Sunset for the Tattooed Lady


Illustration for "Sunset for the Tattooed Lady." Copyright (c) 2016 by L.A. Spooner. Used under license.

 

Story by Robert Lupton, Illustration by L.A. Spooner

Lenny, the Lobster Man, ran into the dining tent before breakfast. He waved his fleshy claws, the fingers on both hands were fused into lumps with opposable thumbs, and yelled at the sparse early morning crowd of circus workers who were drinking coffee, gossiping, and waiting to be fed.  “The sun will never rise over Manilla Bay again!”

Frank, the ringmaster, put down the biscuit he’d filched from the kitchen and said, “Lenny, what the hell are you screaming about?”

“It’s Janet, the Tattooed Lady.  She has that big tattoo of Commodore Dewey’s American Fleet anchored in Manilla Bay on her stomach. The rising sun is just below her breasts.  She’s been stabbed in the rising sun.”

“Someone get Doc,” said Frank. “Lenny, Where is she.”

A roustabout ran for the Doc and Frank followed Lenny through the light rain to Janet’s trailer. “I stopped by this morning and knocked, but she didn’t answer.  I peeked inside and saw her on the floor.  There’s blood everywhere. We don’t need the Doc, she’s dead.”

A crowd was gathered in the morning rain outside Janet’s brightly colored trailer. Martha, the Fat Lady, stood under an umbrella with her husband, Dave, the Human Praying Mantis. The Magnificent Mario, the knife thrower, and his wife, Tasha, huddled under wet newspapers with the Ortega twins, who appeared in the freak show as the Wyoming Wolf Women.  The twins were born with hypertrichosis and their eyes glowed like red coals beneath their wet and matted facial hair.

Jim, the Wild Man from Borneo, and Fast Freddie, the Legless Wonder, stood in the rain smoking and whispering to each other. Most of the circus was asleep, the matinee didn’t start until two o’clock and the gates were closed until noon.  The midway had stayed open until midnight last night and the circus workers had stayed awake for a couple more hours to wind down. There weren’t a lot of early risers this morning.

Helga guarded the entrance to Janet’s trailer. Her hairy pointed ears and deformed nose made her face bat-like.  When she’d joined the circus, she was billed as the Bat-Faced Girl. Later she toured as Velma, the Vampire. Her current performance persona was Batilda, the Human Bat. “Frank, thank goodness, you’re here. I’ve kept everyone out of the trailer.”

Frank climbed the steps to Janet’s trailer, turned to the bedraggled crowd, and said, “Get out of the rain.  Get some breakfast and stay there until I tell you it’s alright to leave.”

The crowd passed the Doc as he stumbled toward Janet’s trailer. Doc had two states of being, drunk and hungover. Today, he was hungover because the early morning summons hadn’t given him enough time to get drunk. A sign hung in Doc’s trailer, “If you don’t start first thing in the morning, you can’t drink all day long.” Doc had returned from his career as a Marine medic with no desire to return to medical school and taste for bourbon.

Frank motioned to the Doc and they went into the trailer. Janet was face up on the floor, the buttons were ripped off her white blouse, and a throwing knife buried to the hilt in the sun tattoo below her brassiere. Doc felt for a pulse and shook his head.

Flies crawled over the congealed and partially eaten dinner for one, canned beef stew poured over macaroni and cheese.  The plate sat alone on dinette table, the utensils were scattered on the floor among pieces of a broken soft drink bottle.

“Looks like there was a struggle,” said Frank. “Close the door and the windows, there’s already enough flies in here. They’re crawling all over Janet’s body, the blood, and what’s left of that crap she fixed for dinner.”

“Doc, you think she was with a man last night?”

“She was with someone. Slytherina, the snake lady, cut her hand and I came by after midnight to stitch the cut. Janet’s lights were on and I thought I saw two silhouettes through the curtains.”

“I sent for the cops. We’ve got to figure this out before they get here or they’ll shut us down.  If they keep us here, we could miss the next two or three show dates and we can’t afford to miss a performance.  Don’t get me wrong, I care about Janet, but we can’t shut down. Let’s go to the dining tent and talk to the freaks before the cops get here.”

Doc cranked the windows closed, reached up and grabbed the key from where it hung by the door, and locked the trailer from the outside.

Frank waited for the Doc outside the dining tent and said, “I want to talk to them separately. I’m not a detective, but I’ve spent twenty years running this show. Carnies are professional liars but I know when I’m being conned. I’ll talk to Lenny first, you keep the rest in the dining room.”

Lenny entered the kitchen with an over-sized mug of coffee clamped in one claw. He suffered from ectrodactyly, a birth defect where the fingers and toes fuse together.  “Sit down, Lenny. Tell me about this morning.”

“I stopped by to walk to breakfast with Janet and give her my tips from last night’s show.”

“Why give Janet your tips?”

“We all do. We’re saving money to buy an apartment house in Florida. When we save enough, we’ll sell our trailers, retire, and live together.”

“How long has this been going on?”

“At least eight years. I’m not supposed to tell anyone. Janet said if real estate prices don’t go up, we can buy a place in Boca Raton after three more seasons.”

“How many people know about the money?”

“A dozen of us pool our tips. We only let born freaks and made freaks in the pool, no fake freaks are allowed. Lenny held his head up and announced, “Carnies don’t tell anything to townies and freaks don’t tell nothing to nobody.  We don’t trust outsiders.”

“Where’s the cash?”

“She hid the money in her trailer.  Janet buys a money order at the post office when we hit a new town and mails it to our bank.”

The local sheriff walked in before Frank asked another question. “I’m the Sheriff, Jay Moore. The folks in the chow tent said you’re the man. I understand one of your performers was stabbed last night. Any idea who did it?”

“Morning, Sheriff. This is Lenny. We’re talking about that very thing.”

“Please don’t. I’d appreciate it if you could stop everyone from talking. I don’t want them to compare notes. I’d like to see the body.”

“She was killed in her trailer. Everyone who was up this morning is in the dining tent and you can talk to them whenever you want.”

Frank unlocked Janet’s trailer and the Sheriff looked inside. He stood in the open doorway and scanned the room.  “Anything changed since you found the body?”

“Yes, we closed the windows and locked the door.”

Sheriff Moore touched the knife, dipped one finger in the sticky congealed blood, and put one hand against Janet’s forehead.  “She’s been dead a while, skin’s cool to the touch and her blood is tacky.  There’re a couple of smudges on the floor that could be footprints or handprints. Who found her?”

Lenny said, “I did about 5:30 this morning.”

The Sheriff grimaced at the fly covered meal. “Looks like she had dinner alone. You have any idea what time that would have been?”

Frank answered, “We didn’t close the midway until midnight.  The Doc said he walked by later and saw the shadow of someone with her.  He didn’t say what time, you’ll have to ask him.”

“I will. What kind of knife is this?”

“It’s a throwing knife.”

”So someone could have thrown it?”

“I doubt it.  Throwing knives aren’t very heavy. Mario, our knife thrower, wants them to have enough weight to stick in his target wheel, but not enough to kill his wife, Tasha, if he misses.”

“I’ll want to talk to Mario,” said the Sheriff. “Lock the trailer and give me the key. I don’t want anyone inside until the coroner gets here. Is her tattoo of Manilla Bay?”

‘Yes, it’s Commodore Dewey’s fleet.”

“I thought I recognized the shoreline. I was there with General McArthur five years ago.”

“She already had her tattoos when she started with us ten years ago. You know circus people won’t talk to outsiders. The midway carnies, especially the freaks, don’t talk much to anyone.”

“You need to make sure they do. The circus is closed until I sort this out.”

Frank reached to close the door and jerked his hand from the door knob, his fingers were covered with cold blood. “I wish I hadn’t done that. I guess you can’t check it for fingerprints.”

“My name is Jay, not Jay Edgar Hoover. I don’t have the equipment to check for fingerprints.”

The Sheriff looked over the wet ground. “Looks like an elephant herd trampled any evidence into a quagmire. There’s some footprints on these steps, but nothing I can match to anyone’s shoes.”

The freaks stopped talking when Frank and the Sheriff entered the dining tent. “This is Sheriff Moore. He’s here to figure out who killed Janet. Treat him like one of us, talk to him. If we don’t help him, we’ll never catch the killer.”

The Sheriff said, “I’d like to talk to the Doc first.”

Doc finished his bourbon and coffee and followed them into the kitchen. Sheriff Moore asked about the previous night.

“Slytherina, our snake charmer cut her hand helping one of her pythons molt.  Snakes shed their skin as they grow. Pythons are especially ugly and temperamental during the process. Slytherina hurries things along by scrapping off the dead skin. I went to her trailer about one this morning and put four stitches in her hand.”

“Frank said you saw someone in the dead woman’s trailer.”

“The curtains were closed, but I saw the shadows of two people, but I couldn’t tell who they were. I was with Slytherina for an hour and Janet’s lights were out when I walked back to my trailer.”

“Was she entertaining someone?”

“No, this morning I only saw dinner for one on her table.”

The Sheriff said, “Right. Did you see anyone else last night?”

“No, the freaks go straight to bed. They’re tired after being ogled at all day.  The women don’t want to be another notch on someone’s belt so they stay away from local men. Some men would love to brag to their friends about screwing a wolf woman or bat faced girl. Some of the men in the freak show have used that same weird attraction to screw around with local women, but pretty soon the charm wears off. Our freaks and sideshow performers have been on the road for years and after a show, they want a quiet dinner, a drink or two, and a good night’s sleep.”

What’s the difference between a freak and a performer?”

“Hell, Sheriff, I’m not sure I know myself. Ask Martha, the Fat Lady. Since Janet’s dead, she’s the boss.”

“Maybe Martha killed Janet so she could be the boss freak?”

“Martha can’t get through the door to Janet’s trailer.”

“Last question before you send in Martha. Are you drunk?”

“Not yet, but I’m drinking as fast as I can.”

Martha leaned against the counter, there were no chairs she could use. She was upset and anger was clear in her voice. “We got a show at noon.  I got to change the performance now that Janet’s gone. Frank, I don’t have time to chat with you and Wyatt Earp.”

“Name’s Jay, not Wyatt. Just a couple of questions and you can go.  You want us to catch Janet’s killer, don’t you? Where were you after midnight?”

“Where a hard working married woman belongs, I was in bed with my husband.”

“Tell me the difference between freaks and performers.”

Martha glared at Frank and Frank nodded his head. Martha said, “Performers are circus acts. There are three kinds of freaks, born, made, and pretend. Lenny, the Lobster Man, the wolf girls, and Batilda were born the way they are. Made freaks are folks like me and Janet. She got those tattoos and I ate everything I could get my hands on. My husband, Dave, is a made freak. Jim, the Wild Man, is a pretender. He bites the heads off chickens and pretends to eat razor blades. Slytherina is a pretender.  She does her snake show and flicks her tongue in and out. If she’d split her tongue so it was forked, she’d be a made freak.”

“Is there a difference in status?”

“Hell, yes. The difference is commitment. It’s like a bacon and egg breakfast.  The chicken’s involved, but the pig’s committed.”

“What about sideshow performers who aren’t freaks?”

“There’s Mario and Tasha.  He throws knives and she’s a sword swallower.  He does his knife act in the Big Top and she works the side show. We consider them family because Mario substitutes as a wild man when we need one and Tasha does a great mermaid.”

“Who else is in the tent?”

“Fast Freddie, the Legless Wonder, he lost his legs on Normandy Beach. He has special gloves made to look like boots that he wears when he walks around. He doubles on the midway as a three card monte dealer. That’s why we call him Fast Freddie, he could make the jack of diamonds jump out of a deck and spit tobacco juice in your eye. In his Legless Wonder show, he walks on his hands, climbs up and down a stepladder, and does a wounded soldier spiel.  People see his purple heart and the money rolls in.”

“Any of them have a reason to kill Janet?”

“Janet always needed attention.  That’s why she has all those tattoos and works the freak show.  She needs constant approval from men. She used to find a new man in every town, but she stopped that a few years ago. She doesn’t see anyone regularly, but she sees all the available men from time to time.  She’s was shacked up with Jim for a while.”

“Jim kill her?”

“Hell, no. Jim don’t care about nothing but Jim and marijuana. Jim said Janet broke it off because she wanted a serious relationship and the only thing Jim was serious about was locoweed. I don’t believe him, I think Janet called it off because Jim didn’t keep himself clean. If he tried to sleep in a pig pen, the pigs would move out.”

“Was your husband involved with her?”

“No, she put the moves on him a few times when we first joined the circus. If Dave took her up on it, I’d kill him, not her.”

“Frank mentioned that Janet was in charge of the money you were saving to buy a retirement home.  Someone kill her for the money?”

“I doubt it. She kept the money in a possum belly box. A possum belly is a secret compartment under the trailer floor. You should check to see if the cash is still there. She was constantly sending money orders to our bank so there was never very much hidden.”

“Maybe she was stealing money.”

“No, she wasn’t a thief. Every night she recorded the cash in her log book. She logged every money order and we went over the bank statement every month. She was a great treasurer and partner.”

“You can go reschedule the sideshow, but everyone else needs to stay here until I talk to them.”

After Martha left the kitchen, the Sheriff asked Frank, “So the freaks and sideshow acts don’t spend much time with the other circus folks?”

“A circus is like five or six families who don’t like each other, but have to stick together.  The Big Top performers think they’re too good to associate with anyone.  Even I hate the damn clowns. The roustabouts don’t usually hang around more than a season.  The midway operators are all subcontractors. They come and go with the rain. The freak show is part of the sideshow.  Janet and Martha ran most of the sideshow.”

“Most of the side show?”

“The hootchie cootchie show is run by some guys out of Houston.  They pay us five hundred dollars a week to travel with us. They don’t associate with anyone else. I couldn’t tell you the name of a single one of their girls. Their show lasted until almost three this morning, so I doubt any of them are involved.”

“Could I talk to Mario, he’s the knife thrower, right?

“Sure, I’ll get him.”

Mario sullenly followed the ringmaster into the kitchen and sat on a stool. “Tasha and I went straight to bed after we closed the sideshow. The first time we knew Janet was dead was when we heard people outside her trailer.”

Sheriff Moore said, “Do you know how she was killed?”

“Talk is she was stabbed with one of my knives.”

“That’s right. Care to explain?”

“I have ten knives I use in the show and forty or fifty for practice. I replace the show knives whenever one needs sharpening or doesn’t feel right. The practice knives are in an unlocked chest and people borrow them from time to time.”

“Anyone borrow one recently?”

“Slytherina borrowed one to help a python shed its skin. Batilda keeps one all the time. Her trailer lock is broken and she uses the knife to unlock it. Anyone could have taken one.”

“How deep could one of those knives penetrate a person?”

“On a perfect throw, maybe an inch or two. They’re not very heavy. It’s not like the movies where someone throws a knife through someone’s throat. It’s almost impossible to throw a heavy knife with any consistency. The handle or hilt is heavier than the blade. Even if the knife hits point first, the spinning handle twists the blade out before it penetrates very far. My throwing knives are basically a sharpened strip of metal. The blade end has a wide section to balance the weight of the tape or cord wrapped around the hilt to provide a good throwing grip.  I keep the knives sharp, but they won’t penetrate the wood a quarter inch.”

“Could you show me?”

“Sure, grab a couple kitchen knives and I’ll give you a lesson.”

The coroner met them halfway across the field. His pronounced limp was exaggerated as he slogged through the mud. He waved with a right hand missing three fingers. “Morning, Jay. Gentlemen. Where’s the body?”

“Morning, Doctor Barnes. Body’s in a locked trailer.  I’ll give you the key.”

Frank said, “Sheriff, your Doctor’s missing a few fingers and he could barely make it up the trailer steps.  Is he up to this?”

“Doctor Barnes will be fine. He was a surgeon before the war, but was in the wrong foxhole on Corregidor. A buddy dropped a live grenade and Barnes lost three fingers and half his right foot.  He still does family practice, delivers a few babies, and owns the mortuary. Folks say Doctor Barnes has you covered from cradle to grave.”

Mario took three throwing knifes from a locked case and said, “Every knife has a balance point. On a throwing knife the balance is forward on the blade. Kitchen knives, hunting knives, and pocket knives have their balance point on the handle. They’re hard to throw. Bayonets and army knives are made to stab and slice, not to throw.”

The Sheriff compared the balance of the throwing knives to the kitchen knives.  He opened his pocket knife and the balance point was on the handle.

Mario showed the Sheriff how to hold a throwing knife. The Sheriff tried a few throws, but the knives never stuck in target wheel on any of his efforts. The Sheriff quit in disgust after a few tosses with a kitchen knife and his pocket knife.

“Let me show you an underhanded toss to use with those knives. It’s good for about ten feet, but you won’t get any power behind the throw.  If you throw hard enough to do any real damage, it’ll spin out of control. If the knife’s heavy enough, you might hit someone in the head and knock them out.  Then you could pick up the knife and stab them.”

“I get it. No one stood outside the trailer and threw the knife.  I need to talk to the other people who were there this morning.  I hope I don’t need to talk to everyone in the circus.”

The roustabouts, performers, clowns, and barkers milled around outside the dining tent. Helga and Doc hadn’t let anyone inside. The cook served coffee with scrambled egg sandwiches outside the door.

Frank said, “There was a murder last night. Someone killed Janet, the Tattooed Lady. This is Sheriff Moore. He’ll need to talk to some of you. No show today, the circus is closed. Practice, mend your costumes, and repair your equipment. No questions for now. Grab some breakfast and clear the area.”

The crowd grumbled, muttered, and whispered to each other.  Eventually, they wandered away.

Dave, the Human Praying Mantis joined them in the kitchen. “I was with my wife, Martha, after we closed the sideshow. We slept until we heard Lenny shouting.”

“How long have you and Martha been together?”

“Over twenty years. Everybody loves the fat lady. I keep my head shaved, wear blue glasses, hold my hands like a praying mantis, and eat an apple or piece of chicken for the audience.  I act like I’m trying to snatch one of the kids whenever one gets close. The kids scream, but they love it. I charge a dollar for them to take a picture with me.”

“You hear anything strange last night or know why anyone would want Janet dead?”

“I only heard the rain. Janet handled the money we save to buy a place together.  It could be that. Janet sees some of the men from time to time, but nothing serious.”

“Thanks, were you one of those men?”

“She flirted with me years ago, but Martha put a stop to that. We’ve been friends and business partners for years.”

“OK, send in the snake lady.”

Before Slytherina came into the room, the Sheriff said, “In my experience, the only three reasons for murder are sex, money, and revenge. We’ve got money and sex and whenever there’s money or sex, someone gets jealous or greedy and revenge follows right away. I’ve head revenge is a dish best serve cold. I don’t see it that way. Most folks are impatient, they want their revenge hot, fresh, and bloody.”

Slytherina stepped inside, crossed her arms, and said. “I need to check my snakes, they hate cool wet weather. My green python is molting and I need to help her, not sit in this tent all day.”

“You’ll get back to your snakes soon enough. Did you see anyone after the show last night?”

Slytherina held up her bandaged right hand. “Yeah, I cut my hand scrapping dead skin off my python. The Doc came over and stitched my hand.”

“What time was this?”

“He got there before one and left after three.”

“It took two hours to stitch your hand?”

“I had to show him how grateful I was. I probably wasted my time, he was too drunk to remember.”

“Know who’d want to kill Janet?”

“Lenny and Freddie chased after her, but she wouldn’t have anything to do with either of them.  Probably not Lenny, he’s like a child. He worshiped her, walked her to meals, and followed her around like a puppy.  Freddie’s got a mean streak.  He takes advantage of local girls whenever he gets the chance. I found two of my snakes dead with their heads cut off after I refused to sleep with him. I couldn’t prove anything, but the timing was convenient.”

“What about Tasha and Mario?”

“Tasha wouldn’t hurt a fly and Mario knows Tasha’s the best thing that ever happened to him. They’re as predictable as clockwork. They finish the show, clean up, have a late snack, and go straight to bed.”

“The Doc said he left your place at two this morning, not three.”

“Like I said, Doc was the Lord’s own drunk. I heard he thinks he saw two shadows on Janet’s curtains. Don’t believe it, he was drunk enough to see ten shadows, pink elephants, and a headless horseman.”

“Thanks, tell the wolf girls I’d like to talk to them.”

“Sure, I’ll tell Dora and Donita.  Be nice to them, they barely speak English.”

The sisters were dressed in matching ankle length dresses and walking boots, nothing like the scanty outfits they wore in their act. Every inch of exposed skin, except for their eyes, noses, and palms, was covered with thick black hair. The girls looked identical. “I appreciate you ladies talking to me. Do you speak English?”

“Poquito,” said Dora. “A little bit.”

“I need to know where you were last night.”

“We go straight to bed after we help clean up.”

“You don’t hang out with other folks in the sideshow?”

“Not really, we’re uncomfortable around most people and we don’t have any money for jewelry or nice clothes. We send our paychecks to our parents in Mexico. We give our tips to Janet. We don’t have money to waste on fun and we don’t want charity from our friends.”

“You send your paychecks to your parents?”

“Yes, our father signed a contract for us to work the sideshow. The circus feeds us, buys our clothes, and provides a place to live, but our salary goes to our parents.  We have two brothers and a sister who have hypertrichosis. All of us work as wolf people or dog people in different circuses. Sometimes, we see each other in the off season.”

“Are you angry Janet made a deal with your father?”

“Absolutely not, our family needs the money. Janet and Martha treat us like real people.  These are our friends, but we don’t have money to party with them. We know girls don’t need money to party, but everything has a price. There’s no such thing as a free taco. We won’t screw someone for a couple of drinks, so we keep to ourselves.”

“Any idea why anyone would want to kill Janet?”

“It could be people she wouldn’t let share in our retirement plan, mostly the pretend freaks. Janet employed pretenders, but she didn’t consider them a real part of the freak show.”

“She didn’t like pretenders?”

“She liked them well enough to sleep with most of the men.”

“Jealousy?”

“Not unless they’re stupid. Janet got around to all the men sooner or later. They just had to wait their turn.”

The Sheriff interviewed Batilda and Tasha without learning any new information.  He listened to their alibis and sent them on their way. After they were gone, he lit a cigarette and said, “Sex, money, and revenge. She screwed around, so someone was bound to get his feelings hurt. Revenge is the motive for everyone she wouldn’t let in the retirement home. Who knows how much money she had hidden in her trailer? Maybe someone tried to make her turn over the cash. It could be the money wasn’t enough or she refused to fork over the dough. Either way, someone might have killed her for it.  It’s probably a combination of all three, a jealous lover was blackballed from the retirement program and decided to take the money and run.”

Before Frank answered, the coroner, Doctor Barnes, came into the kitchen.  He poured himself a cup of coffee and bummed a cigarette from the Sheriff. Frank stared at the two fingered grip the coroner used to hold the cigarette.

The Sheriff asked, “Barnes, you got anything.”

“Cause of death is pretty obvious, stabbed in the heart. There’s an upward angle to the wound. She was stabbed by someone shorter than her or the killer could have used an underhanded upward thrust.” Barnes demonstrated. “My money is on a short person because the angle isn’t as pronounced enough for an underhanded thrust. I saw a lot of knife wounds in the Pacific and I’m pretty good at telling what happened.”

“Anything else?”

“There’s no footprints in the blood, not even the victim’s.  There’s no blood on her shoes. I found a couple hand prints on the floor, a bloody towel someone used to clean blood from his hands, and blood was smeared on the door knob. There’s a nail where she hung the trailer key by the door at eye level, you can’t miss it. I wonder why the killer didn’t take the key and lock the door.  Locking the door would have delayed finding the body.”

“The freaks said the dead woman hid money in a secret place, a frog belly or something.”

“It’s called a possum belly. Lenny told me about it. Her hideaway was under a kitchen cabinet.  I took the cleaning supplies out of the cabinet and lifted the floorboards. There’s a small storage area between the trailer wheels.”

The Doctor opened his bag and handed a packet of envelopes, a ledger book, and a zippered bag to the Sheriff. “Here you go. I can’t tell if anything’s missing, but the money in the bag matches the ledger. The envelopes hold two years’ bank statements. There’s two hundred thousand dollars in their account.”

Frank asked, “Sheriff, if the killer didn’t take the money, does that leave love and revenge as the motives?”

“No, just because the killer didn’t find the money doesn’t mean he wasn’t looking for it.  The trailer wasn’t searched or ransacked. Something may have frightened the killer and he left in a hurry. Don’t we still have a couple people waiting to talk to me?”

Jim, the Wild Man from Borneo, was a Navaho from Shiprock, New Mexico. He hadn’t gone home after his career as a Marine code talker. He’d tried a number of jobs before he settled in the sideshow, but like some former servicemen, he’d drank his way out of every job he found.

He said that it wasn’t hard to be a wild man, once you got past the disgust factor. Jim kept his hair long, wore an old bathing suit, rolled in in the dirt and dung heap before each show, and cursed the crowd liberally in his native tongue. The highlight of his show was when he bit the head off a live chicken. Jim wasn’t dedicated enough to swallow the head. He released the headless chicken to flop around the stage. While the crowd was distracted by the fluttering chicken and blood splatter, Jim spit out the chicken head and palmed it.”

“Where were you last night?”

“I washed up after the show. I hate smelling like lion and bear shit. I drank and threw dice with the roustabouts until almost dawn. On my way to bed, I saw the freaks standing in the rain outside of Janet’s tent. I stopped to see what was going on, but Frank got there before I could ask.”

“You were involved with Janet?”

“If involved means sleeping with her, not anymore. No matter how hard I tried to clean up, the stink never goes away and Janet didn’t like the smell of animal crap any better than I did. It’s hard to drink enough to kill the taste of a chicken’s head. She got tired of that pretty quick.”

“Did that make you angry?”

“I didn’t blame her, even I don’t like the way I smell. Janet taught me to save money. I’m getting tattoos so I can take over her gig when she retires. Look.”  Jim turned his back and pulled up his shirt. There was a tattoo from his neck to his waist. An unfurled American flag flew above a battle scene. The water and beach were covered with boats and running men. There were tattoos of bombs bursting like fireworks up and down his spine. “It’s the Normandy invasion. Next time we’re in Lubbock, I’m getting Paris tattooed on my left leg, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, and that Triumph Arch thing.”

The Sheriff sent Jim away.

Frank held the door open for Fast Freddie, the Legless Wonder. He didn’t walk upside down balanced on his hands. He held his body in a normal upright position. His arms were longer than his torso and when he walked on his hands his body swayed gently from side to side. An oversized shirt was pinned under his body and gave the impression that his body ended at his waist. He wore leather gloves or mittens, designed to look like little boots. He walked across the room, slipped off the gloves, and hoisted himself into a chair.

The Sheriff and Doctor Barnes turned to each other and said at the same time. “He couldn’t reach the key.”

Freddie balanced on the chair and sullenly crossed his arms.

The Sheriff asked Doctor Barnes to inspect Freddie’s gloves and Freddie said, “Careful with those. They’re handmade by a bootmaker in El Paso. They’re not cheap. I suppose you want to know where I was last night. In every town, there’s usually some broad who wants to change her luck by spending some quality time with a cripple. If not, there’s a lady who wants to thank a real war hero. It wouldn’t be gentlemanly for me to disappoint them.”

“You were with a woman from town last night?”

“Most of the night, I walked her to her car about two this morning.  I don’t remember her name.”

“Did you see anyone at Janet’s trailer?”

“No, but I heard the Doc and Slytherina going at it.”

“Where you involved with Janet?”

“That stuck up bitch thought she was too good for me. I don’t qualify as a real freak because I got this way by accident. I wasn’t born this way and I didn’t do it to myself on purpose. She called me a pretender.”

“So you weren’t sleeping with Janet?”

“I can find plenty of women, I don’t need to stand outside her door like some bum at a soup kitchen.”

Doctor Barnes called the Sheriff’s attention to one of Freddie’s gloves. He wiped the inside of the glove with a gauze pad. He held up the pad so the Sheriff could see the reddish discoloration.

The Sheriff said, ‘Freddie, climb off that chair. I need you to do something for me.”

Freddie climbed nimbly from the chair and hand walked to the Sheriff. The Sheriff took Janet’s door key from his pocket, held the key at arm’s length, and said, “Freddie, reach up and take the key out of my hand.”

Fred’s face turned bright red, but he balanced on his stumps and strained upward with his right arm, but he was too short to reach the key. He scrambled away from the Sheriff and pulled himself onto the kitchen counter. “You son of a bitch, you think you know everything. I served with bastards like you in the army.”

Freddie grabbed a butcher knife from the sink and brandished the knife at Frank and the Sheriff. He stuck the knife between his teeth like a pirate, climbed off the counter, and headed for the door.

Frank snatched a twenty gallon stewpot from the pot rack and turned it upside down over Freddie.  It pinned his arms to his side and reached the floor. Frank and the Sheriff each took a handle and turned the pot right side up with Freddie trapped head down inside.

The Sheriff laughed and said, “Looks like dinner tonight is a short stack of justice stew. Should we serve it hot or cold?”

END


Next Week:

Illustration for "In The Newspaper." Copyright (c) 2016 by Cesar Valtierra. Used under license.In The Newspaper (part 1) by Bruce Harris, Art by Cesar Valtierra

Next week, be sure to catch the first part of our very first serialized story!  Bruce Harris brings us “In the Newspaper”.  This is the first of a five part serialization.  Over the course of this new publication year we’ll be publishing the other four parts.  The newspaper business can be murder!  Harris weaves a complex tale of affairs, blackmail, corruption and of course…murder.  You will want to stay tuned for the whole shebang!