Mud squelching beneath her boots, Wanda Aiken strode through the fairgrounds. Snow clung to some areas, but the promise of warmer temperatures should melt it before they opened in three days. The fairgrounds were littered with vehicles off-loading, roustabouts hauling, and an annoyed layout man.
“Maybe we can move the midway,” Roger said into his handheld.
“No,” Wanda answered, dialing down the volume on hers once her voice would do. Roger pivoted to face her. “We need it to be within easy range of the food stalls and the Big Top. Make them walk too far, and parents won’t be persuaded by their kids to go…”
“Yeah, yeah I know.” Roger squinted up at her from his mighty three and half foot height, then stuffed his cigar back between his teeth. He sucked in a noisy breath, then exhaled a waft of tobacco scented smoke. The man was a living cliché, but she didn’t have a hope in hell of pulling this off without him. “I’ve been setting up since before you were a twinkle in your momma’s eye, brat.”
And the only man alive allowed to refer to her with that term, even if she could punt him. “Then what’s the problem?”
She hadn’t stalked across the heavily mudded ground for her health. If anything, she had to go over all the paperwork, make sure all the fees and licenses were up to date. That was the brighter part of the morning. Lunch with some auxiliary club providing volunteers and collecting a portion of the purse for charity was in her future. If it were at all practical, she’d rather be somewhere in Eastern Europe—having her nails pulled out.
“Problem?” Roger squinted at her. No she hadn’t sprouted a second head, he was just in a mood. The layout man liked to control the conversation whether he was actually in charge or not. His nose had been bent since the announcement she would be handling this tour of the Merry Circus.
Folding her arms, Wanda counted to one hundred using three different languages. Practice kept her expression mildly pleasant as she lifted her eyebrows. “Not at all.” Thankfully, she lied with such effortless ease she should be able to put it on her resume. Oh wait, she didn’t want the jobs that came with those lies. “What did you need?”
One corner of his mouth curved while he kept that filthy cigar in place. Squinting up at her like some mad Rumpelstiltskin, he exhaled another cloud of noxious smoke before he tapped his walkie-talkie and said, “Put the midway closer to the big top, go pick up straw if necessary. We’re in the middle of fucking Montana, there are ranches, go buy some from the ranches.” He liked to do that, answer questions before they were even posed and cursing alongside those answers as if the other were an idiot for asking in the first place.
Uncle Roger was as much a part of the circus as she’d been, she’d grown up under the supervision of his evil eye and foul-mouthed ways. He might play benevolent dwarf for the audience, but he was an asshole through and through.
He was also the best damn layout man in the business.
Wanda exhaled slowly. No sense in yelling at him. The man possessed demonic abilities to get under a person’s skin, hers in particular but she’d seen him drive others to reaching for alcohol before dealing with him. So far, that hadn’t been an issue. The tour is just getting started though…we have time.
Lowering the radio, Roger jerked his head to the right. “Follow me.” Then he set off imperiously, no doubt expecting her to follow without argument. She waited a petty beat, then followed. Her longer-legged stride caught up with him easily. They bypassed where the center ring would be and rounded toward the backyard. The animal pens were quiet but it was an hour after breakfast, they were probably napping. They’d been offloaded from their train cars before dawn, and the temperatures were much cooler than where they’d been wintering in Vegas.
Roger charged across the area, ignoring the various greetings tossed his way. Like Wanda, most of the performers were either setting up the backyard, helping with the big top or running errands. There were no easy jobs in the tour. Everyone pitched in whether it was the bearded lady working with the cooks to get meals ready for lunch or the strongman hauling supply trunks to the various trailers. Kasetti, their master of animals, would be with Frank, the circus vet, double checking every animal made the trip as healthy as they were when they were loaded.
The scouts would finish papering the town, then move on to the next location to start all over again. They’d followed a relatively regular route for decades. Her grandfather built the circus up from a family operation to a mud show to an international sensation before he finally retired to Las Vegas and a permanent location.
The mud show, a family tradition, still traveled the smaller routes, towns not likely to be visited by one of the larger circuses. As Grandpa put it, the family had made their bones in the small show and tradition demanded the family maintain it.
Hopefully his plans included her perpetual bachelor brother finding a wife, because Wanda planned on having kids—never. Roger didn’t slow his roll until he made it all the way to the props trailer. There he pointed to the door dripping with…
Exhaling, she gritted her teeth and flexed her jaw before asking, “Is this a joke? A prank? A way to needle me for touring overseas?” Because if so, painting you’re all dead on the props trailer was going just a little far.
Even amidst the musky combination of animals, mud, and diesel fuel, there was a distinctly metallic hint to the damp, chilly air. Roger jerked the cigar out of the clamp of his teeth even as she took a step toward the vandalism. Unfortunately, she did know what blood smelled like.
“Have you done a head count on the animals?” It was the first question out of her mouth, even as her gut twisted. They were in Eagle Rock, Montana, not Berlin, Bucharest, Krakow, or Moscow.
“Animals are fine, brat. I checked them first thing. Kasetti’s been with them since they offloaded. Jojo and Lettie were going to pull their knives for practice when they found this. I told them to leave it until we checked it out.” Roger hadn’t moved a step closer to the trailer though. “But I wasn’t calling the sheriff until I talked to you.”
The denim jacket she’d chosen suddenly felt too thin for the chill in her blood. Digging her hands into her pockets, she pulled out a pair of work gloves. “All our people accounted for?” It was a rhetorical question. Roger was an ass, but the circus was his people, too.
“Every one I could track down.” But the advance team would be in Eagle Rock proper, not out here near the train tracks. Some of the cast would be in town, too. Even as prepared as they were, there was always some shopping to be done and the inevitable hookups, which felt like they had to take their extracurricular activities off site. Roger just sent someone to get straw if needed.
“So we’re not all accounted for.” She didn’t have a lab to test the blood, and that meant a call to the sheriff.
“Quietly check on anyone you haven’t spoken to directly, anyone besides Jojo and Lettie see this?”
“Nope. Didn’t think it would be wise. You take care of the cops, I’ll take care of the others.” With another nod, he jammed his cigar back into place and stomped off leaving Wanda with the blood penned warning.
Once Roger was gone, she tugged the gloves on and pulled open the door. It wasn’t locked. They didn’t lock up when they were unpacking, they’d never really had a cause to secure it when everyone knew everyone else. The smell of blood didn’t follow her inside. Using the flashlight app on her phone, she scanned the interior.
The packing was tight, every container in its spot. Still, she studied each spot for a disruption. There’d been vandalism on a couple of the train cars, she hadn’t paid it much attention. What kid didn’t enjoy the original spray paint fantasy now and again? The items they’d caught with the paint could be scrubbed. They’d had a sick elephant before leaving, but elected to let her sit out this tour and be treated.
Problematic and expected, but this was different.
Her first thoughts went to possible smuggling. Maybe it was too many years of actively working black ops for the CIA overseas, but she didn’t trust surface appearances of anyone anywhere.
Opening the containers nearest the door, she found nothing out of place. The next hour she systematically went through the containers easily opened by someone in a hurry.
A conspicuously empty spot was in the top of one tucked at eye level just three feet from the door. Conspicuous in her opinion, because the other items included her gear and she’d packed it herself. It had been full.
She’d have to go through it all to see what had been taken, but for now, she tugged it out and hauled it from the trailer. Careful not to touch the bloody marks, she carried it away from the props trailer. Once it was secure, she’d call the sheriff.
Hers was the wrong circus to mess with—period.
Hondo had already leapt to his feet before Brick caught the sound of the truck on the drive. Sliding the hammer into his tool belt, he carried the tape measure with him toward the top of the stairs. The ranch house he currently resided in, The Arches, belonged to a friend’s new wife. While Angel and Katie were off on an adventure honeymoon, whatever the hell that is… he was there, doing repairs.
He needed the space, and had the skills. It was a good trade. The truck out front looked familiar. Hondo glanced up at him, and took off like a shot when Brick motioned him ahead. The German shepherd was his companion, war buddy, and partner. They’d both received medical discharge, and they were both figuring out the next steps.
At the front door, Hondo waited patiently for him to open it. Then he trotted outside to greet Hank “Montana” Patterson. The retired Navy SEAL grinned as he slid out of the truck. His wife wasn’t with him for this visit, though she’d joined him when they picked Brick and Hondo up at the airport.
“Civilian life has been too good to you,” Brick said by way of greeting, and clasped hands with the other man. “ Hondo stood next to Brick and waited for his greeting, too. Hank didn’t disappoint, he gave the shepherd a firm scratch around the ears.
“Can’t complain,” Hank retorted with a chuckle, then jerked a thumb toward the truck. “Brought you the wood Angel ordered. You know, the guys and I can give you a hand. We told Angel back when this went down, we’d tackle the repairs.”
“I know,” Brick followed him around to the back. Together, they lifted out the first plank of wood. “I don’t mind the house sitting repairs, it makes me feel useful.” The last thing he wanted was to be alone with his thoughts. The nightmares were bad enough.
Hondo paced them as they offloaded, periodically pausing to scan the area before falling in with them. Some habits were hard to break. Hondo knew to watch his back, and even the faint limp where he favored his left hind leg didn’t slow his attention.
“Better to stay busy, you know?” Brick continued as they returned to the truck. The interior of the house had been littered with gunfire in places, there were boards up over some of the windows, and he’d already scrubbed the walls clean, and painted over some bloodstains. Refreshing a house touched by violence was almost therapeutic and less like free loading off a friend.
Well, a friend of a friend, but he’d met Angel and later his then fiancée back in Virginia after Cannon went through some crap. Thankfully, Brick missed most of the action. The cold sweats thinking about the explosion that took out the other man’s truck made him feel more like a coward than a SEAL.
“Glad to hear you say that, I have a favor to ask.” Hank’s easy grin didn’t waver as he neatly boxed Brick in.
“Sure you do.” Not that he would complain. As a former SEAL himself, Hank hadn’t asked a lot of questions about Brick’s mental or medical status. The only thing he’d done was tell him he wasn’t alone, and to call if he needed anything. Angel mentioned the other man might have work for him, if he were up to it, and if he wasn’t—that was cool, too.
They were on their way back to the truck, the cold air leeching off the heat as fast as their movement could generate it. For Montana, the hints of snow on the ground, the cold temps, and the battle the grass waged to offer up fresh shoots of green was a sign spring was on the way. For a southern California boy like Brick, it was like being trapped in perpetual winter.
Either way, it beat the hell out of the jungles and the desert, so he’d take it. “What’s up?” he asked when the other man didn’t continue.
“You know Ned Wagner?” The off hand mention didn’t fool Brick, Hank had developed a tone when he brought him up. Since his retirement, Hank had launched a private business—the Brotherhood Protectors.
“I know him.” The less said about the hows and whys, the better. If Hank knew him at all, he’d understand.
“He called about an hour ago and asked me for a favor.” The guarded statement spoke volumes.
“Now you want to ask me for a favor. Sort of.” He rolled his head from side to side, the feel of his vertebrae popping an audible stress reliever even if it wasn’t an actual one. Hondo brushed against his leg, the weight familiar and grounding. Brick was in Montana for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was steadying his nerves. Not wanting to leave Hank on the spot, Brick added, “I told you to let me know if I could help out.”
Digging out bullet holes and repairing dry wall and doors made him feel useful, but it was also light work for a guy used to defusing bombs. Not that there was anything wrong with light work. He was really okay with taking it easy.
“You sure?” Hank paused at the truck and studied him. Not insulted in the least, Brick waited him out. He’d made no secret of why he’d come to Eagle Rock, and he wasn’t pretending everything was all right. Life, however, went on. He had plenty of opportunities—friends in Texas who were slowly but surely turning their ranch into a place where vets could get equine therapy. Eagle Rock had something similar. Another place in Texas had a full medical facility situation—and housing for those who needed a place to get on their feet.
He was blessed. He had backup and he had Hondo.
“I’m sure,” he said, wiping his hands on his jeans. “I’m not made out of glass, and I’m not going to break. I just need to heal. Sometimes, healing hurts.”
“Fair enough,” Hank said after a moment, then he glanced at Hondo. As if aware that he too was under scrutiny, the German shepherd cocked his head to return Hank’s stare.
“Don’t worry about Hondo, he’s as healed as he’s going to get. We trained together, and worked the field together. If that bullet hadn’t clipped his hip, they may not have let me take him with me when I was discharged.” Fortunately, his application had been approved. He and Hondo had done a lot of missions together, and the dog was the best backup a man could ask for.
“I’m not worried, but does he ever sit?”
“When he wants to,” Brick laughed. “But not when he thinks we’re working.” Which they had been. “He only sits then if he smells a bomb.”
Hank blew out a slow whistle. “Good to know.”
“At ease,” Brick said, leaning against the truck and Hondo dropped to sit next to him, never losing contact. They called dogs man’s best friend, and Hondo was all that an more. “So we’re both good. What do you need?”
“How do you feel about the circus?”
Nope. Not what he was expecting. “I’m good with anything except clowns.”
Clowns were creepy.