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Juggling Act

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I. The Parrot.

So this whole mess begins with Frannie and her goddamned masturbating parrot.

It took me two whole days to get that the tweet-tweet-tweeting was actually coming from inside the station. "Am I crazy?" I asked, slamming my hands down on my paperwork, "or is there a bird in here?"

Huey raised his head and looked over. "You're crazy, and there's a bird in here. His name's Scooter."

I leaned forward, convinced I was going deaf. "His name's what?"

"Scooter." Frannie had materialized behind me, and when I jerked my head around to look at her, I saw she had that real determined look she gets when she's real determined about something.

I stood up, trying to look menacing, and—from the look on Frannie's face—pretty much failing. "Scooter? Who the fuck is Scooter?"

She pointed, and only then did I notice the cage at the top of the pole standing outside Welsh's office. Inside was a blue and yellow bird, swinging wildly on its perch and chirping its head off; I never knew that one little bird could make so much noise.

"He's a budgie," Frannie explained. "He's a good talker, and he likes bells."

I realized suddenly that the entire bullpen had gone totally freeze-frame, everyone looking at Frannie and me. I could feel the waves of peer-pressure—apparently I'd just volunteered for the role of Bird Removal Guy.

Never one to disappoint a crowd, I wheeled on Frannie and said, "Well, what the hell is he doing here? Why isn't he, like—" I waved my hand out toward some hypothetical wild blue yonder, "—wherever birds fly free?"

"He belongs here," Frannie said firmly. "He's the station mascot."

"Since when do we have a station mascot?" I demanded.

"Since I got us a station mascot. His name is Scooter." Frannie crossed her arms. "He's a budgie. Any reason we can't have a budgie?"

Reason? There was only one reason. "I hate the budgie."

Frannie rolled her eyes at me. "You hate everything."

"Yeah, but particularly the budgie." I looked around the room for support. "Anybody else here hate the budgie?"

Nothing. Silence. They looked like an oil painting of themselves, that cowardly bunch of budgie-lovers.

"Oh, c'mon!" I shouted, throwing my arms up in the air. "What—you all like the budgie?"

"He's kind of cute," Huey hedged, and it took great restraint not to throw my stapler at him.

"Though the noise is a bit much," Dewey ventured, and I seized on this like a drowning man clutching a wet Mountie.

"Ha!" I yelled, wheeling back on her. "See? The noise is annoying, the tweeting is annoying, and it is impinging on my concentrating-type abilities."

Frannie cocked her head at me. "People pay for bird sounds, you know. They make tapes of them."

"Yeah, well, people are famously stupid. I'm filing a complaint with personnel."

"Go ahead. They already hate you," she informed me. "They'll just hate you more."

"Them and everyone else!" I yelled, though really, this wasn't such a great comeback. Momentarily defeated, I slammed my ass back into my chair. "You haven't heard the last of this," I muttered—but of course, I hadn't heard the last of it, either, because the stupid parrot tweeted all damn afternoon, plus his tiny bell kept ringing. Ding, ding, ding, tweet-tweet.

Fraser liked the parrot. "A budgerigar!" he exclaimed, when he arrived that afternoon. He took off his hat and placed it on my desk before going over to study it. "They like bells, you know."

"Yeah, I know," I said, resisting the urge to bang my head on the desk.

"Does he have a name?" Fraser asked, and like a genie from a bottle, Frannie appeared in all her maternal glory.

"His name's Scooter," she said proudly, and then there was, like, a whole ten minutes of Fraser saying, "Hello, Scooter!" and "Can you say your name, Scooter?" and "Can you say anything, Scooter?" and then going into a whole bunch of bird calls which I'm surprised didn't bring down a flock from Canada.

"They like to talk," Frannie said, but sounding more doubtful about it now.

"Theoretically, yes," Fraser said; he was using his hmm, a problem! voice. "Perhaps he—hmm, what's he...? Oh."

"Oh?" Frannie sounded really curious. "What's oh?"

"Erm..." Fraser said, and Fraser's erm was totally different from his hmm. Hmm was a matter for speculation, but erm was a problem that even Fraser couldn't fix.

"What?" I asked, getting up, and when Fraser turned around to look at me I saw that he was kind of red-faced.

"Nothing," Fraser said, just as Frannie shrieked—"OhmiGOD!" Fraser went a slightly deeper shade of red, and I pushed past him to look at the bird.

Frannie had her hands pressed over her mouth, though I really couldn't see what was so shocking. The bird was just doing the same annoying shit it'd been doing since it got here, tweeting and swinging wildly on its perch, making its bell ring, ding-ding-ding.

"What?" I demanded, watching the bird swing back and forth, back and forth. "What?"

And then suddenly I saw it; the bird really wasn't so much on the perch as curled around it, rubbing itself frantically against the wood as it swung.

I blinked. "Wow. That bird's jerking off." This was too good to keep to myself, so I cupped my hands to my mouth and called out to the bullpen, "Hey! Scooter's jerking off!" Everyone crowded round to stare, even the criminals, and Fraser now looked like he wanted to die.

Frannie started scolding, "Dirty birdy! You dirty, dirty birdy, Scooter!" and then every wannabe standup comic and their donut boy had to make their crack.

"Hey, Frannie—did ya teach him to talk, too?"

"Good thing he doesn't talk—"

"—every time a bell rings, a parrot gets—"

"What the hell is going on here?" Welsh boomed from behind us.

"Frannie's got a masturbating parrot, sir," I explained helpfully.

"Parakeet, actually," Fraser murmured.

Welsh reached out with a strong arm and shoved me aside; a moment later he was staring into the cage, watching Scooter do his thing. The laughter died into titters as we waited for Welsh's verdict; no one could laugh again until he did.

But Welsh didn't laugh. "Get rid of it," he said to me.

Frannie looked shocked, then let out a wail of despair. "Oh, but—"

Welsh turned his disapproving face toward her. "Get rid of it. You want it, take it home with you, but get the bird porno out of this station."

"But—" she pleaded.

"Get rid of it," Welsh repeated, and now he'd said it three times, it was gospel.

"I can't bring him home," Frannie moaned. "I mean, my Ma...if Ma saw this..."

Welsh turned back to me and stabbed a finger into my chest. "Bring it back to the pet store."

Me? Why me? This wasn't my pervy parrot problem. "But—"

"I want it gone by the end of the day." Welsh went into his office and slammed the door.

Frannie looked at me despairingly. "I can't take it home, Ray...can't you take it?"

"What, home?" I looked at the still-frantically-wanking parrot, and shook my head. "Fun at parties, I grant you, but I can't handle a high-maintenance pet.  He'd die at my place."

"Huey?" Frannie said, turning to him. "Dewey? Fraser!" she exclaimed suddenly, visibly wilting with relief; obviously she was convinced that it was a gentleman's duty to rescue a woman's masturbating parrot. "Fraser, you can take him, can't you?"

But Fraser was already shaking his head. "I'm sorry, Francesca; I can't. I had to get a special dispensation for Diefenbaker."

Frannie blinked her giant brown eyes at him. "Can't you get another dispensation for Scooter?"

Fraser was tugging at his collar now. "Wolves don't much like parakeets, I'm afraid," he said, though really, I'd bet Fraser would have said anything right about then.

Frannie let out a long sigh and turned her attention back to the cage. "Oh, well, Scooter—it just wasn't meant to be, I guess." The bell was still ringing with its tiny ding-ding-ding noise; Scooter was still at it. "Scooter?" Frannie repeated. "Scooter, can you just—for a second—oh, the hell with this parrot," she snapped, suddenly walking away. "Men!"

II. Larry's Pet Emporium.

Fraser could not look at the bird, which was sitting in its cage between us as I drove over to Larry's Pet Emporium. "You know, I had no idea that parrots masturbated," I offered.

"Parakeets. And they do." Fraser was staring resolutely out the front window, though I'm sure he could still hear the tinkle-tinkle of Scooter's continuous joy. "Most animals do."

"Wow," I mused. "This presents, like, a whole new world of entertainment possibility."

"It's perfectly natural," Fraser replied, somewhat defensively.

"Masturbation?" I asked, just to see him go red. "You mean tugging the carrot, whacking the mole, ruffling the feathers—"

Fraser shot me a narrow glance over the parrot's cage. "You're doing this just to annoy me."

"Granted, but you make it pretty easy."

Fraser sighed and looked away again. "Granted," he said.

I pulled the car into the tiny parking lot—just a couple of spaces between Larry's place and Fitzwalter's Delicatessen on the other side—and switched the engine off. "You want me to take him?"

Fraser looked grateful. "If you would, please."

We headed for the front door; the crooked sign in the center said OPEN. "Larry sold me my turtle," I explained, as we pushed through. "He's now the vendor for all of my animal needs."

The inside of Larry's shop was dead quiet—well, you know, apart from the chirping and the purring and the dogs barking and all of that. It was human quiet, nobody around, which was weird—every other time I'd popped in for turtle food or whatever, you could at least count on some kids staring up at the case of tabbies, or some hassled mom buying new fish.

But today there was nothing, nobody in the aisles, which gave the whole place a sort of eerie feeling. "Yo, Larry!" I called out—and instantly regretted it, because the animals maybe thought I was Dr. Dolittle, and the chirping and howling and mewing hit an all time high. I headed toward the back counter, past a wall of tropical fish; nobody manning the register either, which was stupid, because even pet stores turned some kind of profit.

I put Scooter's cage down, slapped a drumbeat out on the counter, then leaned over it to call into the stockroom: "Anybody home?" Then Fraser called my name and I turned; he was still halfway down the aisle behind me. "What?"

"Look at this," Fraser said in his hmm voice. I went back and saw that Fraser was staring down at a glass case full of mewling kittens. They were falling over themselves, climbing each other and then falling down again, claws scratching at the glass.

"Very cute. Fraser. You can't have one."

But Fraser was frowning now. "I think they're hungry, Ray. I think all of these animals are hungry—"

In an instant, I had my gun out and was running to the back of the store, around the counter, into the stockroom. It was dark in there, and I flicked on the lights, only to find Larry staring up at me from the floor, bound and gagged, his eyes pleading. "Holy shit, what happened?" I asked, dropping to my knees beside him and ripping the thick black tape from his mouth.

"Ray!" Fraser shouted.

"Bombs," Larry croaked.

"Bombs?" I repeated, shocked.

"Ray!" Fraser shouted again, and I got up and ran back into the showroom.

Fraser was crouched down beside the reptile case, and I skidded to a halt at his side. "Bombs," I gasped.

"More like grenades, really," Fraser replied, squinting for a better look. "Except, I think...yes, they're fuse grenades, not connected to pins." He reached into the space between the cases where the grenade was lodged and pulled it out, very carefully.

I couldn't help it; I shrank back. "Is that it? Is that all?"

Fraser stood, shaking his head grimly. "No. There's another one on your left side, ten o'clock."

I whirled and spotted the damn thing wedged between two bags of cat litter. I pulled it out, terrified that I would drop it—my hands were shaking that badly.

"Ray. Give it to me," and like an idiot, I sort of spasmed and threw it at him.

But Fraser just pulled that thing outta the air like his palm had been magnetized. And then I rushed around the store, searching for more grenades and finding them—under the fish tanks, cunningly disguised in a pile of squeaky toys, among the leather dog leashes and the muzzles and the sickeningly cute coat and hat sets. I kept throwing my grenades over to Fraser, and somehow he kept catching them, and I was practically neck deep in a pile of weasel hammocks chasing after a small green thing that turned out to be a rubber ball when I looked over at Fraser and realized that he was juggling them.

For a minute I just stared at him, because hey, it was mesmerizing, watching the seven grenades go round and round in a circle like that. He was showering them so fast that they looked like a giant beaded necklace. And then it occurred to me that, okay, great party trick aside, my partner was currently juggling a giant beaded necklace of fucking hand grenades.

"Fraser, quit it!" I yelped.

Fraser kept juggling, looking vaguely annoyed. "How else do you suggest I carry them?"

I really didn't have an answer to that, and in fact, I still don't. "How long before they go off?"

"I'm not entirely sure. But I think velocity will set—"

"We gotta get rid of them." Fraser sounded calm enough, but I thought I was gonna have a conniption. "How're we gonna get rid of them?"

"Outside," Fraser said, managing to tilt his head toward the street as he juggled. "If you'd just get the door..."

I stumbled to my feet, nearly breaking my neck, and rushed to pull the front door open. A bell rang inside the shop, making me think that somehow, somewhere, a parrot was getting off. Fraser, concentrating fiercely, slid past me onto the sidewalk, and once he was through I ran out to make sure that the area was clear.

"Get out the way! Get out the way!" I yelled, waving my gun around, and a couple of our noble citizens backed off or crossed the street, probably thinking, "Hey, look, a juggling guy and a nut."

Fraser made a beeline for the parking lot, which was the largest area of clear space in the immediate area—clear except for my car, of course. Goddamnit. "Not my car, watch my car," I moaned, but really only half-heartedly, because hey, face it, the poor guy was juggling hand grenades. But Fraser had bat-ears, and I saw that he actually tried to stand as far away from the GTO as possible—which wasn't that far, all in all, size of the lot considered. Maybe ten feet, but hey, I appreciated the effort.

Round and round they went, spinning, whirling, round and round. "Okay," Fraser said, and took a deep breath. "Ready?"

"Sure!" I yelled back—though ready for what, ready how, who knew? Fraser wanted me to be ready, I was ready—ready as I'd ever be.

"Okay!" Fraser called back, and then suddenly he sort of heaved and sent the first of the grenades hurtling high up into the air. Completely wussy-like, I flinched and raised my hands to cover my head, hitting myself in the head with my gun, which I'd forgotten I was holding. Ow. The first grenade burst overhead just as Fraser sent the second one flying up, and then the third, and—bang! bang! bang! bang! bang! bang! bang!—off they all went, like fireworks.

The last bang sent Fraser sprawling onto the concrete; it hadn't been high enough in the air when it exploded. In a second I had skidded down beside him, ripping the knee of my pants, my heart pounding. I grabbed his shoulder with my left hand and tugged him upwards, my other hand feeling him up for damage—I patted his chest, his arms, felt around the thick hair of his head, terrified I'd feel bits of shrapnel. But Fraser was blinking up at me, conscious but dazed, and I was just pulling my hand back when a huge bloody stain appeared on his forehead, just below the hairline. For a second, I thought I was gonna asphyxiate—my God, he was hurt and I—oh, Fraser

A bright blue something plopped down on Fraser's cheek, and then something orange splashed down on my hand where I was cupping Fraser's face. I looked up, and something weird and wet hit me right in the kisser, momentarily blinding me. I scrabbled at my face, knocking my glasses off and into Fraser's lap.

Fraser was struggling to get up, and had managed to prop himself on one elbow. "Paint," he said.

I managed to focus myself and get a good look around; huge splotches of red and blue and orange and yellow and green, all over me, all over him, all over the car and the concrete for about twenty feet in every direction. "Paint," I agreed. Fraser tried to get his arm under him, but seemed to be having trouble figuring out which way was down. "Give it a minute," I said, reaching out to steady him. "I think you hit your head."

"I—yeah." Fraser clutched my forearm so tightly my leather jacket creaked. He closed his eyes. "I think I hit my head."

"Give it a minute," I repeated, carefully mapping the back of his head with my fingertips. He had a bit of a bump there, but I didn't think it was anything serious. I cupped his head in my palm and stroked my thumb lightly over the bruise. "We'll put some ice on it, you'll be fine—"

Fraser opened his eyes and looked at me. Fuck. I let go of his hair and snatched my hand back. No way did I want to start this up again. "Don't," I said in a low voice.

Fraser looked away, his mouth tightening. "Why don't you call for backup, Ray?"

"Why don't I call for backup?" I agreed, and quickly hauled my paint-splattered self to my feet.

III. A Traveling Circus.

So picture, that was the easiest bust we ever made, because when we went back into the Pet Emporium to untie Larry we found that the vandals had actually left flyers. Turns out they were a bunch of radical lefties, sort of anti-pro-animal-rights activists. Anyway, we heard more about their politics than we wanted to know when we hauled their hippie asses into the station—two earnest-looking, mousy women wearing glasses, and three guys with scraggly-looking beards in tie-dyed shirts.

Myself, I think that if you've got a beard like that, you really shouldn't bother.

"We hear about the calves reared in crates!" one of the women proclaimed as I pushed her up the hallway toward the bullpen. "We hear about the plight of sows, cruelty toward turkeys, fish under stress, the depression of broiler chickens!"

"But what about people?" one of the scraggly bearded guys called out. "When did we forget about people? Thirty million people live in overcrowded housing!"

"People are separated from their children—not just pigs!" the other woman yelled.

"Hey, nice hair," Frannie snorted as we passed her, and I shot her my meanest look. Fraser was still faintly stained, but my hair was actually green and orange in patches. I'd been hoping it looked sort of punk.

"A woman is beaten every fifteen seconds!" the first woman cried. "And we're lobbying for chickens?"

"What about the elderly?" another bearded guy said, or maybe it was the same guy, it was hard to tell. "We treat our elderly like veal and our veal like—"

"He has a point, Ray," Fraser murmured discreetly.

"Don't look at it and it'll go away," I replied.

"Nice hair, there," Huey smirked.

I turned toward him angrily. "Hey, okay—so why don't you and Dewey interview the Socialist Fringe over here while I take care of my hair care needs? Huh?"

Huey's face fell. "I—uh—"

I made a grand introductory gesture toward the bearded guys and the earnest chicks. "Huey, I'd like you to meet the Coalition For People Rights. They tried to paint-bomb a pet store. Have a nice day."

With a groan, Huey began to wave the group toward Interrogation Room One. I collapsed into my desk chair, yanked the middle drawer open, and pulled out a hand mirror. My experimental hair looked even more experimental than usual, and it was gonna cost me at least sixty bucks to get it dyed back to normal. Sighing, I tossed the mirror back into the drawer and rammed it shut, and only then did I notice that Fraser was sitting across from me, rubbing his temples. Man, he looked really tired.

"How's the head?" I asked, even though the answer was right there on Fraser's face.

Fraser dropped his hand. "Rotten," he admitted and stood up. "I might call it a day, actually, if you don't mind."

"Nah, go ahead. I think I've had it myself—I might go get my hair fixed."

Fraser studied me intently for a long moment. "I think it looks...interesting."

Trust Fraser to put the nicest possible spin on me looking stupid. "I already look plenty interesting," I said, making a face, "but thanks for the thought."

Fraser managed to find me a smile, even though his head must have been pounding like gangbusters. "See you tomorrow?"

"Yeah," I said, and then suddenly I wanted to make him smile for real. "I can juggle too, you know."

Fraser was polite, though I think he was already figuring it for a joke. "Can you?"

"Yeah. Not as good as you, but I can do it." I looked around my desk for something to show him with, but the pickings were slim. I yanked open my desk drawer, and this yielded a baseball and a paperweight which were just about the right size, and as I looked up, Fraser swiped an apple off Huey's desk and offered it to me.

Holding all three things now, I took a deep breath and hoped that I still remembered how to do this. Not that it mattered—I didn't care if I dropped everything as long as it took that awful, tired expression off Fraser's face. "Here goes nothing," I muttered, and threw the baseball into the air.

To my relief, the standard three-ball-toss came right back to me after I adjusted for the uneven weights. But after that it was a cinch; throw, throw, catch; throw, throw, catch. Nice, clean arcs, one, two, three—like a waltz.

I was vaguely aware that Fraser was watching, but I was concentrating pretty hard on throwing and catching. And then I heard him say, "Can you shower them?"

Boy. Okay. It took a couple more passes to get the rhythm right, and then I switched patterns—showering them the way that Fraser'd showered the grenades before, throwing up with my right hand, passing with my left. And then, on a whim, I yelled, "Pass!" and shot the baseball and the apple and the paperweight out at Fraser, one at a time.

Fraser didn't even blink; they just went thunk, thunk, thunk into his hands, and instantly he had them up in a really nice looking cascade. "Ready?" Fraser asked, and I could feel my fingers tingling. "Yeah," I said.

Back they came, and god, this felt good—like dancing, rhythm and swing, hoo-yeah. Now that I was more comfortable, I saw that Fraser was scouting nearby desks for more objects. He came up with an orange, another apple, and some kind of stress-related squeezy ball. I went into a bit of a crouch, anticipating the throw.

"Ready?" Fraser asked.

"No, wait!" I yelped. "You want me to catch? pass? what?"

"Catch and pass," Fraser replied. "Standard toss."

"Okay. Okay. Go for it—" and then I threw him the baseball just as he threw me the orange and we were off. Fraser had a killer arm, and we made nice, solid passes between us; even arcs, back and forth. He took the paperweight, gave me squeeze ball, took back the orange, gave me the apple. Instinctively, we both adjusted our stances to make the most geometrically even pattern, and after three or four flashes, we had something pretty nice-looking.

"Wanna try something fancy?" I asked him.

"Yes. Sure. What do you have in mind?"

"Shower into tennis," I said, wondering if I was biting off more than I could chew. "Except drop or add something; I can do five or seven but I'm gonna drop six."

"Gotcha," Fraser said, managing to swipe something else off a desk and work it into his pattern—geez, he was good. "All right. I've got it. Are you ready?"

"Yeah." I repeated breathlessly. "Yeah. Go already!" and something purple hurtled into my hand—what the fuck was that?  No idea, because there wasn't time to look—we were now showering those puppies round and round, higher and higher, building this gorgeous arc of flying things between us. Fraser started the tennis on his next throw, sending the squeeze ball flying up and over the rest. I hit it right back, and the squeeze ball volleyed easily back and forth over the top of our shower.

I wanted to bust out laughing but no way I could—even one off-kilter breath and the whole mess would go crashing to the ground. Still, I wanted to; plus, I wasn't sure how much longer I could keep this going. Fraser could probably keep on till doomsday, since he could juggle seven all by himself.

"Okay! Wrap it up!" I yelled, and Fraser nodded quickly. On the next pass I held onto the squeeze ball, then I took the apple and the baseball out of the air. Then it was over, and Fraser was holding the other four objects, and we were grinning stupidly at each other across the bullpen.

There was a scattering of applause—we'd drawn an audience. I swiped Fraser's hat off my desk, made an elaborate bow, and then set the hat upside down at my feet. "Any spare change," I announced, "would be greatly—"

"Vecchio."

I spun around, heart sinking: Welsh was leaning against the doorframe to his office, his eyes narrowed. "Uh, sorry, sir," I said, wincing inside; I knew just how much the Lieu liked spectacles in the bullpen, which was to say, not at all. "Just, uh—I'm leaving now, going home—"

Welsh lifted a meaty hand and made a beckoning gesture; fuck, I was in for it, now. "C'mere, Vecchio," he said, and then he turned his head to Fraser. "You too, Constable. In my office."

Call me selfish, but I was grateful that Fraser was coming with me on this. At least now there'd be a witness. Welsh waved us into his office, then shut the door behind us.

"Sir," I said, figuring to maybe cut right to the apology, "I know that was totally out of line and unprofessional. Just we were suddenly overcome by a discovery of mutual juggling abilities."

"It won't happen again, Lieutenant," Fraser put in.

Welsh totally ignored this; instead, he leaned back against the door with a thoughtful expression. "You know, gentlemen, my grandmother was a woman of many sayings. Most of them, I confess, made no sense to anybody because she was in an advanced state of senile dementia. But a few of them seemed to make some kind of sense, and I've kept those sayings close to my heart."

I shot a sideways glance at Fraser, but Fraser was apparently actually interested.

"One of the things she used to say in her more lucid moments was this: 'Freaks Bring Their Own Reward.'" Welsh raised what I knew to be The Finger Of Instruction. "I have puzzled over this saying for many years, gentlemen, but since I've had the pleasure of working with the two of you, all has become clear."

I really wasn't sure what was going on here, but Fraser seemed to be on Welsh's page. "Really, sir," he said, "it won't happen again."

"Oh, but that's where you're wrong, Constable," Welsh said, brushing past us to head for his desk chair. "Because Freaks Bring Their Own Reward. And Everything Happens For A Reason. Even you, Constable."

I scowled at Welsh; I was getting a really ominous feeling, here. "You should write fortune cookies, sir. Put Grandma's legacy to use."

"An excellent suggestion, Detective," Welsh said, and he was having too good a time for this to mean anything but that Fraser and me were totally fucked. "In fact, let me tell you your fortune right now. You are going to be back here at 9:00 tomorrow morning. You are going to meet with a woman named Ramona Nashville, who just happens to be an old friend of mine from way back. Ms. Nashville," Welsh said, hitting me right between the eyes with it, "is the sole owner and proprietor of Nashville's Traveling Circus."

"Oh, no," I said, shaking my head so vehemently that I thought it would fly off. "No, no, no, no—"

"Is she having some sort of problem?" Fraser asked.

"Shut up!" I yelled at him. "We don't want to know!"

"Why, yes, she is, now that you mention it," Welsh said to Fraser. "Ms. Nashville has become deeply concerned that someone is using her circus as a front for illegal activities. Every place the circus has traveled, there have been burglaries. The local police have, of course, investigated them, but they have been unable to finger any one particular party or parties. The solution, as I'm sure you have already realized, is to put somebody on the inside for a week or two, who can—"

"No. And no. Absolutely not, no way. I'm already undercover—I'm not going undercover on my cover, that's just stupid," I insisted. "I'd be like my own third cousin."

"Has any particular type of item been stolen?" Fraser asked Welsh. "In other words, do the burglars seem to have any particular expertise?"

"Jewelry," Welsh replied, "though they've taken other things when they could."

"Interesting," Fraser mused.

"It is not," I retorted.

"Really, it is, Ray," Fraser said, damning us to circus hell.

"Oh, and by the way," Welsh said, as he opened the door to set us free. "Keep your hair that way, Vecchio. I like it."

IV. Really Terrific Balls.

Ramona Nashville turned out to a be a compact, hardy-looking woman in her fifties, which I should have figured, being that she was a friend of Welsh's. She stood up to greet Fraser and me as we walked into the interrogation room the next morning, and gripped my hand so tightly it bordered on macho.

Behind us, Welsh said, "This is Detective Raymond Vecchio, and this is his partner Constable Benton Fraser of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. He first came to Chicago—"

"Mounted police?" Ramona Nashville interrupted, looking pleased. "Did Harding tell you I started out raising horses?"

"No, really?" Fraser said, like it was the most interesting thing in the world, whereupon followed five minutes of horsey-type chat that I followed not at all. Something about breeds and what kind of oats were best and blah blah de bladda blah.

I came out of my coma of boredom with Ramona Nashville saying something like, "—you can ride, which is wonderful. I assume you can spin?"

"Oh, yes," Fraser said, like spinning ropes was taught in the third grade where he grew up, which it probably was. "Of course."

Ramona pulled a small pad out of the breast pocket of her leather jacket. "What else can you do?"

Fraser tilted his head and seemed to think about it. "Well, I can juggle eight. I'm fairly good with whips and boomerangs. I can ice skate, walk on a tightrope and my grandmother taught me various Chinese acrobatics, including the trapeze. I can throw knives and I can wrestle bears...except, of course, I might hurt the bear," Fraser added, looking embarrassed. "I also work with a very talented half-wolf."

By the end of this, we were all staring—me, Welsh, and Ramona. Ramona got her bearings first, probably because she worked with freaks for a living. "That's very good," she said, scribbling down a final couple of notes. "With your balance and coordination, I'm sure stilts won't be a problem, either."

"I'm certainly willing to try," Fraser said, and god, how I wanted to hit him.

Ramona then turned her attention to me. "What about you, Detective?"

"I can juggle."

"Okay, that's good." She wrote that down. "And?"

"I can juggle," I repeated meaningfully. Ramona frowned at me, and I could swear she wanted to feel my legs and look at my teeth.

"Can you skate?" she asked.

"No."

"Any gymnastic skills?"

"No."

"Can you ride a horse?"

"Look, lady—I grew up in a tenement on the South Side. I can stomp bugs," I added, glaring at Welsh, "but then again, I might hurt the bugs. Plus I am a bad-ass with a can of WD 40—"

"Now, Ray," Fraser interrupted, and I shot him a look saying shut up, shut up, shut up!  "You can dance. You're an expert marksman. You ride a bicycle. Perhaps you can handle snakes—you have a turtle, after all. They're both reptiles."

They're both reptiles.  So's Godzilla—Fraser's got no fucking sense of scale. "I can go as far as an iguana," I said, turning to Ramona. "But no further."

"We don't have a lot of call for iguana-handlers," Ramona said.

"Then that is your tough luck," I said, firmly.

"Well," Ramona said, shutting her notebook. "We'll think of something. If it's all right with you, Harding, I'd like to send my assistant over later this afternoon to work with them."

"Oh, that's fine," Welsh said, and showed me a huge smile.

Ramona's assistant, a small, energetic woman named Emily Kreiger, arrived just after lunch time, wheeling a giant trunk on a dolly. "Hello!" she said brightly, pumping first my hand and then Fraser's. "Hello! A pleasure! Can't wait to work with you!"

I can't wait to hang myself, I thought. There's that pipe in the men's room...

Emily was looking Fraser up and down. "My, red is certainly your color!" She shoved the dolly forward toward the interrogation room. "I have a jacket I want you to try on..."

"Allow me, ma'am." Fraser took command of the dolly and wheeled it into the interrogation room. Once there, Emily shoved it over on its side, and it fell with a whump. She unlatched it and cracked it open down the middle—and the thing was just crammed full of circus stuff.

"Okay, Constable," Emily said, rubbing her hands together. "Let's see what fits..."

"I'm gonna..." I jerked my thumb over my shoulder as I backed away. "Hang myself in the men's room," I finished, mumbling, high-tailing it out of there.

I actually went for a cup of coffee and wandered back in half an hour, and let me just say, only Benton Fraser could actually look less freakish in circus clothes than he did on a regular basis. Emily had put him into some kind of ringmaster outfit—a long red jacket with tails and a top hat and boots—but the boots were patent leather black instead of brown, and the red of the jacket was deeper, darker, and easier on the eyes then the fire-engine red of the serge. That outfit had waited all its life, praying in the dark of some tailor shop, for Fraser to wear it. He looked like a movie star, like a matinee idol, like a million fucking bucks—not even accounting for inflation.

"Hey," I said, startled. "You look great."

"Thank you, Ray." Fraser tugged awkwardly at his lapels. "I must say, I feel a bit silly..."

"You look great," I repeated.

"Thank you, Ray," Fraser said, and picked up his whip.

Emily tugged me into the room and gestured for Fraser to get out. "Your turn, Detective."

"God help me," I said to Fraser, and then Emily pushed the door shut between us.

So Emily pulls out what she wants me to wear, and okay, she's small, but she's a strong little lady, because I swear to you we went toe to toe in there and she wiped the floor with me. "I won't!" I yelled. "I will not! I got trauma!"—but you know, essentially I'm a blowhard plus I've never yet hit a girl, so after a while she got me into the clown suit.

It was white, with huge pink and yellow pom-poms running up the front. The hat was pointy and had another pom-pom at the top. I won easily on the wig issue; she said that my own green and orange hair was more than enough. I also won on the shoes—because how the fuck was I supposed to chase a criminal, just supposing I was lucky enough to find one, if I had two-foot-long feet? But I lost on the whole face-make-up thing, so I had to sit there while she went at me with some truly awful waxy stuff for well over half an hour.

Finally, she handed me a mirror and—holy shit, I looked sick. Red clown nose aside, she'd whitened my face, and darkened around my eyes, and drawn weird space-age symbols in pale blue on both my cheeks. I looked like a dead junkie found in the basement after two years. I looked like I'd been ax-murdered in a lunatic, satanic ritual. I looked like the most psychotic clown I'd ever seen. I looked like David fucking Bowie.

"What kind of circus are you people running, anyway?" I demanded. "I look like—clown of the damned."

Emily didn't seem to mind the critique one bit. "Well, Ray," she said, perching bird-like on the edge of the interrogation desk, "the secret to successful clowning is to find your inner clown, the clown that is the you deep inside."

I stumbled to my feet in something near a blind rage. "And this is what you think I look like inside? Like a hallucinogen-induced terror?"

The crazy bitch actually laughed and clapped her hands. "See, that's good!" she exclaimed. "That's very good! That's your inner clown, Ray; you're—"

The door opened. "How's it going?" Fraser asked, still looking like the King of Suave.

"Shut up! Do not say anything or I will punch you in the face!"

"Constable, let me present to you—" Emily threw out her arm, "—Ray the Angry Clown."

"I'll kill you! I'm not kidding!" I threatened.

Fraser just stared at me for a moment, and then he looked admiringly at Emily. "Oh, that's very good."

"God, how I hate you! I hate your guts! I hate you and I hate Welsh and her and—"

"It's brilliant, in fact," Fraser said. "Comic genius."

Emily beamed with pride. "Isn't it, though?"

"Absolutely." Fraser walked around me in a circle, studying me, thoughtfully tapping his whip against his thigh. "How on earth did you get the idea?"

"Oh, just a bit of lateral thinking," Emily replied modestly.

"I'm gonna lateral you so hard your kidneys'll hurt!"

"That's all right, Ray. You can stop now. You've made your point." Fraser turned his attention to Emily and said, "I think you've done brilliant work here—what's the next step?"

I threw myself down into a chair and put my head down on the table.

"Well, you'll need props," Emily said, kneeling down to rummage in her trunk. "There isn't time for you to get your own, so I brought some things I thought you'd need."

She came out with a gorgeously carved wooden box, which she offered, of course, to Fraser. He sat it gingerly down on the table and opened it; inside were a variety of fifteen inch knives.

"Those are Viper knives," Emily explained. "They're quite expensive, but they're perfectly balanced and they can be thrown from either the blade or the handle."

"They're beautiful," Fraser said, picking one up. "Oh, yes, I see exactly what you mean." He mimed a couple of throws and I groaned and thumped my head against the table.

"These," Emily said, coming out with another box, "are 2.75 inch silicone balls. These are for you, Ray," she said. "They're the standard for juggling."

"Oh, thanks," I said, not even bothering to lift my head. She sighed and set the box down on the table, and Fraser, of course, had to go and open it. Inside, carefully packed within their individual dividers, were twelve brightly colored balls that matched the pom-poms on my clown outfit.

"Oh, very nice," Fraser said, and then he looked at me. "Those are terrific balls, Ray."

"Now, each of you will need a makeup kit," Emily said, pulling out two plastic white cases. "Your makeup is fairly straightforward, Constable. Ray's is obviously harder—you probably won't be able to do it for yourself at first, though you might practice a bit when you get home. Still," she added, "everyone will expect you to have your own kits, so you should have them."

"Thank you, Emily," Fraser said, and obviously this was why he got the good outfit—all that Canadian sucking up.

"And that's about it. We'll have any other equipment you might need—unicycles, stilts, clubs. Sometimes we have to pitch in on other people's acts, so we have extras of mostly everything." She stood there for a moment, her hands on her hips, thinking. "What else? Oh, you should each have at least two pairs of spandex—one in black, one in white, I can tell you where to get that."

I pictured myself in spandex standing next to Fraser, then pictured the pipe in the men's room.

"You'll need good shoes, Ray—a pair of white sneakers should do fine. Constable, if you'd bring any riding equipment you're particularly fond of, just in case Ramona wants you to help out with the horses." Emily scrubbed at her cheek. "Circus people tend to travel light, so you should confine yourself to two bags—one for personal items and one for your work kit."

"That's fine," Fraser said. "How will you be explaining our presence without arousing suspicion?"

I lifted my head, because this was something I wanted to know, too. If I was gonna humiliate myself like this, I didn't want it to be for nothing.

"Oh, that won't be a problem," Emily said confidently. "In a small circus like ours, acts come and go all the time. People do this seasonally, or they use it to travel from one gig to the next. Nobody will suspect you, especially if you're any good. Which reminds me, Ray," she said, snapping her fingers, "we ought to go over a few things, maybe do a little bit of movement training."

I closed my eyes. "Oh, god..."

"You've got terrific natural grace," Emily added, dropping a hand on my shoulder, "but training will give you that bit of extra polish." She gave my shoulder a reassuring squeeze, then said the five scariest words I've ever heard: "Let's go to the park."

"Is it all right if I come too?" Fraser asked instantly. "I mean, if only to watch?"

Emily nodded enthusiastically. "Of course you can come. Glad to have you!"

"Come, Ray," Fraser said, jerking his head toward the door. "We're going to clown school," which in a sane world would have been a metaphor for something, or maybe an Elvis Costello song. Except it wasn't.

V. Clown School.

So I spent two hours in the park stretching and juggling and doing somersaults and tripping over my stupid gigantic clown pants—oh, and did I mention, hating my life ?

Emily, it turned out, had been trained as a mime, and she showed me how she could pretend to be a tree, and walk against the wind, and act like the ground was a tightrope and she might fall off it and down into hell—which in my opinion was where she and all mimes rightfully belonged. Then she asked me to do a mime and I suggested "Clown throwing up in bushes," or "Clown beating a mime and a Mountie to death."

Emily just said, sure, fine, if that's what my inner clown wanted me to do.

"You grew up in San Francisco, didn't you?" I accused—and who'd've thunk it, yeah she did!

Meanwhile, little children kept gathering around us with their spittle and their pets and their balloons. I glared at them and yelled: "Take off!" "Move along!" "What, you never saw a clown before?" but they didn't just listen. In fact, they seemed to think being yelled at by a clown was the funniest thing ever.

I looked over at Fraser, who was sitting on a nearby swing and watching me with his mouth behind his hand, though he turned away real fast when he saw me making violent strangling gestures in his direction. I think Fraser was actually enjoying this in some completely sick way—like, normally, he got all the attention, but I'd just bumped him from the position of Public Freak Number One.

Finally, Emily said we could call it a day, and I practically bolted back through traffic toward the station, I was so eager to get out of this stupid suit. Emily and Fraser followed along behind, and Emily was still calling out reminders: "Don't forget your balls, Ray!" and "The train leaves at two o'clock sharp tomorrow, so don't be late!"

I bolted into the station and up the stairs toward the men's room, the journey requiring me to tell no fewer than three separate people to fuck off and die.

When Fraser came in, I was bent over the sink and frantically scrubbing my face for the fourteenth time. He went into a stall to change, and came out a minute or two later still fiddling with his Mountie straps and buttons. "Do you want to get something to eat?"

I raised my head, water streaming down my face, and wheeled on him. "No, I do not want to get something to eat, Fraser! I hate you! This is all your fault, do you hear me?"

Fraser stared at me for a long second before saying, "You know, it's really not as funny without the clown suit, Ray."

I felt like ripping the goddamned sinks right out of the walls. "I am not trying to be funny! I am trying to convey to you that because of your fourteen-thousand freakish talents, I'm now going to have to wear a clown suit for the foreseeable future! Which has got me just a little pissed off!"

"A little?" Fraser asked incredulously.

"Okay, a lot. A lot, Fraser." I took deep sucking breaths of air and tried to calm myself down. Probably a good start would be drying my sopping face, and I tore a wad of paper towels out of the dispenser. "Look," I said, rubbing the paper over my blissfully-now-normal-colored face and neck. "You're gonna be great at this—and I am not. You can do these things, these things that you do, and I just can't. I showed you the juggling thing just to make you laugh—on a whim—and now it's come back to bite me in the ass like everything else I try to do around here."

"Ray, that's not true." Fraser took a reassuring step toward me. "You're a talented juggler and you make a truly wonderful clown—"

"You still don't get it, do you?" I yelled. "You been doin' this shit to me from day one, Fraser! Putting me into situations that are stupid or awkward or downright humiliating—"

One look at Fraser's face, and I wanted to snatch back the words. Because this wasn't about clown school any more and Fraser knew it. This was about driving a molotov cocktail, and chasing a performance arsonist, and driving Vecchio's car into the lake.

Fraser looked away, his face tightly controlled. "I'm sorry, Ray. I didn't mean to."

"No, I'm sorry." I squeezed my eyes shut and pounded my fists softly against my forehead. Because this was about going out to dinner afterwards, and the next night, and the next—and me being dumb enough to think that we were just being partners. "I didn't mean it. I'm just a fuckin' loudmouth, Fraser—"

"I know I've put you in some awkward situations," Fraser said quietly.

"No. It's fine." I let my hands thwap down to my thighs. "You know me—freak first, yell next, and think later, if ever. It'll be okay," I added with the most casual shrug I could manage. "I'll deal with the clown thing—I just gotta get my head around it," except it had been almost a year since Fraser kissed me and I still hadn't gotten my head around that.

"All right." Fraser folded his ringmaster outfit neatly over his arm and picked up his hat, but he wasn't meeting my eyes. "You'll pick me up tomorrow?"

"Yeah. I'll be renting a car."

"Okay." Fraser spared me the barest glance as he headed for the door. "See you tomorrow, then."

"See you tomorrow," I repeated.

The door shut softly behind him, and I gave myself a hard look in the mirror. No makeup now, but I could still see my inner clown staring back at me. My skin was pale, and I had dark circles under my eyes. Picture of an angry clown.

Thing was, I hadn't seen it coming. I was new to the job, still finding my feet, and Fraser was damned nice to me those first couple of weeks. I thought it was friendship, partner-stuff, all those dinners and lunches and movies. Until one night I invite him back to my place for a drink, and right outside my apartment door, he leans in and kisses me. Just grips my shoulder and presses his mouth to mine so intensely that it's like maybe he wants to glue us together permanently—and suddenly I realize that in Fraser's mind—not friendship. Not partners.

Fraser thinks we're dating.

Then it hits me that everyone in the bullpen must think we're—-that I'm—and I hear titters and jeers in my head, a full Christmas chorus of hilarity and pointing fingers with Stella as the floating angel at the top of the tree. I push at Fraser's shoulder, breaking the kiss. I'm strangling, I can't breathe.

"I'm n-not—" I stutter, but I can't even finish the sentence. I'm not gay, I want to say, but I just can't get the words out. "I'm not— I can't— I'm not down with this," I manage finally, and if I live to be a hundred, I will never forget the look on Fraser's face.

Fraser's pale and totally transparent, almost ghost-like; I can see right through him to the opposite wall. "Oh," he says. "I'm sorry," and then he blinks and twitches and straightens and it's like he's putting his dignity back on again piece by piece the way he puts on his Mountie stuff—buckles, holster, hat. "I'm sorry," Fraser repeats, in a slightly stronger voice. "Ray, I'm sorry—I'll go now."

Suddenly I'm the asshole, even though he put me into this stupid situation.

"Just, I'm not—you know—"

gay, I'm yelling inside, trying to project the word out of my head by sheer force of will,

"—like that," I finish, lamely.

"I understand," Fraser says quietly. "I'll see you tomorrow," and then he's gone, and I'm walking into my apartment like some sort of zombie.

That was a bad night; that was the worst night for me in a long time. My pile of personal humiliations was already three stories high and leaning like Pisa, what with the bank and Stella leaving me and the divorce and everything. Now I was four weeks into what was supposed to be a fresh start and everybody thought I was gay and fucking a Mountie.

Luckily, it turned out that nobody at the station knew Fraser was queer—they all thought he was just weirdly asexual, which was a life-saver for what was left of my reputation. Fraser, to give him credit, acted just the same as always—he didn't seem to hold it against me or treat me any different. We still worked together fine, and we still went out to dinner and movies and stuff, and I think it was only me who noticed that Fraser maybe smiled less, or with less real feeling or something. Plus every so often he would give me these looks, but basically he seemed to have everything pretty much under control.

Thing is that in my wallet, still to this day, I have a folded-up scrap of paper that was the first time Stella gave me her phone number. Now it's ancient and torn and practically disintegrates when you touch it—but every now and then I pull it out and look at it.

"Stella," it says in purple ink. "769-3098."

That kiss Fraser gave me is sort of like that piece of paper. Every so often, I have to pull it out and look at it, even though the memory's all faded and battered. It was just a couple of seconds, the whole thing, but—nobody's ever kissed me like that, before or since.

Still, I'm not. And I can't. Which is not my fault.

Except that I still look like the idiot. Which is typical, really.

VI. The Circus Train.

I went into the station the next morning and had a final conference with Welsh, then picked up Fraser and Diefenbaker in a rented Honda.

Fraser was wearing jeans and a leather jacket, and had his rucksack slung over his shoulder. Dief was apparently going bagless, though he seemed very excited.

"Oh, he is, Ray," Fraser confirmed, once he'd gotten Dief in the back seat and himself settled up front. "He's never been to the circus."

I explained to Fraser what Welsh had told me that morning—that we'd be using our real names, Fraser and Kowalski; that the circus train wasn't leaving from Chicago, but from some dinky station in Buttfuck, Illinois; that Welsh wanted us to check in with him by pay phone every other day. "Other than that," I said, turning the Honda onto the highway, "we're on our own and we'll have to wing it."

"Sounds exciting," Fraser said.

"Yeah, you would think so," I replied, shaking my head.

Fraser and Diefenbaker, the two of them, were practically glued to the windows as I drove us through the boring Illinois countryside. "There's nothing here!" I wanted to yell, but hey, I guessed that 'nothing' was relative when you came from the Yukon or wherever.

The train station was just a strip of track and a shack across the street from a diner in the middle of nowheresville. I drove the Honda into the parking lot and pulled up within sight of the ticket conductor's window, hoping someone would keep an eye on the car while we were away. The train was already in the station, but people were milling around on the platform, so I figured we'd made it in plenty of time.

We headed onto the concrete platform, which was crowded with weirdos—midgets, giants, a woman with a beard, a guy with a dog—no, make that a kangaroo. I was searching the crowd for Ramona or Emily, just somebody I knew, or even anybody normal. Fraser, on the other hand, was introducing himself to everyone we passed—but then again, he sort of had to, because Diefenbaker was sniffing people in a way that was downright personal.

"Hello," Fraser was saying as he moved through the crowd. "Hello, there. I'm Ben Fraser and that's my wolf, Diefenbaker. I throw knives," and really, people were just nodding like that was all perfectly reasonable, which I suppose must have been a nice change for him.

Finally, I saw Ramona Nashville, who was standing in the middle of all the chaos with a clipboard. "Ray. Ben. Glad you could make it. We leave in five minutes, so make sure you get seats on the train."

"I brought Diefenbaker," Fraser informed her; she glanced down at the wolf and nodded. "Is it all right if he rides with us?"

"Sure," Ramona said vaguely, making a note on her clipboard. "Leo always travels with Arnie and Lou."

"And they are?" Fraser asked.

"His two favorite dogs," Ramona replied without looking up. "Leo runs the Super Dog Show, you should meet him—he'll be the one with the dogs."

"Right," Fraser said.

Just then, someone bumped into my shoulder and pushed past me toward Ramona. "Ve are here," a gravelly voice said, and I turned and saw two Russian-looking guys who seemed to have been carved out of sheer rock.

"Okay, guys—I got you." Ramona nodded at them, compulsively clicking her ball-point, and the two guys nodded back stoically and wandered off.

"What's with Boris and Natasha?" I asked.

Ramona stifled a smile. "Nick and Alexei, The Romanov Brothers. They're an adagio act."

I shot a quick look at Fraser, who murmured, "Acrobatics."

"They're okay when you get to know them," Ramona said, glancing down at her clipboard. "Mostly everyone's friendly around here."

This actually turned out to be true. We lined up to board the train, and Fraser easily started up a conversation with Andy the Plate Spinner, who was young, blond, and heavily freckled. He came from Milwaukee, he said, and he was using this trip to get himself back there to visit his mother.

"Are we going to Milwaukee, then?" Fraser asked, swinging himself up into the train's vestibule.

"Yep," Andy replied, nodding. "We're doing the loop of county fairs, ending up in Milwaukee."

"That's thrilling," I muttered, hoping that maybe there'd at least be good beer.

"Who's this?" Andy asked Fraser.

"This is my partner Ray," Fraser replied. "He's an angry clown."

Andy looked impressed. "Oh, cool."

Fraser slid sideways down the narrow aisle until he found a free space of four chairs, two forward and two back. He waved for Diefenbaker, who immediately jumped onto the seat and stuck his head out the window. Fraser carefully stowed our luggage in the overhead rack, then invited Andy to sit with us.

"How long have you been with Nashville's?" Fraser asked, taking a seat.

"About a year," Andy replied, just as the train's whistle blew and it lurched out of the station. "It's a good circus," he added enthusiastically. "One of the best I've been with. We're small, and so it's kind of a lot of work—when we get there, we'll have to help the crew pitch the tents, build the village and stuff—"

I leaned forward. "The village?"

"You know," Fraser said, looking at me meaningfully. "Where we'll live."

I stared at him for a second and then got it. Tents. We were gonna be living in tents.

Fraser turned to Andy and asked, "How many shows a day?"

"Two," Andy replied. "One in the afternoon, one at night. Other than that, we take shifts outside to entertain the foot trade."

I shook my head, trying to project an air of "Weary Olde-Time Circus Guy." "Well, Ben," I said, turning to him, "we sure have come down in the world since the old days, huh?"

Fraser just stared at me. "Have we?"

"Sure we have," I said easily. "What was that old English theatre we played?"

"The Lyceum?" Fraser asked, his voice now thick with irony.

"That's the one," I said, sprawling out in my seat. "Those were great old days, weren't they, Ben?"

"Oh, yes," Fraser deadpanned. "How I wish I remembered them better."

"What outfit were you guys with?" Andy asked, and I shot Fraser a look, wondering if he'd maybe jump in with something. But no—Fraser just quirked an eyebrow at me and smiled.

"It was, uh—a small outfit, but very exclusive," I said, my mind racing. "The ringmaster was a guy called Welsh, and there were a couple of great comics called Huey and Dewey. The Lady Francesca had a bird act, and Elaine was the queen of the flying trapeze. Senor Turnbull did aerial ballet, Madame Thatcher was a lion tamer, and there was this other woman, Stella, who—um—uh—"

"She was an escape artist," Fraser said.

I looked away. "Yeah. It was a nice little circus. I'm gonna see if there's any coffee on this train," I said, getting up and heading down the narrow, swaying aisle as the train picked up speed.

VII. Earlville, Illinois.

Our first view of Earlville, Illinois was depressing as all hell—just a shanty little station that we didn't even stop at. No, we were traveling first class here with Nashville's Flying Circus, and the conductor hit a switch and sent us hurtling down a side-track to nowhere, where we stopped with a loud gasp of steam.

But I enjoyed the rest of that afternoon, actually, because at least there was real, honest work to be done—helping the crew lug the stuff off the train, hauling steel beams and driving them into the ground, unrolling the huge, heavy rolls of canvas, putting the concession stand and the ticket booth together with hammer and nails.

It was like Witness, only with midgets.

At some point I lost Fraser and had to go looking all over camp for him. To my surprise, the place was really shaping up—we were like an invading army of freaks, bringing primary-colored civilization to rural Illinois. I found Fraser on top of a pole, helping to rig electricity to the portable generators. Fraser never was afraid of being shocked, but at least somebody with a brain had given him a pair of thick rubber gloves.

"Yo, Fraser!" I yelled, raising my arm when he looked down at me. "You're not union, buddy!"

Fraser smiled, brushed his hair out of his eyes with his forearm, and went back to wiring. Somebody tapped me on the shoulder—they were passing out hot coffee and sandwiches. I took enough to feed myself and Fraser, then sat down out of the way and sipped my coffee and watched Fraser work. Dief wandered over and sprawled beside me in the grass. I fed him the butt end of my sandwich and reflected that sometimes life could be mighty fucking fine.

Ten minutes later, Fraser called out, "All right! Try the switch!" and after a moment there was a click and the floodlights came on in the twilight. The whole camp burst out into cheers and applause at the light—you could hear faint echoes all through the fairgrounds.

Fraser looked surprised and then he laughed and made a modest little flourish with his hand before climbing down the pole. He landed heavily in the dirt, pulled his gloves off, and gave them back to one of the crew guys, who slapped his back and congratulated him. A moment later, he settled down in the grass next to me and Dief, and I handed him a roast beef sandwich and a tepid cup of coffee.

"The town proper," Fraser said, lowering his voice as he unwrapped his sandwich, "is about two miles north."

"Oh yeah?"

"Mmm." Fraser nodded, chewing, then swallowed. "And what's interesting is—did you get a copy of the schedule?"

I shook my head. "No. I was building the concession shack out front."

Fraser squirmed around and managed to work a folded piece of paper out of his back jeans pocket. "We have mornings free," he said, passing me the piece of paper, "and after that things are pretty busy from about noon to midnight. Which raises the interesting question of timing—exactly when do these burglaries happen?"

"During the other twelve hours," I suggested, frowning down at the sheet. "Midnight till noon."

Had to be—the rest of the schedule was pretty tight. 12:00: General Meeting and Breakfast—breakfast? From 1:00-3:00, everyone was assigned to some kind of prep work— I'd drawn something called Prop Management, and Fraser'd been assigned to help with the horses.

The first show was scheduled for 4:00, and the second show for 8:00. I noticed with some relief that I wasn't scheduled as part of either show per se, but "Ray The Angry Clown" was listed in another column called Crowd Acts. Benton Fraser was in the show, though; he was billed as a Knife Thrower between Dorothy Lynne the Trapeze Artist and Christina's Amazing Hoops.

I looked up at Fraser: "So we're done around ten, then?"

Fraser shook his head. "The show ends at ten, but we'll have to break down and clean up."

"And after that?" I asked.

"After that," Fraser said, with a nervous twitch of his eyebrow, "apparently the group goal is to get as drunk as possible."

Well, all right. That was the best news I'd had in weeks.

"In fact," Fraser added awkwardly, "we've been invited to a vodka party tonight in Susie's tent."

"Susie?" I asked, trying to remember if I'd met a Susie yet. "Which one is Susie?"

"She's the...woman...with the, erm." Erm again from Fraser, always a bad sign. "The...interesting facial hair," Fraser finished, looking relieved that he'd somehow managed to survive conveying the information. He braced his workboots in the grass and let his head hang for a moment while he scratched at the back of his neck. "I must confess, I find it rather off-putting," he said in a low voice. "But I'm trying not to show it. She's really very nice."  

VIII. The Romanian Romanov Brothers.

After the dinner break, we had to set up the big top. This turned out to be a communal effort—everybody had to pitch in to get the large, metal bleachers from the train to the tent. We must have looked like a swarm of ants dragging crumbs across the yard.

By the end of this my arms were killing me—I was gonna sleep like the dead tonight for sure. Not that anyone else seemed to be falling down from exhaustion or anything, not even the midgets. Then again these people apparently slept till noon and drank half the night—which, you know, not a bad thing or anything, but it was gonna take some training.

The last thing we had to do before we were dismissed for the night was to claim cots and blankets from the train. Some other guy with a clipboard was in charge of running this part of the operation. "Kowalski. Fraser. Ten-four!" and I almost saluted except then Fraser told me that what he'd actually said was, "tent four," because the tents were all numbered.

So Fraser and me dragged our folded-up cots and blankets and bags and stuff to tent four, which, when we got there, we found already half-occupied by the Romanov brothers, who shot us surly looks when we pushed through the flap.

"Hello," Fraser said cheerfully, dropping all of his stuff in an empty space. "I guess we're roommates."

The Romanov brothers looked first at us, then at Diefenbaker, like they couldn't be less pleased to see us. Still, they had to know that somebody was coming, because they'd defined their own camp pretty clearly on the other side of the tent. Their two cots were made up, they had a trunk between them serving as an end table, and they'd hung a couple of kerosene lamps up on hooks. Very homey.

"He doesn't snore," Fraser said, nodding at Diefenbaker, despite the fact that the Romanov brothers could have been wearing t-shirts that said, "We are not interested in making new friends," on the front and "We despise other human beings," on the back. "I don't snore either," Fraser added, and then he glanced over at me. "You don't snore, do you, Ray?"

I ignored him, because I was having this vicious wrestling match with my cot, which would not open up right for me. Fraser wandered over, nudged me aside, and two seconds later I had this perfect cot right out of Modern Circus Magazine.

"Are you Russian?" Fraser was still trying to achieve rapport with the Romanov brothers, who looked warily at each other as if they were deciding whether answering Fraser would just encourage him.

"No," Alexei Romanov said heavily, finally.

Fraser looked expectant, but apparently that was the great communique, right there. Fraser wouldn't let it go, though. "Latvian? Estonian?"

Alexei Romanov gave a deep, world-weary sigh like his cherry orchard had just been chopped down. "Romanian."

"Ah!" Fraser seemed delighted to hear it. "What part of—"

At this, the Romanov brothers just walked out of the tent without so much as a goodbye. Personally this suited me fine; I wouldn't've minded having one of those t-shirts, either.

"Was it something I said?" Fraser asked.

I sighed and shook my head. "No, Fraser. They're clearly bastards. Plus they're probably the burglars."

Fraser frowned at me. "What makes you say that?"

I ticked off the obvious points on my fingers. "They're bastards. They're Slavic. And they're the first characters we've met in this idiocy with any depth—they're clearly the burglars."

"That seems spurious," Fraser objected.

"That's cause you don't watch television." I stretched and said, "Somebody promised me vodka."

VIII. Note To Self.

Note to self: Do not get into a drinking contest at the circus, even with the girls, because you will lose, lose, lose. Less than two hours and I was more totally blotto than I'd ever been in my life, and I spent the rest of the evening sitting in Susie's lap.

Fraser was, of course, totally right about her—she turned out to be really nice and have a big, comfy bosom beside. Plus she seemed to like me and she let me touch her beard, which I did after a couple of drinks and it was really soft and stuff.

"Ray," Fraser said, and I think by that point he was the only sober person, not only in the room, but in the entire compound. Somewhere somebody was playing a guitar, and I think there was singing. It was like heaven. "I think we should go back to the tent," Fraser said.

I buried my face in Susie's huge bazooms. "I don't wanna."

"Ray," and then, to Susie, "You shouldn't encourage him like this."

"But he's so cute," Susie whined, and I could feel her rubbing her bearded cheek against the top of my head. Then there were arms pulling at me—Fraser's—and I let him pull me up, though not like I could stop him because I was made entirely of rubber. Susie's bearded face came into view. "Will I see you again?"

"Absolutely," I said, wrapping my arms tight around Fraser's neck. "Abso-fucking-lutely."

"Ray," and the Canadian Voice of Doom was closer now, in my ear in fact, and I turned, and—man, maybe it was just that we were in a room full of freaks, but my God, Fraser was pretty. Plus he smelled nice.

"Hi, Fraser," I said.

Fraser sighed and tugged me gently toward the tent flap. Outside, the night was cool and dark and I could see that various other village tents were lit up from inside, and I could hear laughter and music. These people really knew how to party.

I said as much to Fraser as he walked me along to our tent, and Fraser took the opportunity to berate me. "I wish you wouldn't do that, Ray."

"Do what?" I was trying to dig my heels into the dirt and totally failing. Fraser just kept relentlessly sweeping me along. "Have a good time for a change?"

"Flirt. When you aren't serious."

"Who says I'm not serious?" I demanded. "She's really nice, and after a while you don't even mind the beard that much."

"You shouldn't lead people on," Fraser said, sounding disapproving.

"Plus she's cushy. And I'm not leading her on."

"Hm!" Fraser said, and pulled me through the flaps into our own dark tent.

"Hm? What's hm?"

"Nothing." Fraser set me down on what I assumed was my cot and pulled away, vanishing from my universe entirely.

"What's nothing, Fraser?" I called into the void.

Fraser's voice came drifting back through the darkness. "Nothing," and really, I would have argued with him, but I was asleep in four seconds flat.

IX. Lightning Strikes.

I woke up with the idea fully formed: time to throw up! Two seconds later I was up and out of the tent and puking into the bushes, which I figured was a really auspicious way to begin my life as a professional angry clown.

It was a gorgeous morning—blue sky, sun shining, bunting flapping in the breeze—though the place was dead quiet. Everybody else was probably still asleep or hung-over, or maybe dead, even, considering how much booze was consumed last night. I took a deep breath of the cool morning air, and instantly had to throw up again.

Finally, I'd pretty much emptied my stomach, and I stumbled back into the tent to lie down again. I was starting to get the brilliance of this not-starting-until-noon thing. The Romanov brothers were sound asleep in their cots on their side of the tent, and Fraser was still asleep too, Diefenbaker on the floor next to him.

I sat down at the foot of my cot and stared at him. There was something really weird about how Fraser was sleeping—flat on his back, fingers laced over his belly, perfectly centered. He looked—dead. Laid out in his coffin, and that thought gave me a start. Except that wasn't even all that was weird here. Fraser looked like...what? Then I had it, and it kind of gave me a twinge in the pit of my now-empty stomach.

Fraser looked like he hadn't ever shared a bed regularly with anybody else. Because once you did, you never quite went back to sleeping like a kid again. You were always curling around your pillow, or scrunching up on one side, or stretching out to feel for that other body that was no longer there. I remembered the first days after Stella walked out, reaching out for her and nearly falling off the bed and realizing with sudden panic that I was alone. Except Fraser didn't look alone. Fraser looked like nobody'd ever said "move over" or "your elbow's in my face" or "hey, you bastard, you're hogging all the covers."

I stretched out on my cot, tucked my arms under my head, and stared up at where the central pole puckered out the canvas. I felt really bad, suddenly, for Fraser, because Fraser hadn't dated anybody since he thought he was dating me, which was almost a whole year ago. Now that I knew him like I did, it was sometimes hard to believe it had actually happened. Cause Fraser didn't kiss people. He just didn't. I'd known the situation was weird, even back then, but I hadn't known it was lightning-strikes weird.

Still, it had happened, all right—I knew that from my faded, crumpled memory of it, and from the prickly way Fraser and me still danced around it. Snatches of conversation came back to me from last night, Fraser saying, "You shouldn't lead people—"

I suddenly remembered that I'd spent most of last night in the lap of a bearded lady and groaned, draping my forearm across my face. God, I hoped I hadn't led poor Susie on. Note to self...

"Are you all right?"

Fraser's voice, quiet in the still morning air. Fraser'd probably been awake the whole time, listening to me bolt out and throw up. Probably in some other universe he'd've come out to check on me, except I'd pretty much ensured he'd never touch me unless my life was in danger. Drowning in submarines and proposing to bearded ladies apparently qualified.

"I'm fine. Hung over."

"You should have some water."

"Probably, yeah."

Fraser sat up, slid his legs over the side of the bed and sat there, in his red longjohns, contemplating the universe. "I think I'll go take a shower."

"Shower?" This was suddenly the most beautiful word in the English language to me. "Is there a shower?'

"Mmm-hmm." Fraser bent down, hoisted his bag up onto the cot, and took out a towel and a shaving kit. "Near the toilets. Hooked into the cold water pipe."

"God, that sounds great," I said, heaving my booze-battered-body into a sitting position.

Fraser hesitated, then went suddenly still. "You—go on ahead, then."

Right. Because no way was he going near a shower with me. Which was fair enough, I supposed. "No, it's okay. You go. I'll go later."

"No, no—you go. I'll...see about Diefenbaker," Fraser said, and from the foot of the bed, Dief let out a loud snort; the wolf was more capable of taking care of himself than either of us and he knew it.

I lay back on the cot and closed my eyes, hoping to end this conversation. "Fraser, shut up and go already," I muttered, and after a minute, I heard the cot creak and the swish of the tent flap and I was alone with the sleeping Romanov brothers.

I drifted in and out of sleep, thinking vaguely about Stella and an empty bed and Susie's beard and Fraser in the shower.

"...at seven, all right?"

"Where?"

"The equipment tent?"

"Yes. Yes. At dinner time."

I opened my eyes and raised my head vaguely off the pillow, but the tent was empty. All the other cots were neatly made, Fraser's included, and for a second I was totally disoriented. I leaned over, pulled my wristwatch out of my shoe, and peered down at the numbers.

Quarter to twelve. Jesus. I scrabbled out of bed and found my glasses and grabbed my dufflebag and headed out to the showers. Which were fucking freezing, and primitive as all hell—just a couple of planks, really, and a couple of metal shower heads rigged up to a pipe. Thankfully empty, though, which was good. I showered in record speed, but my nuts were still entirely shriveled by the time I switched off the cold water and stumbled out. Shivering, I dried myself quickly, threw on some clothes, and then went to find out where everybody was.

In the big top, as it turned out—along with big buffet tables of bagels and coffee and fruit. The whole circus, artists and crew alike, had turned out for the general meeting. Ramona was standing in the center of the ring with a megaphone, making announcements as people milled around and ate breakfast. "...at eighty-percent for the afternoon show," she was saying, "and tonight's show is already sold out. Everyone should report to their managers at two o'clock sharp. Consult today's schedule if you don't know where to..."

I grabbed two bagels, slathered them with cream cheese, and poured myself a giant cup of coffee. I found Fraser sitting on the bleachers with Susie and Andy and another girl—a slim, pretty blonde who reminded me of Stella circa 1980, which made me feel all weird inside. She and Fraser were pretty deep in conversation, their heads bent close together.

I crossed my arms, and coughed pointedly.

Fraser looked up. "Oh, hello, Ray."

"You didn't wake me." I sounded whiny even to my own ears.

"You were sleeping so nicely. Are you feeling any better?" Fraser didn't wait for my answer but turned to the girl and said, "Ray was a little drunk last night."

The girl actually put her hand to her mouth and giggled. My god, how I hated her.

"I haven't met your friend, Fraser," I growled, feeling the uncommon urge to hiss and spit at her.

"Oh, I'm sorry." Fraser didn't look one freakin' bit sorry. "This is Minnie—Minnie's going to assist me in my knife throwing act. Minnie, this is Ray. He's an angry clown."

"Hi," Minnie said. "Nice to meet you, Ray," she said, and then she turned her adoring eyes back to Fraser, and put her hand on his thigh. I shut my mouth with a snap and sent her my very best death vibes. "So is two o'clock good for you?"

"Two o'clock is fine," Fraser replied, like he wasn't being all groped by the demon cheerleader from hell. "I really appreciate your taking the time to rehearse with me."

"Not a problem," Minnie said with little breathy laugh that she probably thought was sexy but to me sounded like she had emphysema. "Happy to help out," and yeah, I bet she was.

Fraser glanced down at his watch. "I've got to help with the horses—see you at two?"

Minnie nodded and jumped up, twisting and turning to show off her nubile young body from every possible angle. "I'll be there!" she said, and went off with a little shake of her ass.

"Well, she's very nice," Fraser said, and took a bite of bagel.

I took the seat that Minnie's bouncy young butt had so recently vacated. "That girl's half your age, Fraser."

Fraser paused, bagel halfway to his mouth, and glanced over his shoulder in the direction that Minnie had gone. "I suppose that's possible," he conceded before chomping down.

"Just you're no spring chicken," I reminded him.

Fraser raised an eyebrow and looked at me. "Very kind of you to say."

"And she's all wrong for the act," I insisted. "Too young, too scrawny—"

"On the contrary," Fraser replied. "She seems very fit."

"For what—reform school?"

"That's uncharitable, Ray. And inaccurate, besides—my understanding is that she aspires to study biochemistry at the University of Michigan."

"You just be careful, Fraser. Girls that age—they get crushes on older men. And these May-December things never work out."

Fraser looked at me for a long moment. "On the contrary, Ray. My father was—oh, nearly twenty years older than my mother."

This stopped me cold. I had a sudden vision of Fraser fathering fourteen milk-fed children out of the nubile loins of Minnie the underaged biochemist. Then they'd all run some kind of moose farm in the Yukon.

"Really?" I managed, my heart pounding.

"No." Fraser got up and tossed the remains of his breakfast into the trash. "Actually, she was a year older than he was. Still, there's nothing wrong with an age gap." He brushed off his hands and said, "I've got to see about those horses."

X. Black Beauty.

Still fuming, I went to help out with Prop Management. My group was meeting in the equipment tent, and suddenly I remembered the weird bits of conversation I'd overheard. Seven o'clock, in the equipment tent, and with all of the distraction I'd completely forgotten to tell Fraser.

I helped move unicycles and stilts into easily accessible piles, and I was just gonna excuse myself and get out of there when Emily arrived on the scene.

"Come with me," she whispered, taking my arm. "We've got to do your makeup..."

So I let her pull me out and sit me down in a chair and do my face up with the waxy, horrible-smelling stuff. I recovered the time by using it to think mean, mean thoughts.

Finally, Emily yanked the towel from around my neck and I leaned over to stare at myself in the mirror—yeah, there I was, death on a stick, and it looked even weirder with my normal clothes on. "Am I done?" I asked her, but no, no—not quite done; she wanted to explain to me about what I had to do at the shows. I'd come through the flap at the top of the bleachers, there'd be a drumroll, and then I just had to circle the place, being funny and juggling and crap, giving the seated patrons something else to look at besides the main action in the ring—oh, we gave value for money, no doubt of that.

I sighed, and waved my hand, and went, "yeah, I get it—right, I got it already—yes, for the tenth time" and then finally she let me go and I rushed off to find Fraser.

Fraser was in the enclosure that'd been marked out for horses—most of which were just grazing happily, except for the horse Fraser was working with. That horse, a huge glossy black one, was sort of jerking and twitching. Fraser dug his feet into the dirt and wrapped the leather reins tight around his hands. "Easy, girl," he said. "Easy,"—and man, that horse was one mean-looking filly.

I leaned against the wooden rails and watched nervously as Fraser reached out and stroked the horse's face. I was worried that Black Beauty was gonna bite Fraser's arm off, but she didn't, and then a moment later Fraser reached into his jeans pocket and fed something to the horse out of his palm. Two seconds later and the stupid horse thought it was, like, Fraser's best friend or something—nuzzling his face and just being all sweet as you please.

Fraser led the horse back across the paddock to the water trough, and handed the reins over to some cowboy. "Ah, she's a pain," the cowboy said, but Fraser just smiled and rose to the horse's defense. "It's just stage fright, I think."

"Fraser!" I called out. Fraser looked over at me and raised his palm in a "be right there" gesture. He had two more minutes of horse chat with the cowboy before loping over and swinging himself over the fence next to me.

"Your make-up looks good," Fraser said, but I cut him off with a wave of my hand.

"I forgot to tell you something."

"Oh?" He glanced down at this watch and then said: "Walk me over to the big top. I have to meet Minnie."

My blood started to boil again, but I forced myself to stay calm—I didn't want to forget to tell Fraser twice. "This morning," I murmured, as we hurried along. "After you left. I was asleep but I heard—at least I think I heard—Alexei and Nick planning to meet in the equipment tent."

Fraser stopped short and glanced around to make sure no one was near enough to overhear. "Are you sure?" he asked quietly.

"Yeah. More than that—it's a secret meeting. At seven, they said. Dinner hour, they said—like it was really important that they meet up while everybody else was busy. They're up to no good, Fraser; I can smell it."

"Well," Fraser mused, thinking it over. "It certainly seems so, your olfactory acuteness notwithstanding."

"We can get there before them—say, quarter to seven—and hide behind the unicycles. If they're planning another burglary, and we know where and when? We can wrap this shit up, Fraser, which would make my year, believe me."

"All right." Fraser nodded at me. "It's a plan, Ray—quarter to seven in the equipment tent behind the unicycles."

"Okay, good," I said, relieved that we were finally getting somewhere with this stupid case.

My good feelings evaporated completely as we stepped into the big top. Minnie was standing center-stage, wearing absolutely fucking nothing—just some tiny little beige shimmery thing that made it look like she was naked and covered with diamonds. I shot a sideways glance at Fraser and was instantly relieved; he'd looked more excited by the horse.

"Hi," Minnie said, waving at him—and then her face fell as she saw me. "Oh, hi, Ray. Good makeup."

"Thanks," I growled, and she stepped back quickly and said, "Whoa—good angry clown there!"

"Ray likes to get into character a couple of hours before his performance." Fraser walked to the small table and checked his box of Viper knives. "Very good," he said, and then asked Minnie, "Would you mind standing over there?"

Over there turned out to be next to a huge upright rectangle of wood. Minnie nodded, then took long-legged, prancing dance steps toward it. She threw her arm up with a flourish as she reached it and showed us her best homecoming queen smile.

"Very good," Fraser repeated, hefting one of the knives. "And now, if you'd stand flat against the—yes, that's right. Now please be perfectly still."

He began flinging the knives at her with perfect accuracy—bang on top of her head, bang under her left armpit, bang under her right armpit—while I chanted under my breath for him to miss.

XI. The Smell of the Crowd.

Afterwards, Fraser and me want back to our tent to change into costume. I slid into my giant white suit, buttoned up the pom-poms, and put on my pointy hat. Fraser meanwhile was getting into his blood-red top-hat and tails, and again, it really hit me how great he looked, and how stupid I looked. Not that that was anything new at this point.

But what was new—I knew right away that there was something new the minute we pushed out through the tent flaps. Except I didn't know what it was. We began to head toward the big top through the afternoon sun, and we were almost there when I suddenly reached out and touched Fraser's arm. "Do you hear that?"

He stopped and looked at me. "What?"

"That noise. Like a humming—sort of like traffic, or like the ocean."

Fraser listened for a second and then nodded. "I think that's the crowd."

The crowd?  Fraser was already walking on, getting close to the big-top, and—oh my fucking god. The hum was suddenly a roar, and I saw what looked like thousands of people. People milling around with sodas and hot-dogs and great wads of cotton candy. Parents clutching the hands of shrieking, pointing children. Teenaged couples walking around with their hands in each other's back jeans pockets like strange Siamese twins joined at the hip. Plus a huge line of people at the entrance to the big-top, shuffling forward slowly and disappearing in twos and fours into the tent.

"...oh my god..." In my state of horrified stupefaction, it took me a couple of seconds to realize that Fraser was shaking my shoulder and looking at me with an expression of deep concern.

"Ray? Ray? Are you all right?"

I was already shaking my head before I could get the words out. "No. I'm totally not, Fraser—"

But Emily was suddenly bearing down on us. "Ben! You're wanted backstage—now, right now! Ray, come on, I need you with the Crowd Acts—"

She was pulling my arm, tugging me away, and I turned to Fraser in near-total panic. "Fraser—"

He was the only sane thing—the only sane thing—in that entire freakish landscape, and I have a snapshot of him forever burned into my mind from right then. Standing there perfectly still in his top hat and tails as people swirled around him, laughing and eating. "It's all right, Ray. It'll be all right—you'll see."

And then he was gone, and Emily was giving me little pushy shoves toward the tent. I wanted to call after him, run after him—make an idiot of myself, in other words. Gritting my teeth, I forced the impulse down and let Emily drag me away.

Inside the tent, Andy was spinning plates, a large red circle painted on each cheek. Susie was doing a last-minute trim of her beard in a hand mirror. Other people were stretching, doing yoga, practicing backflips—it was like a demented superhero convention in there. I turned to run for it, and nearly slammed face-first into somebody's crotch. "Sorry," I said, stumbling back.

"Watch where you're going," the guy on stilts said, and then he delicately threaded his way past me with the grace of a giraffe.

"You okay, sweetie?" Susie drew me to the side of the tent, out of everyone's way. "You're looking a little pale under your makeup, if you know what I mean."

"Just—nervous," I managed. "A little nervous."

Susie nodded sympathetically, then reached down and tugged up her massive skirt. She had a silver flask strapped to her thigh with a pink garter. "Here," she murmured, unscrewing the top and handing it to me. "Mother's courage."

"God bless you." I took a swig and wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. The scotch sent a warm, glowing feeling straight down my throat and into my stomach.

Susie took the bottle back and took a swig herself before screwing the top back on and sliding it snugly back under the garter. "Some days, you just need it," she confided. "It's not easy being us, what we do."

I nodded, then leaned forward and kissed her bearded cheek. "Thanks, Susie."

From backstage, we heard the sudden fanfare, the cheers as Ramona's voice boomed, "Ladies! And! Gentlemen!!!" "Break a leg, Ray," Susie said, and disappeared into the crowd of performers. Suddenly everything was chaos backstage—the first of the crowd acts were disappearing through the flap between our tent and the big top, and each time somebody vanished you could hear the roar of the crowd on the other side.

Frantically, I checked the pockets of my clown suit to make sure my balls were still there. Then Emily was at my side and saying, "Okay, Ray—time to go."

I was supposed to go in at the top of the bleachers, just do a circle of the top ring and come back. This meant I had to climb a ladder up to a metal platform, since the bleachers stretched up for two stories in the big top but not on our side.

I stared up the ladder, then looked back hopelessly at Emily. "You're kidding, right?"

"You just step right through the split in the canvas to the platform on the other side," Emily said, practically patting my ass to get me on my way. "It's simple, I promise."

I started climbing, muttering curses, trying not to look down. As I neared the top of the ladder, a hand reached down and I grabbed hold of it and was practically pulled up by a crew guy in a headset. "Okay, you're up," he said, and parted the canvas.

That was the moment I got my first real look at the blast of color and light and sound that was Nashville's Traveling Circus in full swing. There must have been a thousand people in that tent, and down below, on the stage, there were twelve horses galloping furiously in a circle around a tall guy with a whip, their hooves thundering even over the crowd's applause. Spotlights were arcing wildly over the bleachers, illuminating the upturned faces—all those people laughing—and pointing—and—

I stood there, utterly frozen.

"You're up," the crew guy said.

"I can't," I choked out.

"Whattya mean, can't? You've got to. You're up," and suddenly I felt this shove against my back and I stumbled through the split in the canvas and there was a bright light in my face, I was spot-lit and—

—heads whirled, turned, thousands of wide eyes staring and fingers pointing at me—('look, look—a clown!')—and then I heard shrieks of laughter and I just stared into their ugly, grinning faces, a deer in the headlights.

"Move!" I heard the stage-whisper behind me. "Go on—go!" and I sucked in a breath and stumbled forward on the metal bleachers, fumbling in my pockets for my balls. I pulled out three of them, though my fingers were slippery with sweat and I had to clutch hard to keep hold of them. Heart pounding, I got them into the air in a jerky standard toss pattern, then started moving forward and—

(screaming, pointing, 'look, ohmigod, look at him')

—flung the blue ball too high and then lunged to grab it and missed and—

—felt my sneaker skid off the top step and—

—teetered, flailing wildly, the other two balls flying out of my hands and—

—fell backwards, staggering, feeling my foot land under me and my ankle turn—

—and then I was down, bang! crash! clattering and tumbling down the metal steps toward the ring, feeling sharp pains in my back and ass each time I smashed into the metal—

—and they were still laughing, laughing and clapping, cheering my downfall and before I passed out I realized that you could do anything, anything, to a guy in a clown suit and people would still think it was funny.

XII. Mother's Courage.

"This is all my fault..." Susie's voice was so tearful and heartfelt that I swam back to consciousness just to say, "No, Susie, it's not."

Unfortunately my tongue was swollen and I made only a thick sound like, "Nggggth."

"Ray! Oh, Ray! I'm so sorry!" and I realized then that my head was in Susie's lap and that cold, hard thing on my face was a bag of ice. "I should never have given you any of Mother's courage..."

"Wasn't that," I muttered, managing to find my throbbing head with my hand; yep, still attached, worse luck, though topped with a huge, tender lump. "I just—lost it."

"Well, if it makes you feel any better," Susie said, her bearded face looming over mine, "everyone thought it was great. Best pratfall anybody's done around here in years."

I groaned and struggled to sit up. "Good to know. How'd I get back here?"

"Nick and Alexei carried you off—we were all so worried the horses were gonna trample you." Susie dropped the icebag and was now actually wringing her hands. "Ben was here, too, but then he had go—he goes on in a minute."

I jerked my head toward the big top, which turned out to be a huge mistake as my head went nuclear.

"Really, the crowd loved it—you got terrific applause. Ramona's gonna want you to do that every show—"

"Susie, help me up." I wrapped my arm around Susie's neck and let her heave me up to my feet. The ground was spinning and my body felt like one huge bruise but I couldn't miss this. "Fraser's act...wanna see..."

She hauled me, half carrying me, to a gap in the tent with a good view. The crowd in the big-top was hushed, like they didn't want to break Fraser's concentration, though I knew that Fraser's concentration was not a thing easily broken.

Fraser was spot-lit in the center ring, his back to the crowd—and wow, he was doing a brilliant job of, like, creating tension around his every throw. Each time he picked up a knife he hesitated—seemed about to be about to throw it and then didn't—and didn't—so that by the time he did the crowd actually gasped aloud as the knife thwanged into the wood next to Minnie. Then there was a burst of thunderous applause that just died clean away as Fraser reached for another knife.

It was a masterful performance.

Minnie, for her part, helped the illusion along by looking on the verge of tears, like any moment Fraser might slip up and stab her straight through the heart. Again, Fraser hefted the knife and hesitated; again, Minnie shivered theatrically. You could almost hear Fraser breathing in the silence as he flexed and hurled and—thwang! the knife landed just above her head.

That was the final throw—Minnie was circled with knives from head to toe—and the crowd went just nuts for him. Fraser turned, swept off his top hat, and bowed deeply, acknowledging the crowd's applause and adulation. Then he straightened and offered his hand out to Minnie—who skipped away from the wood to join him, leaving an outline of herself on the board.

They bowed again, this time in unison, and then Fraser gallantly led Minnie off the stage as Ramona came out and announced Leo's Super Dog Show.

I felt kind of weak-kneed, and Susie pulled me back and sat me down on a crate. "He was great," I said.

"Yeah, he was," Susie agreed.

I massaged my aching forehead, being careful of the lump; my fingertips came away white with the pancake makeup on my face. "Susie," I said tiredly, turning to her, "can I ask you a personal question?"

"Sure," she said.

"Why don't you just shave? I mean, you're a pretty girl under all that hair, and you know, men do it every day..."

"Well," Susie replied, her forehead creasing, "I thought about that. But then, you know, I figured—this is what you are. Might as well work what you've got."

"Ray." Fraser rushed toward me, carrying his hat in his hand. "Ray, are you all right?"

"Yeah," I replied, managing to find a smile for him somewhere. "Yeah, I'm fine, Fraser."

He stopped in front of me and inspected my face with a critical eye. "That bump looks terrible. You should put ice—"

"I have ice," Susie interrupted, and pointed back where we'd been sitting.

Fraser instantly went to get it, and came back with the tightly-folded towel. "Here," he said, offering it to me. "Press this to your head."

I didn't want to give him an argument about it, so I just did what he said. "You were brilliant out there."

Fraser didn't seem to have heard me. "What?"

"You were great," I repeated. "You and Minnie."

"Oh." Fraser seemed distracted; he just glanced momentarily over his shoulder toward the big top before turning back. "Thanks. It was...exhilarating, actually. Now, come," he said, grabbing hold of my arm and helping me up to my feet. "You should lie down for a while."

"I kinda wanted to see the dog act," I protested, but I shut up when he glared at me.

XIII. Disabled or Dead.

I took the best, most relaxing nap of my entire life. The clown suit turned out to be as comfortable as pajamas, and I drifted in and out of sleep with no bad dreams.

I had one uneasy moment when I opened my eyes and saw that Fraser was gone, but that only figured—I'd trained him to back off, sent him the message that staying too close to me was weird. Ten seconds later, which must really have been about half-an-hour later, I opened my eyes again and he was back and bearing food, I could smell it.

Fraser looked over at me curiously. "How are you feeling?"

I propped myself up on my elbows and thought about this. "Good," I said, sort of surprised. "A little battered, but the nap really helped."

Fraser nodded, and then picked up a tray from the foot of his cot and passed it over to me. "They'll be serving pasta," he said. "I asked if we could get our helpings in advance—are you still up to tonight?"

"The second show?" I asked.

Fraser turned his face away. "No, I meant—the meeting. The Romanovs. I hadn't given any thought to tonight's—"

"Well, I'm game." I set the tray on my lap, picked up the fork, and twirled it in the spaghetti. "Romanovs at seven, second show at eight, okay?"

Fraser looked at me, one eyebrow raised in surprise. "Oh?"

"I wanna nail those bastards," I said, through a mouthful of spaghetti. "There's something wrong there, I can smell it—"

"So you keep saying."

"—and I wanna know what. Meanwhile, about the show—" and suddenly I was snorting with laughter, and on the verge of inhaling spaghetti into my sinuses. I covered my mouth with the back of my hand. "I mean, that just can't go any worse, can it? I mean, please tell me it can't. Not unless I come out of it disabled or dead. Dead would almost be better, because disabled would mean that I'd have to tell people that I lost my—like, thyroid, whatever—in a freak clowning accident. Which, you know—just put me in a home, leave me alone at that point. But other than permanent disability or death, I'm kind of feeling like—just bring it on."

Fraser was now wearing a small smile. "Well, I think that's a very positive attitude."

"Oh, I'm the King of Positive Attitude. I got buckets of positive attitude. I find that there's nothing like falling down three flights of stairs in front of a thousand people while wearing a clown suit to really bring out a guy's positive attitude."

Fraser dropped his hands to his thighs with a decisive clap. "Well, good! Get back up on that horse! Just—you know. Try to avoid being trampled if at all possible."

XIV. Behind the Unicycles.

The Romanian Romanov Brothers turned out to be neither Romanian, nor Romanovs, nor brothers. At a quarter to seven, Fraser and me crept into the dark equipment tent, and at my suggestion, we hid ourselves behind a stack of unicycles, which turned out to be a great place for a stake-out since we had a great view through the spokes.

Alexei arrived first, carrying a kerosene lamp, and for a second there I was worried that he might use it to light up all the tent's dark corners. Instead, he just set it down on a crate and waited, tapping his fingers nervously.

Nick arrived a few minutes later. "Hey."

"Hey," Alexei whispered back. "You weren't followed, right?"

"No way. Not a chance."

Crouched beside me, Fraser put his mouth to my ear and whispered, "I don't think they're Romanian, Ray."

I rolled my eyes. Yeah. Tell me something I don't know.

The universe obliged: Nick leaned forward, put his hands on Alexei's waist, and gave him the roughest, dirtiest kiss I'd ever seen. I leaned forward, feeling shocked, and hit my already-bruised forehead against a rubber tire.

I raised my hands to the lump and stifled a groan—and only then did I realize that Fraser was coiled and ready to spring; my god, he was gonna jump out, blow our hiding place, probably apologize and high-tail it out of the tent as soon as possible.

I grabbed him, slapped my hand over his mouth, and pulled him down hard to the floor. Fraser went "mmmph" and shook his head vehemently, but I didn't care—just cause they were doing each other, didn't mean they weren't also our burglars. I flung my right leg over Fraser's to pin him in place, then tightened my other arm around his middle.

"Shh." I leaned forward until my mouth was pressed to his ear. "Don't."

Fraser went very still, and I knew him well enough to know that he was debating whether it was worth punching me to free himself. Meanwhile, on the other side of the unicycles, the Romanovs—God, I really hoped they weren't brothers —were going at it like dogs. Alexei had Nick's head clamped between his hands and was apparently trying to suck his tongue clean out of his mouth, and Nick's hands were clutching Alexei's ass and bumping their groins together.

Nick suddenly lifted Alexei's ass up onto the crate and started scrabbling at his fly. I had a quick glimpse of angry red cock before Nick bent down and started giving some serious head. They maybe weren't Romanian, but they were acrobats for sure, because Alexei just fell fluidly backwards and started moaning at the ceiling.

Fraser made a soft, strangled sound and suddenly I knew he'd been sitting there with his eyes closed, probably wanting to give the non-Romanian, non-brothers the best privacy he could. But Alexei's moans, growing louder and louder, left nothing to the imagination—and I stared down at Fraser's neck and realized that if I'd lived through one of my worst nightmares ever this afternoon, he was living one right now.

This had to be hell for him—sitting in the dark with me wrapped tight around him and being forced to listen to two other guys getting off. I became conscious of the fact that he was really warm—warm and huge and breathing raggedly in my arms. I moved my hand off his mouth a bit and he sucked in a deep breath, then blew it out, hot against my palm.

I tightened my arms around him and whispered, "Sorry, Fraser. I'm sorry..." He didn't say anything, but I could tell from the way his chest was rising and falling that just breathing was effort enough. I rested my face against the back of his head, feeling his soft, thick hair brush my nose, my eyes, my cheeks. Why did it have to be like this? Except—

Why did it have to be like this? Why the hell were we spectating somebody else's freakshow when we could be running one of our own? Fuck this noise. Just fuck this noise—and I let my hand fall from Fraser's midriff into his lap.

He let out a cry of protest and I instantly clapped my hand over his mouth again, stifling it. "Shh," I hissed against the burning skin of his cheek. "Please..." and by now my fumbling hand had found Fraser's erection and was stroking it through his ringmaster pants. Fraser nearly choked when I touched him, and his shoulders jerked away from mine—but his dick lifted upwards through the fabric, like it wanted nothing better than to get into my hand.

I pressed my lips to the back of his neck as I unzipped him, then kissed his neck for real as I slid my hand into his pants. For a second it was weird, his erection thick and silky in my hand, and then it wasn't weird at all. Not my dick, okay—but it was Fraser's, and if anybody on earth deserved to have their dick treated with a little respect it was Fraser, who'd waited so patiently for so long.

I closed my eyes and began to stroke him—awkwardly at first, as I tried to remember exactly how I did this to myself without any of the sensory cues of it feeling good. Then I found the rhythm that my arm muscles remembered and went with it, knowing I was doing good by the way his breathing steadied, the way he sank back against me, the way my palm was suddenly slick with him. I mouthed the warm, slightly sweaty skin at back of his neck, and felt him breathing faster, stronger, hotter against my hand. I fondled him until he was really close, his cock hard and swollen and damp.

My own dick was straining in my clown pants, and I pushed forward to flatten it between us, compressing it tightly between my belly and his ass. Fraser twisted his head away from my hand; he was breathing in short, sharp bursts that almost sounded like hisses of pain. I tightened my hand and began jacking him hard and fast, thumbing the leaking head on every upstroke. Dimly, I was aware of the moans and thump-thump-thumping that was Nick bending Alexei over the crate and putting it to him. I wished they'd shut up or go someplace else, and I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to focus on hearing Fraser's soft exhalations, the muted racing of his heart and blood.

Blindly, I cupped Fraser's jaw and dug my fingers into his hot, soft cheek. Fraser let out a long, shuddering breath and his cock jerked and spurted in my hand. I stifled a moan of my own by pressing my face against the back of Fraser's head, burying my nose and mouth in his hair. My own dick was throbbing hard between us; I wanted—God, I wanted—

Fraser was stiffening in my arms. I held on tight, kind of surprised, because I'd figured that getting off would— But it didn't, or it wasn't, and Fraser wasn't falling back into my arms all happy and sated; instead, he was tensing and leaning forward and—

"Fraser," I murmured into his ear.

"You..." Fraser's voice was heavy. "Must think I'm..."

He didn't finish the sentence, but I knew with a swift stab of pain exactly what the missing word was: pathetic. You must think I'm pathetic, and it was suddenly unbearable to me that Fraser should feel this way.

I twisted myself around him, half-straddling his lap, needing to see his face. One look was enough; I couldn't stand seeing Fraser so dejected. I clutched his head in my hands and gave him my very best kisses—the slow, deep, wet ones that used to drive Stella wild. Thankfully, they seemed to work on Fraser, too, and he moaned into my mouth and kissed me back so sweetly, so desperately—I hadn't had such sweet, desperate kisses since—

—a year ago, outside my apartment. With my eyes closed it was easy to believe that we were still there, that everything that had happened since hadn't happened at all. It was like I hadn't stopped him, hadn't pushed him away, and he glued our mouths together and pushed me back against the wall outside my apartment door—

—except not the wall. The ground. I was horizontal. He was on top of me. He'd pushed me down onto my back and he was kissing me and fumbling in my pants, and I had a flash of the old panic: stop, stop, I'm not— I can't—

I'm n-not— I can't— I'm not down with this. I'm not like that—

—except that's a lie; I'm down with this; I'm like this; I like it.  I reached up and slid my fingers into his hair, holding our mouths together while he touched me. Now it was my turn to gasp and pant, because his hands were amazing, and he was squeezing my dick gently, rhythmically, making me come, making me come.

Afterwards, he brushed my sweaty hair out of my eyes as I pulled myself together. The tent was dark now, the Romanov not-brothers presumably having done their thing and fucked off, and I could barely see Fraser's face in the dim light. I pushed up on my elbows and looked at him; I hadn't the foggiest idea what to say. Fraser seemed to have the same problem, because he didn't say anything either—just kept stroking my face, though my hair must have been well and truly slicked back by now.

"I—l-love you," I said finally, feeling that this was the only thing left to be said.

"Oh?" Fraser said faintly.

"Yeah. Which you totally knew already—so." I took a deep breath, then blew it out. "Just, you know, maybe write it down somewhere. Because I'm not going to be repeating that every five minutes, I'm telling you now."

"Understood." Fraser sounded serious, but he was smiling, I could see it. He confirmed the impression by reaching out and touching my nose with his finger. "Your make-up's a disaster, you know."

My— I bolted upright and put my hands to my face. Holy fucking— "You had sex with me while I was wearing clown makeup?" I demanded.

Fraser actually laughed out loud. "Ray," he said gently, "don't take this the wrong way, but I wouldn't have cared if you were wearing a tutu and doing the dance of the seven veils."

I recoiled in near-horror. "God, keep your kinks to yourself!"

"Besides," he said, as I slid over to the edge of the tent and fumbled to find a flap, "I like it. It's you."

I found a crack in the tent and pulled, letting in a ray of light. I turned and— Fraser— Fraser looked like—

Okay, call a spade a spade. Fraser looked like he'd had sex with a clown. He had these white and blue patches on his neck and cheek from my face makeup, plus these fire-engine red smears on his mouth and nose from kissing me. "Ah, geez..." I pulled my hand into the sleeve of my clown suit and started trying to clean off his face with the fabric and spit.

"Don't worry about it," Fraser said, trying to twist his face away.

"Fraser, you can't go out like—"

"I don't care, Ray. When are you going to figure that out?"

XV. Keen.

We ran back to our tent hell bent for leather, because there was only fifteen minutes to the second show and we were both a mess. No time for showers, so we'd just have to clean up best we could. We yanked our bags off the floor, threw them on our cots, and fumbled through them—Fraser looking for a washcloth, me looking for my makeup kit.

"Fraser," I said, "will you do my—" That was when I saw the snake.

It took me three or four seconds to recognize that, yes, that really was a giant black cobra coiled there on my bed, two feet in front of me. I went totally still, afraid to move, as the cobra reared its head and hissed at me, showing giant nasty teeth.

"Fraser," I mouthed, then swallowed hard and tried again. "Frasssser...."

"Ray, what—oh." Fraser dropped his voice to a whisper. "It's all right. Don't move."

"Not moving," I whispered back. "Not moving a muscle." I tried to keep breathing, tried to think of the slowly rising cobra as just—a turtle with fangs. Because they were both in the same family, after all. The reptile family. With Godzilla.

I sensed rather than saw Fraser coming up behind me, and then suddenly there was a crack and I jumped and blinked and when I focused my eyes, the snake was just gone. I turned, stumbling backward, and saw that Fraser was standing at the tent flap with his whip in his hand—he'd just freakin' whipped that snake right out of the tent.

"Holy shit," I croaked, sinking down onto my cot; I felt weak at the knees. "That was a snake, right?"

Fraser nodded grimly. "That was a snake, Ray."

"I mean, that was really a snake, right?" I was hyperventilating a little, trying to get my breath back. "I'm not having some kind of post-coital Freudian hallucination—"

"No." Fraser coiled his whip and strode over to my cot. "Freudian hallucinations, to the best of my knowledge, don't leave notes." He bent down and swiped a piece of paper off my cot; I hadn't even noticed it was there, what with the giant snake and all.

"What's it say?" I asked, watching as Fraser read it.

"It says—Stop Meddling." Fraser frowned and handed me the paper. "How very keen."

I glanced from the paper to his face. "Keen?" I repeated, surprised.

"Carolyn Keene," Fraser explained. "She wrote the Nancy Drew mysteries."

"And you were reading these why? Those books are for girls, Fraser."

"Oh, I read everything, Ray. Nights in the Yukon are very long. Anyway, there was almost always some kind of warning just before the detectives solved the mystery—"

"Like in Scooby-Doo?" I asked.

"I'm sorry?"

"You know—'oh, and I woulda got away with it if it wasn't for you crazy kids'—"

Fraser only looked confused. "Is that the thing with the dog?"

"Yeah, he's—look, never mind." I thrust my makeup case at Fraser and said, "Hurry, fix me up."

"Right." Fraser flipped open the case and began brushing white waxy stuff over my skin. "Still, it's suggestive—it means we're getting close."

"You and me have gotten close, Fraser. I don't think we're at square one with the burglaries." I turned my face to the side so Fraser could draw the weird blue shapes on my cheeks. "The only mystery we've solved so far is why the Romanovs were so pissed off to have to share their tent."

XVI. The Second Show.

The big top was already lit up, the patrons seated and stamping their feet for the show to begin. Fraser and I arrived five minutes late and still breathless from the hurry.

"Where have you been?" Emily demanded, descending on me like a demented sparrow. "You're on in five minutes—break a leg."

"Break a leg, Ray." Fraser put on his top hat and headed off to find Minnie and his knives.

"Break a leg, Ray!" Susie called, waving to me wildly from across the tent.

I waved back at her, hoping that this didn't turn out to be a prophesy. "Anything but death or dismemberment," I muttered to myself, and let Emily pull me to the ladder. Taking a deep breath, I started to climb, and again, the hand came down over the side to pull me up to the platform.

"Haven't I seen you somewhere before?" I asked the crew guy, but he just rolled his eyes at me and said, "You're up."

Quickly, I patted down my pockets for my balls. They were there, but only nine of them; if anyone'd retrieved the three I'd dropped this afternoon, they hadn't returned them to me. I glanced through the gap in the canvas and was again bowled over by the color and noise, the way the spotlights arced over the bleachers. Down on the stage, the horses were at full gallop, and even as I watched, twelve women mounted them and stood up, managing to keep their balance even at full speed.

"Ready, sport?" the crew guy asked me.

I turned and showed him my best angry clown face. "Hell, yeah. Bring it on."

I shoved the canvas aside, stepped through onto the metal bleacher, and was immediately blinded by the spotlight, though I could hear a wave of cheers greeting my arrival on the scene. Determined to stay calm, I just blinked until my eyes adjusted and the crowd became visible. It was strange, but their smiles didn't look so malevolent to me anymore—in fact, they looked nice, like everyone was prepared to be entertained and smiling in advance. They were assuming I would be entertaining, generously giving me the benefit of the doubt.

"Look, a clown!" I turned, and saw some ten year old kid pointing his finger at me. "Man, you're ugly!"

Two steps brought me to him, and I loomed over him, hoping to give him a good decade's worth of trauma.

"Don't point that finger at me, kid," I said, grabbing it and shoving it aside. "I don't know where that finger's been." The kid gaped at me, but around him, people were laughing. "Hey, kid—wanna see me juggle?"

"Uh—sure, yeah," the kid said, doubtfully.

"Well, tough. What do I look like, some kind of clown?!" I leaned forward threateningly, bringing my face close to his. His brown eyes were huge. "Huh? C'mon—do I?  D'ya think I'm funny? Do I amuse you? Like a clown for your amusement?"

The kid sank back, looking utterly terrified, but next to him, a girl took me on. "Well, yeah, mister," she said, earnestly. "You are a clown."

I shot her a swift look, then turned back to the kid. "This your sister?"

"Uh—um—yeah." He swallowed hard and waited to be killed and eaten.

I grinned at him. "Little lady's absolutely right. I am a clown." I reached into my pocket, brought out five balls, and handed two to the girl. "Your sister's got more balls than you have," I told the kid, and then I stepped back. "Okay, now when I tell you, you throw 'em to me, okay?"

"Okay!" the girl called back; her brother looked too terrified to speak.

I flung the three balls I had into the air and put them into a nice standard pattern. Couple of flashes and I was ready. "Right, now toss them to me, nice and easy, one at a time..."

The girl stood, and—great, nice and easy—tossed the first ball to me. I snatched it out of the air and instantly changed to a showering pattern, vaguely aware of the sounds of laughter and clapping. The girl looked at me hesitantly, the other ball still clutched in her hand, and I decided to take a page out of Fraser's book and make this seem more difficult than it was.

"Ready?" the girl asked me.

"No—wait—" and I stumbled theatrically to the left, and then to the right, before planting my feet firmly and flinging the balls high in the air. "Okay!" I gasped. "Now!" The girl tossed me the other ball, and I lunged for it and integrated it into my shower to a burst of enthusiastic-sounding applause.

XVII. Snakes and Ladders.

I was actually having a pretty good time out there, so I lingered, making my exit only when Ramona came into the center ring to introduce Benton Fraser, Knife Thrower Extraordinare. I scrambled back down the ladder and, lo and behold, found Alexei Romanov standing at the bottom of it.

Still feeling pretty high from an evening's successful clowning, I grabbed him by the collar and pulled him the few feet toward the tent's flap and into the cold, night air. "You," I said, shaking and then shoving him, "never answered my partner's question."

Alexei was nervous and defiant at the same time. "What?"

"What part of Romania are you from?" I demanded.

He glared at me for a long minute, then blew out a breath and seemed to deflate. "I'm not from Romania, okay?"

"Yeah, I figured. So what's the story?"

"What story?" Alexei showed me empty palms and an incredulous expression. "It's for the act, okay? It makes good copy. Who would you rather see—two mysterious Romanian brothers or two gay guys from Secaucus, New Jersey?"

I just stared at him; twenty-four hours ago, this would have been an easy question. "You're from Secaucus?"

"Yeah, you wanna make something of it?" and hey, yeah, he really was from Secaucus.

"So this is just all for the act?" I asked. "All the Slavic glamour?"

"You got it, mac," Alexei said. "Nicky and me—we went to high school together. Were the only two guys on the cheerleading team until we got our asses kicked by a bunch of fucking Devils fans in the parking lot of the Meadowlands. So when we were eighteen, we ran away and joined the circus." He raised his palms in a gesture of—ta-da! "Enter the Romanov brothers. Now we make a good living and nobody gives us shit. Or mostly nobody," he added, narrowing his eyes at me. "There's always exceptions."

"All right, all right," I sighed; I'd only been gay for a couple of hours and somehow I'd already betrayed the home team. "I'm sorry I asked."

"I'm sorry you asked, too," Alexei said and stalked off.

I went back into the tent and caught the last couple minutes of Fraser's act—again, with the brilliant timing, the total control of the audience. He flung his last few knives at Minnie's head, took his bows, and quickly hurried her offstage.

"Ray," he said, making a beeline for me. "Come with me—I've discovered something."

"Yeah, I've discovered something too," I told him as we walked out of the tent. "The Romanov brothers are from New Jersey. And they're not brothers."

Fraser shot me a relieved look. "Well, thank goodness for that."

"Yeah, that's what I said."

Fraser led me back into the nearly-deserted village, then stopped outside a tent and called, "Madame Misha? May I come in?" He added to me in a whisper, "She's our snake handler."

"Yah!" a voice called, and Fraser swept aside the canvas and we walked into the creepiest place I have ever been in my life. Snakes. Were. Everywhere—curled on the cots, sprawled out across the ground like broken branches, wrapped around the center pole, slithering in and out of the huge glass cases which lined the walls.

"Oh, god," I yelped, not knowing whether to run or stand still or just do in Rome what the Romans do and jump out of my skin.

"Be calm, Ray," Fraser said, sounding really overly calm, I thought, considering the situation. "I'm told if you don't bother them, they won't bother you."

"Ahhh!" An old woman in a gypsy headdress wagged her finger at us; she was sitting in a chair in the middle of this chaos with a nasty looking snake in her lap. "I wish only I could say the same for people! Did my snake bother you? No, he did not! And yet you nearly kill him!"

I realized suddenly that the snake on her lap was my old pal from earlier today.

"We didn't mean to hurt him," Fraser explained, sounding really sorry about it. "It's just that we weren't expecting—"

"He was in my bed, lady," I interrupting, wondering why the hell we were apologizing for her goddamned snake.

"He's harmless!" Madame Misha exclaimed, stroking the cobra's head like it was a puppy. "My Phillipe is an angel..."

"Phillipe? You have a snake called—"

"Madame Misha," Fraser interjected quickly, "could you please tell Ray what you told me?"

"Yes!" Madame Misha's eyes took on a terrifying, vengeful cast. "My snakes are in danger! Someone is killing them! There is a snake-murderer somewhere in this circus!"

"A snake murderer," I repeated.

Suddenly Madame Misha was on her feet, her snake in her arms. "You see! Nobody will listen! Five snakes—butchered! How many more must die before somebody does something?"

As far as I was concerned, five snakes was hardly a drop in the bucket, but Fraser was looking all sympathetic and concerned. "I understand your frustration."

"The police come, but all they care about is the burglaries! Jewels! What are jewels in comparison with the taking of life?"

"I quite agree," Fraser said, and then he turned to me, "Don't you, Ray?"

Me, I was with the snake-killer, but whatever. "Oh, yeah. A snake serial-killer is serious business."

"If you would entrust me with this matter," Fraser said to her, "I'll see what I can find out. Consider it my way of making amends for the assault on Phillipe."

Madame Misha looked at him suspiciously for a moment, and then nodded gruffly. "If you could find this—this maniac—my precious children and I would be very grateful indeed."

We said our goodbyes and carefully stepped over the snakes and out into the night. The show was still going on; the noise of it was carried to us on the wind. On the other side of the road, the county fair was in full swing, and I could see colored lights brightening the night sky, and hear the faint sound of calliope music.

"So?" Fraser was looking at me. "Interesting, no?"

"Oh, that's interesting all right. That's a fucking case study in lunacy, Fraser."

"No, but—" Fraser shook his head at me, like I'd failed to appreciate the point, which I guess I had. "Five snakes, Ray. Five snakes, and there were five burglaries..."

All that circus training came in handy. I did my world-famous mime, "Ray doesn't know what the fuck you're talking about."

"Doesn't that strike you as curious?" Fraser asked.

"It's very curious. No idea what it means, though. Unless you're suggesting that our killer feels the need to sacrifice a virgin snake to the gods of theft or something."

Fraser shook his head. "Nothing so dramatic. But it does suggest..." He trailed off, and studied his feet thoughtfully for a moment. "I think those snakes are in danger," he said, finally. "And I also think that the burglar will be paying a visit to Madame Misha's tent sometime soon."

"You wanna stake-out the snake— Snake-out the stake—"

"Stake-out the snake house," Fraser said, like there was nothing to it, "yes."

"Stake-out the stake—fuck, I lost it! Stake-out. The snake—"

"I think we should shower. While we have the opportunity."

"—house. Snake out the state house. Stake-out the snake—"

"Maybe get something to eat, prepare ourselves for tonight."

"—house. That was it! Stake-out the snake house! Take a snake out of state. Take a snake on a date! Take a snake on a date to a steak-house—"

"Come, Ray."

XVIII. The Brooklyn Bridge.

We went back to our tent, grabbed our bags, and headed for the showers. They were, as Fraser suspected, empty; we'd beaten the post-show rush.

I peeled off my clown suit, left it in a heap on the floor, and stumbled into the shower. "Take a snake out of state for some take-out," I muttered and pulled the cord, drenching myself with cold water, which felt great and really cleared my head.

The water ran white and milky over my body as the makeup came off. I scrubbed at my face and arms and groin. It was bliss to be clean.

The planks under my feet creaked and I turned—Fraser'd obviously gotten over the idea of not showering with me. Naked, he moved to the showerhead beside mine, pulled the cord, and turned his face up into the water. My God, he was beautiful—strong arms, slim waist, round, firm ass.

I glanced over at the door to make sure nobody was standing there, then tentatively moved my hand to Fraser's side—which was soft and wet and slightly goose-pimpled with cold. He turned to me curiously, water dripping from his nose, and I put my other hand on his hip and tugged him closer. His skin was cold, and I was shivering with it, but his mouth was wonderfully warm when I leaned in to kiss him.

His hand gripped my shoulder and squeezed, then slid down my wet back. He pulled me deeper into the kiss, filling my mouth with his tongue. I wrapped my arms around his waist and pulled our bodies together so that we were skin to skin, chest to chest, groin to groin. I felt totally wrapped in his slick, wet skin, and warm everywhere he touched me. He loved me, I could feel it—though God only knew why.

When he pulled back, I was left feeling—bereft—and I wrapped my arms around myself and shivered. Fraser was looking at me curiously, and then he reached out and slicked my weird, wet hair out of my face.

"Hey." I shrugged awkwardly, shifting my weight from one foot to the other. "You wouldn't maybe want to go someplace warm and—you know."

Fraser just blinked at me; despite his goose-pimpled skin, he didn't seem to be feeling the cold at all. "Again?"  Fraser looked overwhelmed. "You mean—twice in one year?"

I stared at him for a long minute, then ventured, hopefully: "Yanking my chain, right?"

"Yes." Fraser crossed his arms and glowered at me; shit, now I was in for it. "You really do think I'm pathetic, don't you?"

"No, I don't—I really don't—"

"You believed me. You honestly believed that—"

"Nah," I said, waving my hand dismissively. "Knew you were fooling the whole time."

"Did not. I could sell you the Brooklyn Bridge," Fraser said, and reached for his towel.

I snatched the towel out of his hand. "Hey—do you want to have sex with me or not?"

Fraser turned to me with a raised eyebrow. "Of course I do. Do I look like an idiot?"

XIX. A Conveniently-Placed Bush

Having obtained a firm promise of sex to come, I blindly followed Fraser around in a haze of lust while he collected what we needed for the snake-out. He bought sandwiches and bottled water from across the street at the fair, then went back to the tent and collected a blanket, a flashlight, my revolver.

Finally, we stole back across the village, avoiding the tents where the drinking parties were already starting, to Madame Misha's. Fraser nodded his head, and we set up camp against the dark side of a neighboring tent—a location that gave us both a view of Madame's doorway and the cover of a conveniently-placed bush.

"Fraser?" I asked, as we spread the blanket down on the grass. "Tell me there aren't deadly snakes in the immediate vicinity."

"Well, there might be snakes," Fraser conceded, settling himself down. "But I have Madame Misha's assurance that none of them are deadly."

"That's good to know," I said, looking around nervously.

"Ray?" I looked at Fraser, and he had his arm raised; he was reaching out for me. "Come here."

I went. I went instantly. Because I am not an idiot, even though I sometimes play one on TV. Fraser didn't hesitate—he just reached out and grabbed me and two seconds later I was flat on my back and in the middle of the deepest, warmest kiss of my entire life. Fraser kissed my mouth, my cheeks, my eyelids, and then licked my ear and whispered: "I doubt we'll see who I expect to see before midnight at the earliest. And with the post-show parties in full swing, I doubt we'll be interrupted..."

I thrust my hips up and moaned as my dick nudged hard against Fraser's. "Yeah..." I moaned. "Yeah..."

Except—questions. Sex. Questions. Fraser was tonguing my ear. Questions.

"Fraser?"

Fraser was sucking my neck and humping my thigh. "Mmm?"

"I don't get the snake thing."

"What?"

"The snake thing. I don't get the snake thing."

Fraser lifted his head; his eyes were foggy but he seemed to be making a good-faith effort to concentrate. "Well," he said breathlessly, propping himself up on one elbow. "I'm guessing that the five dead snakes indicate that our thief is hiding the jewels inside the snakes."

"Inside the snakes? You mean like—he feeds the jewels to them?"

"Exactly. Snakes, as I'm sure you know, can swallow quite large objects and store them in their bellies for long periods of time." He bent his head down and rhythmically licked at my jaw.

I pictured a snake with a distended belly full of diamonds and rubies—and then pictured that same snake's belly being slit open. "That's—disgusting."

"Not my idea, Ray."

"Okay, but—" I began, and with a sigh, Fraser lifted his head again. "Sorry. Just—you seem to have an idea about who we're expecting."

"I do, yes—but can't we discuss it later?"

"Can't you just tell me the name?"

Fraser looked down at me, then gestured vaguely to where our limbs were entwined on the blanket. "There's an etiquette to these things. The great explanation—'My first inkling as to the nature of the truth was...et cetera, et cetera.' The detective rarely gives his theory of the crime while making out with the sidekick on a blanket."

"Wait, wait—whoa," I said. "Who's the sidekick?   I'm not the sidekick!"

"I simply meant that—"

"I have a badge, Fraser; I'm a detective. If anyone's the sidekick around here it's you—you're foreign, and you wear a funny outfit."

"Granted. I wear a funny outfit," Fraser sighed, and he then muttered: "I knew we shouldn't discuss this now."

"Plus you've got eccentric charm," I pointed out.

"All right," Fraser said, settling back, "you want to do this now? Let's do this now. My first inkling as to the nature of the truth came with Phillippe's visit and that rather juvenile note: Stop Meddling. To the best of your knowledge, had we done any meddling?"

I propped myself on my elbows and thought about this. "Other than with each other? Not really, no."

"Exactly."

"We did watch the Romanov brothers having sex," I pointed out.

"True—and so yes, they could certainly be the senders of the note. Besides them, who else might believe us to be meddling in circus affairs?"

"Hmm." I wracked my brain but came up with nothing. "I don't know—nobody. I mean, we barely got here. We haven't had time to stir up any real trouble yet."

"Exactly. Which I trust answers your question. Think about it," and then Fraser cupped my jaw and kissed me so hard and so thoroughly that I forgot to care about jewels or snakes or any of it. He kissed me, and I clutched his arm, and we rolled—and then Fraser had his hands up my shirt and he was thumbing my nipples and I was gasping.

What an idiot. What an idiot. I had idiot all wrong—idiot was what you were when you turned down somebody you cared about because you were worried about what somebody you didn't give a shit about might say. Idiot was keeping Fraser at bay for a year. Idiot was denying myself this. Idiot was putting that look of misery on Fraser's face for no damn reason. Idiot is as idiot does.

Fraser slid down my body, put his mouth on my nipple, and gently applied suction, nearly taking the top of my head off. I gasped, and pushed upward into his mouth. He sucked harder, flicking me with his tongue until my nipples were painful-tight and my cock was straining in my jeans.

"I—" I started rubbing myself hard with the heel of my hand. "Fraser, I—"

Fraser's hand closed tightly around my wrist, and my fingers flexed wildly as he pulled my hand away. "Don't," he whispered, his voice thick with lust. "Let me do it."

He worked my zipper down, trying to be gentle but scraping me anyway, I was so hard. He pushed my jeans open and then carefully pulled my briefs down around my cock. The first touch of his hand and I had to squeeze my eyes shut and focus on breathing. He knew just how to touch me, just where to press his fingers, just how hard to—

The head of my cock was suddenly enclosed in the tightest, hottest, wettest— I bucked upwards helplessly, and Fraser loosened the grip of his fist and let me push my cock into his mouth. I thrust upwards, I was rubbing my dick against his tongue and gasping before I could even really process—that Fraser was, that Fraser was letting me—and then Fraser was holding me down, squeezing me tight at the base and sucking my dick, giving me the sweetest, best blow-job of my entire life.

My dick was singing—my dick was singing and my balls were tightening and somewhere deep in my body I felt a sharp stab of pleasure that I'd never felt before. Suddenly I could picture Fraser fucking me; in my head, I could see him pushing into me and me wanting it, even though it was tight, even though it would hurt, because the head of Fraser's cock was gonna touch that spot deep inside of me and it was gonna be like kaboom, pow.

Fraser pulled his mouth off my cock and put his hand back, but that was fine, I was so close. I opened my eyes and saw him staring down at me as he gave my spit-slick cock the strokes I needed to put me over. Two, three, four rough jerks and I was coming—and Fraser was jerking cool splatters onto my belly, pulling it out of me, not slowing his hand. My chest was rising and falling rapidly as I struggled for air, and then as I watched, Fraser drew his hand away like he was shocked or something, like he wasn't sure if he'd done a magic trick or had an accident.

"Fraser..." I raised my arm, wanting to reach him, because he looked so confused and lonely up there. He stared down at me, then let his fingers drop into the wetness on my abdomen.

"I don't understand..." Fraser said slowly, trailing his fingers over my belly, "...why you wouldn't..."

I knew what he was asking me; it was the same question I'd been asking—and not answering—for a year. "Because I was an idiot. And a coward." I took his hand and tugged him down to the blanket beside me. "C'mere," I said thickly. "Let me do you."

"I still don't..." Fraser's damp fingers were now ghosting over my neck, my chest, my face. It was nice being close, to be lying here together like lovers. I closed my eyes so I could focus on the feel of his fingertips. "Just...you're responsive...you respond to me," Fraser said in a soft, wondering voice. "And I thought you did—even then, I thought...but..."

I opened my eyes. "I did. I do."

"I thought I was crazy," Fraser said, pulling his hand away.

"You weren't." Weird how after a year of keeping Fraser at arm's length, a couple of inches between us now seemed unbearable. I moved my hand to his hip. "But I couldn't. Not then. I just couldn't."

"And now?" Fraser asked.

I felt my lips twitching and curling. "Now—yeah. Now, I think, yeah. Thing is, I lost the freak battle—I lost the freak battle, like, ten years ago and I didn't notice. I'm fighting a war where everybody else went home already. I am who I am—I'm a freak, I'm an angry clown, I might as well work what I got."

"You're not a freak, Ray."

I broke out in a grin. "Look who's talking."

"All right, you are a freak." Fraser rolled onto his back and stared up at the night sky. "I'm a freak. The world is full of them. Anyone who's the slightest bit interesting is a freak in some way or other."

"Freaks Bring Their Own Reward. Welsh's grandmother was right."

"Of course she was right." Fraser turned his head toward me. "She was also demented, case in point. A woman of original opinion."

"A big freak, you're saying."

"Sounds like it, yes."

"I wonder," I said, rolling onto my side and scootching closer to Fraser, "if maybe those things she used to say that made no sense? Maybe they were rare pearls of wisdom, Fraser. Maybe Welsh just didn't have the freakish capacity to understand."

"Maybe." I put my hand on Fraser's crotch, and he inhaled sharply. "Oh..."

I looked down at his face. "Can I try this?"

"You have my permission and every blessing."

I slid myself flatter on the blanket and started unworking his jeans—Fraser wore his jeans tighter than I wore mine, a fact I'd noticed but had never given myself liberty to appreciate. Nice as it looked, it made it hard to get to him, though he helped me by lifting his hips up off the blanket.

In some back corner of my mind, like Muzak that you didn't want to listen to, I remembered doing this to Stella. Trying to get her jeans off—except, of course, with Stella, a couple of good tugs and they were off, being as she always was a stringbean and, like me, never wore her pants tight.

Of course, thinking about Stella, (trying not to think about Stella), only reminded me that Fraser had a dick and Stella didn't. Doesn't. Whatever. Fraser's dick was beautiful, and moreover it was attached to Fraser, who pushed my buttons in a way totally opposite to Stella but just as real if not realer. Totally opposite—dark and blonde, tall and short, broad-shouldered and slim, not to mention that Fraser's glorious, messy, boy-genitals were the complete opposite of Stella's neat, blonde pubes. Still—I'd done that, I'd liked that, and now I wanted this, which just had to be okay. People change, needs change, and right now I was hungry for Fraser in a way I hadn't been for anybody or anything for nearly five years now. Like something numb inside me was waking up.

I bent over and buried my face in Fraser's messy genitals, rubbing my face from side to side. Fraser's cock against my cheek, my eye, my nose; Fraser's balls under my chin, my ear, my jaw; and then I put one hand on his hip and one hand on his thigh and held on, moving my mouth over him, kissing and licking everywhere I could reach.

Beneath me, Fraser was panting. I pulled his cock into my mouth with my hand and—okay, not as easy as Fraser made it look. Then again, when was anything as easy as Fraser made it look? I got my mouth around his cockhead at least, plus I tried really hard to be careful with my teeth. I figured this for just bare-minimum cocksucking standards—but Fraser was moaning and shaking underneath me like I was doing something really good.

This gave me the courage to tighten my hand and suck harder. The effect on Fraser was electric—suddenly he was surging upwards and his hand was in my hair and he was pulling hard—hurting-hard. "Ray," he gasped. "Ray—I'm—" and suddenly I knew what he was saying, that he was coming, but I held my ground and kept his cock in my mouth because I remembered how good that could be. And if I gave a lousy, inexperienced blowjob I could at least give him this.

Sobbing, ragged breaths above me and then he was flooding my mouth, and I was choking and swallowing and trying to keep sucking gently at the same time. When I was sure he was done, I lifted my head, and my God, Fraser was shaking.

"Fraser..." I whispered, going to him, and when I was close enough he pulled my mouth down to his and kissed me. I felt his tongue slide into my mouth and wondered—was he was searching for the taste of himself? Was he finding it?

"So okay," I said breathlessly, when we broke apart, "maybe you're right about the sidekick thing. Because, thinking it over? The funny outfit is a point in your favor—think Sherlock Holmes, think Superman. The foreign thing, too—like that French detective what's-his-bucket, and again with Superman, even though he's not so much foreign as alien. Me, I'm ethnic, urban, and working-class, which reads for comedy, which is Sidekick City. So, I accept it. I am coming to terms with it."

"Uh-huh." Fraser was struggling to sit up and get his breath. "Yeah, okay.  Sure.  Whatever," and I could get used to this.

XX. The Denouement

We lay there for another couple of hours, eating sandwiches and drinking bottled water and watching the entrance to Madame Misha's tent—or I did, anyway, because all joking aside, having sex twice in one year seemed to have plum-tuckered Fraser out. He drifted in and out of sleep, his head on my shoulder, but managed to rouse himself and have a half-a-sandwich sometime after one o'clock.

Suddenly Fraser went from foggy-sleepy to razor-sharp, grabbing my forearm tightly and digging his fingers in. "Shh," he said, and I went very still. As we watched, a figure dressed all in black slipped out of the shadows and stopped at the door of Madame Misha's tent. I squinted into the darkness, but couldn't make out who it was. All I could see was that he or she was carrying a black bag.

The figure disappeared through the slit in the canvas, and instantly, soundlessly, Fraser was on his feet, flashlight in hand. I got up, too—reluctantly grabbing my gun over the other half-a-sandwich there on the blanket—and together we crept toward the tent.

"Ready?" Fraser whispered to me, and I nodded—I was ready, already! He whipped back the canvas and flicked on the flashlight.

The scene picked out by the beam was weirdly primal. The black clad figure was holding a snake hard by the back of its neck, and its mouth was open wide, its fangs sticking out like two sharp prongs. On a nearby cot, Madame Misha was sprawled out and snoring loudly, dead to the world.

The figure whirled and threw an arm up, trying to block our view—but it was too late.

"Emily?!" I said, gaping.

Emily Kreiger did a technically flawless mime of "I'm Going To Kill You!", then reached into her pocket and came out with a gun, which she pointed at us.

"Yes," Fraser said, sounding calm and maybe even a little smug. "Emily. My first inkling as to the nature of the truth came with Phillippe's visit and—"

I waved my hand in the air. "Skip a bit, Fraser."

"Right," Fraser agreed, and did. "So I asked myself, 'Had we done any meddling?'"

"No, we had not," I answered, gamely playing my part. "Except with each other and maybe with the Romanovs."

"Right," Fraser replied. "But besides them, who else might believe us to be meddling in circus affairs?"

"Nobody," I answered mechanically. "Because we just got here, blah blah. We haven't had time to—" and then I got it. "Which means that Ramona and Emily were the only two people who knew we were here to investigate!"

"Right!" Fraser said.

"And Ramona—she hired us. Plus she's friends with Welsh, which you know, is kind of a character reference, sort of."

"Right!" Fraser said, nodding.

"Which leaves her. You!" I said, stabbing my finger at Emily. "The mime! The mime did it! Cause mimes are evil, the spawn of hell itself! I always knew mimes were evil and—"

"I've got a gun, Ray," Emily said, and boy, she was one mean mime underneath. "So back off and let me out of here!"

"Hey, I got a gun, too," I said, and raised it to show her. "I could blow your miming head off."

"That won't be necessary." Fraser stepped forward confidently, sending my heart leaping into my throat, and just pulled the gun out of Emily's hand. Her face contorted with rage, and she mimed, "How I Hate You Guys—Go To Hell!"

"Jeezus, Fraser," I gasped. "She could've—you just—"

Fraser sighed and shook his head, then raised the gun and fired it at me. A little flag popped out that said, BANG! "She's a mime, Ray."

Right. With a mime gun. Gotcha. "But also a thief, and a snake serial killer," I said. "And under arrest. You have the right to remain—oh, screw this, Fraser, can we please go home?"

Epilogue.  Larry's Pet Emporium.

"Yo, Larry!" I slapped a drumbeat out on the counter, then leaned over it to call into the stockroom: "Anybody home?"

Larry came out of the stockroom, hand already extended. "Hiya, Ray," he said, and I slapped his hand and then shook it. "How're you doing? Need some turtle supplies?"

"I'm kind of off reptiles right now," I said, and felt a weird shiver up my spine. "I'm thinking of maybe taking the plunge, going for a more high-maintenance pet."

"You?" Larry grinned at me. "New lifestyle, huh?" and boy, he really didn't know the half of it. I glanced behind me, where my new lifestyle was inspecting a wire basket of chew toys.

"Yeah, sort of," I said, and coughed. "Actually, I was wondering if you still had that parrot I brought in."

"The budgie?" Larry blew out a snort. "Yeah, I got him. Nothing to do with him, can't sell him." He jerked his head back toward the stockroom. "I keep him in the back. He makes the mothers freak out and the children cry."

"Story of my life," I said, and reached for my wallet. "Bring him out, I'll take him."

"Okay," Larry said doubtfully. "Whatever you want." He disappeared back into the stockroom, and I could hear the faint tinkle-tinkle-tinkle before he even came back with the cage. "Here you go," he said, and put the cage down on the counter.

I ducked my head and peered into the cage;  Scooter looked all right, his same maniacal self, and he was still rubbing himself off against the perch. "How much you want for him?"

"Ten bucks?"

I slapped some money down on the counter. "Done. Plus gimme whatever I need to take care of him."

Larry nodded and wandered off, muttering something about birdseed and biscuits and gravel and god knows what else. I turned, and Fraser was behind me down the aisle, juggling six or seven of the squeezy chew toys.

"Buy 'em," I said, jerking my head toward the counter.

Fraser caught them all with a flourish. "They're not as good as your balls, Ray." He set the toys down on the counter beside the cage, then bent to look at Scooter, who was still jigging frantically. "You know," Fraser said, tilting his head to the side, "it occurs to me that what we really need here is another budgie."

I blinked at Fraser, then stared down at poor Scooter, who looked up at me with his pathetic, lonely, dirty-birdy eyes. "Another budgie?"

"It's the obvious solution," Fraser said. "That bird needs a friend."

So this whole thing ends with Scooter and Cornwallis (who Fraser named, but you probably guessed that) living happily ever after in my apartment. We keep the cage in the living room, because the constant fucking keeps us up at night, but sometimes we sit on the sofa and watch the birds go at it, and think of the Romanovs, and think of the circus, and when we're getting really sentimental about it, I bring out my balls.  

THE END