Homestead, Pennsylvania: August 1892
As the train slowed, Neva cracked open the door to the advance men’s bunkroom and peered inside. “Well, you’re not supposed to be there,” she murmured to the room’s petite, petrified occupant. But her words were drowned out by Brother Paste, who rapped the window at the other end of the railcar and shouted, “Damnation! It’s a sticker war!”
Neva had made her observation to a pale girl who couldn’t have been more than sixteen—the age Neva had been when she joined the circus four years ago. The girl looked more terrified than most runaways, but maybe that was because Brother Paste, whose voice was every bit as immense as the man himself, hadn’t stopped shouting.
“The bastards stole a march on us!” he roared as the train eased into the station. “They papered over all our mummies!”
Neva mouthed “Be still” to the runaway and then leaned back to see where the big man was pointing. Lithographs of wild animals and near-naked performers coated the saloon opposite the station, the bar’s sagging walls “mummified” from top to bottom with advertisements for the circus. But while the eye-catching colors were familiar—grassy greens and peacock blues and molten reds more brilliant than any you’d find in even the best magazines—the name was wrong: “Ringling Bros.” instead of “Barnum & Bailey.”
“Would that saloon be ‘The Tipsy Cow?’” asked Floy, the only other regular advance man on board. Unruffled, he was checking the list of pasting contracts.
Brother Paste, halfway through yanking his pasting smock over his head, grunted what sounded like an affirmative. He’d spent the last hour brewing a barrel of his flour-and-water-based adhesive in case they needed to post some last-minute ads. He was probably cursing himself for not making more.
“Advance Car 1 signed the bar’s owner—a Mr. Wilcox—to a pasting contract back in May,” Floy noted. “Cars 2 and 4 confirmed it in June and July.” He struck a line through that portion of the list. “No complimentary tickets for him.”
“He’ll still get a piece of my mind,” Brother Paste growled, finally out of his smock. He hefted one of the rolling pins the advance men used to flatten the lithographs against their intended surfaces. “After we make sure the Ringling crew is good and gone. Come on, then—get yourself something to knock heads with.”
This last was to Neva and the other fill-ins, especially grizzled Ceburn, who was almost as large as Brother Paste. But Ceburn said what he always did—nothing—and the significantly shorter Gemi and Dorian crossed their arms.
“No one said anything about paying us to brawl on our day off,” Neva reminded Brother Paste. “Come get us when you’re sure the Ringlings are gone, and we’ll put up your posters.”
The advance man glared at her, muttered something about “Old men and colored midgets,” and stalked off the car.
Once Floy followed, she turned back to the runaway, who’d had the sense not to repeat whatever she’d done to make the incriminating noise Neva had heard a few moments earlier. “You picked the wrong train, little rube. This is Car 6. It works for the circus, confirming supplies and spreading the word. But it’s not part of it.”
Dorian squeezed his head under Neva’s arm, winked at the runaway, and stretched his face into a wide-eyed smile so ridiculous the poor girl couldn’t help giggling.
“This one, though—he’s an act to himself.” Neva tugged his hair until he withdrew, still beaming like a jack-o’-lantern. “A clown on and off the job. Normally us performers wouldn’t be here, but most of Brother Paste’s team is sick.”
Dorian slid under Neva’s arm backwards this time, clutched his rear end, and made a long, wet farting noise. The runaway giggled again as Gemi—her hands hairier than most men’s—grabbed hold of Dorian’s shoulders and returned him to the main cabin.
“No one asked for an illustration,” Gemi growled.
“The rube came to see ‘The Greatest Show on Earth,’” he protested.
“Then stop disillusioning her.”
Neva couldn’t help grinning. “The rest of the circus will be along tomorrow,” she told the runaway. “Stay out of the way and we’ll get you sorted.”
The girl nodded.
“What’s your name?”
“Rassy,” she whispered, her voice threaded with hope.
“I’m Neva—Neva Freeman. It’s nice to meet you.”
Before Rassy could respond, Brother Paste bellowed “Trespassing bastards!” from somewhere outside the car. Neva motioned for the runaway to hide, then closed the bunkroom’s door and ran to the nearest window. A second later, she jerked her head back as a pail of paste thunked against the car and coated the glass in white goo. She moved to the next window and did a quick count of the sticky, shouting men outside. “There are at least seven from Ringling’s—no, eight.”
Gemi joined her at the window to watch. Brother Paste and Floy were standing back to back, dripping with paste from another hurled bucket. Even so, they were giving better than they were getting. Brother Paste had laid out two of the rival advance men with his rolling pin, and Floy had jabbed another in the gut with Car 6’s stirring stick, doubling the man over.
But the odds remained bad.
“Maybe we should go out and help,” Gemi said, reflecting Neva’s own thoughts.
“No need,” Dorian replied. “The fight’s coming to us.”
Neva turned in time to see four more of Ringling’s advance men clamber into the car.
“Look at this,” the ugliest said when his eyes lighted on Gemi’s furry arms and chin. “They brought the darkie freakshow.”
“Must be their Gorilla Girl.”
“And that’d make the little man, what? Her chimp husband?”
With a juggler’s grace, Dorian tossed a rolling pin to Gemi and two to Neva.
“I like the taller colored girl, myself.” The first advance man took another step forward and whistled at Neva. “Bet you she’s in their ballet. I might actually pay to see those legs do a kick or two.”
“Who’s the geezer, then?”
Neva offered one of her pins to Ceburn. “He’s our wax man. Makes the best models in the business. And if you don’t get off this car, he’s going to help us wax you.” She hoped it was true; she barely knew the man. He mostly stayed in his compartment on the main train and let his apprentice set up their sculptures at each stop—it had been jarring to see Ceburn volunteer for fill-in duty. But maybe there was more grit to him than he let on.
Or maybe not. When Neva gave him the pin, he just looked at it and blinked.
The Ringling advance men laughed. They were only a few feet away now, brandishing their own pins and fanning out as much as the cluttered car allowed.
“There’s no need for this,” Neva tried, glad her words sounded calm. “We only came along to make a little extra coin. You can keep your posters up for all I care.”
“Too late,” the first advance man sneered, tensing for a lunge.
“And to the fire-eyed maid of smoky war, all hot and bleeding will we offer them,” Dorian intoned, freezing everyone.
“What the hell was that?”
“A monkey quoting Shakespeare to an ass.” Dorian let the words linger in the air a beat before flashing a nastier version of his jack-o’-lantern smile and chucking a rolling pin into the man’s ugly face.
Dorian got two more throws off before the advance men overcame their surprise. Both shots did damage, but not enough to prevent the Ringling goons from charging.
Gemi struck next, landing her blows low and fast. A shin, a knee, an ankle—in a trice, the advance men were all limping and yelping. Neva capitalized by whacking a few more legs, along with a shoulder and an elbow.
Yet Ceburn just stood like a lump off to the side.
If he’d done his share—or even half it—maybe they wouldn’t have lost the advantage. But once the advance men started swinging back, their size and reach quickly won out over the performers’ speed. Dorian went down within seconds, and Gemi soon after.
At which point Neva, woozy from a smack to her temple and inches away from being cornered, stopped holding back and revealed herself to be the biggest freak in the car.
It wasn’t just that she started contorting her body in ways that made her one of the most compelling acts in Barnum & Bailey’s Sideshow. She was flexible to be sure, her muscles more pliable than most of the acrobats’. But she could also stretch her bones. Silently snap and reform them into new positions that defied natural anatomy.
Was it magic? Witchery? Normally, these types of questions kept her from bending publicly in anything but her performances. And even then, she only augmented her twists and turns with minor distortions, small tweaks that were enough to make people marvel at the results without wondering what enabled them.
This idiotic sticker war seemed close to becoming a matter of life or death, however. And her friends were bleeding on the floor. So Neva bent. Compressing her spine so she could duck lower than she should have been able to. Nudging her ribs to the right so she could avoid a jab while staying in place. Extending her legs so she could jump over the backswing.
Lengthening her limbs also let her strike further and more unpredictably. Soon enough, it was the advance men who were retreating, eyes wild as she pressed them with unnatural, off-kilter flurries of her rolling pin. It hurt—bending always hurt. But it was also exhilarating to be this bold, this unleashed, this powerful.
Until three more Ringling advance men flooded onto the railcar, and the odds worsened yet again.
“Watch her,” one of the original assailants warned the newcomers. “She’s like a damn octopus.”
Yet they were too many now, bending or no, and it took less than a minute for her to lose all the ground she’d gained. “Ceburn!” she yelled as a vicious thrust forced her up against the bunkroom door. “Now would be a good time to stop acting like one of your stupid models!”
The jibe wasn’t enough to rouse him, but Rassy’s cry was.
She screamed when the ugly advance man from the first group missed Neva for the umpteenth time and followed his arm’s momentum into the bunkroom door, smashing it open and sprawling face-first into the narrow confines beyond. Neva nearly lost her balance trying not to trip over the man, but something about the fear in Rassy’s voice finally stirred Ceburn—and it made all the difference.
With a howl worthy of the menagerie’s hyenas, the “geezer” bowled into the advance men from behind, sending two flying and another to his knees. Belatedly, the rest turned their attention to the improbably furious sculptor while Neva caught her breath. More reinforcements arrived a second later, as Floy, Brother Paste, and a stranger wearing—of all things—a blue U.S. Army uniform rushed into the car trumpeting various battle cries. Combined with Gemi reviving enough to batter the Ringling crew from below, and Dorian springing up to bewilder them with more Shakespeare (“Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste death but once!”), it wasn’t long before Car 6 belonged to Barnum & Bailey again.
“Right,” Brother Paste said once the last of his rivals had tumbled out of the train. “That was a good one. We all in one piece?”
Gemi slumped against the wall and shook her head. “Ceburn’s down. Took a hard hit at the end.”
“Not just down,” Dorian clarified in horrified awe. “They knocked his face off.”
“What?” Neva hurried to where Dorian was kneeling over the sculptor. Rassy crept alongside as the clown pointed to the big man’s nose.
His second nose. The first had been broken off, taking a layer of flesh with it and uncovering a perfectly formed duplicate beneath.
Ceburn had been wearing a wax mask of himself.
And now he was dead.
No one knew quite what to make of it. Not at the time, and not in the predawn hours of the next morning, when Neva, Dorian, Gemi, and Rassy were waiting outside town, just beyond the railyard, for the circus to arrive.
“Why would you craft a mask of yourself?” wondered Dorian for at least the fifth time. “Granted, it was good—couldn’t even tell he was wearing it. But it’s not like he was particularly handsome. Or even vaguely appealing. Or, you know, passable. Why not try on something prettier?”
Gemi snorted. “You’re sure you wouldn’t make a mask of yourself? You and that mirror of yours are pretty friendly.”
“Hey, now. Some of us actually have to shave.”
Gemi stroked her beard. “It’s in my contract not to. Nothing requires you to bat your eyes at yourself.”
“No, but it is my sacred duty to maintain perfection.”
Neva rolled her eyes. Normally, she appreciated the duo’s irreverence, which they wielded like a shield when necessary. And it had helped make the twelve hours or so since Ceburn’s death more bearable. But the act was starting to wear thin. “How are you doing?” she asked, glancing at Rassy.
The runaway still looked shaken. “What will happen to him?” She nodded at the long bulge in the multipiece, bedsheet-sized poster Brother Paste had reluctantly let them use as a shroud (seeing as it had been battered beyond repair in the fight).
“There’ll be a service later today, probably after setup. Then someone will try to contact his family, and… we’ll see where that goes.”
“And the men who did that to him?”
“They were already on their train by the time we found the sheriff, but word will catch up with them soon.”
She didn’t seem to, though. And why should she? She must have stolen onto that train imagining all the wonders she’d see as part of the circus, all the freedom she’d have. Instead… “Listen,” Neva said after a moment. “If you want to go home, it’s not too late to—”
A steam-powered whistle rent the early-morning air, and a massive cheer went up.
Neva didn’t stand, but most of the crowd around them did, hundreds of locals who, despite Ringlings’ attempts to muddy the date, had gathered well before sunrise to catch their first glimpse of the Barnum & Bailey Circus.
“That’s the iron horse you should have jumped on,” Dorian noted to Rassy when the glow of the lead engine’s headlamp grew visible. “That’s the real thing.”
Lysander, the handsome army man who’d appeared at the end of yesterday’s sticker war, strode over with his notebook held up to what remained of the moonlight. “How many trains total?”
“Four,” Neva said. “Each with a locomotive and twenty-three custom cars.”
“More than a thousand. Hundreds of animals too—this isn’t some mom-and-pop mud show.”
“And they’ll really unload all that and set up in under two hours?”
Lysander scribbled down notes as the first train rolled to a stop beside the designated empty lot. Officially, he was the latest in a long line of military men who’d come to observe the railway circus’ transportation methods (in his case, with an eye towards improving the logistics of the army’s artillery service). But when the gilded wagons started rolling off the flatcars, and the elephants came out to help with the heaviest work, Lysander looked just as gobsmacked as all the locals, many of whom had likely traveled all night to be here for this very moment.
The newspapers called the choreographed explosion of activity the “Greatest Free Show on Earth.” Polemen and beasts laboring under lantern light to unload the cars in order of use. Canvasmen mapping out positions for the two-hundred-by-four-hundred-and-sixty-foot Big Top and the eleven smaller tents. Roustabouts sledging tent stakes into the appropriate points. Elephants, horses, and pulleys lifting immense folds of fabric as they constructed the day’s first wonder: a canvas city.
“Jumbo Jr. is my favorite,” Neva confided to Rassy, who seemed taken with the largest elephant. “Wait ‘til you see Sadie—one of the animal trainers—ride his tusks during the show.”
“I’m more interested in breakfast,” Dorian said, holding his stomach. “The Dining Tent should be up soon.”
Gemi snorted. “Of course you are.” She’d just made her way back from a trip to the rear of the second train to fetch Thurston, Ceburn’s apprentice.
“Is that him?” asked Thurston, pointing to the poster shroud.
Neva nodded, but said nothing until the apprentice had pulled back the vividly colored edge and had a look. “You see that mask? Is that… normal?”
Now it was Thurston’s turn not to reply immediately. He spent the better part of a minute peeling more and more of the poster off Ceburn, at one point lifting the dead man’s shirt and removing his boots.
“It’s more than a mask,” Thurston muttered eventually. “Here.” He handed Neva the lantern and gestured at Ceburn’s fingers.
She knelt to examine them. They looked… wrong. Scalped at the tips, in the same way Ceburn’s nose looked shorn of a layer.
“I took this off them,” Thurston said, showing her the wax peelings he held in his hand. “It’s all over him—a whole second skin.”
Neva drew back. “How?”
“I don’t know but… it’s like he made himself into his own wax model.”
Lysander swore softly. Glancing behind her, Neva saw that Rassy, Gemi, and Dorian were all expressing similar versions of horror.
“Is that even possible?” asked Neva.
Thurston stood and shrugged. “I’ve never seen painted wax that supple. It must have moved with him. And it’s so lifelike… He was hell to work for, but he was a master.”
“I’m sorry.” She squeezed the apprentice’s shoulder. “Do you want help carrying him?”
“No, I’ll get one of the roustabouts. But thank you.”
“Sure.” Neva helped him drape the poster back over Ceburn, hiding him once more beneath its tapestry of prowling lions and scantily clad dancing girls. Then Thurston left to reenter the scripted chaos still engulfing the trains.
She turned to Rassy. “I need to get ready for the parade. We do a free one through the town before the grounds open. You can stay with Gemi—she doesn’t march.”
“None of the freaks do,” Dorian added. “If they did, they’d be giving their wares away for free.”
Gemi thumbed her beard at the clown before taking Rassy’s hand and nudging her toward the nearly completed Dining Tent. The runaway resisted at first, casting a plaintive look at Neva.
“Don’t worry,” Neva said, trying her best to sound reassuring. “I’ll see you after. Promise.”
It wasn’t much, but it was enough to get Rassy to nod and follow Gemi and Dorian.
Leaving Neva’s mind free to spin with questions.
Was Ceburn’s mask just the last work of a brilliant craftsman? Or was it something else? Something that only someone like her could have made, someone born with an ability that bordered on—and probably was—witchcraft?
There was only one person she could ask such questions: Augie, her twin brother and the circus’ primary ventriloquist. No one but him knew she could bend; no one but her knew his talent for mimicking voices and casting them afar was more than hard-earned skill.
She’d find him in the middle of the third train, dozing in the single men’s sleeper car until the last possible moment. If she could rouse him soon…
“Excuse me—Neva, was it?” Lysander jogged to catch up with her. “Do you mind if I pose you a few more questions about the mechanics?”
“Can’t you ask someone else?”
“I have an appointment with Mr. Bailey, but that’s not until noon. Until then…”
Neva swerved around a team of roustabouts tensioning the last of the Big Top’s support lines.
“You were a big help yesterday, and I appreciate that. I do. But I really need to—”
“LOOK OUT!” a panicked voice yelled from off to the left.
Neva instinctively hopped to the right, then grabbed Lysander when he didn’t do the same. It was well she did. A moment later, Jumbo Jr.—the magnificent descendant of Jumbo, the circus’ first elephant—flopped to the ground where they’d been walking, his trunk rebounding off the ground with horrible force.
“No!” moaned Sadie as she abandoned her cart of training implements to run to her beloved animal’s side. “What did you DO to him?”
“Nothing!” the roustabout in charge of him protested, staying well back of the twitching elephant. “He just got the shakes and fell over!”
But Neva thought she knew the cause. She’d seen the flakes that flew off the mighty animal’s trunk when it hit the ground, and when she darted over to verify, she found traces of the same substance still clinging to Jumbo Jr.’s wrinkled skin in a subtle pattern:
The remnants of two wax handprints.
Neva filled Augie in after the parade, on their way to lunch.
“Jumbo Jr.’s all right, though?” he asked.
“We’ll see. They’ve got him resting under a tarp.”
“Good.” Augie waved to the circus mailman as he zipped around them and into the Barber’s Tent. “But I agree: something’s off about this. I’ll try to get a look at Ceburn’s body before the service.”
“Are you ready for tonight?”
Neva pulled up short outside the Dining Tent. She’d completely forgotten. Tonight was her chance to impress Imre Kiralfy, director of the circus’ production of Columbus and the Discovery of America. If she danced well enough in her supporting role, he’d promised to give her serious consideration for one of the leads. Which would make her the first featured colored performer in Barnum & Bailey history. “I want to run through my steps one more time, but… yes. I think I’m ready.”
“Even with all this going on?”
“I’m not sure I have a choice.”
“True.” He pointed through the flaps of the Dining Tent’s entrance. “Is that your runaway?”
Rassy was sitting with Gemi, Dorian, and Lysander at the Sideshow table.
“Once we go South, you won’t be able to sit with us,” Neva heard Gemi telling Rassy as they approached. “It’s separate everything down there. But for now it’s fine.”
Neva and Augie pulled chairs over and flagged down a waiter. After putting in their order, Augie turned to Dorian and produced a playing card.
“The Queen of Spades?” Dorian clapped his hand to his forehead and pretended to faint.
Lysander wrinkled his mustache. “What’s that about?”
“Some absurd game of hide and seek he and Augie are playing,” Neva said absently as she looked about the tent. “If I understand it right, Dorian owes Augie a drink.”
“He does indeed,” Augie confirmed.
“Once the season is over, of course, and our contracts allow it.”
Her brother smiled innocently. “Of course.”
Lysander glanced at his notebook, as if debating whether this tidbit was worth transcribing.
Neva’s eyes rested on Brother Paste, stuffing his face at one of Management’s tables. Why was he still here? Shouldn’t he have collected the other advance men and headed out by now? “Don’t bother asking about the game’s rules. It makes no sense to anyone but the two of them.”
To Rassy’s amusement and Augie’s annoyance, Dorian refused to stop pretending he’d fainted.
“How much meat would you say the cooks went through this morning?” asked Lysander, returning to his singular focus on logistics. “A half ton? And most of it prearranged by the advance men? I saw several butchers waiting to meet the trains.”
“Probably,” Neva guessed, still pondering Brother Paste’s presence. “Mr. Bailey can tell you better than I. Shouldn’t you be seeing him soon?”
“That’s been postponed until this afternoon.”
“What’s a rube?” asked Rassy in her small voice.
Neva hid her smile. It was good to see the runaway coming out of her shell. “Rubes are what circus folk call normal people.”
“That or gillies,” Augie added.
“But if you hear ‘Hey, rube!’ that means there’s about to be a fight.”
Rassy’s eyes widened. “Like the sticker war?”
“Sort of, but that was our circus against another circus. A ‘Hey, rube!’ is when some local idiots get sauced and start swinging at performers.”
“Or laborers,” Gemi said. “Or whoever. We stick together when that happens.”
Lysander cleared his throat. “I hope it doesn’t happen tonight. You heard about the strike they had here in July? Turned into a pitched battle between the steelworkers and hundreds of Pinkertons the Carnegie Corporation shipped in. And I saw some Pinkerton guards sitting over by the owner’s table…”
Dorian woke from his “faint” to laugh. “Our Pinkertons aren’t the fighting type.”
Neva straightened in her chair—Thurston had wandered into the Dining Tent. She’d been hoping to ask him more questions about Ceburn. “Gemi, can you see that Rassy’s settled in the Dressing Tent? I have a few things to take care of before Sideshow opens.”
Dorian eyed the still-steaming plate of hash and potatoes the waiter had set down in front of Neva. “Does that mean…”
As Dorian slid the plate to his side of the table, Neva noticed the panicked look on Rassy’s face. “I’m sorry to leave you again, but you’re not a ‘rube’ anymore. You’re one of us, and that makes you family. Have Gemi steer you to Marrette—that’s our Fat Lady. She’ll look after you.”
Neva patted Rassy’s back and stood. “I’ll see you soon.”
Thurston was carrying his plate out of the tent and eating while he walked. Neva hustled to intercept him. “Did you hear what happened to Jumbo Jr.?” she asked once she was close enough.
“Just that he fell,” Thurston said around a mouthful of hash.
“With no warning of any illness. Strange, isn’t it?”
“If you say so. Animals aren’t really my department.”
They were out of the Dining Tent now, headed for the Midway and its busy stalls of candy vendors and games of chance. The circus proper wasn’t open yet, but as usual, the hundreds of predawn arrivals had already swelled to thousands ready to spend the money they’d saved all year for the occasion, when classes were canceled, shops closed, and factories shut down. More people would be on the way, clogging roads within a fifty-mile radius with horses and wagons, or using the special “excursion” train fares the advance men had arranged for today only. Brother Paste wasn’t the pleasantest of fellows, but Neva was always impressed by how he and his colleagues made sure Circus Day was an event.
Not that she cared much about any of that right now—at the moment, the influx of circus-goers just meant there were more people in her way as she tried to stay next to Thurston. “Speaking of your department, do you know if Ceburn was trying to make a model of Jumbo Jr.?”
Thurston gave her a skeptical look as he cut between the Manager’s Tent and the Press Tent. “Why would he do that?”
“Maybe to stand next to his father?” After his death in 1885, Jumbo Sr.’s hide and skeleton had been preserved as separate exhibits. Augie thought them gruesome, but they were still big draws.
“Jumbo Jr.’s not dead yet,” Thurston objected.
“I know, but… there were wax handprints on his trunk.”
Thurston stopped to chew this over (along with a bite of potato). “That bit’s odd. Ceburn wasn’t working on a Jumbo model as far as I know. I don’t think he was working on much of anything—before this morning, I hadn’t seen him outside his car for a week.”
“I heard that’s not unusual.”
“Not really. He liked the Columbus play well enough—you and the other ballet girls in particular. But he didn’t venture out for much else.”
“Would you mind if I see his car?”
Thurston frowned. “Why? We don’t keep the display models there.”
“His workshop is in there, right? I’m just… curious. This is all so strange.”
Thurston shook his head. “No offense, but I’d rather not have someone poking around until I can sort things. I still haven’t figured out how he made that full-body encasement. I kept a piece of it, but…”
Someone swore behind them, and Neva looked back to see Brother Paste braying at an unconcerned Floy.
Thurston followed her gaze. “Are you sure it was wax?”
“On Jumbo Jr.’s trunk?” He jabbed a potato at the advance men. “Their ‘adhesive’ is white too.”
Neva raised her eyebrows. She hadn’t thought of that.
Thurston rotated the potato to point at the Sideshow Tent. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to touch up some models before showtime…”
He nodded and disappeared into the tent, still munching on his lunch.
Had he been evasive? More hurried than normal? It was hard to say, and today had to be a difficult day for him. Brother Paste, though—what was he so mad about? (Beyond the usual?)
“Are the rest of your men still sick?” she asked the advance man as he passed her.
“Puking, shitting messes,” he grumbled. “Be another day before we can move on. We’re going to have to skip a stop to get back on schedule. Never done that before.”
Floy flicked his hand dismissively. “Car 4 doubled back through Morgantown last week. Said it was fine.”
“Unless Ringling is trying to steal our stops. I don’t like leaving one unsecured.”
The two men kept moving towards the Press Tent, perhaps to help localize the “objective” reviews of tonight’s performance the circus would submit to Homestead’s papers.
Neva debated following the pair but settled for calling out one last question. “What do you think about Jumbo Jr. going down?”
Brother Paste spat to the side, narrowly missing Floy, who didn’t so much as flinch. “I think an elephant would make for a month of steaks.”
Well, that wasn’t nice—or helpful.
Letting the two men go, Neva took a step in the Dressing Tent’s direction before slowing. Normally, she’d spend the time between the parade and the opening of the Sideshow Tent devouring a novel. Today, she should be practicing her steps. But two members of the circus had collapsed while coated with wax (or had it been paste?).
Neva clenched her jaw and turned around. Reading could wait. She could practice her steps while she walked. If there were answers to be found, some of them would be in Ceburn’s workshop.
On her way to the trains, Neva took a slight detour to pass by Jumbo Jr. The chain anchoring him to a nearby stake seemed completely unnecessary. He wasn’t leaking from both ends like most of the advance men apparently were, but he looked no better than he had that morning, when the trainers had given up trying to rouse the elephant and asked the polemen to erect a tarp over him. His breathing was shallow for such an enormous chest, and his eyes half-lidded. If he’d raised his head since Neva had seen him last, she couldn’t tell.
It didn’t help that four young boys were throwing rocks at him.
“Shoo!” she yelled at them. “Shoo, or I’ll toss you into the Menagerie and let the lions and tigers tussle over your bones!”
The boys scattered with satisfying haste. Neva allowed herself another moment to stroke Jumbo Jr.’s forehead, wincing to see his water bucket still filled to the brim. “No more white stuff on you,” she said after a quick inspection. “Drink up, Mr. Big Ears. I’ll help you if I can.”
When Neva reached the railyard, she was only a little surprised to see Lysander exiting the second train, scribbling in his notebook as he descended. The man was relentless. “Sky looks rather ominous, don’t you think?” he said when he noticed her, angling his pencil at the darkening clouds in the west.
She shrugged. “The circus can handle a little rain. Learn anything interesting about our railcars?”
“A great deal, thank you. I’d heard you customized their interiors to facilitate loading and unloading, but seeing it… The circus really is an exemplar of efficiency.”
“I’m glad you’re finding us so illuminating. What division did you say you were in again?”
“Fourth Field Artillery Regiment.”
He said it smoothly, without hesitation, but Neva made a mental note to confirm that a Lieutenant Lysander Smith of that body had indeed been granted access to Barnum & Bailey’s inner workings. “I hope all this is of help to the Fighting Fourth, then.”
“Oh, it will be. Until later.” Lysander raised his notebook to her and strode back toward the circus and its ever-expanding bustle.
She watched him go for a moment before climbing into the same car he’d climbed out of. It should have been locked, and there should have been Pinkertons patrolling the yard; neither safeguard was in evidence at the moment. Was that Lysander’s doing, or just some lunchtime sloppiness?
The car she’d entered wasn’t Ceburn’s, but it wasn’t far from it either. Neva only had to make her way between two intervening cars before she came to the wax sculptor’s workshop and residence. She couldn’t help being jealous as she entered the through-corridor. Only the top acts received their own cars. Ceburn certainly wasn’t that anymore, yet Mr. Barnum had been extremely fond of wax models before his passing the previous year. Ceburn must have been living out a legacy contract to still be traveling in such luxury.
And now Neva had come to a lock: the door to the wax sculptor’s compartment wouldn’t budge when she turned the knob. Fortunately, she always carried a master key—of sorts.
Gritting her teeth, Neva bent her finger to a fraction of its normal thickness, elongating it until she could fit the tip inside the lock and feel around for the keyhole’s inner shape. Then it was just a matter of exerting the right pressure, ignoring the pain, and… click.
Augie would have scolded her. Her finger was bloody, and he’d warned her never to deform herself enough to leave telltale scars. But the bleeding wasn’t bad once she restored her finger to its natural dimensions, and now she was in Ceburn’s shop.
She’d rarely seen a tidier workspace.
Labeled jar after labeled jar filled the shelves that lined every wall. Tools organized by type and length hung from a series of perfectly level hooks. And the central worktable looked clean enough to perform surgery on. If Thurston—or anyone else—had been in here after Ceburn’s death, they’d done a masterful job of cleaning up after themselves.
Aside from a tiny dresser in a corner and a cot under the table, there wasn’t much evidence the sculptor had done anything but craft in here. Various half-finished forms ringed the room, some painted, some still in their raw states. The only completed models were small, slightly larger than dolls. Indeed, they seemed to be dressed in doll’s clothing.
Neva felt more out of place with each second. This had clearly been a sacred space for Ceburn. Was she doing the right thing by rummaging through it? When the third drawer she opened revealed nothing more suspicious than a stash of sweets, she nearly turned and left. But the fourth drawer contained a journal, and Neva knew as soon as she’d read the first page that she was on to something.
“James doesn’t know a damn thing about art,” the initial entry began. “It was Phineas that had the eye for imagination, the ability to recognize talent and vision. With him gone, I fear for the future. Never mind withstanding new sensations, like the coming World’s Fair in Chicago. What about simply competing with the Ringling Brothers? James can manage a show, I’ll give him that. Make it run like clockwork and conform to the railroad’s timetable. No one better there. But when it comes to making the circus sing, transforming it into a thing of wonder… Well, we’ll see. I’m not optimistic.”
Neva skimmed the next few pages, looking for more entries about “James” Bailey and “Phineas” Taylor Barnum. There were several, none of them dated. All were gloomy to some degree or other, and some were downright angry.
“Blast him!” the fifth read. “Wax models aren’t ‘relics of the past.’ They’re the wave of the future! What better way to bring culture to the countryside than to expose the masses to the likenesses of the greats, the movers and shakers of this age and those that preceded it? And if it’s dollars and cents James cares about, he has only to look to the success of Madame Tussaud for proof of my works’ long-term viability… ‘Relics of the past.’ Phineas must be spinning in his grave.”
Neva scanned a few more entries. She didn’t have time to read them all, but one near the end caught her eye. “James just told me he won’t be renewing my contract for next year. I’m not sure I care anymore. Wouldn’t it be better to finally set up my own shop, my own museum? Yet I will leave him with one great work, one model of unsurpassed excellence to remember me by—and regret letting me go. I start tonight, and I’ll put everything I can into it, no matter the risk. This will be my greatest creation. Phineas would have been proud.”
What risk was there in creating wax models? Neva closed the journal and, after enduring a lashing from her conscience about stealing from the dead, slipped the small notebook in her pocket. She’d return it once she’d read the whole thing. Either late tonight, when the performance was over, or early tomorrow morning. For now, she had to prepare for her Sideshow shift. As it was, she was going to be cutting it fine, but if she hurried…
Why was that jar further forward than the rest?
In anyone else’s workshop, a bit of unevenness would have looked completely natural. Yet here, in an environment so organized Neva felt like she was spreading chaos just by breathing, a slightly protruding jar stood out like a wart. It was only proper to push in the container of “Glass Eyes – Black” and restore harmony to Ceburn’s symphony to systemization. Except something prevented the jar from moving back, so Neva pulled it out.
And inhaled so quickly she hiccupped.
The object forcing the jar out of its rightful place was a small picture frame. In its front, someone had jammed a playing card—a Jack of Diamonds. The card had the same styling as the Queen of Spades Augie had shown Dorian earlier that day.
More puzzling still, when Neva removed the Jack, she found herself hiccupping into the face of the picture frame’s subject: Rassy. Clothed exactly as she’d been yesterday when she turned up on the advance train.
Questions roiled in Neva’s mind, but they were forced out by darkness a second later, after something hard and heavy hammered the back of her head.
Neva couldn’t move when she woke.
At first, she thought it was because her head ached and her thoughts were wobbling like wounded minnows. But it was more than that. Her arms, her legs—even her eyelids were immobilized. She couldn’t breathe particularly well either. Every inhalation felt filtered, every exhalation forced. What had happened to her?
She tried to call out but couldn’t open her mouth enough to emit more than a whimper. Had that blow paralyzed her? Was she dying on the floor of Ceburn’s workshop? Could she still bend?
Yes—that helped. If she flattened the bones of her face a bit, her skin withdrew from whatever had coated it, allowing her mouth space to take a full breath and her eyes room to open.
She was still in Ceburn’s workshop. And standing, somehow. But the colors were all wrong. Distorted and washed out, as if she were looking through frosted glass.
Or a layer of wax.
Oh God, she was encased in it, entombed in her own statue. Just as Ceburn had been before he died. She tried to thrash her way free, but the wax was stronger than iron—she couldn’t distort it, or fracture it, or move it so much as a whisker’s width.
But she could still bend. If she could find an opening… Whoever had trapped her—sculpted her—in here had left a small airhole by her mouth, but even she couldn’t fit through that, not on her most-flexible of days. No, she needed something at least the size of a fist. But her sculptor had been thorough, covering every inch of her in impossibly stiff wax.
Except for the soles of her feet—Neva could feel the planks of the wood floor beneath her shoes. If the sculptor had cast her as a standing model, covering her base would have been irrelevant.
It would only help her if she could expose the holes, though. And to do that, she had to rock her statue back and forth, building up momentum by bending to one side and then the other, over and over, until… she fell. Not gently, and not quietly, but before the statue had finished bouncing off the floor and rolling to a rest, Neva had squeezed her way out the model’s left foot.
It took a full minute to overcome the pain from so much rapid bending, and another after that to control her breathing. In the meantime, all she could do was lean against the door and stare at her waxy, dead-eyed likeness.
The model was crude, plainly done in a hurry. But the shape was more right than not, and unsettlingly accurate when it came to her face. Peering into it was like looking at one of the Sideshow’s angled mirrors, except worse. This was her, vaguely defined and drained of color, yet still recognizable. It was like a funeral mask for her whole body.
Once her physical agony had ebbed, Neva straightened and surveyed the rest of the room. Rassy’s picture was gone, but the mysterious sculptor had left the Jack of Diamonds on the floor alongside a red-stained shovel. Neva touched the matching stain on the back of her head and winced. The only good thing about the wax casing was that it had kept the swelling down. Now that she was free, she’d already sprouted an egg-sized lump.
After pocketing the card, she noted that the lid of a barrel labeled “Wax – Thick” was slightly askew. Nothing would make her touch the substance with her bare skin again, but she was willing to poke it with the shovel. The wax inside dented exactly as it should have.
Her statue still had the consistency of iron, however. When she tested it, the shovel’s blade pinged off her fake torso in a way that suggested applying additional force would only dent the shovel. How had the sculptor done that? And in so short a…
Time—she had no idea what time it was.
Neva dropped the shovel and sprang to the door. She was late; there was no doubting that. But hopefully only for her Sideshow shift. If she’d missed her dance in Columbus…
Yet for all her haste, she wasn’t the first one through the door. When she opened it, a small pale shadow darted past her and into the through-corridor.
She leapt back instinctively, then leapt forward—there wasn’t enough money in the world to make her stay in that workshop, regardless of whatever had just slipped out of it.
The shadow’s identity became clear soon enough. When Neva burst into the corridor, the pale blur looked back at her from the connecting door and widened its black eyes.
The eyes of one of Ceburn’s wax dolls.
Holy hell, was there no end to the oddities in the old man’s workshop of horrors?
The doll turned back to the door and jumped for the knob. The first leap missed entirely, and the second only grazed the knob, but the third achieved a firm grasp. The doll didn’t seem to know how to rotate the knob, though. After hanging from it for several seconds, the doll dropped back to the floor and scrambled for the adjacent window.
By that point, Neva had overcome her shock—this must be what Ceburn had meant by his “greatest creation.”
“Wait,” she called as she jogged towards the doll. She didn’t want to touch it if she didn’t have to, but there might be a little person under that outer shell, someone even smaller than Dorian or Gemi. A child perhaps, encased in the same way Ceburn had been and so petrified that it had stood absolutely still while Neva had been in the workshop. “I won’t hurt you!”
But the doll had found a chair to scurry up, and the window had been propped open for ventilation. The tiny thing was sliding down the side of the train before Neva reached the end of the car.
“Come back,” Neva tried as she raised the window to its full height and slid out herself.
The doll—midget? Child?—didn’t stop running, and now it was on all fours, loping like a baby gazelle. It was already clear of the railyard and zipping towards the circus. So Neva ignored her stiff muscles and throbbing head and sprinted.
No one was around to watch her chase a creature a third her size. All of Homestead seemed to be at the circus, and everyone coming from out of town must have arrived long since. Neva judged the time to be late afternoon, but it was hard to tell with the dark clouds from the west starting to swallow the sun. There would be rain soon, maybe a lot. Best to catch the doll before things got slick.
It was faster than her, though, almost ludicrously so. She’d always been reasonably quick—quicker than Augie, who was no slouch himself—but the doll flat out dusted her on its way to the circus’ nearest attraction: Jumbo Jr.’s tarp. Once there, the little thing stood back up and disappeared between the forest of boots and shoes created by the crowd who’d gathered around the elephant since Neva had passed by earlier in the day.
The reason why became apparent as she drew closer.
It wasn’t just Jumbo Jr. now. There were four other elephants positioned around him, two on either side. Each pair shared a harness, to which was attached a giant rope that ran back and encircled Jumbo Jr.’s neck.
“What is this?” asked Neva as she slowed to a walk, still keeping an eye out for the doll.
A familiar head turned around to look at her—Augie. “Neva! Where have you been?”
She maneuvered through the rear rows of the crowd until she’d drawn even with her brother. “What are they doing to Jumbo?”
Someone banged a drum, and the harnessed elephants took a step away from Jumbo Jr. The crowd burbled.
Augie’s face hardened. “They’re hanging him.”
Neva blanched. “What? Why? He’s just lying there. He’s sick!”
“Very. But about an hour ago, he found the energy to take offense to some idiot’s poking and prodding. Gored the fellow’s leg and flung him twenty feet. You didn’t hear about that?”
The drum beat again. The elephants advanced another step, taking up most of the rope’s remaining slack.
“Shit…” No one had said anything about a doll scampering between their feet. Everyone was looking up. Neva couldn’t help doing the same. “There were boys throwing rocks at him— Bailey shouldn’t have had Jumbo Jr. out here for rubes to torture. And now he’s making a damn spectacle of this!”
“I know, but you need to stay put.” Augie gripped her shoulder.
She hadn’t moved yet, but she wanted to. “He had wax on his trunk, Augie. This isn’t his fault. Let me go.”
Another drumbeat. Another step.
She tried to throw his hand off, but he held firm. “Let me go!”
“Not a chance.”
A few people—all white circus-goers—glanced back at them.
“In case you hadn’t noticed,” Augie hissed, “let me point out that this is basically a lynching. Stay where you are, or they might string you up too.”
Beat. Step. The rope drew taut. Jumbo Jr. finally stirred, raising his head as much as the noose allowed.
Neva’s bones still ached, and there were people everywhere, but if Augie didn’t let her go in the next two seconds, she’d bend her way free and damn the consequences.
Sadie made that unnecessary. “Back up!” the trainer yelled as she strode out of the crowd, palms up and pointing at the nearer pair of elephants. “Back up!”
The pair snorted when the drum sounded again, but they didn’t move forward. And when diminutive Sadie repeated her command, the two massive beasts took a step back.
“Sadie!” a man barked. “What are you doing?”
“Ending this farce. Back up. Back up! Good boys.” The elephants on the other side had taken a step back too.
“Jumbo Jr.’s been judged and sentenced!” the man shouted. Neva recognized his booming timbre this time: it belonged to Orrock, one of the managers. She couldn’t see him, but she had no doubt the sweaty attention-whore had arranged this disgrace. Nothing was off limits for him if it generated a round of applause.
“He’s ill and he was abused!” retorted Sadie. “Back up one more step. Those are my good boys.”
Orrock emerged from the other side of the tarp, his secondhand suit splotched with even more perspiration than usual. A twitchy drummer followed behind. “I’ll have your job for this, Sadie! That elephant is dangerous. He’s been condemned to die!”
The trainer shrugged and pointed at Jumbo Jr. “What are you going to do, hang the girl too?”
Neva followed her arm and gasped: through the cracks in the crowd, she could see that a girl had moved next to the elephant and slipped the rope over her own neck. If the noose tightened again, it would choke her as well as Jumbo Jr.
Augie coughed in surprise. “Is that…”
“Yes,” Neva whispered. “That’s Rassy.”
She looked scared, as she had every right to be. But she also looked defiant.
“Brave lass,” someone said as Orrock sputtered.
“You can’t do it now,” someone else added.
“Give him a second chance!”
Then the rest of the crowd came to life, exhorting Orrock to have mercy and spare the elephant and his young savior.
“Good show!” a familiar voice exclaimed from off to the side. “Really had me for a second—I almost thought they’d go through with it!”
“I knew that fellow they said Jumbo hit wasn’t really hurt. Take a bow!”
Neva rested her hand over Augie’s and squeezed. He pretended to cough again so he could cover his mouth with his other hand.
The last two voices were from their childhood. Derek, a friend, had been the first; Hatty, their mentor, the second. Augie was mimicking them. Duplicating their tone and cadence with unnatural precision and projecting them away from himself to anonymize their source. His tactic had precedent. One of the Big Top acts involved two performers masquerading as aggrieved audience members. Before the main show started, the duo stumbled into an argument and nearly came to blows, with the smaller chasing the larger out of the stands and onto the racing track. Eventually, they retreated to the men’s dressing tent, at which point the audience realized they’d just seen a skit. They usually cheered.
As they did now, after further encouragement from Augie. It helped that Orrock was smart enough to force a smile and raise his arms, as if acknowledging that this had been the plan the whole time. Sadie played along too, blowing kisses to the crowd as she stood on her tiptoes to remove the rope from Jumbo Jr.’s neck. Rassy flinched when she received her ovation, but positively beamed when the elephant—still lying down yet flapping his ears with more energy than he’d shown throughout the proceedings—got the loudest applause of all.
As the crowd moved away, though, its tumult of heads and torsos blocked Rassy from view. And when Neva finally reached Jumbo Jr., the girl was gone.
Neva raised her hands above her head to ward off the first drops of rain. “Will you cover for me at Sideshow?”
She and Augie had lingered by Jumbo Jr.’s tarp for a few minutes, her brother’s face darkening as she summarized what had happened to her in Ceburn’s workshop. But the circus-wide break to view the aborted execution was over, and the Sideshow Tent was reopening. Their brother-sister act—“Twisted Twins: He’ll Make You Laugh, She’ll Make You Gasp”—needed to be up and running shortly.
“I’m not sure you should be on your own right now,” Augie grumbled. “I got a look at Ceburn’s body before the service.”
“I’m sorry I missed that.”
“Don’t be. It was short and awkward. No one knew him well enough to say much. But beneath the wax, he was far more decomposed than he should have been. Something strange happened to him.”
“Clearly. I’m not going anywhere private, though. They’ll be people about.”
Augie grimaced, then gave in, as she’d known he would. “Just don’t be late for your dance cue.”
“Right.” Once again, she’d nearly forgotten about her Columbus performance. “At least this way I’ll be too busy to get nervous?”
He chuckled darkly. “Sure, go ahead and find the silver lining.”
“One more thing: any idea why a playing card of Dorian’s was in Ceburn’s workshop?”
Her brother raised his eyebrows. “You’d have to ask him. He’s the one that hides the cards. I just hunt them down.”
Neva frowned. “I’ll walk with you to Sideshow, then. Dorian’s doing the Cooch Show tonight?”
“I think so.”
To avoid the crush of circus-goers trying to get out of the rain, she and Augie circled around to the back of the Sideshow Tent and ducked through the performer’s entrance. Augie immediately went to their stall and began belting out good—but not suspiciously good—impressions of famous personalities. Neva slipped into the first of the tent’s two partitions, and the only area of the circus marked “Gentlemen only.”
Tillie, the warmup act, was already performing on the roped-off stage, shimmying in makeup and a skimpy costume that let her pass as “oriental.” She finished with a series of gyrations that left the Homestead men slack-jawed and panting.
Despite her urgency, Neva grinned. The next bit was one of her favorite acts in all the circus.
“Gentlemen!” Edson, the Cooch Show’s talker, cried out as he burst from the dancer’s enclosed waiting area and leapt onstage. “Are you ready to see the Beauty of the Fair shake and shiver like a bowl of jelly in a gale of wind?”
The men hooted their assent. One tall fellow noticed Neva and winked at her. She winked back and pointed at the stage.
“Then prepare yourselves for the dance that John the Baptist lost his head over!”
The men hooted again as Edson hopped back off, but the catcalls sputtered and died when Dorian took his place. He was in his silliest drag, exaggerated foam breasts and buttocks complimenting his feminized clown makeup, ruffled clothes, and oversized nose shaped like a nipple.
“There’s a place in France,” Dorian chanted while he high-kicked arrhythmically around the stage, “where the naughty perverts glance.”
That was the part Neva liked best—the first moments of flabbergasted silence from a dozen or so horny rubes.
Just before Dorian started in on the cartwheels that would reveal his stained, baggy underwear, Neva caught his eye and motioned to outside the partition. He met her there a minute later, after Kitty, the third Cooch Show performer—and a true belly dancer—slinked out to soothe the rubes’ embarrassment.
“The Jack of Diamonds?” said Dorian after Neva gave him some abbreviated, non-fantastical context and showed him the card. “Oh, I hid that a couple days ago.”
“Was Ceburn there?”
Dorian nodded. “Sleeping on his cot under the table. I didn’t notice him until I’d put the card in the jar.”
Neva crinkled her nose. “You mean the picture frame.”
“No, it was definitely a jar labeled ‘Ears – Large.’ Scary stuff in there. Pretty obscene, if you ask me. Who would want all those fake parts?” He made a show of crossing his arms and resting them on his foam bosom.
Neva rewarded him with a smile. “You didn’t see Rassy in there?”
“The runaway? That would have been a trick, seeing as she hadn’t run away yet. No, it was just ole’ snoozy Ceburn.” He gestured at the partition. “Can I go back to work now? Some of us aren’t taking the afternoon off.”
“Sure. Thank you.”
“Break a leg during Columbus.”
“I will. Don’t let any angry rubes break one of yours.”
Neva frowned as Dorian returned to the Cooch Show in time to play his role in the next sequence of titillation and confusion. She’d gotten some answers, but they’d only led to more questions.
So it went for the rest of the afternoon.
In the “Mysteries and Curiosities” partition of the Sideshow Tent, she spoke briefly with Thurston beside the day’s selection of wax models and an illusion of a disembodied head smoking a cigar. He said he’d never seen Rassy before that morning and had no idea why Ceburn possessed a picture of her (which Neva claimed to have found in the pocket of a coat he’d left in Advance Car 6). “But I did hear Ceburn say something about a daughter once,” Thurston added. “You’re sure it wasn’t just a resemblance?”
Neva shook her head, then winced as Hazard “The Human Ostrich” bit off a chunk of a drinking glass, chewed it to bits, and washed it down his long neck with a swig of water.
After waving to Augie, she braved the rain to stop in at the Manager’s Tent and chat with Quitman, the circus registrar. He was busy mapping next year’s route, balancing crop reports, incidents of droughts, bank clearings, and a host of other factors that affected when each region was likely to be at its most prosperous. But he always had a minute for Neva, especially when she brought him a hand-rolled cigarette.
“No,” he said, through a puff of smoke, in answer to her first question. “Brother Paste and his team only joined us two days ago, when that terrible illness swept through Car 6. Normally he stays far enough ahead that we don’t see him until the season’s over. I expect that’ll be the case once they push out again tonight.”
“Who?” he replied to her second question.
“Lieutenant Lysander Smith,” Neva repeated. “Said he’s Fourth Field Artillery Regiment?”
“Hmm.” Quitman rifled through the heap of papers on his desk before pulling out a sheet flecked with ash. “I don’t see him on the observer list, but it’s possible Mr. Bailey made arrangements on his own. I can check into it if you’d like.”
Neva was soaked by the time she ducked into Stable Tent #2, where the performance animals were housed and Sadie was grooming Cheddar, her prized ox.
“I hope they tied everything down,” the trainer said after the wind pressed the canvas tight against the tentpoles.
Neva noted that Sadie was using a curry comb, fetched a second, and circled around to Cheddar’s other side. “Well done with Jumbo Jr. That was bold.”
“Hardly. Orrock is easier to tame than a sloth.”
“Still. Do you think you’ll be able to get Jumbo on the train?”
“I won’t let them leave without him.”
Neva grinned. She enjoyed this fierce old master of beasts. “You mind if I ask you a few questions? I’m trying to chase something down.”
“Keep brushing Cheddar and you can ask anything you like.”
“Did you ever see Ceburn or Rassy near Jumbo before today?”
Sadie cocked her head and peered at Neva over Cheddar’s back. “Ceburn, no—I’m not convinced that man left his car to do anything but his necessaries. And sometimes not even that; probably just jarred and labeled it.”
The trainer shrugged. “And Rassy is…?”
“The girl who saved Jumbo with you.”
“Ah. Today was the first I laid eyes on her. I liked what I saw, though. She’s got grit.”
“What about Thurston? Or Brother Paste, or an army observer named Lysander Smith?”
Sadie angled her head the opposite direction. “No wax men or military types, but Brother Paste seems to delight in swearing at my elephants when he goes by them. Full of bile, that one. What’s this all about?”
“I’ll let you know when I figure it out. Thanks for your help. I hope the animals don’t spook from the storm tonight.”
The trainer patted Cheddar. “This one won’t. What’s a little wind when you’re used to jumping through flaming rings? See you in there.”
Neva’s last stop was the Menagerie Tent, the second largest in the circus. Upon entering, she couldn’t help frowning at Gemi’s placement in the “Ethnological Congress of Strange and Savage Tribes.” It was bad enough that Bailey had the human “freaks” like Marrette displayed alongside the tigers and camels and all the other animals. But the Ethnological Congress was a white man’s vision of how humanity had progressed to position him at the top. “The Wild Men of New Guinea, Canoe Indians of Greenland, Poonans of Central Borneo, Bushmen from Australia, Amazons from Dahomey”—all these “vanishing races” and more were exhibited in dress and routines that emphasized their supposedly primitive natures. At the far end of the lineup sat a European reading a book. At the beginning stood Gemi, portrayed as the “Missing Link” between man and ape. This, despite the fact that she spoke seven languages and tutored children in the offseason.
“Becoming the first featured colored ain’t gonna change any of this,” Marrette noted. The Fat Lady, white as they came but never governed by it, had always been quick to guess Neva’s thoughts.
“I know.” She forced herself to stop scowling. “And it’s still a decent place to work—hard to beat free room and board plus wages. But then you see this, and think about how they call the colored musicians the ‘Nig Band,’ and refuse to hire colored laborers for anything but waiting tables…”
“Ain’t gonna change,” Marrette repeated. “So, should I pack my bags and head home?”
Neva scanned the milling crowd, happy to slip into the game she’d played with the Fat Lady for more than a year now. “You might think about it.”
“Oh?” Marrette followed Neva’s eyes to a morbidly obese man in a suit. “Ah, shit. He’s gonna put me out of business!”
“Don’t be. There’s a fellow to the left that’ll make you quit with me.”
Obligingly, Neva looked for and found the man Marrette was speaking of, a farmer with a back so crooked it looked like some giant had picked him up and twisted him at the waist. “Guess he’ll be taking over contortions.”
“Hey, have you seen Rassy?”
“Your runaway? Not since she run away from me in the Dressing Tent.”
“When was that?”
“About two minutes after Gemi brought her in. Why?”
“She was involved in the excitement with Jumbo Jr. I wanted to check on her.”
The Fat Lady appraised her skeptically. “That’s all, huh?”
“And you’re the only one who gets to look after lost waifs? Why did she run away from you?”
“Said she had to get her things. Scut, of course, but I’m past my chasing days. Catching you was my last race.”
Neva grinned. It felt like eons since Marrette had outsprinted her and Augie and escorted them back to the circus that first night. “I bet you can still move when you need to. Let me know if you see her, would you?”
“Sure. Now get going—the horns’ll be blaring any second.”
As if on cue, the brass band burst into a marching tune, the signal for the audience to start filing through the short corridor that joined the Menagerie Tent to the Big Top. The main show was about to begin.
And Neva hadn’t learned anything worth knowing. Or seen any sign of Ceburn’s “greatest creation”—the glass-eyed doll.
Her head spun with questions while she changed for her number in Columbus, the last act of the night. Who had hit and then encased her in Ceburn’s workshop? Lysander? Brother Paste? Not the doll, surely, small as it was. And was it truly alive? Or was someone controlling it from afar, using a talent like her bending and Augie’s mimicking? Could there be a mundane explanation? Like hallucinations brought on by that blow to her head? Did it matter that Rassy might be Ceburn’s daughter? But then why hadn’t she said something?
Later, Neva told herself as the loading team—drenched from dismantling and stowing all the tents except the Big Top, the only one still in use—came to take her trunk. You can puzzle this out later. For now, focus on your steps.
She tried, but when she passed through the Dressing Tent corridor after intermission had ended, her concentration wavered almost immediately. Because when the first troupe of the play’s three hundred-odd cast members fanned out to fill the racing track, three rings, and two stages that made up the Big Top’s performance area, and Neva pivoted into a pirouette, she saw Rassy bringing up the rear.
Thunder punctuated Neva’s realization that the runaway was costumed like a dancer.
Neva had been so preoccupied with her thoughts in the Dressing Tent that she must have overlooked Rassy hiding in a corner somewhere, keeping to herself and borrowing an outfit when no one was paying attention. But here, beneath the light cast by the Big Top’s blazing chandeliers, Rassy’s presence was plain as day.
And somehow, she was doing a credible job of mimicking the other dancers’ movements.
Scene One opened with some of the most complex choreography in the show, with the “Moorish dancing girls”—of which Neva was one—entertaining the Sultan on the eve of his battle with the Spaniards for possession of Granada. Rassy wasn’t flawless, but she wasn’t bad either; most of the ten thousand or so audience members probably thought she was part of the show.
A few of the other dancers were looking askance at her, though. And from what Neva could see of the runaway’s expression, she seemed nervous. Perhaps even more so than she’d been while sharing Jumbo Jr.’s noose. But Sadie was right: Rassy certainly had grit.
Neva wanted to go to her, yet she was conscious of Kiralfy observing from his director’s box and Augie watching from the pit. She couldn’t break character now—every step counted.
So she danced.
Spinning and leaping and diving for all she was worth, playing her part in the intricate, interlocking patterns of movement Kiralfy had first shown her and the other performers on color-coded graph paper and then drilled into them for weeks before the season began. She remembered the extra step before the fourth arabesque, and the half-twist before her second grand jeté—elements she occasionally forgot when she was tired. Yet tonight she was as alert as she’d ever been during the production, channeling her confusion and anxiety and excitement into style and poise and grace. She couldn’t imagine doing the opening number better; Kiralfy had to have noticed that.
And all the while, she kept an eye on Rassy.
Not every second. The dance demanded that Neva turn her head this way and that at various intervals. But whenever she could, she glanced over at Rassy, and at some point, the girl realized she was being watched and started glancing about herself.
They were still a good thirty feet apart when they finally locked gazes. Rassy’s eyebrows rose, but she didn’t miss a beat—how was she doing this? Neva smiled encouragingly. Yet it wasn’t until the male dancers joined with the circus’ many acrobats and trick-horse riders to stage an eye-popping fight sequence that she was able to draw close enough to ask the girl a question.
“You didn’t say you knew how to dance,” Neva whispered.
Rassy flinched. “Please don’t tell them.”
“Tell them what?” Neva nodded at the other dancers. “They already know you’re crashing this—and doing a hell of a job of it.”
The runaway looked away. “Please.”
“Rassy, it’s no big deal. A bit bold, perhaps, but after what you did for Jumbo Jr…”
“I didn’t mean to hit you so hard.”
“What?” For a second, Neva wondered if she’d misheard. The storm was so noisy now it sounded like God was playing a thunder drum, beating out a wild rhythm and pausing every few seconds to shiver the Big Top with wind. But when Rassy turned back to face her, and Neva saw the tears wetting the runaway’s face, she knew she’d heard correctly.
There wasn’t time to ask further questions, however. The Spaniards had “beaten” the Moors, and the music was swelling for the next dance number as the horses were led out and the lead actors pantomimed the surrender of Granada. Letting instinct and routine take over, Neva fell into her steps, executing them down to the last detail even though they took her away from Rassy. But the energy was altogether different.
Shock was the fuel that fired Neva now. Rassy had hit her in Ceburn’s workshop. Not Lysander, or Thurston, or Brother Paste—Rassy, the runaway she’d tried to take under her wing, had brained her with a shovel. But why? Because she’d seen the girl’s picture? Or did she have something to do with Ceburn’s wax body mask? And what about Jumbo Jr.’s illness?
Focus, Neva reminded herself. Hit your steps until you can find out why Rassy hit you.
It wasn’t easy. Her head ached with remembered pain, and the temptation to abandon the choreography and deal with Rassy was overwhelming. The only thing that helped was recalling one of Sadie’s stories, about smiling calmly and finishing her act while blood poured into her boots from lacerations a misbehaving tiger had visited on her thighs and calves. Neva squared her jaw. If a trainer could do that, then a dancer could fight through a headache and a little uncertainty.
She just had to make it to the end of the scene. Once Columbus came on stage and asked the victorious Spanish monarchs for their backing, the dancers would slip into the Dressing Tent to change for his farewell sendoff. Rassy would be easier to isolate there, with no ballet cues to constrain their interaction.
Unless she ran beforehand.
Neva had lost sight of the girl when her group of dancers swept around the other side of the third ring. When they reconvened, swirling into Neva’s section in a mass mixing constructed to look captivating from above, Rassy was on course to pass within arm’s reach of Neva. Instead, ten feet away, the girl bolted.
And Neva followed.
She knew what she was casting aside when she took the first step, the first foot she’d put wrong all night. Even during a normal production, Kiralfy wouldn’t fail to notice one dancer running off early, much less two; tonight, he’d promised to watch no one but Neva. Now she was ruining his masterpiece, intentionally departing from his symmetry and symbolism to chase another performer. That first step cost her everything she’d worked for.
Which, in one sense, made it almost a blessing that the Big Top chose that moment to collapse.
The fall began with a bang—a boom louder and sharper than any of the thunder that had preceded it. As if commanded to, Neva, Rassy, and everyone else stopped to look up and bear witness to one of the tent’s outer poles swinging down in two pieces, its edges jagged where the storm had finally bested it and snapped the steel in two. The ties that lashed it to the canvas kept either half from reaching the ground, but only temporarily.
“It’s a blow down!” someone shouted after the next pole went, and the canvas sagged crazily on that part of the Big Top. But it wasn’t until rain sprayed in from a tear in the fabric that the crowd seemed to hear a second unspoken command: run.
And then Columbus and the Discovery of America became a stampede.
Most of the audience fought and clawed their way towards the corridor to the now-dismantled Menagerie Tent—the way they’d come in. Most of the performers scrambled for the entrance to the Dressing Tent. Few made it out before the rest of the Big Top came down.
Rassy had been smart enough to head for the far edge of the tent, the furthest from any official exit. If she’d been a hair faster, she might have been able to wriggle under the side. But a flailing actor clipped her cheek with his elbow, and the runaway lost her balance as Neva caught up.
In the second before the tumbling canvas buried them both, she noticed Rassy’s face had a hole in it now, her skin’s outer layer broken away just as Ceburn’s had been.
The canvas would have been heavy regardless, but combined with the weight of what Neva had just seen, the pressure was suffocating. When she finally found the strength to reach for Rassy, it felt like there were acres of fabric in the way, with endless rain pounding down on it and people screaming from all sides. Being trapped in a wax model of herself had been horrific; this was worse.
“Rassy!” she yelled. “Are you all right?”
Neva tried to stand, but even loose, the canvas held her down, its folds blocking her and what little moonlight the clouds allowed to filter through. The tent’s perimeter should still be close, though, and she thought she was pointed in the right direction. But moving beneath the fallen Big Top was like trying to navigate an enormous, tangled bedsheet; she had to bend twice to clear the last few feet.
It was worth it to feel the rain on her face.
“Follow my voice!” she shouted, resisting the urge to savor her freedom. She scanned the roiling mound of canvas—its surface bucking and bulging like a maggot-infested pancake—hoping to see a small, pale hand or head poking out nearby. But again, there was no sign of Rassy. Had she already escaped?
Spinning around, Neva saw members of the loading team converging on the deflated Big Top. The first arrivals grabbed an edge and held it up. The next wave ducked inside a pace or two and raised their section. The third did the same. In short order, a good chunk of the audience members and performers were free, many of whom helped hold up the next stretch of canvas.
Rassy wasn’t among them.
It burned Neva not to join the rescue effort—especially with Augie still somewhere underneath. But one more person wouldn’t make much difference.
The same was true when Neva heard a deep voice roar, “Hey, rube!”
By that point, she’d already sprinted past where the Dining Tent had stood before its disassembly earlier in the evening, her feet seeming to sink into the growing mud a little more with each stride. Ahead, she thought she could make out a morass of men wrestling each other in the muck of the Sideshow Tent’s former plot.
“HEY, RUBE!” one of the combatants bellowed again, then added, “God-damned steelworkers!” Only Brother Paste could sound excited to be brawling amidst ruin. Normally, Neva wouldn’t have hesitated to join in, even when the summons came from one of the most-miserable bastards in the circus. But tonight, the steelworkers of Homestead had cause to pick a fight. And she had somewhere else to be. So she ran on.
One of the steelworkers tried to draw her in anyway.
“Cheats!” he shouted, knocking down the Pinkerton opposite him and lurching in front of Neva. “Took our money and smashed the tent on us!”
She sidestepped him. “You really think that was the plan?”
“Cheats!” he shouted again. “Thieving carnie scum!” For a man slathered in mud and reeking of drink, he was remarkably agile. Or lucky. Whichever it was, he managed to snag her wrist as she sped past. And his grip was as strong as the metal he crafted for a living: the steelworker didn’t so much as budge when Neva’s momentum carried her as far forward as her arm would stretch.
Stretch normally. Bending stretched her further, lengthening her arm enough to narrow her wrist and slide it free of the astonished steelworker’s grasp. After putting some distance between them, she called back (to Brother Paste and the Pinkertons as well as the steelworker), “People are still trapped under the Big Top. Stop fighting and help them, you damn idiots!”
She didn’t look behind her to see if they’d listened. All her concentration now was on getting to the railcars and into Ceburn’s workshop. She wasn’t certain Rassy would go there—she could be anywhere in this rain—but if the runaway wanted to repair her face, that’s where she’d find the wax. And if Neva could just…
Rassy was under Jumbo Jr.’s tarp.
Neva stopped so suddenly she skidded at least a yard. Between the dark and the rain, it was hard to be certain of anything more than a few feet away. But her eyes hadn’t tricked her: that was Rassy all right, leaning against the slumbering elephant, one hand on his side while the second rested on… the glass-eyed doll, snuggled beside her leg.
“Rassy?” Slowly, so as not to alarm any of the three, Neva drew closer. None of them reacted, though, not even when she stepped under the tarp. And with the rain no longer veiling her vision, Neva could finally see what was happening. It just didn’t make any sense.
Every few seconds, the doll convulsed. Then Rassy twitched, and then Jumbo Jr—as if a pulse had worked its way across them. But the spasms were reversing in size. The doll’s and Rassy’s were getting smaller; the elephant’s bigger. Their colors were experiencing a similar inverse. While Jumbo Jr.’s brown was gradually deepening back to what Neva belatedly recognized as his familiar shade, Rassy was growing even paler, and the doll—
The doll no longer looked the least bit animated.
“Rassy!” cried Neva, grabbing the girl’s hand and yanking it off the elephant. “What are you doing?”
Rassy blinked, awareness breaking through whatever stupor she’d allowed herself to fall into. “Please let me finish,” she said after a moment. The hole in her cheek yawned like a mushy crater, its blurred edges glistening with rain.
The girl blinked again, then flicked her arm and sent Neva hurtling outside the tarp.
It shouldn’t have been possible. Rassy was small for a girl her age, and Neva wasn’t nothing. But the runaway had tossed her off with a strength that would have made the circus’ burliest strongmen jealous.
Fortunately, Neva had trained with some of the acrobats last spring, even working the high-wire act a few times. She knew how to take a fall. But there was nothing she could do to avoid the mud—she was slopped with it when she sprang back up.
“What are you?” she demanded of Rassy, striding back under the tarp and poising her body to bend as needed.
The runaway was leaning on Jumbo Jr. again, both hands pressed against him this time as she slid into another stupor. The doll lay face down to the side.
Neva would have tackled her if the elephant hadn’t shifted in his sleep, heaving his bulk away from Rassy and her outstretched arms. Deprived of his support, she tumbled forward.
“Bit of a mud show now, wouldn’t you say?”
Pigs in hell, not now. Neva turned to see Lysander ducking beneath the tarp, one hand steadying the brim of his dripping hat. How much had he seen? “You seem rather pleased.”
“Not at all.” His smile belied his words. “I certainly didn’t want that.” He gestured in the general direction of the Big Top and Brother Paste’s swamp fight. “Or that.” He nodded at the clods of wet earth fouling Neva’s dress.
She glanced at Rassy. The girl seemed to be rousing once more. This had to be done quickly. “Who are you?” she said, turning back to Lysander. “Ringling? Forepaugh? You’re certainly not army.”
He gave her a mock salute. “Good luck to you, Miss Freeman.”
“There’s one thing you don’t know yet.”
Lysander turned back around and raised his eyebrows. “Oh?”
Neva clasped her hands behind her back, projecting innocence. “You’ve seen how we customize our railcars and systematize loading and unloading.”
He tapped his front coat pocket, which bulged with the rectangular outline of his notebook. “I particularly liked how your workingmen wear numbers and are referred to by them. Much simpler than remembering a mess of hillbilly names.”
“I’m sure you did.” Neva took a small, demure step forward. “But did you learn the true secret of our success?”
Lysander snorted. “And what would that be?”
“Our freaks.” Neva looked down, as if embarrassed. But when she looked back up, her face was changed. “Our freaks are the best in the world.”
The spy gaped. “Dear God…” His bulging eyes stuck out so far she could have plucked them from his head.
Then she took another step forward—a fast, aggressive step—and Lysander backpedaled, whirled, and ran.
Neva’s adrenalin disappeared almost as swiftly. She doubted Lysander would tell anyone, or that they’d believe him. But if someone took him even half seriously… a white man’s word against a colored woman’s wouldn’t be much of a contest.
Yet perhaps the impulse hadn’t been complete foolishness. When Neva turned once more to Rassy, the runaway was staring at her in wonder.
“I hope I didn’t scare you,” Neva whispered, wincing as her features reformed. She’d never bent her face so much—never engaged in that level of witchery. Yet in the moment, with Lysander sneering at her, adopting a crude likeness to Jumbo Jr. had seemed the right reaction. But people were starting to stream by on either side, fleeing to the train station, most likely. She had to pretend to be normal again.
“I’m that,” Rassy murmured.
The runaway bent down. “You asked me what I was.” Straightening, she held up the wax doll, which no longer twitched or moved at all. “I’m that. I’m a freak too.” Her free hand brushed the hole in her cheek—her outer cheek—and in a voice grown so soft Neva could barely hear it above the footfalls and the shouting and the rain, Rassy added, “Ceburn made me.”
Neva shifted her lantern to give Augie more light to open the next crate. The wall of rectangular boxes was stacked six high at the back of Mysteries and Curiosities’ storage car, but there was enough clearance to crouch on the top row. After Augie levered the crate’s lid off, he unpacked the buffering cloth and raised “Napoleon Bonaparte” by the knees—just enough to expose his feet.
“No dice,” Neva whispered after sliding a thin knife into the undersides of the model’s fake shoes. “This one’s wax all the way through too.”
Augie lowered the little general and restored his padding. “Do you want to keep going?”
“We should have time to check the other crates up here.” The packing team would still be loading the last cars. With the Big Top in such disarray, the process had taken longer than usual. But the rain had stopped, and the circus had ended early, so they were on schedule for their 1 a.m. departure. Tomorrow would be a different story: repairs would take most of the morning.
“I hope Bailey’s not mad I cut my way out of the canvas with my pocket knife,” Augie mused as he crawled to a crate labeled “Guy Fawkes – Version 2.”
“I bet he’s more worried about lawsuits right now. I saw him handing out free vouchers for next year’s show.”
Augie nodded. “Might work. It’s a miracle no one died… Did you hear something?”
Neva paused to listen. They’d waited to sneak into the storage car until it was fully packed; no one else should need to come inside until morning. It wasn’t a normal night, though, and she and Augie didn’t have a good reason for being here. Not that they could explain, anyway. “I didn’t hear anything that would stop us from doing another couple crates—this one’s normal.”
“You’ve got me for three more. Then we scram.”
Augie moved to a neighboring crate. “You really think Rassy has Ceburn’s memories?”
Neva motioned for her brother to lift the lid. “From what I could get out of her, she certainly has a few. That’s why she can sculpt so well. And how she knew the steps for Columbus. The old man must have seen us perform it a hundred times.”
“But not all of them.”
“No. My best guess is still that Ceburn had a talent similar to ours, something to do with transferring vitality. He put a lot of himself in Rassy. Too much. But it was mostly just his energy.”
“And his talent.”
“Right. But in terms of memories, I think she only got patterns and procedures.”
“If she’s telling the truth.”
Neva considered it again. “I felt warm,” Rassy had said beneath Jumbo’s tarp. “That’s the first thing I remember. Then I opened my eyes, and Ceburn was looking down at me. Smiling. He called me ‘Rassy’.”
“I believe her,” Neva murmured. “I think she was scared when her creator died seconds after he gave her life—his life. I think she hid for days in his workshop, until she mustered the courage to try the only real skill she’d inherited: sculpting. She copied what he’d done to her, coating him in wax and modeling it to the image she wanted. But I think she had the sense to get the energy she needed from another source.”
“Yes. She thought the elephant had strength to spare. And he did. But she drew too much, just like Ceburn gave too much.” Neva shook her head. “Next crate.”
Augie repacked the buffer cloths. “You think this was all an accident then?”
“A series of them, maybe. Rassy certainly didn’t intend for her Ceburn model to be more shell than man—although it was pretty good for a first effort. And she didn’t want him to die in the sticker war; she wanted to escape with him.”
“She hit you. That wasn’t an accident.”
“No.” Neva resisted the urge to touch the back of her head. Poking the throbbing lump wouldn’t make it hurt less. “No, that was panic. She didn’t want to be found out—not when she’d found a new way to belong.”
“Unless she was channeling Ceburn’s penchant for acquiring young females…”
Neva winced. It was a fair point. And she shouldn’t be so sure, not after everything she’d seen and experienced the last day and a half. Yet… she was. Rassy had inherited Ceburn’s talent and abilities, but not his predilections—whatever they’d been. She shouldn’t be punished for his sins. “Don’t you think everyone deserves a second chance?”
Augie snorted. “I think it depends on why they end up needing a third. Because they always do.”
“Such a cynic.”
“I believed the outlandish tale you just told me.”
“Only because you and I are outlandish ourselves.”
“Quite possibly.” He lifted the second-to-last model: Cleopatra. “This one’s heavier.”
“Oh?” Neva cut into the model’s bare foot harder than she’d meant to.
“Vandals!” shrieked Thurston from the front of the car. “What in God’s name are you doing with MY models? Put her down!”
Her brother froze. But Neva had finally found what they’d come for, and she nodded to him. “As he says.” She motioned to the floor.
Augie raised his eyebrows, but after Neva repeated the gesture, he shrugged and thrust Cleopatra the rest of the way out of her crate and down towards Thurston.
He reacted with impressive speed, leaping over an intervening trunk—the sword swallowers’, from the markings—and stretching his arms out like a mother reaching for a teetering babe. But he came up a few inches short of catching the model, and its outer casing shattered at his feet.
Its inner casing remained intact, however. Intact, and rotten, and decidedly not waxen.
“Are you sure you want to claim that as your model?” asked Neva as she descended the stack of crates.
Thurston’s shocked expression suggested he very much didn’t. It also proved his innocence as far as Neva was concerned, confirming that Ceburn had acted alone: his apprentice hadn’t collected this corpse for him, or any others.
“Doubtless Bailey would disapprove of my methods,” Augie read. “I’m not sure I entirely approve myself. But they work—beyond doubt, beyond hope, beyond reason. And all great art comes at a cost.” He set down Ceburn’s journal and looked at Neva. “So that’s his justification for killing two girls and dipping them in his magic wax?”
Neva shook her head. “He may not have killed them; they could have been dead already. The journal’s not explicit about any of this. Maybe he used that shovel in his car to dig up graves.”
Augie frowned, then handed her one of the lemon drops Rassy had brought out of Ceburn’s car. Neva popped the sweet into her mouth.
“If I had to bet,” she said, “I’d wager that Ceburn mostly used his talent to punch up his models; finishing touches like making the colors more vibrant. But it worked best when there was a real body underneath—such as the monkey we found in the doll. And if it was fresh enough…”
Her brother shuddered. “I wonder how many more Thurston finds when he checks the rest of the models.”
“Any other heavy ones Ceburn wouldn’t let him work on are good candidates. We’ll have to see if we can identify the families.” Neva jabbed her finger at the other end of the lantern-lit trainyard. “Finally!”
Sadie and Rassy were leading Jumbo Jr. to his car. The elephant was moving hearteningly well. Rassy was too. The quick trip to Ceburn’s workshop had allowed her to restore her face, and she seemed thrilled to be helping with the animals.
Augie uncrossed his legs and let them dangle from the platform. “Daughter or wife?”
“Rassy? I don’t know. She let me look at that picture again. The back says ‘1872.’ That’s long enough ago that the real her could have been either to Ceburn.”
“Well, that’s conclusive.”
“Sorry. I don’t think we’re ever going to have all the details.”
They watched the girl help Sadie coax Jumbo Jr. up the ramp. Those audience members who’d stuck around to observe the disassembling—a smaller number than normal, but still in the hundreds—cheered enthusiastically.
Augie reached for another lemon drop. “You’re at least confident she returned the elephant’s strength to him?”
“Yes—whatever she had left after animating her Ceburn model and strengthening the wax cast she put me in.”
“I don’t like that bit either.”
“Trust me, neither do I. But she said she was going to free me once she figured out what to do. And you weren’t there: she would have drained herself dry if that’s what it took to restore Jumbo Jr. She also stopped Orrock from hanging him.”
Rassy and Sadie were closing Jumbo’s car now. Both were laughing. It was good to see.
Augie picked up the journal and stood. “We should get to our bunks.”
He offered her a hand up. “You’re sure you want to leave?”
Augie didn’t just mean leave Homestead; she definitely wanted to do that. But earlier in the evening, once things had calmed down a little, Kiralfy had tracked her down and praised her performance. “I’ve never seen someone dance with so much passion,” the gangly director had gushed. “Such conviction. The part is yours. I’ll speak to James. Your complexion won’t be an issue.”
Neva had nearly laughed out loud. Kiralfy must have missed her breaking character after all. Or maybe he’d assumed she’d seen the Big Top tumbling down a split second before everyone else. Either way, it didn’t change her answer, which was a polite no.
“I think it’s time we had our own second chance,” she told Augie. “Have you heard about the World’s Fair?”
“The Columbian Exposition? I heard it’s going to be big enough to make Barnum & Bailey look like a mud show.” He brushed some of the caked dirt off Neva’s back. “A real one, that is… It’d mean going back to Chicago.”
“I know.” They’d passed through the Windy City each year with the circus, but they’d never stayed longer than a night. And Neva hadn’t wanted to. But she was grown now, and Sadie had agreed to take Rassy on as an apprentice. Marrette would look after her too, as would Gemi and Dorian, in their own ways. “I think it’s time.”
Augie studied her face until the lead engine’s whistle blew two short blasts, the signal for stragglers to come aboard. Then he smiled. “Here’s to second chances, I guess.”
She hugged him, gazing over his shoulder at the line of trains the circus had folded itself into. Today had ended in disaster, but tomorrow—through ingenuity, efficiency, and plain stubbornness—hundreds of polemen and roustabouts and all the rest would wake in their prescribed sequence and try again. Joining them would be a young girl, dead on the inside, wax on the outside, somehow alive.
“And third chances,” Neva murmured. “I think we deserve those too.”