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By Sarah Hapgood

“I’d forgotten how nerve-wracking it could all be”, said Bengo, standing backstage at the big top an hour before the show was due to start. He was made-up and costumed already, as was Farnol, who was preparing to go to the crowd and get the children even more festive.

“It already feels like a success to me”, said Farnol “It’s got a real buzz”.

“I know”, said Bengo “But I still wish I could be as calm about it all as Rumble”.

Rumble was calmly seated on a bail nearby, reading a newspaper and having a smoke.

“BENGO!” came an anguished cry from one of the wagons nearby which served as dressing-rooms “Bengo!”

“Sounds like Our Lady of the Pink Nightie needs a pot of help”, said Farnol.

Bengo climbed up into the wagon, where Bardin sat half-made-up, looking at his hands, which were visibly trembling.

“My hands are shaking so much I can’t finish my make-up!” he wailed.

Bengo gave an indulgent smile and went to help him finish putting on his clown’s mouth.

“Has the family arrived yet?” said Bardin.

“I’m not sure”, said Bengo.

“Why did they insist on having seats right at the back?” said Bardin “We could have got them in nearer the front”.

“They remembered a comment you made once that anyone who sits in the front row at the circus”, said Bengo “Deserves everything they get!”

“Me and my big mouth!” said Bardin.

“You’ve got quite a little mouth really”, said Bengo.

“How’s Hal and his elbow-lifting?” Bardin snapped “Everytime I see him it seems he’s trying to hide a hip-flask from me! How the hell we can trust him not to miss cues and drop things I don’t know!”

“We can carry it off if he does”, said Bengo “The audience’ll just think it’s part of the act. It’s not a catastrophe like it would be for serious actors … oh Bardy, I didn’t mean to say that, I’m sorry! Of course we’re as important as serious actors!”

Bardin, clown’s mouth now fully painted on, and clown’s honour now fully outraged, looked fully affronted.

“Come along”, he said, grandly, and left the wagon.

On his way across the back arena he shouted at Rumble to put his cigarette out, and then swept off on a pre-show tour of inspection.

“I dunno what you’ve done, but good on yer”, said Rumble to Bengo. “What do you mean?” said Bengo.

“He’s back in control, back to normal”, said Rumble “He’s stopped moping. Good for you”.

Bengo, looking thoroughly disgruntled, fixed his clown’s red nose firmly into place.

“The local press called me a killer you know”.

Dobley the compere was dabbing at his eyes with a handkerchief. He was the same compere who had done the talent show Bengo and Bardin had judged on television the year before. He was also the same man who had appeared on one of the photographs found at Starhanger, the one which showed a man’s body being pulled out of the swimming-pool in the basement.

“Guilty by association”, said Bardin, sipping a cup of tea on the grass backstage the following day, whilst preparations for what was being billed in the adverts as The Fight Of The Century, were going on in the Big Top “We saw a photograph when we were all at Starhanger, of the guy being fished out of the pool. You were there, in the crowd. That’s what stinks to most people”.

“Yeah, but I’m not a killer!” Dobley insisted, now well-launched on the waterworks “I won’t take anyone calling me a killer! I’ve been an idiot, I don’t deny that …”

“Neither will I!” said Bardin.

“There’s always been a bit of me that’s been foolish and irresponsible”, said Dobley “But I came to terms with myself when I had therapy. I accepted my faults. I’ve learned to love myself”.

“What else have you been doing these past few months, apart from learning to love yourself?” said Bardin “I’ve heard a rumour you lived for a while at a 5-star hotel in Krindei. How the hell did you manage that?”

“Silling Productions paid for it”, said Dobley “To keep me sweet. But when I gave an interview to the television, nothing about them, it was all about my therapy, they stopped my money. Must’ve thought I was gonna say more later. So I came back here”.

“Bit of a comedown isn’t it?” said Bardin “Big t.v star, swanking it up in Krindei, now appearing here in our flea-pit circus”.

“This is my living-room”, said Dobley “This is where I’m at home. I should never have abandoned my showbusiness roots”.

He blew his nose noisily, and went off to get a refill of tea. Bengo, who had been fidgeting with some props nearby, pretending to tidy them up, but all the while eavesdropping, skipped over to Bardin.

“He seems quite genuine about that, Bardy”, he said.

“Genuine my arse!” said Bardin “If someone offered him a new t.v contract tomorrow he’d bite their hand off to get at it! He’s just putting a brave face on it that’s all. Don’t fall for it. He needs us at the moment so he’s prepared to put up with us. Give him his old show back though, and we’d be lucky if he chucked mouldy crumbs at us out of his dressing-room window!”

“Well I don’t think there’s any call to be so sour”, said Bengo “He’s been through a lot this past year”.

“And we haven’t I suppose!” said Bardin “You great soft nit!”

“Ah how it does me old heart good to hear you two again!” said Hal, weaving over to them clutching a mug of tea, which Bardin strongly suspected contained a substantial slug of brandy.

To Bardin’s great unease Hal stood up close to him, and looked dangerously “chummy”. Bengo looked alarmed.

“I wish you’d consider coming back to the Cabaret, old mate”, said Hal.

“Not on your life!” said Bardin.

“The young blood we’re getting in these days doesn’t have a clue you know”, said Hal “Thinks all it’s about is doing stupid stunts, the sicker the better”.

“The Cabaret’s always been like that though”, said Bengo.

Hal cast an irritated look at Bengo’s continued presence nearby.

“But we were pro’s, all-rounders”, said Hal.

“It’s not very pro to get pissed before a performance is it!” Bardin snapped, and he got up to leave “Come along, Bengo”.

“That was scary”, said Bengo, when they had walked out of earshot of Hal “If I’m not mistaken, Bardy, I think he fancies you!”

“Don’t say another word about it!” Bardin exclaimed “I don’t want to hear it mentioned ever again! And don’t you ever dare tell any of the others! It’s too embarrassing for words!”

The Fight of the Century got underway at 7 o’clock that evening. Dobley did a rousing introduction, and was immediately pelted with an onslaught of custard pies, getting caught in the cross-fire from all directions.

Everything was going with a swing, when Bardin got called backstage by one of the production crew. The young lad was shaking and close to gibbering. He claimed to have been attacked by a “hideous creature” at the back of the wings stage-right, and he had a massive bruise on his shoulder to prove it.

Bardin remembered the claw-mark left on Joby’s shoulder at Starhanger, where Angel had grabbed him. He dismissed the boy, and tentatively ventured deeper into the wings. Under his shirt he wore a gun-holster containing Thetis’s pistol, which she had donated to him for the duration of the show, concerned as she was about the close proximity of the showground to Temple Street.

At the back of the wings Bardin could discern the Gnome. Even though he had never clapped eyes on the creature before, he knew what it was from Bengo and Brother Iggy’s description of it. There was no time for hanging about. Bardin fired several shots at the creature. It plainly didn’t like being pelted with silver charms and fell to the ground, chewing at the threadbare carpet that had been used to cover the grass. Bardin looked around him for a further immobilising device. He unearthed some netting from a stack of props and chucked it over the creature, wrapping it tightly around him. He fired another charm into the creature’s mouth for good measure, and then went in search of further assistance.

This was easier said than done. When he got back into the arena, Bengo hit him with a custard pie. Bardin had barely got the base of it from his face when Bengo hit him with another one. In desperation Bardin grabbed a pie from the long table nearby and slammed it hard as he could into Bengo’s face.

Bengo, temporarily blinded, was then dragged by his partner out of the arena. Once they were safely backstage, Bardin pulled the base of the pie off Bengo’s face.

“I’ve captured the Gnome”, said Bardin “Don’t ask questions now, we haven’t got time, just do as I say. Help me to get him into the arena”.

“But what for, Bardy?” said Bengo, blinking through the thick layers of gunk.

“To finish him off!” said Bardin “We’ll stuff him into one of the cement-mixers”.

Fortunately Rumble, suspicious about Bengo and Bardin’s sudden exit from the arena, had followed them, and helped them to drag the netted Gnome back to the slapstick chaos. Amongst the maelstrom they loaded the creature into the mixer.

“I don’t think anyone’s noticed”, Bardin panted “Good”.

“Feet!” said Bengo “His feet are still sticking out!”

The feet were bundled in as well.

“What happens now?” said Rumble.

“By the end of the show he should have been well and truly smothered in custard”, said Bardin “We’ll get him out when the others have gone, and get rid of the body … somehow”.

“I’ll send one of the lads to get a message to Kieran and Ransey”, said Rumble

“Just say the Gnome’s been custardised”, said Bardin “And we await further instructions”.

“We’re going to burn the body of the Gnome round the back of the house later this morning”, said Adam to Madame de Sade. Both of them were talking in the long corridor on the sloop the following day.

“It’ll be a pretty grisly sight”, Adam continued “I strongly advise you to stay below here whilst it’s going on, Renee”.

“Is it true about Aleister’s plan”, said Madame de Sade “To take us all back to his time?”

“You don’t have to come”, said Adam “You are free to go back to your own”.

“No!” said Madame de Sade “No! No! NO! Back to Donatien in prison, and back to my mother? No! I like being independent, and free”.

“Ladies didn’t have a great deal of freedom in Aleister’s time either you know”, said Adam.

“Ah but I have freedom with all of you”, said Renee.

“Hm, more likely you want to be where Aleister is!” said Adam “As you wish”.

“But why the ‘urry to go so soon?” said Renee.

“We are taking the ashes of the Gnome with us, that’s why”, said Adam “From what we know and have experienced ourselves of such matters, it’s quite likely the demons might try to restore their power by using its ashes in some way”.

“Like in Aleister’s Magick rituals?” said Renee.

“Quite”, said Adam “We have to remove them as far from their reach as we possibly can. Into another time completely would be ideal. We must snap the umbilical cord that binds the demons to the Gnome as thoroughly as we can, or we’ll never know peace of mind again. And Aleister’s place at Boleskine is special, it will help us, you’ll know what I mean when we get there”.

“But we will come back to this time?” said Renee.

“Absolutely!” said Adam “This is our home for one thing, and for another we have a bar to get to and run in Zilligot Bay!”

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