not sure she heard.
It was a very long time later—I can’t tell you how long but with my headache and the endlessly repeating music, it seemed to be a very long time—the calliope finally started slowing down and getting softer, like a windup toy running down its spring.
BabyFace still had his headphones on so I quickly said to Annie “I’m so sorry for getting you involved in this. I didn’t mean to.”
“You didn’t get me involved. I got me involved. Now we gotta figure out how to get away from your friends here. I can’t undo any of these knots.”
“I wonder if the CIA knows about the torture potential of a calliope?” I asked.
“I don’t know about the CIA, but Momma knows, I can promise you that.” It was BabyFace, he had pulled off his headphones. “And before I joined the sideshow, I was Merchant Marines, so I know how to tie a knot.”
“Who’s Momma?” I asked.
“I am”, said a very sweet, light voice. I turned my head expecting to see the lithe and slender Cornelia but instead, I saw a behemoth of a woman, maybe five hundred pounds. I looked at the door behind her that she must have just come through and thought to myself, “no way.”
“Now,” she said, “who the hell are you and why did you have our little bitchy hostage in your trailer?”
“You didn’t kidnap the dog?” Asked Annie.
“What? No! What the hell kind of clown do you think I am?”
The fat lady kicked one of the wooden boxes hard and it split apart with a loud crack.
“Look at me, you clowns. I’m asking the questions now.”
“My name is Clumbo, this here is AnnieBananie, and she has nothing to do with this, she doesn’t know anything, I just hired her a couple days back.”
“And why Mr. Clumbo, did you have my dog?”
“He’s not your dog, you witch,” Annie spat. “I was hired by the Marks family to find him and bring him back.”
Okay, so this was a shock to me.
“I’m a friend of JellyBeans and JollyBelle,” I said, “JellyBeans sent me the dog. I didn’t know why until I got here to take his place. He sent the dog with Pablo to my house in Florida.”
It was disturbing to hear a light, feminine, tinkling laugh come from such a big woman.
“Pablo? Hahahaha (tinkle tinkle). He’s scared to death of Clowns. I bet he couldn’t even talk to you when you opened the door.”
“He didn’t try. Blossom was left in a basket on my doorstep with a note. It said to take care of her. I didn’t even know about Pablo until Uiliana told me the story the day I got here.”
I heard Annie catch a bit in her throat. I took that as a good sign—if we ever got out of here alive…
“You have him now?” Annie asked the woman.
“Yeah, we’ve got the little shit back in the cage,” said the Fat Lady, “The thing just cries and cries. Who would ever want a little bitch like that is beyond me but if he pays the $10,000, Mr. Marks will get him back. If he doesn’t, I got a bag and a rock and a lake.”
“Just like you did to JellyBeans” I thought, but didn’t say it out loud.
“Now, we have a problem.” The woman said, settling down on one of the sturdier boxes. “Momma’ s show has a little side gig going on here. I think our time is up with Great Atlanta, but we need a few more days to get the ransom and then we’ll be gone.”
“I guess we have to hold miss prissy clown here since she knows everything but you, Clumbo, I need you to keep your act going and keep quiet or I’ll do to you what I did to JellyBeans and his pack of meddlers.
“They stole my doggy captive and they were going to tell the cops about the other ways Momma’s little freaks make some extra spending money.”
“By ripping off the paying customers,” I spat back, “the families that come here to see the circus and have a little fun? They don’t deserve that.”
“They do deserve it.” The pretty voice was gone and a low and dark growl more appropriate to the woman, was in its place.
“You see them as sweet little kids playing with the clowns and ooh-ing and aah-ing at the horse riders, the acrobats, and the elephants. We see them for what they really are. The little monsters stand outside our cages and tell us how ugly and disgusting we are. They throw peanuts and popcorn at us. Teddy, the Wolf Boy, had bubblegum thrown in is hair yesterday and it took us an hour and half to get it out and we still had to cut off some of his precious fur.
“Then the mommies point at me and tell their kids ‘this is what you’ll look like if you eat all that cotton candy.’ I have a glandular problem. No one gets like me from too much cotton candy…
“So go ahead and live in your little dreamworld about these ‘nice’ people who come to the circus. We know better. We live in cages not to keep us in but to keep them out.
“Now that I know who you are, I can do the same thing to you that I did to JellyBeans and JollyBelle.”
I blinked in my confusion. Now that I know who you are?. “Wait,” I said, “So, you didn’t know about me and JellyBeans? You’re not the one who sent me his shoes?”
“Wait, what?” said Annie.
“I don’t know you from Ronald McDonald and why would I send you JellyBeans’ shoes? He loves those shoes, maybe more than he loves JollyBelle. He’s going to be buried in those shoes.
“They were a great act, but I got them fired and I can get you fired too. Gulch and I are very, very good friends.”
“Wait, what?” I said, now completely confused.
“What, you think a woman like me doesn’t have admirers and lovers too?”
Okay so that was a picture I didn’t need in my head. When not sober or in his glory in the ring, Gulch was an ugly, wrinkled, skinny, old man who looked like a skid-row bum.
“So you don’t know about JellyBeans and his crew?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” It was the fat lady’s turn to look non-plussed.
“I don’t listen to the news,” she said. “Most of the time it’s too depressing.”
“That car had eight bodies in the trunk. It was JellyBeans and JollyBelle and the whole crew.”
“Professional secret”, I said.
BabyFace rolled his eyes.
“I’m a PI too, a clown PI, working with the Elmore County Sheriff’s Department to see if we can find out who killed them.”
“And why did you bring the little bitch with you?” Asked the fat lady.
“I told you, I just hired her a couple days ago.”
I felt the tied-together chairs jerk a bit. “And I was just starting to like you again,” said Annie.
“I meant the damn dog, you idiot.” Said the fat lady.
“I thought she was calling you names,” I said to Annie, “I don’t think of you like that…”
“Why did you bring the dog bitch,” boomed the fat lady.
“Because I didn’t know. I thought I could use her in my act. Everyone loves a dog act and she’s pretty smart. I’ve taught her a bunch of tricks since I got her.
“Who else knew about the kidnapping and the stealing” Annie asked. “Does all of Momma’s Sideshow know?”
“I think some of them suspect, but it’s only me, Cornelia and BabyFace who actually know—and Leroy Gulch,” said the fat lady.
“And the meddling fools in the high wire act, they seem to see everything,” said BabyFace.
“But they don’t deign to stoop down to our level,” said the fat lady. “No, my sweet little boy, I think we need to bring Mr Gulch here too for a little chat. Can you go wake him from his stupor and bring him here. Take your little friend.”
BabyFace glared at her. “You know how you don’t like it when I call you Big Momma and laugh at your thunder thighs?”
“Yes, why?” Asked the fat lady.
“Never mind,” he said sulkily and left the trailer.
Gulch came into the tent and saw Annie and me in our chairs.
“Oh, there you are,” he slurred. “You didn’t do your evening show tonight, so I think I’m going to have to fire you.” Then he seemed to register the ropes around us. “Oh no, Adeline, not again.”
Gulch couldn’t meet Adeline’s eyes. “I didn’t do that,” he whined.
“But you know what happened?” she asked but he didn’t answer. “Leroy, what happened to JellyBeans and his crew?
He actually fell to his knees in front of her, grasping for her hands but she pulled away. “I had to tell the owners,” he said. “JellyBeans and JollyBelle were going to the cops and it would be all over. You’d be in jail and I’d be in jail. The owners were trying to sell Great Atlanta and if word got out that we had a theft ring here, no one would ever buy the circus.”
“So you had them killed?!” She thundered.
“I didn’t,” he whimpered, “I was just trying to warn the owners. I had no idea they would do something like that. I liked JellyBeans, he was the funniest clown I’ve ever worked with. But the owners sent me his shoes and I knew what had happened. JellyBeans always told me if anything happened to him, I should contact Clumbo, so I sent him the shoes, knowing he would come. I filled them with jelly beans so he would know they were JellyBeans’ shoes. What are we going to do now, dear?”
“Well, Leroy, we can’t just let them go,” said Momma, “We’ll have to leave them tied up here for a few days until we can get away.”
“I can’t go.” Gulch said, “I’ve still got my job, at least for a while. The owners say they’ll take care of me.”
“Like they took care of JellyBeans?” I asked helpfully. Gulch just put his head in his hands.
Babyface started playing with his gun again, twirling the cylinder, flipping the latch back and forth, and shifting it from hand to hand. “I don’t want to go back to prison,” he said. “It ain’t a very good place for someone like me.”
“Not so good for me, either,” said Momma, “but we aren’t killing them. Where can we hide them for a week?”
“Momma, you’re not gonna do that,” said a new voice, deep and booming. “We’re gonna let them go.”
I turned again to look at the door. The smallish tent was getting pretty full now. Herbie, the Strong Man and Teddy, the Wolf Boy stood inside the doorway. Cornelia stood just behind them.
“It’s time to end this, Momma,” said Herbie. Teddy and Cornelia nodded their agreement. “I don’t want to be part of a family that does things like this.”
Cornelia added, “It’s not like we can blend in with the rest of the world. Even if we did take off, the cops are gonna find a plus-sized woman and a minus-sized man and a pretzel girl pretty easily. I’m tired of living like this.”
“We’re still family,” said Teddy, “whatever happens, we’ll take care of you.”
“No problem,” I said, still eyeing the knife carefully.
One of the basic rules of undercover work is to have a regular check-in with the outside world. If you don’t check-in, your allies know something is wrong and they come and find out why. It seems both Annie and I had such arrangements.
When our friends found out neither of us were there for the evening show, they got worried and started asking questions. Uiliana and Pablo had seen enough of what had happened to lead them to the sideshow and they rushed in to save us just as we were walking out of the storage tent.
There was actually a pretty funny scene when Annie’s people and my people were all running at us with guns drawn without knowing that the other side were good guys too. As we watched them try to figure out who was who, I knew I had a great new routine for the next time I had a crew of my own. Adeline, Gulch, Babyface and Cornelia were not really hardened criminals and they gave up right away. I doubt they would have even killed the dog.
Like Momma said, the rest of the sideshow was clueless about the theft ring. When Herbie hit me from behind and grabbed Annie on Adeline’s orders, he just thought he was protecting his friends. He wasn’t necessarily all that bright, but he was a great showman. He convinced the crowd the capture of the two clowns was part of the show.
Once threatened with a very long prison sentence, Gulch—who was just a weak man caught between powerful people—sang like a canary. Two days later, it was my privilege to be with Deputy Detective Cargill in the offices of Joseph Agate and Associates—the owners of the Great Atlanta Circus. Like so many others, they wanted out of the business because all the circuses were slowly going broke.
Mr. Agate was a big, powerful man who wasn’t taking kindly to being accused of murder by me.
“You’re a real Bozo, you know that.” He said.
“Compliments aren’t going to get you out of this,” I replied.
Cargill read him his rights and pulled out his handcuffs. Agate looked like he was thinking about putting up a fight.
“Allow me,” I said, and I pulled out a long balloon and started blowing it up. Agate watched me, more puzzled than anything, until he saw me fold them into a giant pair of balloon handcuffs. He started laughing at me and said, “Okay, I’ll bite,” and he put his hands through the latex bracelets.
With a quick flick of my thumbnail, I popped the balloon and the handcuffs tightened hard around his wrists. He stopped laughing very quickly.
Sometimes when you’re a clown, people just don’t take you seriously.
Later that day, Annie and I drove Blossom back to the ritzy suburbs of Montgomery. Annie wasn’t lying about most of her history—she had just left out the part about getting a PI’s license after she got bored playing with other people’s money.
You could see it in Blossom’s eyes when she finally understood where we were taking her. She started whining and squirming and running all around the back seat of the car. She could barely contain her excitement.
We pulled up the long driveway and Annie got out of the car to open the door for the dog. Blossom ran around the back seat about five more times, leapt into the front seat and jumped in my lap while I still sat in the driver’s seat. She licked my greasepaint one last time and gave me a long soulful look to say goodbye. Then she bounded through my open window straight for the little girl who was herself balling with joy. The dog hit her and knocked her down—which is pretty impressive when you’re only about twelve pounds of pooch—and they rolled together in mutual ecstasy.
We got out of the car to talk to the parents and collect Annie’s fee. They were incredibly happy with the outcome.
We walked back to the car holding hands.
Author’s Note: I think this is one of my favorite stories every. Special thanks go to several friends with clown-related ideas but especially my wife who first said “I don’t know why you are asking me, I ‘m not creative in this way” and then proceeded to give me some wonderful ideas. Also to Kali Fencl, equally talented as an email Implementation Consultant at our shared employer and a wonderful comedian (Kali at her other job) who also sparked some of the best ideas.
As always, resemblance to any persons and places living or dead is purely or at least mostly coincidental. Wetumpka is a real place and it really is famous for its impact crater. The Elmore County Sheriff really is named Jenkins and Alabama does have something called ALEA but I have no real knowledge of Alabama law enforcement politics so everything else is made up.
I watched the Bogart classic “Maltese Falcon” as research for this story and recommend it if you haven’t seen it for a while. A handful of lines or ideas from the movie made its way into this story including the last line. It has to be the best awful movie I’ve seen in a long time.
As always, I’d love you hear what you think about this story, good or bad.