Disclaimers - This is an Uber story. As such, it doesn't actually feature the characters who appear in the syndicated series *Xena: Warrior Princess*, and who are the sole copyright property of *MCA/Universal* and *Renaissance Pictures*, but it was clearly inspired by them. Instead it features *my* characters and *my* totally fictional circus.
This story depicts a love/sexual relationship between two consenting adult women. If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal in the state or country in which you live, please do not read it. If depictions of this nature disturb you, you may wish to read something other than this story.
This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.
It was late Wednesday evening when the last trailer finally limped on site. Summer watched anxiously as it eased its way between the other trailers, caravans, and vans to its designated spot, its tyres leaving huge ruts in the turf.
So much for 'Flaming June'. Rain had soaked the work crews as they pulled down the Big Top and loaded the unwieldy poles and sections of canvas onto the long trailer kept specially for the purpose; rain had streamed down her van's windscreen every second of the journey by tortuous, winding B road; and it was *still* raining, the hills surrounding Cheltenham almost invisible through the downpour.
She sighed. At least Cox's Meadow had turned out to be a proper field, she consoled herself, not one of those derelict building sites that were all most councils could seem to spare these days. She wondered who Cox was and what he would have made of the meadow that was rapidly turning into a swamp. For this they were paying £1,000 a week? Tomorrow they'd have to get the boards out - couldn't expect the public to wade through mud .... She rubbed her forehead tiredly.
"Headache, boss?" Pyotr Dyakonov had come up behind her, unheard in the pelting rain.
"Yeah," Summer confessed. "Just the usual 'Will we be ready in time?', 'Will people like us enough to pay to see us?' kind of headache."
"We always are; they always do," said the acrobat complacently.
Summer raised an eyebrow. "I thought Russians were s'posed to be pessimists."
He shrugged. "Things always seem to work out OK when you're around, Boss."
Summer snorted. "Yeah, right."
"It's true," protested Pyotr, stroking his moustache.
"Tell that to Uncle Tommy," she murmured, too low for Pyotr to hear. She turned away and began the tricky process of picking her way carefully between the ruts and puddles towards her caravan.
Alison replaced the telephone receiver and let a broad grin plaster itself over her face. "Tomorrow, I'm going to the circus!"
For a moment she allowed herself to feel the excitement she had felt as a little kid, even hopped up and down a bit, then she sobered. This wasn't for pleasure - well, maybe just a bit. This was her chance to prove she could hack it, to call herself 'freelance journalist' and mean more than the book reviews and column fillers that were the only things on her CV so far.
She paced up and down, hardly seeing the little sitting room, considering what to take with her. Her camera, of course. The article would be nothing without pictures, but she was good at photography - she could probably come up with something colourful and spectacular. Her tape recorder. Some spare batteries ... a pen and notepad, just in case ....
If all went well, she'd be interviewing each of the performers, maybe even the owner of the circus herself. Summer Walsh; what an unusual first name. Alison crossed to the table and rechecked her notes. Yes, it *was* Summer. And not many British circuses were owned by women, according to her research.
Would that make the interview harder? she wondered suddenly. Men were so easy - you just dressed femininely, batted your eyelashes, and simpered. Her Mother had taught her how to flirt with them from an early age ... and then been devastated to learn it had been a waste of time. She sighed, remembering how difficult it had been coming out to her mother, how she had wished that her father had been alive to take her part as he always had.
She shook off the melancholy memory, and her doubts. "I can do this," she told herself. "I *will* do this." After all, all circus owners, regardless of their gender, would welcome a chance of free publicity, wouldn't they?
Alison remembered the circuses of her youth, full of horses, elephants, tigers, and lions .... These days British circuses without animals were the norm - unrelenting pressure from animal rights protestors and the RSPCA had seen to that. She wondered if the show could possibly be as magical without animals ....
Well, tomorrow night she'd see for herself, wouldn't she.
"Out of the question." Summer glared at the man who had barged into her office five minutes earlier, and who, rather disconcertingly, reminded her of an orangutan. (It must be the ginger hair and long arms, she decided.)
"I don't think you quite understand." His earlier affability had vanished.
"What's to understand?" she demanded. "I have all the permits and licenses I need. Why should I want to spend more than I have to?"
So far she had managed to keep a tight rein on her temper, but it was getting increasingly difficult. Especially since she was exhausted from helping the work crews to assemble the tiered seating inside the Big Top.
"For a quiet life," he said. "For oiling the wheels of progress -"
"For greasing your palms, you mean." If he thought the sunglasses and leather jacket made him look cool, thought Summer, he was wrong.
"Call it what you like, Ms Walsh. But I think you'd be very unwise not to -"
"I said 'no'. I meant it."
"I see. That's unfortunate."
Summer stood up, placed her hands firmly on the desk and leaned forward, fixing the man with a feral glare from which, to her satisfaction, he flinched. "You're just running a glorified little protection racket, aren't you? Well, no deal." She bared her teeth at him. "You haven't met Tonio and Marcello yet, have you? They're strongmen, they perform under the stage name Men-o-War. I'm sure, if you met them, you'd understand why."
Her visitor was already backing towards the door, looking anxiously through the glass as though expecting the two strongmen to be waiting outside for him. Which, if she'd known he was coming, they would have been, she thought sourly.
"This is probably the worst decision you've made, lady -"
"What happened to 'Ms Walsh'?"
"- in a long, long time."
As he disappeared, like a rat up a drainpipe, she wondered gloomily if he might not just be right.
Alison halted just inside the tasselled blue-and-white marquee that was the Big Top, and surveyed her surroundings. It would hold about four hundred people, she judged, but it was barely a quarter full. She checked her watch. There was still ten minutes before the performance was scheduled to begin, but she was doubtful the place would fill up.
She tried to get a sense of the kind of people that had come to the circus. Some were parties of adults only, chattering excitedly to one another; some were adults with children, the parents wearing longsuffering looks; and some, like herself, were alone, their wistful expressions indicating a desire to recapture the magical experience of their youth.
Alison suppressed a smile and searched for Block D. Ah, there it was - the far side of the tiered seating, near the ramp that led from the ring to backstage. She eased herself along the row of tip-up seats until she came to the one that matched the A9 on her ticket stub then sat down gratefully.
She made herself as comfortable as possible on the very basic seat then opened the brochure, emblazoned: 'SUMMER'S CIRCUS', that had cost her a pound. As she had feared, it consisted mainly of advertisements for ice-cream and hotdogs - but a loose sheet of A4 itemized tonight's running order.
She closed the brochure and leaned back, squinting first at the apex of the Big Top high above, then at the trapezes, wires and safety ropes a little below it, then at the ring itself - not covered with sawdust, these days, she noted - which was a lot smaller than her childhood memories had led her to expect. Not bad, she decided, feeling pleased with herself - she should be able to see the performers close to as they came up the ramp into the ring. She pulled her camera from her pocket and hung its strap round her neck ready.
A group of welldressed people - businessmen and women and civic dignitaries by the look of them, one overweight man even wore a chain of office round his neck - approached her block and began to take their seats in the front row. A rather striking dark-haired woman was directing them - her scarlet jacket had wide lapels and tails, and she was wearing a matching bow tie.
The woman smiled brilliantly and said, "I hope you enjoy the show." Alison eyed her with interest.
"I'm sure we will, Ms Walsh," said the man with the chain.
So *that* was the mysterious Summer Walsh? Well, well.
As the scarlet-clad woman strode away, Alison found that she was suddenly looking forward to interviewing the circus owner.
Summer made her way backstage. It was chaos ... organized chaos - at least she fervently hoped so.
"Five minutes to the Overture," she yelled. "Everyone okay?"
"Okay, Boss," came the chorus of replies.
She stepped over the pile of baseball bats that looked like wood but weren't. They belonged to Egor and Maks who were due on first after the Overture. As she negotiated the clowns' other props: a foam rubber hatchet, a scrawny looking chicken, and a huge inflatable ball that after the Intermission would be bounced off the audience's heads to screams of fear and delight, her mind returned to the mayor's party.
"Pompous ass," she muttered. He had insisted on complimentary tickets for his wife and colleagues too. "Does he think we're made of money?"
Summer knew the figures all too well. Just to survive, the circus needed three thousand customers a week. Paying customers, like that little blonde who had been sitting just behind the mayor and his cronies. Her thoughts dwelt pleasantly on the woman's interested green eyes for a moment, then she remembered her intention to see how the Ticket Office was getting on.
She was heading for the office wagon at breakneck speed - she had barely ten minutes before she was needed in the ring - when she noticed that a weaselly little pickpocket was working the queue.
With a growl of anger, she somersaulted neatly over the goggling members of the public and launched herself at the man whose hand was about to delve into an unsuspecting customer's coat pocket.
He took one startled look at her and tried to bolt - but by then she had him by the back of his coat collar.
"'Ere, what d'ya think you're - Ulp!" His protest became a strangled squawk as an arm strengthened by years of trapeze work held him effortlessly six inches above the ground.
He struggled briefly then stopped and concentrated on simply breathing.
"You have a choice, sunshine," growled Summer. "You can spend this evening down the nearest police station ... or ..." She lifted him higher and watched him think through the implications.
The thief smiled rather glassily at her. "No harm done, lady," he babbled. "I was just looking after a few things for their owners. Know what I mean?"
She lowered her arm, and saw relief wash over his face as his feet touched the ground again. Then she released her grip on his coat collar and held out her hand meaningfully. "Give."
Reluctantly he reached into deep raincoat pockets and began to pile purses and wallets and wristwatches into Summer's hands. From the Big Top came faint music, the first bars of the Overture, reminding her that time was passing.
"Need a hand, Boss?" Tonio and Marcello had joined the little crowd of bystanders watching the proceedings as though it were part of the evening's entertainment.
She nodded, relieved to see them. "I'm due in the ring. Make sure these -" she pushed the pile of purses and wallets into Tonio's huge fists "- are returned to their rightful owners. Most'll have some kind of ID or photo in them, I expect. The rest - well, you may have to ask members of the audience to check if anything's missing."
She rubbed a hand tiredly across her forehead, annoyed at the extra work the thief had caused. If she reported him to the police, even more time would be lost. No police, then ... unless - Suddenly, she remembered the orangutan who had tried to sell her protection.
"You," she turned back to the thief. "Who are you working for?"
"No-one. I'm strictly freelance."
Summer put on her best scowl and took a threatening step towards him.
"Honest." He raised a shaking hand in defence.
She nodded. "Okay. One other thing."
The still unnerved thief looked expectantly at her.
"If I catch you in my circus ever again, I'll let these two - " she indicated the strong men examining the stolen booty "- tear you to pieces. And have no doubts, they can do it, too." She glared at him. "Do I make myself clear?"
The thief winced. "As crystal."
"Now, get out of my circus."
The thief needed no further urging.
The Overture ended with a flourish (*Also Sprach Zarathustra*, if she wasn't mistaken) and Alison clapped appreciatively. It amused her that such a tiny orchestra - two men, a drumkit, and what looked like a steam powered synthesizer - was capable of generating music with such power and volume. Circus people, she was rapidly learning, were nothing if not resourceful.
The ringmaster had just stridden into the ring - she recognized the dark-haired woman in the scarlet jacket immediately - when Alison became aware that a big man in black sweatshirt and jeans was easing his way along the row of seats towards her. She frowned.
"Excuse me, Miss," he said politely, as he got nearer, easing her fears, "but is this yours?" He was holding out a wallet similar to the one she owned and pointing to a strip of passport photographs ....
Abruptly, she recognized the unflattering snaps she had had taken at the Post Office photo kiosk last week. She gasped and felt for the pocket where she usually kept her wallet. It was empty.
"That's mine. But how did you? I mean - "
The man smiled and handed her the wallet. "Pickpocket was working the Ticket Office queue," he said simply. "The Boss caught him. Persuaded him to return the stolen goods."
There was a subtle emphasis on the 'persuaded' that piqued Alison's interest, as did his accent, which was, she realized, foreign. She checked the contents of the wallet, and was relieved to find that nothing was missing. "'The Boss' ... You mean, Ms Walsh?"
"Yes. Everything there? Sorry to rush you, but I've got several more owners to locate."
"Oh, sorry. Yes, everything's here, but -"
But the man was already turning to go. "Enjoy the show, Miss," he called back to her.
Still feeling rather stunned by this turn of events, Alison turned her attention back to the ring. The attractive ringmaster had disappeared and two short men with unwieldy moustaches and red noses, dressed in appalling yellow-and-black checked suits and bow ties, were starting to hit each other with baseball bats ....
The trouble with seeing the show from the inside, thought Summer, was that, unlike the appreciative audience - who were clapping wildly at every little thing - you were all too aware when things didn't go right.
For example, the music had started off slightly too fast, but Ruud and Jan had quickly corrected that. Then Egor had tripped over one of Maks' big feet but had deftly turned it into an extra piece of ' business'. And Grigori had almost dropped one of his flaming torches, but an extra flourish distracted the audience from his mistake.
The ringmaster sighed. No matter how often and thoroughly they rehearsed, it was always the same. First-performance-in-a-new-town nerves. But as the evening progressed, she could feel the nerves calming, the professionalism of the performers taking over.
But it was time to announce the next act. She strode out into the ring, fixed a smile on her face, and clicked on the microphone.
"And now, for your enjoyment, Summer's Circus presents, all the way from Greece: the *stupendous* Miss Clio."
She gestured extravagantly towards the maroon velvet curtain that hid backstage, and, right on cue, a petite figure in a pale pink leotard appeared and bounded up the ramp to join her.
"Break a leg, Clio," she murmured. Her reward was a dazzling smile.
Summer withdrew, and watched Clio go into her act.
First came the smile and wave to the audience, then the Greek woman reached for her little ladder and began to climb, adjusting her balance constantly so that the unsupported ladder would remain vertical. When she was settled, Andor, her young male assistant, appeared, carrying a pile of cups and saucers, and proceeded to throw them to her one by one. Almost nonchalantly, Clio would catch each cup or saucer and then throw it up so that it landed on the top of her head. Gradually a stack of alternating cups and saucers grew.
Summer had had no doubts at all, when she'd first seen Clio's act, that she was a must for the circus. On paper, catching cups and saucers while balancing on a ladder was a nonstarter, but in real life there was something about the precision and skill displayed by the young Greek woman that made the audience hold its breath.
As Clio caught yet another saucer, and was greeted with wild applause, Summer's thoughts turned inwards.
It looked like her gamble that the affluent Cheltonians would flock to the circus hadn't paid off - the Ticket Office receipts had confirmed what her squinted glances into the spotlights told her: the Big Top was only half full tonight. What with the appalling weather, the orangutan demanding protection money, the pickpocket ripping off customers, and the question of what would happen when Uncle Tommy discovered his least favourite niece was back on his patch .... She sighed.
A teaspoon landed with a loud clink in the topmost saucer, and the audience went mad. Clio's act was winding down. Almost time to announce the aerialists, thought Summer, rising to her feet ....
The Finale had met with sustained and enthusiastic applause, and the two man band was playing music calculated to get the audience heading for the exits, when Summer went round backstage congratulating the acts and patting people on the shoulders. There had been no major mishaps, and everyone was feeling relieved.
She was looking forward to a shower, a hot meal, and an early night, and was half way to her caravan, when she remembered she had rashly agreed to see a journalist - Alison Carsomething - about a possible article on the Circus.
She groaned, and trudged over the waterlogged ground towards the trailer that housed both the Administration and Ticket offices.
A blonde woman was waiting for her outside the Admin office. She looked vaguely familiar, thought Summer, traipsing up the short flight of steps.
"Ms Car -?" She trailed off.
"Alison Carmichael," said the woman helpfully. "And you must be Summer Walsh." She held out a hand.
Summer grunted, gave the hand a perfunctory shake, then began to unlock the door. "Come in."
She switched on the light, and crossed the office to the battered old desk. The journalist followed her inside, glancing at the dingy interior assessingly. Hmmm, thought Summer, having noticed the camera around her visitor's neck, I don't imagine you want to take a photo of *this* for your article, Ms Carmichael.
She dragged a plastic chair from its place by the wall and indicated it before moving round behind the desk. The journalist sat down. Summer did likewise.
"I really enjoyed the show tonight, Ms Walsh."
After a moment's silence, the blonde woman realized Summer wasn't going to say any more and picked up the conversation. "Um, we spoke on the phone, about the possibility of my doing interviews with you and with your performers."
"So, I was wondering ..." The journalist bit her lip.
Summer glanced at the message pad where she had written details of their telephone conversation and frowned. What had she been thinking? "I don't seem to have made a note of which paper you write for, Ms Carmichael," she said apologetically.
"Oh, well - " A slight flush covered the blonde woman's cheeks. "I'm a freelance, but several publications have expressed an interest in the article -"
Summer realized abruptly that there was no point in continuing this conversation. "Then I'm afraid it would be better if we didn't waste each other's time, Ms Carmichael," she interrupted.
The look on the other woman's face made Summer aware that her bluntness had been misinterpreted as offensiveness.
"By the time you've written it and placed it, probably with a local paper," she explained, "the circus will have moved on. Such publicity will be of no benefit to us." She groaned inwardly, realizing that she had only made things worse.
A red spot now burned in each of the blond woman's cheeks. "But, you said ... on the phone ..." Green eyes flashed with indignation.
Green eyes, thought Summer suddenly. Of course. The row of seats behind the mayor's party. Another headache was lurking behind her eyes. The sooner this was over, the better.
"I've changed my mind," she said, sounding more curt than she'd intended. "If you'll excuse me?" She stood up to indicate the interview was over.
Lips pressed in a grim line, the young woman snatched up her gloves and stalked off.
I could have handled that so much better, thought Summer regretfully as she watched the young woman stomp down the steps outside. She sighed, then switched off the light and locked the office door behind her.
As she walked down the steps herself, she glanced absently at the distant figure walking disconsolately towards the carpark. The rest of the paying audience had gone home, and a single pale green Fiesta remained. One of the carpark floodlights was out. Summer made a mental note to get it replaced, then noticed movement in the shadows. She stopped, her senses on alert. A mugger ... or worse? And Alison Carmichael, her mind on other things, was heading straight for him.
The rush of adrenalin banished her tiredness and incipient headache instantly, and she broke into a run. "Look out," she called, even as she realized that running wasn't going to get her there in time and launched herself into a series of somersaults and flips.
The journalist had halted near her car and was looking back at her, mouth open in amazement. Summer growled as the figure in the shadows chose that moment to attack, and forced herself to move faster, feeling her muscles burn with the effort. The attacker - a man, by his build - had got an arm round the journalist's throat and was tugging her back into the shadows when Summer flipped over his head.
As she landed behind him, he glanced round, and the momentary distraction enabled the blond woman to break his grip round her throat. One punch with all Summer's weight behind it was enough to send him flying, and two kicks, one to the stomach, one to his unshaven jaw, rendered him out for the count.
Summer stooped over the man and checked his pulse. He was still breathing - she wasn't sure if that was a good or bad thing. She straightened, and rubbed her bruised knuckles ruefully, then became aware that the journalist was standing beside her.
"He attacked me!" mumbled the blond, her voice shaky, her breathing uneven. "Oh my God, if you hadn't -" She began to cry.
For moment, Summer stood frozen, then she pulled the sobbing journalist into an awkward hug. There was a moment's startled resistance, then Alison sagged into her embrace.
"It's okay," said Summer. "I've got you." She rubbed a hand soothingly over the other woman's back, encouraging her to cry herself out, her own mind churning. My fault. All my fault. If I hadn't been here ... For Summer had no doubt at all that the attacker was working for the man who had tried to sell her protection that morning.
As the sobs dwindled to sniffs, and the tension in the muscles beneath her hands eased, her thoughts turned to the state of her ringmaster uniform. It hadn't been designed for people to cry on.
"Do you still want to do that article on the circus, Ms Carmichael?" Summer was as surprised by her own words as the journalist appeared to be.
"But you said -" The journalist took a step back, and Summer released her.
Colour had returned to the pale cheeks, and bewilderment, coupled with hope, had replaced the fear in the green eyes.
Summer smiled, partly in relief, and shrugged. "I've changed my mind."
The journalist considered for a moment. "What if you change your mind again?" she asked at last.
A fair question, Summer admitted, since from the journalist's point of view, she'd changed her mind twice already. "I won't," she said firmly. "If you want the interviews you asked for, you can have them."
A moment longer, then a smile split the blond woman's features and she nodded eagerly. "Please."
"Tomorrow, then, 10am," said Summer. "I'll give you a guided tour."
They stared at one another for a long moment, then Summer sighed and glanced down at the still unconscious attacker.
"In the meantime," she said, "I suppose I'd better see about calling the police."
"It was great, Mother. There were clowns, and acrobats, and trapeze artists, and a woman who balanced at the top of a ladder while catching cups and saucers on her head ... Yes, that's what I said ... Um ... it looked like real china from where I was sitting."
Alison could tell her mother wasn't impressed by her enthusiastic description of the circus. Opera was more the older woman's 'thing' - so much more 'adult'. No doubt her mother's opinion of the circus would sink even lower, if that were possible, if she told her about the pickpocket and the attack in the carpark ...
She sighed and changed the subject to her coming interviews, then wished she hadn't.
"You're not still intending to be a journalist, are you, dear?" Her mother's tone was disapproving. "My goodness! I thought that was just a fad."
A fad! thought Alison. In fact, the dream of being a reporter had been with her since she was a child, but it was only recently she had decided to do anything about it. Coming out - to herself and to other people - she realized suddenly, had been the catalyst. It had strengthened her determination to live her own life not let others live it for her.
"No, Mother," she said evenly, "it's not a fad."
"It's not as if you need the money, dear."
Alison sighed. It was true that the Life Assurance from her father's death had left them both more than comfortably well off. But she wanted the satisfaction of paying her own way ... for a change.
"Mother, we've been through this."
"Well, if you *must* occupy yourself, dear, why don't you do some voluntary work? It's so much more ... respectable."
"Mother." Alison had reached the end of her patience, and some sign of it must have travelled down the phone line because her Mother went quiet.
"Well, dear. Perhaps you know best." The tone made it clear her mother thought exactly the opposite. "It's past my bedtime, yours too if you're sensible. So I'll say goodnight."
"Goodnight, Mother." Alison replaced the phone receiver and sighed.
The flat that was her pride and joy, her first taste of independence - she was twenty-seven, for heaven's sake; other people left home at eighteen - suddenly seemed drab and pokey. Perhaps it was the contrast with the Big Top and its colourful performers, not least among them the tall ringmaster ....
Once more Alison heard the distant shout and turned to watch the ringmaster somersaulting towards her across the carpark. Once more she felt disbelief and bewilderment that the woman who had just dashed her hopes so rudely should be following her in such a spectacular way. Then came a jolt of terror as someone wrapped his arm around her throat. Followed by sheer relief, as Summer tackled the attacker and then held Alison close ....
Alison swallowed over a suddenly dry throat, then laughed wryly at herself. What a strange evening it had been! And now here she was feeling gratitude, hero worship, and, if she were being honest, straightforward attraction for a woman who until this evening had been a complete stranger.
Even more ironic, being rescued by a circus owner would have made a *great* story, but Summer was concerned that a mugging might keep paying customers away. Since the policeman who took their statements didn't envisage any further involvement for either Summer or Alison (Alison, though severely shaken, hadn't actually been hurt, and the still groggy attacker had quickly realized it was in his own best interests to confess) Alison had agreed to keep the incident quiet.
Which was probably just as well, she thought sleepily, as the seesaw of raw emotions finally caught up with her. Because then, her mother wouldn't learn of the incident and come rushing over ready to sweep her daughter up and take her back to the claustrophobic home from which she had only just escaped.
Alison had feared the mugging would prey on her mind, but as she got herself ready for bed, she found to her relief and slight embarrassment that her head was full of the music of Strauss and images of clowns and acrobats and a tall, striking ringmaster with blue, blue eyes ....
"It's going to be muddy, I'm afraid." Summer ushered the young journalist out of the admin office and down the metal steps.
"That's all right." Alison smiled back at her. "What's a little mud between friends."
Summer raised an eyebrow but said nothing. They walked across the boggy field towards the Big Top.
"We call this the Back Yard." Summer ducked under the cordon that marked the area as off limits to the public, and began threading her way carefully between stakes and guy wires, generators and storage bins.
Alison hurried to keep up. "So," she said, holding out a small tape-recorder. "What made you decide to own your own circus, Ms Walsh?"
"If we're friends, you'd better call me Summer." The tape recorder, she noted absently, was voice-activated.
"Then you'd better call me Alison ... or Ali."
Summer caught the faint hesitation. "Which would you prefer?"
"Alison ... if you don't mind."
"Alison it is."
Summer held back the tent flap and waited for Alison to duck under it. "We call this the Back Door - it's the performers' entrance." She followed the journalist, her pupils adjusting quickly to the dim lighting of the backstage area.
"Hi, Boss." Egor came somersaulting over and stopped in front of them. "Who's the beautiful towny?"
The little clown's interested gaze was resting on Alison, who blushed. It suited her, thought Summer, suppressing a grin.
"That's what circus people call outsiders," she explained. Then to Egor, "This is Alison Carmichael. She's a local journalist, so be nice - we don't want any bad publicity."
"I thought any publicity was good publicity, Boss." Egor winked at her.
"Yeah, well you thought wrong."
Alison shot her a glance. "You don't have to worry," she said reassuringly. "I really loved the show last night."
"You did?" Summer felt her slight tension ease.
She guided Alison towards the maroon curtain separating backstage from the auditorium, then paused. "I should warn you before we get near the ring," she said, "don't, whatever you do, sit on the edge of it facing out."
Alison stared at her. "Why not?"
Summer shrugged. "It's bad luck."
The journalist leaned forward eagerly. "Oh! So you have your own set of superstitions, like theatre people do?"
"I suppose so. Peacock feathers are bad luck too. And whistling in the dressing room."
Alison's eyes danced and her tone was mock serious. "Okay. No whistling or peacock feathers, and no sitting on the ring's edge facing out. Got it."
Summer started to say something in defence of circus traditions then decided against it. She pulled back the curtain and they walked through.
The Dyakonovs were rehearsing their trapeze act high above the ring, and she stopped to allow Alison to watch. After a long moment, Alison tore her gaze away from the graceful flips and twirls, and Summer gestured towards a row of ringside seats. They covered the distance quickly and sat down.
"I noticed last night that most of the acts in your programme are foreign," said Alison. "Is that coincidence or policy? Or is it simply that Brits don't make good circus performers?"
"Hey! Are you saying I'm no good?" Summer smiled to remove the sting from her words. It was a good question, and she considered her answer. No need to mention that Uncle Tommy had made sure no British performer would work for her anyway, she decided.
"It's a question of cost, actually." Alison glanced at the sound level meter and moved the tape recorder closer to Summer's mouth then her gaze drifted upwards again. Summer smiled. She too felt the magnetic pull of the trapeze.
"When the USSR collapsed," she continued, "so did its circus funding. At their height, they had seventy permanent circuses, you know. That's about fifteen thousand performers."
Alison's startled gaze met hers. "Fifteen *thousand*?"
Summer nodded. "Which means that now the Russians are desperate for work and -" she spread her hands expressively "- very cheap."
"So *that's* why most of your acts are Russian?"
"Mmmm." Now it was Summer's turn to gaze up at the Dyakonov Troupe. Cheslav, she noted absently, was clasping Irisa's ankles in his brawny fists. "Though actually, the circus band is Dutch." Alison chuckled at the mention of the two musicians, and Summer glanced curiously at her. When no explanation was forthcoming, she let it go and continued. "The strong men are Portuguese. And Miss Clio, of course, is Greek. I take it you'd like to meet the company?"
The journalist's obvious enthusiasm pleased Summer. Maybe it was because Alison was a freelance, she thought, and hadn't yet reached the embittered 'just going through the motions' stage.
A faint stomach rumble reached her ears, and she noticed Alison was blushing again.
"Haven't you had any breakfast?"
"Um, yes," admitted Alison. "But it was a couple of hours ago. I wouldn't mind a cup of coffee and a biscuit, if you have them."
Summer rose to her feet. "I'm sure we can rustle up something." She was amused by the look of gratitude that flashed across the blond woman's face.
The trailer that Summer called the 'cook wagon' was hot and fuggy and smelled absolutely wonderful. Coffee and doughnuts, thought Alison, identifying the aromas. Her stomach grumbled more loudly and her mouth began to water.
"It's help yourself in here," instructed the tall woman, busying herself with heating water for two cups of instant coffee. "Just take what you fancy."
While Summer carried their coffees to an empty table, Alison inspected the cardboard box of goodies and chose a large sticky, sugarcoated doughnut. Then she joined Summer and sat down opposite her. She placed the tape recorder on the table between them, and gazed at their spartan surroundings.
"So, this is where you all eat?"
Summer took a sip of coffee than nodded. "We can connect the wagon up to the mains water and power supplies. Not all sites provide access though, so then we have to make do with Calor gas and bottled water."
"I expect you've got moving between sites down to a fine art?" While she waited for an answer, Alison picked up her doughnut and took a bite. Brilliant red jam squirted down her chin and across the table. Fortunately, it didn't reach the ringmaster.
"Oh!" Alison's cheeks felt hot with embarrassment, but Summer just chuckled and reached for a paper napkin.
"I'm always doing that," she said consolingly. "Here."
"Thanks." Alison took the napkin and wiped her chin with it. "Um." Her mind had gone blank and the confusion must have shown on her face.
Summer took pity on her. "To answer your question .... Yes, after you've been on the road for a while - and this circus has been touring for years now - you get to know the drill." She took another gulp of coffee. "Circus people are pretty tough. Everyone helps with the build-up and pull-down."
"But the circus can't always run smoothly," prompted Alison.
"No. We've had our share of accidents, and some of our vehicles are aging - they're always breaking down. Fortunately, Grigori is a top notch mechanic as well as a juggler. What else?" Summer looked thoughtful for a moment. "Well, two years ago, a generator caught fire - we were lucky it didn't burn down the Big Top. And last year we had a blowdown ... that's when a storm blows the Big Top down."
Alison would have whistled but remembered their earlier talk of superstition and thought better of it. "That must have set you back a bit."
"Yes. Luckily we got it back up double quick - only missed one matinee. We can't afford to miss many performances."
Alison finished off her doughnut and wiped her hands on the napkin. "You're that close to the line?"
For a moment she thought the other woman wasn't going to answer, then Summer tapped the tape recorder pointedly and said, "Off the record?"
"Oh, okay." Alison pressed the pause button.
"Things are pretty tight at the moment. If they don't get better soon ..." The ringmaster's gaze was suddenly bleak.
"Can't you put up ticket prices?"
"We're already as high as we can go without putting audiences off." Summer shrugged. "Trouble is, we've got so much to compete with these days - TV, video, cinema ... football. People just aren't as keen as they used to be on circuses. Especially circuses without animals." She grimaced. "It's a no win situation. If we use animals - we get attacked by the animal rights protestors; if we don't use them - the audiences stay away."
Alison frowned. "That's not fair."
"No, it isn't." Summer sighed.
The journalist suddenly remembered the tape recorder and pointed at it. Summer nodded, and she resumed recording.
"So why do you do it?" asked Alison.
"Own your own circus. Keep on touring."
"It's in the blood," said Summer simply. "And," she gave Alison a wry smile, "I don't know how to do anything else."
As if regretting her sudden candour, the ringmaster looked away. "Have you had enough?" She indicated the empty plate.
"Oh, yes. That was great, thanks."
"Good. Because we've got quite a few introductions to get through, not to mention photographs."
Alison stood up at once. "Point me at 'em," she said brightly, pleased when the remark earned her a laugh from Summer.
The dark woman led the way out of the cook wagon.
Summer managed to prise Ruud and Jan Dekker away from their instruments and get them to talk to Alison. At first wary, the brothers soon opened up under the journalist's genial questioning, revealing a sheepish passion for Country and Western music that was news to Summer. Tonio and Marcello were glad to take a break from rehearsing, and were soon posing and flexing their rippling muscles while a suitably awed Alison took photographs. And Egor and Maks abandoned their discussion - heated, as always - of ways to improve their act and were only too happy to educate Alison in the intricacies and history of clown makeup.
Summer found watching Alison work relaxing, and she was letting the good natured banter flow over her, when Pyotr came running up, breathless.
"It's Cheslav," he said, without preamble. "He's sprained his wrist."
"What's wrong?" Alison had come over to see what the aerialist's gloomy expression and Summer's unguarded exclamation were about.
"One of the catchers has sprained his wrist," explained Summer.
"A trapeze artist who catches," she said absently. Pyotr was looking expectantly at her. "The routine's the same?"
He nodded. "We added a few frills, but the basic moves are unchanged."
"Okay. Give me five minutes."
Summer regarded a bewildered Alison. "You'll have to look after yourself for the next hour, I'm afraid. Is that going to be a problem?"
"Uh, no. But ... um, Summer, what are you going to be doing?"
"Taking Cheslav's place."
Alison's eyes widened. "Up on the trapeze? But I thought you were the ringmaster."
"I have many skills," said Summer nonchalantly.
CONTINUED IN PART 2
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