The grave marker was new, as was the grave. In the three weeks since the earth had been opened, the ground had begun to settle and the grass to conceal the scars left by spades and trampling feet.
Ray Doyle dropped to his heels to gather the remains of once-beautiful flowers, now wilted and discolored. Plucking up a few contorted petals that had broken free, he meticulously picked through the tall blades until nothing marred the smooth green surface of the lawn. Only then did he lay down his own offering, perfectly formed purple and maroon tulips, each of which had been individually selected. The colors pleased him in their solemnity, unlike the falsely gay, bright yellow daffodils or riotous pansies others had brought to the churchyard. These flowers signified mourning--something Doyle himself seemed incapable of.
Strange, how losing a partner had left him empty, but not grieving. Chandra Malik had been a good partner and undoubtedly deserved better. Her family--mother and two sisters--had shunned her in death as they had in life because Chandra had chosen a way not to their liking. Her own partner, while appreciating her warrior's skills, keen intellect, and unflagging persistence, had never encouraged her overtures of friendship--for Doyle kept his distance from everyone.
Otherwise he might be hurting now, instead of feeling nothing. And nothing was far preferable to the shocking agony of having one's heart torn out--something Doyle could speak of with first-hand knowledge. Almost ten years ago to the day of Chandra's death, he had lost his first partner. Only that one had been the focus of his life and the promise of his future. Keith had died in a fall, too. In neither case had Doyle been to blame, even though he had always held himself accountable for Keith's sudden loss of balance, his pin-wheeling attempt to steady himself, the horrific, headlong plummet down, down to the net, where, more horribly still, he had landed wrong, his neck snapped in an instant.
Chandra, reckless in her rush to obtain a more protected position during simulated hostilities, had sought a foothold where none existed, and, having too soon relinquished her tenuous grip on a venting tube, had simply skidded off the edge of the four-story roof.
Shouting her name, Doyle had abseiled down from the chimney he had been sheltering behind, and still shouting, had raced across the stone pavement to crouch beside her motionless body. Finding amber eyes staring fixedly at nothing, Doyle had finally stopped shouting. Then, wordless, he had walked away.
It had been very different when Keith had died. He had fought like a wild thing in order to stay at his mate's side. With one ear still pressed to the broad, clammy chest--despite a vain search for a heartbeat or the slightest evidence of respiration--Doyle had raged at the others to get help. His shattered voice had risen to the peak of the big canvas tent in a wounded howl. Later, in the caravan he had shared with the older boy, he had quieted at last, and from then on his pain had become mute, burrowed deep inside for years-long hibernation. With Keith gone, the days and weeks had crept by, many months passing before Doyle had come to realize that his life had not ended on the floor of the circus ring as well. Yet, comprehending this had had no effect on the walls being erected around wounds that had festered, their rot slow and pervasive. To Doyle, paradoxically, keeping the hurt with him at all times protected him from future wounding.
And so, as he wadded the remnants of decaying flowers into the empty plastic wrap, he knew only regret--not unbearable torment.
In their own way, the flowers said all he had never put into words. "Good bye, Chan," Doyle whispered. Perhaps he would bring her marigolds in the autumn--if he came back at all.
He might. She had, after all, been a good mate.
"How did your hair get so long?" Cowley demanded, regarding Agent 4.5 with some consternation.
Wryly tugging at his shaggy, collar-length hair, newly struck through with grey highlights, Doyle said, "You wanted it straightened."
"Aye, I did. Perhaps it's time I imposed a uniform length--even for such as you." Still eyeing Doyle as though he were a bug mounted on a board, Cowley added, "And isn't there rather a lot of white in your beard?"
"Apparently as you instructed, sir," Doyle pointed out. "If you prefer, I'll be more than happy to shave it off and start over."
"With what this little transformation cost the Department, I think not." Circling Doyle one last time, the sandy-haired Scot harrumphed his opinion of Doyle's altered features and waved him into the chair in front of his desk. "That will have to do, I'm afraid. It should be a sufficiently radical change--including the earring."
Repressing a grin, Doyle ran a finger round the offending object and said presumptuously, "Perhaps you'd like to tell me why such a 'radical' change was necessary?"
"In my own time, Doyle."
"Sir." This a game they had played often in the past, Doyle settled in for a lengthy wait. Cowley limped round the huge, oak desk and sat down in his aged leather chair. It creaked once as he rocked back, the dully gleaming material readily molding to his body. Doyle noticed the faint grimace that accompanied this move; obviously the Old Man's leg was giving him gyp. Without asking permission, Doyle rose and stepped across to the sideboard that housed Cowley's liquor. He took out two glasses and poured a goodly portion into one--and a lethal amount into the other. The latter he silently handed across to Cowley before resuming his place.
"Thank you, Doyle--although I do not recall inviting you to share one with me."
"Kindness should never go unrewarded," Doyle intoned piously.
"Hm." The controller of CI5 drained his portion in a single swallow, eyes flickering as the numbing liquid scorched down his throat.
Sedately sipping from his own glass, Doyle raised a brow in question. "Another?"
"No, this will do." Cowley began to shuffle through a stack of papers, finally stopping at one that apparently caught his eye. "Macklin says you are quite impressive in tumbling routines both on the ground and on the fixed trapeze."
"Surely that doesn't surprise you?"
Cowley drew a noncommittal face. "Perhaps it does. After all, it has been ten years since you worked with the circus."
"He says your timing is uncanny."
Doyle raised the rim of the glass to his lips and said nothing.
"Have you heard of Circus Sergei?"
"We have reason to believe that it is being used as a way station for IRA armaments and explosives."
"Donal O'Shea." Doyle gestured at his face and hair. "That's why you had all this done--so I wouldn't be identified."
"That's right. And although I would prefer not to send you into an operation that might involve him, I don't have another agent who has your abilities."
"And which abilities," Doyle drawled inquiringly, "might those be?"
"Aerial and equestrian."
A taut smile tugged at the corners of Doyle's mouth. "Don't you think I look a bit old for the part?"
"Premature gray, Doyle. Your expensive hairdresser only advanced the process."
Acknowledging this with a slight sideways toss of the head, Doyle asked, "So am I already in, or is this a sell?"
"A sell." Cowley drew a large photograph out of the sheaf of papers and passed it across the desk to his agent. "Sergei, otherwise known as Alfred Weatherby--"
"And proprietor of Circus Sergei." Doyle studied the round, fleshy face of the man in the picture with cursory interest. According to the description on the back, Sergei was of medium height, overweight, and a "controlled" alcoholic. Flipping the photo back over in his hand, Doyle memorized the small, dog-like eyes, the thin mouth, and receding hairline. Alfred Weatherby would be easily recognized.
"That's correct," Cowley said evenly. "I have reason to believe that Mr. Weatherby has ties to the IRA--not necessarily happy ones."
"Blackmail or collusion?"
"At this point, I do not know. It is notable, however, that his circus manages to survive at a time when small circuses are becoming nonexistent. Circus Sergei is a touring tent circus, but seldom moves and is not known for attracting overly large audiences."
"If he's so obvious about it, why not shut him down?"
"We will--as soon as we have identified the key players in this particular side-show."
Doyle only just refrained from rolling his eyes; sometimes Cowley could be unbearably droll.
"Describe the circus."
"A single ring, dependent on equestrian routines, jugglers, dog tricks-- and some aerial acts, one of which is reputed to be reasonably good, but not outstandingly so."
"Established acts are resistant to newcomers," Doyle remarked.
"The Falconis have fallen on unfortunate times just recently. About a year ago, Victor shattered his arm in a stunt that finished badly; last month, Arturo broke his shoulder in a contra temp outside a pub."
"So who's doing the flying?" Doyle wondered out loud.
"Victor was replaced by a young man named William Bodie." Cowley plucked another photo from the manila folder and shoved it to the edge of the desk. "To my uncertain knowledge, Arturo has yet to be replaced."
Thoughtfully scratching at his still-unfamiliar beard, Doyle let his eyes slowly roam over the full-body, color photograph of William Bodie. The man was superbly built, his upper torso displaying excellent musculature, clearly visible through the skintight, plunging-necklined, body stocking that clung to him from shoulders to toes; from the hips down, he was sleek and compactly solid. His hands--braced on his hips-- were large and strong-looking; conversely, his feet, encased in flyer's slippers, were proportionately small and neat.
It was Bodie's face, however, that commanded Doyle's attention once he had examined the overall man. No one, Doyle decided, should be so bloody good-looking. Even the severe cut of his hair so smoothly hugging his head only served to emphasize the perfect shape of Bodie's skull and face. Thick, dark brows curved over watchful eyes of a remarkable shade of blue. Comfortably set in the center of his face, Bodie's nose yet bore faint evidence of having been broken sometime in his past; incongruously, it also curved slightly upward on the end, which contradicted to some extent the otherwise hard cast of his features. His mouth drew Doyle's eyes like a magnet: the upper lip was a little longer and fuller than the bottom one, and together they formed an intriguing pout that begged personal attention.
Glancing up belatedly to find Cowley patiently awaiting his observations, Doyle offered vaguely, "He must be a catcher."
"On the trapeze. He isn't built like a flyer."
"Quite right," Cowley said approvingly. "Although he takes on whatever is required of him. Since his latest flyer was disabled, he has begun to perform on the fixed bars alone."
Doyle nodded. "Yes, he'd be quite good there." He gave Cowley a questioning look. "Is he suspected of involvement with the Provisional Army as well?"
"No. But, then, there is little known about William Bodie. He ran away to sea at an early age, then jumped ship in South Africa--it was there he took his circus training. Eventually he returned to England, signed up with the Army, was briefly seconded to the SAS--honorably discharged from service, I might add--but there are gaps in his profile. Our computers have not been able to fill them in as adequately as I would prefer."
"Suspected until proven innocent."
Cowley raised a chilly smile. "It is usually safer that way."
Rubbing his thumb under the tip of his nose, Doyle hazarded, "This isn't pertinent--but did CI5 have anything to do with Victor or Arturo's unfortunate accidents?"
Two pale blue eyes peered at him from over the rims of black-framed glasses. "A cogent question, Doyle; but you are correct when you state that it is not pertinent."
"Should I expect trouble from the Falconis?"
"The original Falconis have returned to Manchester for continued recuperation. They will not bother you."
Hearing dismissal in Cowley's tone, Doyle moved to another subject. "You said I'll be working with horses as well?"
"That's right," Cowley said. "Sergei's circus utilizes several different horse routines: dressage, of course; riderless horses that perform upon command; and trick-riding acts."
"Liberty and voltige," Doyle said.
"Horses performing riderless are liberty horses; horses cantering round the ring with a human or animal rider performing stunts off their backs are voltige horses, sometimes also called resinbacks--because of the sticky substance applied to give a rider greater leverage."
Doyle shrugged unrepentantly. "Sorry, sir."
"It's coming back to you, then," Cowley stated with casual emphasis.
His expression carefully free of emotion, Doyle replied, "Never completely goes away."
Cowley steepled his fingers together over the files lying flat on his desk. "You have admitted to--but never explained--unhappy feelings regarding your time with the circus, Doyle. Do you think perhaps it would be profitable to discuss the reason for those feelings at this time?"
Doyle let his gaze fall to the scuffed white toe of his trainer. "It isn't pertinent," he answered finally, with only the faintest trace of insolence.
Unfazed, Cowley said, "As you wish. It need not be said--"
"--but you will anyway." A fabricated smile did little to soften the resentment in his voice.
Cowley's sandy-lashed eyes narrowed to slits. "I shall. Should personal considerations affect this operation--"
"They never have; they never will."
"Aye, but I've not sent you back to the circus before, Doyle, now have I?"
"Och, laddie, don't play with me! You're being sent to Circus Sergei to convince Mr. Weatherby that you are the man he should hire, only so you can be my eyes and ears. Should you uncover something of interest, you are to contact this Department immediately. You are not to act on your own. Do you understand?"
Doyle's brows angled darkly over his eyes. "That's all?"
"Think about it: Circus Sergei is only a way station. Once we have a lead to supply movements, we will want to follow up unnoticed rather than jeopardize your cover."
Swallowing hard against a bile-hot surge of anger, Doyle comprehended Cowley's purpose all too clearly. "Why don't you be honest? You're taking me out of action because you think I won't be up to par without Chandra."
"Is that what I mean, Doyle?" Cowley asked very quietly.
"Oh, c'mon! I've been with you for six years now. I know how you protect your agents when they've lost a partner. You had me down in bloody Records for a week after she fell, and then you packed me off to Macklin to prepare for this! You don't need me--"
"On the contrary, you're the only agent I have who can pull this off with any degree of credibility. Exceptional horsemanship and trapeze experience are scarcely standard requirements for joining the Squad."
Quelling another outburst with effort, Doyle could not deny the Old Man's logic--even if he knew on a gut level that Cowley was trying to coddle him. Shipping him off to Circus Sergei for an indefinite period of time, with nothing more to do than ride well-trained horses and defy gravity on the trapeze whilst remaining on the look-out for suspicious transport movement, would ensure that Doyle was completely removed from what had of late become a highly fraught existence.
Cowley broke into his thoughts. "You've been to visit Miss Malik's family?"
"Yes, of course," Doyle replied sharply. "They refused to take her personal effects, just as I expected. I turned everything over to Housing."
"You weren't at the services."
Flinching at Cowley's words, if not the neutral tone of his voice, Doyle said, "No. But if it will make you feel better, I did visit her grave today."
"It doesn't matter how I feel, Doyle."
Back teeth set tightly together, Doyle fixed his superior with a cold, green stare. "No one had been to the grave-site since the day of the services, sir. All the flowers were in need of burial themselves."
Cowley allowed himself a fleeting smile. "I expect you took her fresh ones."
Fighting the urge to vent his animosity on Cowley, Doyle sucked in a deep breath before asking quite emotionlessly, "Where will I find Circus Sergei?"
Grimacing despite himself, Doyle hissed, "Newcastle!"
"The heather is in bloom."
Unthinkingly tracing the ridge of his broken cheekbone, Doyle muttered, "And the wind blows cold over those moors. Lovely."
Cowley sifted through his pile of documents before coming up with another slim folder. This he pulled out and slapped onto the desk within Doyle's reach. "There is more."
For the first time since stepping into Cowley's office, Doyle felt a sliver of uneasiness scrape his spine. "Yes?" He took up the file and opened it. It was a brief description of William Bodie, his apparent interests, habits and activities.
"You will need to gain Bodie's confidence."
As Doyle scanned through the information, he reminded Cowley, "You said that Bodie doesn't know anything of importance."
"I said he isn't suspected of involvement; not the same thing at all."
"Well, it shouldn't be a problem, then," Doyle mused. "Since I'll be working with him so close--" His heart advanced a beat.
Shooting a penetrating look Cowley's way, Doyle forced himself to reread the information that had just fallen before his eyes before sitting back in the chair and quietly closing the dossier in his lap. "Are you saying what I think you're saying?"
Watching him inscrutably, Cowley murmured, "You will have to be more specific."
"So it appears."
"With all respect, sir, I'm not."
Cowley said nothing.
After a moment's silence, Doyle said stiffly, "Have I missed something?"
"There is no one else capable of taking on this assignment, Doyle."
"So you want me to mince in there and mata hari information out of Bodie?"
"I don't remember seduction in the line of duty posing a problem for you in the past."
"Those were women," Doyle said with heavy sarcasm.
"Requiring no emotional attachment, only sex."
"Wasn't aware that queer sex was encouraged, sir."
Sighing softly, Cowley laid his hands upon the desk and regarded his agent levelly. "You're telling me the idea is abhorrent to you?"
"Of course--it's what I'm supposed to tell you, isn't it?"
"I've seen your psych profile, Doyle. It includes, as you know, a sexual evaluation as well."
Sitting motionless, Doyle stated, "I've never engaged in homosexual sex."
"But not," Cowley said, almost gently, "for lack of wanting."
At that moment, Doyle could not have said whether he was angrier at Cowley for addressing a subject that had been held taboo in his own mind for years--or himself because it was true. "What happens afterward?" he asked, his face a carefully composed mask. "What happens to my record?"
Cowley laughed shortly and without humor. "Do you seriously believe that there are no other gay agents in my employ?"
"None I've noticed wearing signs, no, sir."
"Nor will you. As in all sexual relationships, the Department's only concern is that they be undertaken with reasonable discretion and caution."
Glancing down at the papers resting on his knees, Doyle discovered that he had shuffled the photograph of William Bodie onto the top. Looking into that intense blue gaze with a premonition of disaster, he said hollowly, "Right. When do I leave?"
The ride to Doyle's flat was undertaken by rote. Had anyone questioned him immediately upon arrival, he could not have said by what route he had returned home, nor whether he had encountered anything worthy of comment. Of all the conversations he had ever participated in with Cowley, none had ever left him quite so off balance.
After all these years!
There had been men who had attracted him in the past, of course, men who had frequented his dreams, men who had supplied the fantasy fulfillment of more than one otherwise lengthy night, and men who had taunted him with their gayness while he had always subverted his. He had not lied to Cowley; not one of those men had ever shared his bed, nor, more realistically, provided relief in a furtive meeting in the lavs. Not even Keith--the first man he had ever loved. After thirty years of unfailing restraint, it was almost dizzying to be given, in essence, free rein to sample something previously forbidden.
He entertained the idea of going out immediately to find someone who would be willing to unburden him of his virginity. That thought lasted only long enough for Cowley's words regarding discretion and caution to intrude and, consequently, to quite effectively put the kibosh to the very notion.
Feeling somewhat disheartened, Doyle spent the next two hours setting his flat to rights before beginning his packing. It was while eating a light meal of eggs and cheese that he turned his mind back to the conversation with Cowley--and the assignment awaiting him. Two weeks on the moors outside Newcastle--for that was the length of time Cowley had predicted would pass before the IRA made another move--playing the role of a simple aerialist-cum-equestrian, whilst luring William Bodie to his bed, would provide the holiday Doyle had gone so long without.
For all its ingenuity, the manipulative intent scraped at Doyle like a tongue brushing across a jagged molar, never quite forgotten, and very difficult to live with comfortably.
Once he had shut off the boiler for the central heating, removed all the perishables from his cupboards and refrigerator, and engaged both sets of locks to the flat, Doyle had come to view the entire venture in a very different light. He would do this job for Cowley, as agreed. After that, however, he would seriously consider departing from CI5's elite company. Somehow the prospect of being nothing more than a toy to be dressed and sexed at whim was no longer to his liking; perhaps it was simply time Doyle found something else to do with his life.
The roads to Newcastle were cold and damp, the frigid air cutting through Doyle's leather jacket and jeans like a harpy's talons. A car would have been his preferred mode of transportation in the bleakest days of March, but far more difficult to explain to a jaded circus troupe than the aged bike on which he now found himself. In fact, his gold Capri, containing most of the groceries that had been rescued from his pantry, had probably already been picked up by the motor pool.
Not far out of London, it was brought home to him that he had not dressed as warmly as he might have done. But Doyle chose to persevere, grateful if nothing else, for the helmet visor which afforded his face some small protection.
He drove for hours through spells of rain and fierce winds, even a squall of snow. Breaking the tedium of the road with few stops, he occupied his protesting mind with thoughts of the days to come. The trapeze work was of no concern, and he knew he had a good seat on a horse. Undercover operations, however, had never appealed. While he was quite capable of second-guessing the duplicitous intellect, given the choice, he preferred to make less strenuous use of his own keen wits.
Consoling himself with the promise that once this operation was over, he would play no more roles, Doyle contemplated Cowley's probable reactions to his resignation. Would he be angry? Resigned? Relieved?
Relieved, Doyle decided. Cowley tolerated much from him, far more than from his other agents. Of course, there were few who had survived as long as Doyle, fewer still who had contrived to keep body and soul together to the same degree--however much Kate Ross might disagree.
"I've seen your psych profile, Doyle," Cowley had said. Courtesy of Miss Kate Ross, undoubtedly. Save for the fact that he was virtually frozen to his seat, Doyle would have squirmed at that particularly unpleasant thought. Although why it should bother him, when she had merely deduced the truth, he could not quite say. In any case, Doyle had lived his life in the only way he knew how. It had kept him reasonably sane for ten years--and six of those had been spent in the employ of CI5.
Finding himself increasingly uncomfortable with his own ruminations, Doyle shut out his personal concerns, concentrating on the wet roads and the cutting cold to the exclusion of all else. By the time he reached the outskirts of Newcastle, he wanted nothing more than a hot bath and dry clothing, a warm meal, and a soft bed to lay his aching body on. Beyond that, nothing else mattered.
All lowering clouds and icy drizzle, dawn put in an inauspicious appearance the following day. Undismayed, Doyle bolstered himself with a stern cup of tea and two rounds of toast before venturing forth from the inexpensive bed and breakfast he had booked into the evening before. The first exultant gust of bitter air almost stopped him in his tracks, however, for the warmth of the bed he had just abandoned lured him like a siren. But it would not do to lie in this morning; unfortunately, circus people rose with the first greying of day.
He guided the bike out of the quiet, but otherwise undistinguished section of town. The buildings here were very old and some in desperate need of repair. A few homeless people huddled in a shop doorway, their misery apparent in exhausted faces and cramped forms. Familiar with their kind in London, Doyle noted to himself in passing that such sights had been unknown in England only a few short years before. Accepting this as just one more inequity outside his influence, he kept his eye on the rain-slick streets and the odd, venturesome cat. The single headlamp of the bike had little effect in illuminating the moisture-laden air; accordingly, Doyle drove very slowly.
Nearly half an hour went by before concrete and stone gave way to rolling moorland. The great tent encompassing the single ring loomed out of the fog like a huge, unlikely mushroom, as out of place in these untamed surroundings as wild horses in the city. Doyle brought the bike to a stop with a quarter of a mile yet to go, and shut off the engine. Walking the cumbersome vehicle along the rutted lane, water dripping off his hair and beard, he wondered if he would reach the main entrance before ice settled permanently in his marrow.
The old smells reached him first: sawdust, wet canvas, horse. Underlying all else was the mingled essence of humanity, ripe both with sweat and florid perfume--the dizzying blend forgotten until this instant, yet immediately recognized and savored.
Today, he mused with a sudden lifting of spirits, I ran away to join the circus.
Pushing the bike through thick, sloppy grass, Doyle went straight up to the main entrance, and ignoring a muttered, "'Ere, what you about?" walked inside. After mounting the motorcycle on its stand, he strolled into the broad center aisle, which led to the great ring.
"C'mon, Roge, you'll have to do better than that!" The exasperated voice emanated from the man hanging upside down on the catcher's trapeze. Doyle was absurdly pleased that the sturdy baritone matched exactly the timbre and tone he had ascribed to the William Bodie of his imagination.
The object of Bodie's exhortation awkwardly returned to the flyer's platform, steadying himself as he clung to the vertical supports. A short, thin man, "Roge" took a few seconds to catch his breath before throwing out the hook to retrieve the trapeze.
Even from his vantage point many meters away, Doyle could see that the man was ill-suited for this particular profession, his body defensively crabbed rather than poised eagerly for flight.
"The show opens on Wednesday," a bored and faintly menacing voice announced behind him. "Go away."
"Tegler said you were looking for a flyer." Doyle turned round to face his accoster, a man of middle height and expanded girth. There stood Alfred Weatherby--Sergei. "As far as I can tell, you're still looking."
"Get out of here, before I apply my boot to your bottom," the owner of Circus Sergei said, unimpressed.
"If you've already hired him, you've made a mistake," Doyle said confidently. He stared daringly into Sergei's hazel eyes.
Sergei looked him over from head to toe--with an unnecessarily lengthy lay-over at Doyle's crotch. "Surely you're not suggesting yourself as his replacement? A bit long in the tooth, aren't you?"
Doyle smiled broadly, letting his impudent gaze linger on Sergei's face, instead. "I am, actually--suggesting myself, that is." He gave his beard a tug. "Premature, y'know. 'M only twenty-seven," he lied.
"Really? And when was the last time you spoke with Teg--"
"Roger, damn it! You stupid bugger!"
The hapless Roger plowed into the net. He landed rough. Winded, it took him a minute before he could lift himself off the ropes.
"Let me show you," Doyle insisted. "You won't regret it."
Sergei looked up at Bodie who was coming down the web, then back at Doyle, who willed him through wide-set, appealing green eyes, to agree.
A cynical smile touching his mouth, Sergei shrugged, "Why not? You couldn't possibly be worse."
Sensing that Sergei's permission was tenuous at best, Doyle rapidly stripped off his jacket, jeans, bulky sweater, and shoes, revealing a warm woollen leotard underneath. Solidly and simply black, the snug material dramatically emphasized his rough-hewn leanness.
"Who the hell--"
Disregarding Bodie's incipient objection, Doyle strode up to the web nearest one of the fixed traps and sprang onto it, at once pulling himself strongly upward. Several yards from his destination, he stopped, then continued his progress by rolling up the unanchored rope, head over heel, alternately using one hand and one foot as the pivot around which he revolved. With smooth agility, Doyle made the difficult feat appear childishly simple. In fact, he was sweating freely by the time he reached his destination, for that particular stunt was also particularly demanding. Allowing himself no time for recovery, however, he swung away from the web, both hands settling firmly round the roughened surface of the fixed bar.
Utilizing finely honed upper body strength and his own innate sinuousness, Doyle rolled over the bar, then dropped forward--and caught himself by his heels at the last instant. Folding in half, he brought himself up between his feet, forearms and outer thighs straining, and deliberately forced his ankles upward along the metal rods from which the trap was suspended, until he stood on his hands. After a quick look at his audience--Sergei was almost smiling, Bodie's face was closed, and the displaced Roger had a distinctly disgruntled air about him--Doyle sprang into a murderous routine of fixed bar acrobatics that were quite patently calculated to impress.
Finishing with a triumphant pirouette, he struck a dramatic pose, lightly balanced on one foot. The number of viewers had grown. A thin young man with short, light brown hair sat astride a bay mare, her reins held by a stockily built fellow in green wellingtons standing a few yards behind Sergei. Four or five people had gathered in the shadows at the main entrance, and a small group lined the outside of the ring.
"You up there!" Sergei called.
"Yes?" Doyle's voice was unaffected by his exertions.
"Your name, please?"
"Well, Doyle, I should like to see how well you fly."
Only then did Doyle notice that Bodie had taken to the ladder which gave access to the catcher's trapeze. Climbing the rungs from the outside, in the way peculiar to all aerialists, Bodie quickly ascended.
Taking a deep breath, Doyle leaped across the short space separating him from the nearest web. From there he propelled himself to the next dangling rope, and the next beyond that, until he came to alight on the flyer's platform. Heart beating smartly, he paused long enough to take advantage of the resin sack attached to one of the right-hand cables and liberally dusted his palms and wrists with the white powder.
Bodie sat on the padded bar opposite him, waiting patiently but none too encouragingly for Doyle to complete his preparations. "A simple fly- over," he said flatly.
"Right." Forced to recapture the trapeze that had been allowed to hang free after the man named Roger had botched his last stunt, Doyle kept an eye on Bodie, who deftly looped his knees over his own bar, then curved his body backward, initiating his swing. Bracing himself with care, Doyle gauged Bodie's arc, then pushed off from the platform.
In an instant he was transported back through time, to a moment nearly ten years before--his last performance on a trapeze. The arena had been overflowing with enthusiastic, cheering people, heat from the crowd rising suffocatingly forty feet above the sawdust floor. There had been that final somersault, the third of three, then a successful leap into Barry's waiting hands--and the audience had roared its approval and pleaded for more. In the next moment, diving into the net, Doyle had intended never to fly again, for he had fulfilled his commitment--and his promise to Keith.
Yet here he was, no longer the heart-broken child, but a man--and a man with a purpose. Purpose or no, there was nothing to compare with the electric sensation of soaring high above the ring, surrounded by the unique trappings that had always removed the circus from the mundanity of the "real" world. More than that, this was something Doyle excelled at. He had known it then, and he knew it now. His body believed that it could defy gravity, it thrummed with that belief, and trusted in it implicitly.
Doyle lowered his legs to increase the speed of his backswing, eyes on Bodie all the time. He approved the other man's economical movements, the broadly defined shoulder musculature that bespoke his strength and possibly skill, and the concentrated attention that assured Doyle he would be there when Doyle's hands sought his.
Gliding forward again, Doyle lifted his chest onto the bar, calculating distances more by instinct than precise measurement, waiting for that one instant when--
He left the bar, arms extended, knowing that Bodie would be blind to his approach until Doyle was almost upon him. Two sets of hands clapped around two sets of wrists simultaneously. Remembering the lessons learned over a decade before, Doyle tried to make himself an extension of Bodie, his weight evenly distributed and following the flow of Bodie's momentum.
"Thank you," Doyle said, just loudly enough for Bodie to hear, as they completed the furthest point of their outside arc and started inward again. "I thought you might not bother."
"Maybe next time I won't," Bodie said expressionlessly. As neatly as train couplings, their hands broke apart, and Doyle pirouetted away with the ease and grace of a dancer to seize the flyer's trap, which had swung back on its own momentum to meet him.
At the opposite end of his flight, Doyle left the bar and stepped onto the platform. Many feet below, Sergei called, "Something more difficult, Bodie."
His voice came as a surprise to Doyle, who had unwittingly divorced himself from the presence of others, having too effortlessly recreated the old illusion that he and his partner were alone in the rarefied heights of the tent top.
Perched on the bar again, Bodie eyed Doyle briefly. "A bird's nest from the trap, change from hands to feet, and fly back to the bar."
"Okay," Doyle agreed, aware as Bodie was that, while the maneuvers he was about to undertake looked simple, they required considerable control and timing. In fact, without previous practice sessions to prepare for such stunts, Bodie was inviting Doyle's failure.
Keith had been an excellent catcher; Barry almost as good. But Bodie had known precisely where Doyle would be and when he would be there--no fumbling, no uncertainty. Reluctant to put a name to this unlooked for affinity, Doyle took control of the flyer's trapeze once more and lunged out into open space like a long absent lover reaching for his mate.
Unnoticed, Doyle's undercover persona was already coming to the fore.
While Bodie approached their cross-over position, Doyle lifted his knees into his chest, then unfolded his legs to prop his feet on the bar in front of him. With a smooth, rocking motion backwards he seemed to turn inside out, torso and shoulders brought to the fore and legs curved back behind his head, his toes closing the circle begun by his fingers--the characteristic configuration of the "bird's nest."
They reached the center of the ring at the same time. At that well calculated instant, with Bodie placed just a little below and in front of him, Doyle let go his hands, and was taken at once into Bodie's imperturbable safekeeping. For less than a heartbeat, Doyle lay stretched full-length between Bodie and the flyer's bar. Then he broke all contact with the trap, calling on his own highly developed skill and strength to ease the sudden demand on Bodie. Between them, they achieved an effortless-looking transition free of sudden snaps or lurches.
Exhilaration burst within Doyle's chest; he wanted to shout with unfettered joy. Bodie was magic! His grip was sure, his timing impeccable. Doyle had never known a partner so attuned to his every intention. Bodie was quite simply astonishing.
Without hesitation, Doyle indicated he was ready to carry on with the next part of the stipulated stunt. Using the other man's solid strength for leverage, Doyle kicked his lower body up and over, employing more muscle than momentum in order to give the illusion of gliding. And then he let go, dropping head first toward the net, trusting to the stranger on the catcher's trapeze to arrest his fall.
Doyle was caught and held. The blood rushed into his head, gravity and centrifugal force reminding him why he had always preferred the flyer's spot. After hanging this way for a few seconds, Doyle curved up from the waist and exchanged his feet for his hands. Immediately thereafter, he was abandoned by Bodie as they had prearranged. Pirouetting twice, Doyle came out of the second spin reaching for his own trap, which glided into his hands as though summoned. He soared across the scant distance to the platform with great style and verve, and came off in a dashing pose.
While he had hoped to persuade Sergei that he should be made a member of the circus' flying team based on outstanding ability, with Bodie as his partner, proving his worth had been made simplistic in the extreme. Flushed with success, Doyle stood tensely on the slat, waiting while Bodie settled several yards away on his padded trap.
"Bodie!" Doyle said his name clearly.
The other man raised his head. Even from this considerable distance, Doyle could see the indigo richness of Bodie's eyes. He wished, briefly and without hope, that there were some spark of welcome for him.
There wasn't. Recalling himself to his duty, Doyle raised one finger and thumb, both outstretched, and cocked his head in question.
A shadow crossed Bodie's face, and Doyle feared that he would be refused. But the instant passed and the dark head nodded, a curt inclination that signified agreement and nothing more.
Accepting that much with gratitude, Doyle applied a little more resin, watching from under his lashes as Bodie, head down once more, plaited his legs round his bar and began to rebuild his powerful, fluid swing.
Bodie's understanding of what Doyle wanted was made evident in his protracted curve and increased speed. With the new rhythm fixed deep within the instinctual core of him, Doyle leapt from his own platform to keep their mid-air rendezvous.
Nothing intruded--no sound, no scent, no physical discomfort--as Doyle took himself higher than he had before. Subliminally aware of Bodie's every move, Doyle concentrated on him exclusively. It was there they must meet--that exact spot where the path of their pendulums overlapped. Confident that now was the moment he must act, Doyle left the bar. Tucking himself into a tight ball, he hurtled backward in a perfect double somersault. Blood singing with excitement, Doyle uncurled, braking his headlong rush by stretching out to his full length.
Large and square, Bodie's hands waited for him.
"You're incredible!" Doyle gasped as Bodie tightened his grip round Doyle's thin wrists.
Dark anger lurked in Bodie's eyes. With magnificent control and impossible strength, he unhurriedly drew Doyle closer until they were face to face and scant inches apart. He pronounced coldly, "And you're a prima donna." With an abrupt twist, he tore his hands free.
Taken by surprise, Doyle pitched toward the ground. The image of Keith slamming into the net--too fast, too hard--flared shockingly in his frozen mind. Half a second later, and with no more time to spare, he remembered to flip over so that he landed properly on his back. Surging with adrenalin, Doyle used the force of the rebound to fling himself high into the air. With head thrown back, chest thrust forward, and arms spread behind him like half-folded wings, he looked for all the world like a phoenix reborn.
This time, when he hit the ropes, he gave himself a second or two to recover, then clambered onto hands and knees and headed toward the spreader cords. Light applause, spontaneous and unexpected, greeted him as he vaulted from the edge of the net onto sawdust and trampled grass.
"That was not kind of Bodie," Sergei said with vast understatement, his rueful face nevertheless glowing with elation as he met Doyle.
"He's a show-off," Bodie snarled. He alighted from one of the webs onto the ground a few yards away.
"He is exceptional. He even made you look good, Bodie."
"Bodie's right." Gratefully taking the towel that was shoved at him from seemingly nowhere, Doyle rubbed at his sweating chest and shoulders. "I shouldn't have done that."
"But you will do it again!" Sergei enthused. "Many times!"
"You've hired Roger for the spot," Bodie reminded him coldly.
"And so I've unhired him." As if sensing the volatility of Bodie's mood, Sergei stepped round to face him fully, hands spread wide as if pleading for understanding. "Come now, Bodie, you cannot possibly compare him with Doyle. Roger is not suited to the trapeze--Doyle was born for it. How can you argue?"
"That kind of stunt could get us both killed, that's how."
"And your Roger wouldn't do that with his clumsiness? Look, Bodie," Sergei's voice dropped to a low, rough whisper. "Keep your balls out of the act, eh? You'll find someone else to warm your bed. Bodie!"
By then already several yards away, Bodie halted abruptly. Back stiff, hands clenched at his sides, he stood a moment, unmoving. Then, slowly coming round on one heel, Bodie regarded Sergei without expression. "I expect you want me to tell him?"
"It would be better coming from you, don't you think?"
Back teeth working under taut muscle, Bodie simply nodded. He gave Doyle an unfriendly, all encompassing glare, then continued on his way toward the main entrance.
"Do not worry about Bodie," Sergei assured Doyle, reading his troubled countenance with ease. "He is a good man." He clapped a hand on Doyle's shoulder. "But you know that." With a bob of his head he indicated the top of the tent. "You were superb, both of you."
A huge warmth pressed up against Doyle's back. He leaned into it, cushioned by the broad flank of the bay mare. Sergei shot a stern look past Doyle's head and sidled several steps away.
"Your things," a soft voice murmured.
Glancing up over his shoulder, Doyle smiled his appreciation at the young man who sat astride the mare. He took the loosely bundled effects a little shakily. "Thanks," he said.
"Where are you staying?" Sergei demanded.
"In town." Balancing himself against the horse's flanks, Doyle began to wriggle into his jeans.
"Do you perform for money--or for the love of it?"
Pausing with one leg half inserted, Doyle countered, "What d'you think?"
Sergei grinned wolfishly. "I understand. But we are a small circus. I can provide you with a reasonable wage--and a caravan of your own." At Doyle's turn of surprise, Sergei continued, "Yes, that is unusual. It is a ... little caravan, but you will find it comfortable for one person--" Distracted as the soft, dark hair on Doyle's chest disappeared beneath the bulky sweater, Sergei faltered. "--or two."
The reddish-haired man who held the horse's reins handed over Doyle's leather jacket. Nodding his appreciation, Doyle put it on, then concentrated on shoving his left foot into his shoe. "What else?"
"Else?" Sergei asked blankly.
"As you say, this is a small circus. Your people must double up. What else would you want me to do?"
A little taken aback by Doyle's candor, Sergei pulled at his lower lip before answering. "I'd thought to discuss that later," he admitted. "But since you have brought it up--"
"I'm a decent rider--voltige, haute école," Doyle informed him. "If you need a rider, that is."
"Simon handles the voltige act," Sergei said, offhandedly indicating the slim young man mounted on the bay. "But high school?" His eyes focussed on some private vision. "Yes! A mirror act-- You and Bodie--"
"Beautifully. Better than he catches."
"That I'll have to see," Doyle exclaimed softly.
"And you will. This is perfect!" Coming up sharply on a sudden thought, Sergei asked bluntly, "Do you ride as well as you fly?"
"No." Doyle spoke honestly. "But I don't think you'll be disappointed."
According Doyle another overly familiar head-to-toe examination, Sergei said warmly, "I'm sure I won't."
Coming upright on both feet, Doyle smartly patted the horse's shoulder. "When d'you want me to start?"
"Immediately, of course! You will have to fetch your things, I expect. When you return, Bodie will show you round."
Doyle was openly skeptical.
"I promise you." Sergei once more laid a hand on Doyle's shoulder; Doyle only just resisted the urge to knock it away. "There will be no trouble."
"If you say so." He studied Sergei a long moment. "Okay. I'll be off, then. Should be back inside an hour."
Doyle lightly stepped away, inordinately relieved when Sergei's hand remained with its owner. As he strode toward the main entrance, he paused to wave his thanks to Simon and his companion. They silently acknowledged him by way of a nod from the man on the ground and a waggle of fingers from Simon.
Just inside the entrance, Doyle came to stand by his bike. Taking it off the stand, Doyle heard his name called and looked across the length of the center aisle at the heavyset Sergei. "Yes?"
"Don't ever bring that thing into the tent again--right?"
Doyle gave a dismissive shrug. "Wouldn't think of it."
Early fog gave way to a hazy mid-morning. With visibility greatly increased, Doyle was given a much better idea of the layout of Circus Sergei on his return from town. Once more on foot, pushing the heavy bike at his side, he noted the standard arrangement of the small sideshow tent running at right angles to the big top--although "big top" was a misnomer in comparison to the term as it was used in the States. European circuses--including English ones--rarely housed more than a single ring. They were, accordingly, much less prepossessing--but less intimidating as well, in Doyle's opinion.
From the road he could make out the east end of what was likely the animal quarters; a whiff of somewhat gamey air confirmed his guess. To the west, the extra long caravan used for equipment storage protruded from behind the staked canvas of the Big Tent. Somewhere between the two would be the costume tent--a catch-all place which would be used by performers as a changing room, and by all as a storage area where the assorted outfits and small props could be kept at ready. The performers' caravans and removal lorries were undoubtedly situated in the vehicle park Doyle had passed a short distance back--and the former would certainly provide more in the way of amenities than this relatively barren stretch of land could offer--electricity and running water amongst them.
Still, it was beautiful country, he decided, taking in lazily rolling, mist-enshrouded hills and lush green dales. A bitterly fresh breeze lifted the thick, straight hair off Doyle's forehead, eliciting muttered thanks in Cowley's name for his having dictated Doyle's new beard; in this unforgiving climate, its protection would serve him well. Rubbing fretfully at the pliant, but presently aching, implant that fleshed out his right cheekbone, Doyle also had to admit that Cowley had been right regarding something else: The heather was voluminously in bloom, its rich purple hues stippling the moors for miles in all directions.
In Doyle's absence, the circus had come alive. Roustabouts eyed him incuriously, although the bike came in for a few interested glances. A man with a dour expression, a cigarette dangling from his bottom lip, juggled six knives, all long-bladed with sawn-off hafts. Two short men, one quite wiry, the other pot-bellied and stocky, practiced a leap-frog routine utilizing rigorous acrobatics. A young woman wearing a carpenter's apron and belt, poised dangerously on a yawing ladder while applying touch-up paint to the valance decorating the sideshow tent.
Eyes roving over seemingly endless activity, Doyle almost didn't see the small boy, followed by a larger girl, who erupted from between one of the refreshments stands and the main tent right in front of him before they had nearly bowled him over. Giggling, they fleetly put themselves out of reach even though Doyle did nothing to threaten or reproach them. Their antics only added to his already amiable humor.
Otherwise, Doyle passed unaccosted--although certainly not unnoticed. Word of him would have swept through the circus community like wildfire. While he might not be welcomed, he had been accepted--as was made clear by the occasional nod of greeting. A stranger let loose on the compound would have been met with impersonal hostility and promptly escorted off the grounds.
Bodie alone was the reason for the ease of his transition--Bodie who should have made things much more difficult for him. After all, the catcher appeared to have a personal stake in the man who had previously shared the upper rigging with him. Against all logic, however, Bodie had been scrupulously fair--until the end, of course, when he had flung Doyle into the net. But even that seeming lapse was not unjustified given Doyle's arrogant posturing and flagrant self-promotion. And there would certainly be those of the old school who would mark Bodie's action a true and necessary test of the full extent of Doyle's abilities-- especially since a planned dive into the net could turn out disastrously if one was not thoroughly trained. A fall not planned could easily become fatal.
Keith had proven that with devastating finality.
For whatever reasons, Bodie had allowed him to succeed--and now, Doyle was returned to his youth: in the circus again. Inhaling the rich, pungent odors that gave freedom to memories long suppressed, Doyle secured the bike and strode up to the main entry.
It was time he found Bodie.
Inside the tent, the net had been removed to allow full access to the ring. A voltige horse, the same bay mare Doyle had seen earlier, cantered round and round, Simon leaping expertly on and off her back. Two young men--one thin and wiry, the other stockily overweight--and a woman were gathered left of center, apparently working out the specifics of a clown routine. Right of center, a stocky, older woman conducted five or six dogs--they wove in and around and over each other too swiftly for Doyle to get an accurate count--in a marvellous display of natural ability and training.
"So you came back."
Doyle started at the sound of the other man's voice.
Bodie stood in the gloom a few feet away, shoulders resting against an intermediary tent pole, arms folded loosely across his chest.
"Any reason I shouldn't've?"
"Not in your case," Bodie drawled. "Although someone a little brighter might've noticed he wasn't welcome."
"Someone brighter would probably have chosen another profession, as well."
Bodie seemed to mull this over; then, without a hint of humor, he said, "Undoubtedly."
Realizing that all the running would be left to him, Doyle held out his hand. "Ray Doyle."
The hand was deliberately ignored. Pushing away from the pole, Bodie replied, "Bodie." He sauntered through the canvas flap to the outside, leaving Doyle to decide whether he would follow his new partner, or club him.
Doyle decided, for the moment, to follow.
Two urchins and a dog sat on Doyle's bike. At sight of the two men, the children bolted, leaving the tail-wagging terrier to its fate. Bodie chucked the dog under its chin; he was rewarded by the swath of a wetly lapping tongue across his hand.
"You'd better bring that along," he advised shortly, indicating the bike, "or someone'll add it to their act."
Paying no attention to the dog, which looked to have taken up residence, Doyle rocked the bike off its stand and started pushing it beside him. "Where to?"
"Sergei said to get you settled in. 'S only about fifteen minutes away."
"We could ride it in less."
"The walk'll do you good--and we need to get a few things straight." When Doyle would have headed down the gravel road, Bodie gestured him toward the costume tent, which as Doyle had surmised, stood between the equipment caravan and the animal stables. "This way."
"What sorts of things?" Doyle asked, manhandling the unwieldy machine back up the slow incline, almost losing the small dog who managed to maintain her regal perch only through a bout of fast-footed agility.
They walked past the refreshments stand and around a trio of milling teen-agers, who were oblivious to their presence. Behind the animal enclosure, a couple of lorries were parked, along with an old Land Rover and a rusted motor scooter. Idly casting an eye over these, Doyle noted that the ground still bore the impressions of heavier vehicles that had likely been gone for several days if the amount of rainwater accumulated in their tracks was any indication.
Filing this information for future reference, Doyle looked up to find that they were approaching the edge of the circus grounds, the boundary marked by the beginning of untamed tall grass and heather.
"Don't worry," Bodie assured him, correctly interpreting Doyle's grunt of protest. "There's a path."
Holding his tongue, but prepared for a treacherous slog, Doyle was cynically surprised when the trampled-down path Bodie had spoken of came into view. By now their small canine stowaway was standing with her front paws balanced on the handlebars, back legs spread wide, hind paws searching for purchase on the enamel-painted surface of the petrol tank. Doyle stopped long enough to strip off his jacket; he unceremoniously raised the animal onto it and resumed the clipped pace set by Bodie.
"Are you always so accommodating?"
"I was getting hot and the dog needs something to stand on; worked out well for both of us."
"If she'd stayed where she belongs, there wouldn't've--"
Doyle let out a laugh. "Like me, you mean?"
"Just like you," Bodie said equably.
To Doyle's relief the path was wide enough to allow them to walk side by side, even with the bike between them. "I'd heard there was an opening for a flyer. You don't really think I'd've just turned round and gone back to London when I saw that other bloke, do you?"
Bodie smiled to himself. "'You'd heard there was an opening.' Tell the truth, Doyle."
"I-- What d'you mean?"
"Flyers like you are bloody rare--not only are you damned good, you look damned good. So why aren't you already with a circus? And why would you want a job with Circus Sergei?" The sneering enunciation of the last two words explicitly conveyed Bodie's opinion of his current employment. "There're only two reasons I can think of why you'd be willing to work here."
"Let's have it, then: What are they? C'mon. The suspense is killing me."
"You've either got something to hide--or something to prove."
Doyle's lips twitched into a smile. "Well, you're certainly right about the latter. How long d'you reckon it'll take me to prove I can work with an unfriendly chap like you?"
"We'll get to that in a bit." Bodie bent over and picked up a small stone. "Don't fuck me around, Doyle. If you're looking for a bolthole, this isn't it. The local coppers take great pleasure in turning the place over when we least expect it--circus reputation being what it is, y'know."
"Of course I do. Well, the next time they stop in, I'll be sure to introduce myself. I'm not running from anything or anyone, Bodie." Critically studying the man beside him, Doyle demanded, "And what about you? You're as good as I am on the trapeze--why are you working with Circus Sergei?"
Bodie's answer was slow in coming. He chucked the rock into the heather. "Because no one else will have me," he stated quietly. He looked across at Doyle with remote eyes. "Never forget that."
A few minutes later the path opened onto the back of the caravan site. Doyle followed Bodie's lead alongside the concrete curb to the opening that allowed him to wheel the bike through without difficulty. He suspected this courtesy was more for the sake of their four-legged companion than for him, but he left the thought unspoken.
Bodie came to a stop in front of a small, faded green caravan. "This one's yours." While not overly roomy, it appeared to have all the requisite utility hook-ups which would make life more than adequately comfortable.
Taking the single key from Bodie's hand, Doyle remarked, "Do all of these belong to the circus?"
"Most of 'em. We moved in, in March. Not too many folks anxious to sleep in a tin when there's cheap accommodations available."
"Well, at least none of your lot is sleeping on a doorstep," Doyle commented, remembering the bereft individuals he had seen earlier in the day.
"Not unless they want to," Bodie agreed. He pointed toward another caravan, white with blood-red stripes. "That's Sergei's; the next one belongs to Aidan and Zoe--two of the clowns; Simon and Derek in the first blue one; I'm in the other."
"I met Simon," Doyle remembered, as he silently marked the placement of each vehicle. "Derek wouldn't be the bloke who was leading the horse?"
"He would. Our animal trainer, is Derek--the big animals, that is. You saw Hannah--she was putting the pups through their paces. She handles the small baggage."
"Oh, right." Having parked the bike on its stand, Doyle went up onto the box steps and unlocked the door of the caravan. As the door swung wide, both he and Bodie could see clearly into the interior.
"Roger's doing?" Doyle asked wryly, taking in the wholesale devastation on display with little surprise.
"Almost certainly." Bodie followed him inside, the small terrier at his heels.
Kicking through the rubble, Doyle wandered about his new home with a sense of foreboding that he took pains to keep concealed.
"At least he left the teapot--slightly nicked--and kettle intact," Bodie remarked, and dropped onto his heels to retrieve a tea bag from the various objects littering the floor. "Get out of that, Basil." He shoved the dog away from a smashed jar that had once contained mango chutney.
Bodie raised his head and explained, "Because she's faulty. Never gets her tricks right. Fawlty--you know. Think she must've had another name at one time; but no one remembers it anymore."
"Here, you idiot dog," Bodie growled, and dumped a lamb steak in front of her. He strode past Doyle to a tall, narrow cupboard. "Seems to me I remember seeing--yep, here it is." After liberating the broom out of the cluttered confines of the cupboard, he thrust the handle into Doyle's hands. "Looks to be the only worthwhile thing that didn't get thrown on the floor. You start sweeping up in there; I'll see what I can do with the kitchen."
"Thanks, Bodie. But I can take care of it."
"Nah. 'S my fault, in a way."
"I know you heard what Sergei said--about me and Roger. It narked Roger off, me giving you a fair shot--and, he thought I'd want to go with him."
Doyle frowned, perplexed. "He couldn't've been here long. Or did you know him from before?"
"Why d'you say that? That he couldn't've been here long?"
Eyes wide and blank, Doyle sought a way to cover his near-lapse. "Well, I only heard about the opening just on a week ago. 'S taken me this long to get up here."
"You're talking about after Arturo got his shoulder broken. Actually Roger used to help with the rigging. I taught him most of what he knew from larking about."
"And Sergei was going to allow him up there?" It was not necessary to explain where "up there" was.
Bodie's lip curled with disgust. "It was Sergei's idea altogether. He happened upon us one morning, trying it out on the bars. Roger let himself be talked into it."
"So, why--if he was a good rigger," Doyle ventured delicately, "did Sergei let him go?"
"You know why, Doyle," Bodie replied. "Hard enough to keep the balance right when there isn't someone hanging about who resents being taken out of the spotlight."
"True. Watch the dog, mate!" This, as the terrier prepared to spring across the floor with the half-gnawed lamb-chop clamped firmly between her teeth. "Sure you should've given her that? The local sheep'll be quavering in their boots from now on."
"Probably not." Bodie carried the dog to the door and set her on the first step. "Off with you, mutt!"
By the time tea was brewed, Doyle had swept up much of the damage and piled it in a corner by the entry rug. As he worked, he picked out a few--very few--salvageable items. For the most part, Roger's rampage had been quite thorough.
Bodie cleaned off the countertops in the kitchen; there the destruction had been limited to a few spilled dry goods and the odd smashed jar or bottle. Like Doyle, he worked steadily and without complaint.
After half an hour, they had restored a remarkable degree of cleanliness to the caravan.
"Thanks, Bodie," Doyle said sincerely, sipping now-cold tea. "I owe you."
Bodie shook his head. "Not for this."
Looking at the other man curiously, Doyle asked warily, "What, then?"
"Your new job. I could've fixed it so nothing worked right, and you know it."
"I do. So why help me out?"
The question was not immediately answered. "I'm not even quite sure, really. Maybe because I wanted to try my hand with a real flyer for a change."
"Or maybe you were just tired of Roger?"
Bodie's eyes shot up to Doyle's face. "Maybe." He poured the remains of his tea into the sink. "Why I did doesn't matter; we're stuck with each other. But there are a few rules I'm going to insist on--or you can just find someone else to catch you."
Raising his almost empty cup to his mouth, Doyle murmured, "And what are they, these rules of yours?"
"We work out every day--starting today--on the ground, and the bars."
"On the ground?"
"Exercise. Calisthenics. I have a routine set up; we'll go through it together." Bodie waited for this to register, then continued, "The circus opens to the public Wednesday--but you won't start performing until Wednesday next."
"That's right. I want to be sure that today wasn't a fluke. I've caught for a lot of people, Doyle; can fly myself, for that matter. It was too easy with you."
Doyle gave Bodie a sudden, infectious grin. "We were good, weren't we!"
"Dynamite," Bodie agreed blandly. "I haven't told Sergei yet about the postponement, but I know he won't like it. If you want to force the issue, he'll back you. Guaranteed. But if you want to fly with me, we'll do things my way."
"Practice or performance--doesn't matter," Doyle declared. "Just so long as I'm flying."
For the first time since Doyle had met him, a genuine smile appeared on Bodie's lips. It was a small smile, and if he had blinked, Doyle would have missed it altogether. Following their inauspicious beginnings, Doyle could not help but be cheered.
Basil lay atop Doyle's bike, nose down between her front paws, stringy bits of gristle lumped together in the middle of the leather jacket that once more served as her pillow. Spying her first, Bodie commented, "Looks like you've acquired an admirer, mate."
"Wha--! You little bit--"
At Doyle's arrival, the animal sat bolt upright, ears pricked, eyes fastened on him, displaying no signs of trepidation.
"In fact, I'd say you've been adopted," Bodie said, malice evident in his smile.
"Until I return her to her rightful owner." Doyle scooped the dog up and tucked her under one arm while he shook the remains of her meal out of his jacket with the other. "Messy bugger," he complained.
"Hasn't got one--owner, that is," Bodie stated. "Hannah gave up on her ages ago."
"She was with a couple of children when we came out of the tent."
"Sorry, mate, not hers." Bodie chuckled as Doyle draped the jacket over the handlebars and lifted the dog onto his shoulder. "Though, I'd have to say you're getting what you deserve, treating the brainless bitch like that."
On the way back to the compound, Doyle requested a guided tour; Bodie was agreeable. Returning by the same route as they had gone out, Bodie directed him to the equipment caravan as the first structure they encountered. He offered to show Doyle inside; since this would save Doyle having to break in at a later time, he accepted with alacrity.
"Shouldn't this be kept locked?" he asked, as Bodie waved him through the folded-up tent flap.
"Riley checks everything in at the end of the day. You haven't met Riley yet; he's our ringmaster."
"Not much in here, is there?" Doyle observed. It had just occurred to him that a single caravan could not possibly contain all the odds and ends necessary to equip a circus--even a small one, like Circus Sergei.
"No, you're right. There are a few storage lorries on the outer edge of the caravan site, and another set up to the east of the animal compound. It's a bit larger, but you'd've missed seeing it from the road."
"Certainly did." Glancing casually over the interior of the caravan, Doyle memorized every container, each pile of rigging, every mound of folded canvas swatches, dismantled curbing, all the associated paraphernalia that must be at hand to keep the circus functional at all times.
Careful not to linger, Doyle gestured toward the door. Basil swayed precariously as he went down the steps, but maintained her balance with the sure-footed nimbleness of the circus dog.
"Costume tent." Bodie waved a hand at the long canvas structure a few yards away. "You'll soon know the inside of this." They circled round to the back opening. A covered corridor connected the dressing tent to the Big Top. Bodie walked under the drawn up flap first. Ducking automatically to keep the dog from being swept off his shoulder, Doyle noted nothing of possible importance here, and less space to hide it in-- yet there was much that immediately seized the eye and held its interest.
"What d'you wear on the rigging?"
A large rack, running full length along one side of the tent, was festooned with garish outfits--large, Victorian bustled gowns, strikingly sequinned robes, striped and dotted clown's suits, outsize jodhpurs, stiffly starched formal shirts with standing collars, cutaway jackets, an array of leotards in multiple sizes and colors--all the varied uniforms of the circus.
"Something like this." Bodie went to the far end of the rack and drew out a limply hanging, dark purple leotard. A swirl of spangles and rhinestones, reminiscent of a Catherine wheel, decorated what there was of the plunging front; a simple starburst of sequins flared over both hips.
"Not bad." Coming up from behind, Doyle fingered the material admiringly. "The blue's nice, too."
"The black you had on this morning worked well," Bodie noted dryly.
"That's me woollies, mate. Don't expect they'd do much for the audience."
"Did wonders for Sergei."
Absorbing this comment with a slight twist in his middle, Doyle slowly focussed on Bodie's face. "You wouldn't be implying that's why Sergei took me on?"
Bodie shook his head. "At least--not entirely. He's bright enough, is Sergei; even he could see you're a good flyer."
"Should I expect trouble from him?"
"Somehow I don't think him trying it on would bother you overly much."
Doyle's chin edged upward, heavy lids hooding jade-green eyes. "I haven't been that obvious."
"Not at all," Bodie assured him. "It's more what you haven't done that's given you away."
He was treated to another of Bodie's fleeting smiles. "You didn't flinch when Sergei mentioned Roger and me; for that matter, you didn't flinch when I mentioned it."
"And on that basis, you've assumed I'm gay, too?"
"Well, that--and the way you've given me the once-over, more than once, yeah."
Doyle turned away abruptly, almost dislodging Basil. "Sorry, pup," he muttered. "It doesn't hurt to look," he added defiantly to Bodie.
Idly petting the animal's flank, Doyle said sedately, "So who makes the decision regarding what we wear?"
Restoring the leotard to its place, Bodie wandered down the length of the rack. Stopping a third of the way along, he drew forth an elaborate Regency outfit, complete with tiered ruffle at throat and wrist, tight, dark brown breeches, flared fawn jacket, and curved-brimmed hat. "Simon, for the most part."
"Simon?" Doyle's eyes were on the costume which Bodie held out at arm's length. "What've you got there--oh, for the haute école routine, right?"
"Right. Simon's always done up the costumes for the horse acts--this is his work--and I recently inveigled him to add the flyer's leotards to his repertoire. Stitches on the sparkly bits, that sort of thing."
"He did that back there?" Doyle pointed a long finger toward the purple leotard, of which only a thin strip of sleeve was visible from this angle.
"Tries to complement the performers, to dramatize their own appearance, y'know?"
"What've you been wearing, then?"
Bodie only smiled enigmatically at him. "C'mon, I'll show you the rest of the layout, then we'll see if we can cadge an early lunch from Simon and Derek."
Doyle chose his words with care. "You said they share a place. Are they always together?"
Pushing the flap of the tent opening wider so Doyle could pass through, Bodie gestured toward the large animal tent, which stood several yards away. "Put it this way: I've heard Circus Sergei called Circus Sir Gay more than once."
"Nothing like subtlety," Doyle observed.
The animal stables were ripe with the presence of horse, and an odor Doyle couldn't quite put a name to. Basil opted for other company when they started into the tent; with a powerful leap, she sprang to the ground and disappeared round the side, effectively distracting Doyle from further speculation.
"She got up Mickey's nose one day when she was a pup; been very cautious of those sharp hooves ever since," Bodie explained, when Doyle quirked his brows at him.
Experiencing a curious combination of abandonment and relief now the dog had left him, Doyle walked with Bodie past the horse stalls. The two men and the bay mare he had met in the ring were grouped together in the middle of the wide stables alleyway. At her head, Simon was rubbing the horse's shoulders down one-handed with long, loving strokes, while keeping her leadshank firmly gripped in his other fist. Derek, his back to them, held her left foreleg between his knees, inspecting the shoe.
"Simon, Derek--Ray Doyle." Bodie's introduction was terse, but nevertheless encouraging--he had actually remembered Doyle's first name.
"Hello." Doyle extended his hand, wondering if it would be refused once more.
It was accepted without hesitation, Simon enclosing it in his long, thin fingers. Hunched awkwardly, Derek only glanced round, his broad features watchful but not what Doyle would describe as completely unfriendly.
"Good to meet you, Ray--or would you rather be called by your surname, like Bodie?" Simon asked.
"All right. Ray, it is. So--what d'you think of your new home?"
"It'll do." Doyle pointed round at the stalls and the few small animal enclosures. "I count eight horses; no big animals?"
Simon glanced down at Derek, who answered his unspoken communication with the slightest of shrugs. "It's an equestrian circus, really."
"And you're very good." It was said matter-of-factly and without emphasis--but with complete honesty. Doyle did not fail to notice that his question had been sidestepped.
"Wait'll you see the actual routine," Simon smiled disarmingly.
"Typical of Simon's low-key approach to the world," Bodie explained cryptically. "The two of you wouldn't be taking a break for lunch any time soon?"
Releasing the mare's foreleg, Derek stood up and took the leadshank from Simon. He nodded with an abrupt, up-down motion, capping his agreement with a jab to his companion's ribs.
"As a matter of fact, we are. Why don't you join us?" Simon invited with acid good humor.
"We wouldn't want to be a nuisance," Bodie demurred.
"You couldn't be anything else, Bodie." Simon looked on as Derek walked the mare down the length of the narrow tent. "She's doing fine, Derry. You must have imagined it."
Scowling blackly, Derek turned the mare and brought her back.
"Put her in her stall--didn't you just say you're hungry?"
Baring an imposing set of fine, sharp teeth, Derek tugged the mare toward the end of the row. Trailing along behind him, Doyle peered into each stall in turn, his full lips curving into a smile at sight of a cream colored Shetland pony. "Who's this, then?"
"Taffy." Simon hung the brush from a peg on one of the support poles. "Watch your hands; she nips."
"Don't they all?" Doyle cast a wondering eye at the still silent Derek, who was backing the mare into the next stall. Giving the pony's forelock an affectionate tug, he asked, "What does this little beggar do?"
"She provides the comedy in the liberty act. And sometimes she works with me and Pat in the stunt routine--when I'm feeling adventurous, that is." Simon draped a pale grey windcheater over his shoulders. "She can be more trouble than the other five altogether."
Waggling his fingers at the pony, Doyle crossed the aisle to look into the opposite stall. "Yeah. I've--" He stopped abruptly, suddenly nose to nose with a tall, black Friesian that had swung its head up to take a look at him. "Beautiful," he exclaimed reverently, and touched the velvety muzzle with a tentative forefinger. An inquiring whicker from the neighboring stall heralded the appearance of an Andalusian of somewhat slighter stature. Technically a "grey," to the eye the mare was as purely white as the Friesian was sootily black.
"Piper and Tuppence." Bodie materialized at Doyle's side, his footfalls impressively noiseless on the rustling straw floor.
"Where ever did you get horses like these?" Dispensing his attentions as impartially as possible, Doyle was seized by an unreasoning urge to vault over the stall-gate onto the back of the densely muscled black. Then his eye travelled to the intelligent patience of the grey, and he was drawn all over again to the Andalusian.
"Tuppence is getting on in years," Simon explained. "Piper was damaged during an event."
"No!" Doyle breathed. "Damaged how? He looks marvellous."
"Shredded some muscles in a bad jump. Don't worry about him, Ray. What he lacks in endurance, he more than makes up for in flair and sheer stubbornness. Wait'll you see his capriole."
"You're joking, surely!" Holding the Friesian's head between both hands, Doyle leaned to one side and peered down the length of the animal's body, noting smooth definition from the hindquarters to the crest and, up close, all through the forehand.
"Not a bit. He's only good for one go a performance--and sometimes he doesn't manage it at all--but he always gives it a bloody good try."
"The muscle damage wasn't in the hind legs, I take it?"
"No, 'course not. In truth, we're not even sure of the particulars. Derek got wind of him through a mate of his who keeps an eye on the horsy circuit. This one's been gelded, so they were considering putting him down--couldn't even put him out for stud, y'see, after they'd ruined him for eventing."
"Poor beggar. How long has he been with the circus?"
Simon cocked his head in Derek's direction. After a brief pause, Derek raised his hand, four fingers prominently displayed. "Longer than that!" Simon disclaimed. "I thought--no, wait, you're right. Was only a few months before I signed on, wasn't it?"
At Derek's nod of affirmation, Doyle gave Simon a blatantly inquisitive look.
Smiling reminiscently to himself, Simon said sotto voce, "Thought he was the strong, quiet type was Derek, y'know? Swept me off my feet." He winked at Derek, who glowered tolerantly at him. "Was nearly two weeks before I found out he just doesn't speak."
"Two weeks?" Doyle repressed a grin, infected by Simon's sweet feyness.
"You know how it is," Simon replied with blithe assumption. "We communicated on a very different level at first."
"Hasn't changed much," Bodie remarked.
"You're just jealous, Bodie," Simon sniped back. "Although--" He cast a sweeping eye over Doyle, missing nothing. "Perhaps your luck has changed for the better."
"Wasn't asking for agony aunt opinions," Bodie reminded him. "Only lunch."
"Nothing in this world comes free, Bodie my love," Simon said scornfully. "All right, all right--" Hands spread wide in mock defense as Derek began to stride threateningly toward him, Simon complained poutingly, "I'm surrounded by bully boys." His mouth curved into a coquettish smile. "And, I love it!"
As the horse reared up and danced to one side with jolting sharpness, Doyle found himself tumbling through the air. Tucking and rolling to use the speed of his descent to his advantage, he almost succeeded in transforming a rather clumsy fall into an impressive, controlled stunt. At the last instant, he caught a heel on the edge of the colorfully painted curb and was sent sprawling.
Inhaling sawdust and dried grass, he took a moment to regain his disposition. The first two falls could have been his fault; after all, interpreting Derek's hand signals and arcane gestures was not a simple task. This last dismounting, however, had resulted from Derek's instruction to scratch Tuppence just behind her surcingle--purportedly to quieten her. While under normal circumstances, Doyle would have hesitated to win a horse's confidence in such a way--horses, not unlike people, could be notoriously ticklish--Derek's calm nods of assurance in response to Doyle's skepticism had gulled him into obeying.
Now Doyle had no doubt that he had been set up: Derek was deliberately causing him to miscue the Andalusian. Even a superbly skilled rider would have difficulty coping with a horse trained to another's command. Doyle, with his exceptional, but far from superior equestrian mastery, could not hope to win the animal's respect so long as such nonsense was allowed to continue.
"Doyle?" Bodie's voice, bored and a little amused, came to him from the opposite side of the ring.
With a powerful shove, Doyle gained his feet, and wordlessly began to brush off the most recent accumulation of clinging detritus from his sweat-soaked clothing.
It had gone past two, he guessed; they had been hard at it for over two hours. Following a filling, but uninspired meal in the tack room, all had adjourned to the ring to assess Doyle's horsemanship. By now he was growing very tired, more so of the ceaseless testing and tormenting, than of any actual physical labor.
Turning his mind away from a growing sense of disillusionment, which in his role of new-boy was only to be expected, and the clamor of aching muscles and bones, he walked steadily back to the snorting grey, and, making soft, coaxing noises, lulled her into accepting his touch once more. After rubbing her muzzle with carefully measured strokes, he took up her snaffle rein and led her back across the well-trodden floor to Derek, who stood buttressed by a tenting pole, one leg crossed over the other.
"Thanks, Derek." Doyle's fingers massaged the skin beneath the horse's jaw. "You're a great teacher, y'know?"
Having learned over lunch that Derek was mute as the result of a blow to the larynx suffered some fifteen years before, Doyle didn't wait for a response to his sarcasm--verbal or signed. Retaining all the dignity he could muster in his presently sodden, battered condition, he dropped the reins at Derek's feet, then walked purposefully to the horse accessway. From there he took a side exit into the light of the grey, still-cool day.
Replacing the grit clogging his lungs with sweet, fresh air, Doyle did not look back as he struck out on the rough path that joined the circus grounds to the caravan park. Derek's expressionless face stayed with him the whole way; like as not, Doyle would be out of a job before the end of this day. At the moment, however, the thought was immensely cheering-- even if Cowley's displeasure would not be.
"You back again?" The small bundle curled up on the seat of his motorcycle resolved itself into a familiar canine profile. Ridiculously pleased, Doyle swept the animal into his hands and bore her up the front steps to the door; there he set her down. Dealing with the lock efficiently and speedily, Doyle ushered the dog in alongside him and headed for the kettle.
"I think it's time we took tea, Basil my girl," Doyle said bolsteringly. "And then, a good scrub. What d'you say?"
Over the sound of water filling the metal container, Bodie's voice came clearly: "D'you want me to send someone in to scrub your back?"
Doyle paused, eyes fixed on the water pouring out of the cold water tap. "Does that mean, the prospect of doing it yourself doesn't appeal?"
"Not at all--although I'm not accustomed to pampering quitters."
"Quitter?" The word was spoken mildly; Doyle refused to rise to the taunt. "Sorry, mate, but my bum's had enough bashing for the day. Very delicate, it is."
"Okay, so Derek was playing you about a bit. But his first concern is for his horses. He wanted to be sure you can be trusted with them."
"That's a crazy way to test me, then," Doyle said with suppressed anger. He stabbed the flex into the base of the kettle, then spun round. "I could've torn up Tuppence's mouth if I'd tried to bring her about, even with a snaffle bit."
"She's stronger than she looks--and better trained," Bodie assured him.
Bracing his elbows upon the sideboard, Doyle bent his head to one side, regarding Bodie intently. "So you're not going to recommend I be dismissed?"
With arms folded across his chest, Bodie returned Doyle's scrutiny unblinkingly. "No reason to--Derek's satisfied."
"He said so, did he?"
That raised a grin. "But then he wouldn't."
Bodie left his place by the door and came toward Doyle.
Suddenly wary, Doyle straightened up.
Reaching past him, Bodie retrieved two mugs out of the cupboard beside Doyle's head. "You're lucky Roger overlooked a few things during his tantrum."
Breathing again, Doyle muttered, "And tea. Although I'll have to make a run to the shops if I'm not to be begging off you lot forever. Out of milk," he elucidated. "And everything else."
"Simon wouldn't mind," Bodie informed him off-handedly. "Although watch your step there--Derek can be very jealous."
"Does Simon give him reason to be?"
"He's a flirt by nature." Bodie reached for the scratched and faded tin on the sideboard and took out two tea-bags. "But I've never known him to be actively unfaithful, no."
"And you'd know, would you?"
Still standing very close, Bodie moved the chipped teapot to the center of the counter and took off the lid. "I would," he agreed simply. He shoved the pot toward Doyle.
Doyle picked up the kettle and sloshed steaming water into the porcelain belly. "You came through unscathed."
"I told you, Simon likes to play, but Derek's too important to him. Simon's the one who made it clear that he enjoyed the scenery but he had no intention of taking out a mortgage."
Doyle waited as Bodie poured the warming water out of the pot before plopping the two bags into its belly and refilling it to the brim. "What a quaint way of putting it. So what happens now?" Raising his head, Doyle found Bodie watching him closely.
"We drink our tea," Bodie replied, his voice low and uncharacteristically husky.
A small fireball flared into existence in Doyle's abdomen. All at once, he wanted nothing more than to drag Bodie over to the bed and find out for himself what the other man might have to offer. From the smouldering intensity glimpsed in hypnotic blue eyes, it could be something quite impressive. Shocked by the urgency of his own lust, Doyle summoned a rather tremulous smile. "And then back to the ring, right?"
Seemingly seeing right into Doyle's heart, Bodie said solemnly, "That's right."
Finally, at six o'clock, they called an end to the day. Coming from CI5, Doyle was no stranger to the rigors of keeping fit; Bodie, however, was a taskmaster who could have put Brian Macklin to shame. Doyle never questioned his demands, as it was quite clear that Bodie was prepared to take the same punishment himself--and often did.
They had returned from their early afternoon tea to take up where Doyle had left off--although Derek now seemed content to work him to the precipice of exhaustion rather than pound him senseless by way of various, inventively mischievous falls. Spared Derek's miscues, Tuppence had responded to Doyle as though she had been raised and trained by him. Derek, Doyle knew, was to be credited for that, just as he was to be held responsible for his earlier interference. Once he had been given an idea of how the haute école routine was currently structured, Doyle had been able to take the old, but still brilliantly capable mare through her paces. Bodie had taken a turn on Piper, and the five of them--humans and beasts--had collaborated on the "mirror" routine that Sergei had envisioned earlier in the day.
Released at last, Doyle would have offered his services in rubbing the mare down, but Bodie had reminded him that they must still work on their aerial routine. Since the afternoon had advanced into early evening by then, Doyle had not been keen on attempting the bar--but that was not what Bodie had had in mind.
For the next hour and a half, they had worked out on mats. Tirelessly, Bodie had kept the counts, shouted changes, and barked encouragement mingled with scandalous insults, all the while never missing a beat himself. Awed, Doyle had been compelled to match Bodie's example.
Come the end, he was exhausted. Every muscle in his body felt like quivering mush, and he pictured the soft tissues in his bones as bloodied gel. Yet, high as a kite, he felt that he had proved something to the exacting Bodie--as well as to himself.
On his way back now to the caravan, Bodie came up alongside him. "Forgot to tell you: Sergei wants us round for dinner. Are you game?"
Stifling a groan before it could impugn his hard-as-nails image, Doyle managed briskly, "Can hardly refuse, can I?"
"No, not really. Half past seven, Sergei said. See you there."
"Thanks, Bodie," Doyle groused under his breath. By then Bodie could not have heard him, however, having bounded across the gravelled lot to his own caravan, his fluid step unslowed by the afternoon's exertions.
Basil sat patiently waiting on the doorstep of the pale green caravan.
"You're a fool," Doyle told the animal, impartially parcelling out his disgruntlement. "Should've latched onto someone better equipped. I don't even own a bone."
The remainder of the evening passed in a blur. Doyle remembered dinner as wonderfully warm and filling, but details were lost almost immediately. Sergei's wife Rose was a blowsy, heavy-featured woman with, Doyle soon learned, a very great heart. She saw to it that he was well fed, had far too much to drink, and that he never lacked for attention. But the last selection he had in spades. As attentive as his wife, Sergei settled his gaze on Doyle early on, and for the entirety of Doyle's visit it never wavered. In a haze of repleteness, he wondered vaguely that Sergei should be so overt in his interest, which only intensified as the wine flowed. Bodie kept his own counsel for the most part, although he seemed quite adept at redirecting the conversational flow on the occasions when it either became too pointed, or began to meander aimlessly.
At midnight, Bodie and Doyle stepped out into the night, Doyle carrying the paperwork that constituted his contract with Circus Sergei in one warm, almost limp hand. Fog layered the darkness, creating a false sense of intimacy. Breathing in frigid, moist air, Doyle savored the scents coming off the moors: the sweet suggestion of heather, the rich thickness of fertile loam.
Bodie kept pace beside him, a silent figure that commanded Doyle's senses even more than his surroundings. It amused him to think that he had known this man less than a day--yet he had never known another to suit him better. From the way Bodie divined Doyle's every, fleeting mood--and responded accordingly and beforehand--Bodie was the opposite and equal Doyle had always dreamed of, but had pragmatically rejected as an impossible fantasy. To have met him under these circumstances was, in Doyle's opinion, unfair in the extreme. For, once Doyle was known for who and what he was, Bodie would very likely despise him.
Accompanying Doyle to his door, Bodie waved a hand at the small bag of leavings Doyle held in his other hand. "Breakfast," he scoffed lightly. "It's really for that bloody mutt, isn't it?"
"Shh. Didn't have time to get out to the shops, now did I. 'Sides, there's more than enough here for two."
Bodie shook his head, eyes glimmering in the muted glow cast by the light over the steps. "Tomorrow morning, seven sharp."
"Right." Doyle watched as Bodie walked back to his own caravan, enjoying the smooth economy of his movements, the spread of his shoulders, the tapering of hips, the powerful legs--
The thought had lurked at the back of Doyle's mind that Bodie might invite himself in. He had not considered beyond the possibility, however, and perhaps, given his own somewhat muddled condition, it was just as well Bodie had not. Bodie, as a partner, Doyle could handle without difficulty--so far, anyway; as a bedmate, Doyle had much to learn.
He unlocked the door and went inside, turning a little so Basil could bolt past him out of the caravan and into the darkness--presumably to take care of personal business. She was back in less than two minutes, head lifted inquiringly toward the plastic-wrapped left-overs in Doyle's hand.
"You're quite right," he murmured, closing the door against the rest of the world. "This is for you."
Dressing before dawn the following morning, Doyle occupied his pain- distracted mind by trying to recall when, just recently, he had felt quite so thoroughly bruised and pummelled. Not an inch of his body seemed to have gone undamaged--he longed, quite pitiably, for the attentions of the CI5 masseur. Yet, for all his myriad complaints, he could not include lack of sleep amongst them. After crawling into bed at half past midnight, he had gone out like a light, and had remained semi- comatose until his alarm had bleated at him at half past five. Only now did it occur to him just how long it had been since he had enjoyed such deep, dreamless sleep, undisturbed by nightmares and unhappy memories.
Was that what Cowley's intention had been all along: an idyll in the country far away from the strain of CI5? Keep an eye out, he had said. But was Circus Sergei really involved with the IRA--or had Cowley made that up?
Doyle laughed aloud, the sound richly cynical. Perhaps he had already taken too much fresh, moorland air. Basil tipped her head to one side, left ear pointed, the other properly folded over, raising another throaty chortle from Doyle. Cowley most certainly had a reason for sending him here--even if the by-product of this assignment amounted to a little rest and recuperation for Doyle. Shaking his head at such a ludicrous slip, Doyle slurped down the remains of his tea, then sat on the edge of the kitchen chair to tie his trainers.
A few minutes later, he poked his head out into twilit greyness, waiting until Basil had bounded down the steps in front of him before closing the door and locking it. Moaning under his breath, he followed at a more sedate pace, cataloguing every twinge and spasm reported by his punished body. The dog reappeared from the heather verging the caravan site just as Doyle reached the path. Eyes bright and attentive, she looked for a signal from Doyle as to which way they would go.
Turning his face into the mist, Doyle conceded, "Okay, so you're not smart. Neither am I. Must be why we get along so well."
In fact, he puzzled over the dog's attachment to him. His kindnesses had been few and unexceptional. She was a well behaved animal, had provided Doyle with no unseemly surprises in the morning, and so far had been relatively undemanding. Assuming she would play his shadow until the novelty wore off, Doyle decided to do nothing to encourage her fealty-- while allowing to himself that he found her company pleasantly diverting.
The ground was wet with recent rainfall; it squelched under Doyle's once-white trainers. Striding purposefully toward the circus compound, Doyle shivered beneath his fleecy running togs. His breath took form before him, voluminous, misty clouds that served as constant reminders of the low temperature and prodigious level of humidity.
Arriving at the trodden-down entry road to the main tent, Doyle broke into a lope, letting disinclined thighs and calves adjust to the increase in speed before pushing them into a full-out run. Rubber soles crunched on the gravel drive as he slowly built up his pace.
Basil remained at his heels, her sinewy legs working double-time just to keep up. At the main road, Doyle began a slow run. Before long, he had forgotten the niggling discomforts--the cold, assorted pains, and the dregs of sleep banished in favor of soaring freedom. There was something special in being out here alone, welcoming the coming day. Inhabiting this paling world were few other early risers: unidentified birds whose shrill tunes were muted by the heavy fog, sheep clumped in neighboring fields, baaing vexedly, and a stabbing breeze that lifted Doyle's hair and made his eyes prickle.
A hedgehog shrank into the underbrush as he pounded by, distracting Basil who immediately went to investigate. Doyle left her to it, guessing she would quickly retreat from the creature's unwelcoming exterior--in the event she contrived to get that close.
At the foot of the hill, he slowed abruptly, having picked up the rhythmic thud of approaching footfalls. Out of the gloom, Bodie appeared, eyeing Doyle with unconcealed respect. Clearly he had been out for some time already, damp hair clinging to his skull, a dark vee of sweat angling down from the collar of his track suit toward his waist.
"You surprise me, Doyle," he said by way of greeting, only the deepened timbre of his voice betraying his exertions. "Expected you'd sleep till I knocked you up."
Doyle raised his brows with mock dismay. "And let all this frigid air go to waste?"
"You could spare a thought for your little friend there." Bodie pointed down at the dog, who was using the brief respite to sit and catch her breath, her long, narrow tongue lolling out over her bottom teeth.
"Her own fault. Anyway, I thought she'd abandoned me for a hedgehog." Jogging in place, Doyle looked the other man over without thinking about what he was doing. Bodie was a welcome sight, a kindred spirit willing to defy the bleakness of this insalubrious morning. Their meeting out here fostered a camaraderie that Doyle had unknowingly missed.
Suddenly aware that he was being accorded the same intimate inspection, Doyle grinned crookedly. "Don't let me keep you."
"Nor me you." Bodie wiped his beaded forehead with the back of a hand. "Stop by my caravan when you've finished. There'll be tea and toast ready."
"Hold you to that," Doyle promised, salivary glands kicking into production at the mere mention of food.
Bodie nodded once and was away, his stride long and smooth, and to all appearances, unhindered by the sharp slope.
Unaccountably pleased, Doyle continued in the opposite direction. Somehow, the morning had taken on a brightness that had nothing to do with the drab advent of dawn.
"So what's on for today?" Doyle asked, sucking a dripping fingertip into his mouth; Bodie was far too generous with the butter.
"Did I neglect to give you a serviette?" Despite the pointed statement, Bodie did not seem unduly disturbed by Doyle's informal method of wiping his hands.
"Should've warned me you melted a quarter pound of butter onto each doorstep." Unrepentantly, Doyle curled his tongue around his thumb, swabbing at it like a lollipop, then drew it free of his lips with a noisy pop.
"You'll work it off. Did you go over the paperwork Sergei gave you last night?"
"Who's had time? Nah, I'll do that this morning--we do get elevenses, don't we?"
Amusement surfaced in Bodie's indigo eyes. "Ever hear of a circus that didn't?"
"Thank God for England," Doyle murmured fervently. He raised a mug of steaming coffee to his mouth.
"Sergei wants me to introduce you to everyone."
"Thought we were supposed to do that yesterday."
"Before Derek got hold of you, yes."
Doyle sipped his coffee. "Tell me about Sergei. Better still, tell me why Rose puts up with him."
Emptying the coffee-pot into his mug, Bodie gave a sketchy shrug. "Why does anyone ever put up with anyone?"
"True. Still, was I wrong, or was Sergei becoming just the weest bit obvious last night?"
"Rose has been married to him for fifteen years. She's aware of her husband's--penchant."
"Has she spoken to you about him?"
"Once or twice." Studying Doyle's face, Bodie commented, "You handled him very well, y'know. Never seen it done better."
"Wasn't just me." Dark, sifting grains of coffee shadowed the bottom of Doyle's cup. "If you lot hadn't been there, he might have become a bother."
"No 'might' about it," Bodie said sardonically. "Our Sergei appears to be badly smitten by you."
"The drink makes him worse?"
"Noticeably. Unfortunately for Rose, she loves the old reprobate. Otherwise she'd have binned him years ago--and Circus Sergei would long since have become a thing of the past."
Bodie rocked his mug to keep the sediment from settling. "She's the brains and the power behind the throne. And the reason people continue to work here. If they had to depend on Sergei, they'd be out on the street in no time."
"I thought he ran the show."
Standing up, Bodie walked across to the window and looked out at the field separating the caravan site from the circus compound. "He does his bit--has good circus instincts, does Sergei. But Rose is the accountant, the payroll clerk, the organizer, and overall watchdog. She sees to it that we get paid on a regular basis, that our needs are seen to. She's the mother everyone never had." Bodie finished his tea, then said, "She cares about us in the truest sense of the word."
"Unlucky for her that she's married to Sergei."
"Hm. Are you ready? It's already gone seven."
A swirl of faces later, Doyle was presented last of all to Lily, Simon's partner in costume creation and repair. A small, plump woman, with eyes the color of blue-grey dove's wings, she stood a full head shorter than Doyle.
"And about time, Bodie!" Her low, throaty voice, rising above the hubbub of the big tent, was a treat for the ears. "Just saving the best for last," Bodie facilely corrected her.
Delivering a jab to the ribs that impacted with a thud, Lily turned from Bodie, making Doyle the center of her incandescent smile. "You were magnificent on the bar yesterday," she said dramatically. "Positively magical!"
"Thank you." Doyle was somewhat surprised to feel a surge of genuine warmth filling his chest. Had it been so long since he had been complimented for something other than authorized mayhem? "Bodie says you take care of the costumes--along with Simon."
Lily's smile disappeared, and she eyed Doyle critically. "With Simon!" she sniffed. "He'd like the world to think he does everything except sew on the buttons."
For the first time, Doyle realized that the broad streaks of silver in the woman's hair were not a performer's conceit, but the hallmark of fifty or more years. "And in fact?"
"He sews on the buttons, too." Humor wreathed her face like a garland of bright flowers. "Simon's very good at what he does, actually. He designs some of the costumes and even sews a few. I keep track of all the rest."
"A big job," Doyle noted respectfully.
"Very. Even for a circus this size."
"It's our go, Lily," Bodie interrupted. He gestured at the clowns and web spinners who were clearing the ring. Basil chased after a dog wearing a ruffled collar. Immediately, one of the clowns lurched after the pair of them, shouting invective in which Basil's name figured largely.
"Better look after your dog," Bodie said grimly. "Old Falstaff's wanted to wring her neck for donkey's years."
"She's not my dog," Doyle replied perfunctorily. "'S taken to following me about, that's all," he explained to Lily, who was following this by- play with interest.
"Wondered why she'd come in here." She shook her head bemusedly. "The smell of Pat is usually enough to keep her well away."
"She's a victim of love," Bodie said drolly, shucking threadbare jeans and sweatshirt to reveal woollen tights underneath.
Following Bodie's example, Doyle unbuttoned the clasp at his waist and began to tug at the zip. "Nah, just knows a soft touch when she sees one."
"You did feed her your leftovers, didn't you?" Bodie exclaimed.
With great dignity, Doyle pulled his bulky sweater up over his head, baring himself to the frigid caress of morning. "Ask the dog."
Bodie snorted. "Soft touch isn't in it, mate."
"Leave him alone, Bodie," Lily said entreatingly. "He's beautiful."
Doyle flushed. The woman had spoken with heartfelt fervor, her eyes even now roaming over him from the crown of his head to the heels of his unshod feet.
Laughing, Bodie nudged Doyle toward the nearest web. "Don't worry, sunshine. The novelty of your stunning physique will wear off soon enough. Mine did."
"Who said?" Lily demanded lecherously, as the two men ascended the dangling ropes.
As Doyle reached the platform, moving slowly and surely until his muscles had warmed up, he called across to Bodie, "Thought we were supposed to work out on the ground first?"
"We will." Bodie swung across to the cables supporting the platform. "First we check all the rigging and supporting guys. Then we'll go back down and do some stretches, a bit of--"
"Calisthenics," Doyle finished for him, pronouncing each syllable distinctly for added emphasis.
"Just so. Come up here and check this over with me. You are familiar with this sort of set-up, aren't you?"
Bristling under the implied aspersion, Doyle swung across to Bodie's side, where he carefully balanced between two thick cables, glancing unconcernedly down at the floor of the ring sixty feet below. Two of the full-time roustabouts were deftly erecting the net, their movements precise but unfaltering--delay on their part could result in death for either or both of the men overhead.
"Of course I am," Doyle said evenly. "Aren't you pushing your luck by coming up here before the net's been tied off?"
"Do it all the time." Clearly this oversight was of no significance to Bodie. "Sergei can't say much when there are so many acts needing rehearsal time. Pay attention."
They spent ten minutes inspecting the complex network of rigging. Doyle evinced a considerable degree of expertise, even spying a loose knot that Bodie had apparently overlooked. "Hell of a spot to miss, Bodie," he said sharply. Registering the obviousness of the knot's location, Doyle exclaimed, "Wait a minute. You didn't miss it, did you? That's an idiot thing to do, mate. What if I hadn't caught it? That's the catch trap, y'know?"
"You wouldn't've missed it the next time round, would you, Doyle?"
Tempted to push the other man off his tenuous support, Doyle bit back a surge of anger with considerable effort. "You're a fool. That might've killed both of us."
"Not so long as you know what you're doing. And you do. C'mon then; let's go down and get to work."
His belly churning, Doyle lingered for a moment as Bodie took hold of a rope and lowered himself to the ring. He understood all too well what Bodie was up to: Until Doyle had proven himself to the other man's satisfaction, he would be confronted with one test after another. And even knowing that he would have done precisely the same provided little in the way of comfort.
A small mat had been spread out for them. After the first round of sit- ups, push-ups, and overall stretches, Doyle complained, "You had to've been in the Army."
"Yeah?" There was a glint in Bodie's eyes.
"Sadism of this magnitude couldn't come to you naturally--it's unnatural."
A mirage of amusement shimmered across Bodie's face. "Was, actually. For a few years."
"And you liked it so well you decided to carry on the tradition in the real world. Big of you."
"It has its merits."
"Like weeding out those who don't come up to your standard?" Groaning under his breath, Doyle aped Bodie's strenuous forward lunges.
"Someone less fit might have a reason to complain. You're moaning just for the sound of your own voice," Bodie decided.
"Don't tell me that we start out the routine with a few rounds of aerobics come Wednesday next? Be a real thrill for the audience, that would."
Ignoring the sarcastic tone, Bodie placed his hands high on his hips and began rapidly scissoring his legs back and forth. Rolling his eyes, Doyle followed suit, irritated by a stream of sweat that spilled off his collarbone onto the slope of his chest, and began a ticklish slide down the valley formed by his sternum.
"Okay," Doyle conceded, his voice only affected by the jarring impact of heels on the sawdust surface; his breathing was well under control. "What'd you do in the Army? Drilled the new lads, right?"
"How ever did you guess?"
"Then again, maybe you were with a cavalry regiment--that would account for the horsy skills."
"The Flying Hussars," Bodie said lightly, not missing a beat. He fell into a squatting posture, the sight of which made Doyle's thighs twitch in alarm.
"Heard of them," Doyle said in the same droll tone. "The envy of Olympic riders worldwide."
Bodie broke into a grin. "You don't give up, do you?"
Repeating the exercise the demonstrated number of times, Doyle grinned back.
Taking in the stain of sweat on the front of Doyle's leotard, Bodie said encouragingly, "At least you're warm now, aren't you?"
"Oh, very, thanks. And you?"
"As toast. Up the ladder, son; our time's almost up."
Half an hour later, Doyle was ready for a shower and a nap. It was Bodie who reminded him that elevenses had been promised, and his contract needed seeing to. Moving with a suppleness that contradicted the bellowing ache of numerous muscles and joints, Doyle wiped off with the same towel used by Bodie, then climbed into jeans and sweater. "What about this afternoon?" he asked, looking up at Bodie from under heavy lashes.
Bodie stared back a moment before answering. "After you settle with Sergei, hunt up Simon. He wants to get your measurements for the costumes. Meet me back here about three for the dressage routine."
"Right. When we've finished that, will there be time to go into town?"
"Plenty of it. How're you holding up? You've been pushing all morning."
"Me--" Doyle caught himself up short. "I'm doing just fine, thank you." As he pushed his sleeves up past his forearms, he asked, "What will you do in the ring for tomorrow's opening?"
"Hang about a bit after we go through the dressage number; should give you an idea."
"I'll do that," Doyle said. "Catch you later, mate."
Stepping into the center aisle, Doyle felt the weight and warmth of Bodie's eyes on his back. It did not elude him that Bodie had dodged all of his questions regarding Bodie's background--no matter how good- naturedly they had been circumvented. Either Bodie himself was hiding something, or he was a consummate dissembler. Based on what Cowley had told him, and his own few, unsullied ideals, Doyle hoped it was only the latter.
His interview with Sergei went without hitch. Nursing a manifestly gargantuan hangover, the owner of Circus Sergei was polite and removed throughout. They discussed Doyle's wages, his duties within the troupe, and the length of his contract. Sergei made it clear that he would contact all whom Doyle had named as character references. Since they were, every one, in the employ of CI5, Doyle knew he had nothing to be concerned about.
Moments before Sergei concluded their negotiations, Doyle's grumbling stomach summoned Rose out of the kitchen with a plate full of sandwiches, cheese, and fresh fruit, the latter two items having been sliced into fork-manageable sections. Doyle ate hungrily and with great pleasure; until he had an opportunity to collect some provisions, he would be forced to rely upon the goodwill of others--not a happy option if past experience was anything to go by.
Basil met him at the foot of the steps of Sergei's place, her thin white tail wagging hopefully. Sent on his way with the remains of his sandwich, Doyle led the animal to his own caravan and there fed her while waiting for the kettle to come to a boil.
As he filled the pot, he let his mind wander, reviewing the day just past, and the one already half over. He and Bodie had performed well again this morning, although Bodie had dictated only the most basic of acrobatics: simple crossovers, single pirouettes, knee-hanging, heel- hanging. Frustrated as he was by the snail's pace Bodie had decreed, nothing could have lessened the thrill of leaving the bar and being caught by Bodie's square-cut, immensely strong hands. Surely held, Doyle had revelled in those too-rare instants of contact, distinguished by the fluid glide of their joined bodies, the stretch and pull of finely honed muscles working in total harmony, and the certainty that Bodie would hold him until that precise moment--following which he would find himself back at the origin of his arc, and there released to his own bar, which, carried by its own momentum, would be awaiting him like some faithful, if unlikely, steed.
"How about some water, pup?" he suggested abstractedly, responding to Basil's fretful scratching at the floor near his feet. While she lapped thirstily, Doyle shook his head to clear away the morning's emotional remnants, somewhat dismayed and a little surprised at being so easily absorbed into what had been for many years a lifestyle totally alien to him--a lifestyle he had, in fact, shunned.
Basil pawed at Doyle's leg as he left the caravan, nearly catching the toe of his trainer square in her chin. Stumbling to avoid injuring the dog, Doyle did a quick two-step to regain his balance, then swooped forward to pluck her up. He deposited her onto his shoulder and promptly forgot her existence as he started back across the field to the circus compound.
Just as he reached the edge of the clearing, he reminded himself that he was due a visit with Simon. Turning left behind the equipment caravan, he ambled round the generator and past the costume tent.
The day had turned rather fair, thin clouds streaking a faded blue sky. Diluted sunshine yielded no warmth, but Doyle welcomed its appearance anyway. Heartened by the fresh air and the promise of warmer days to come, Doyle strolled round to the front of the stables and let himself in.
He found Simon at the small table in the tack room, sipping tea from a cup while Derek polished a bridle brilliantly decorated with glittering stones.
"Oh, there you are." Simon took out another mug from the shelf under the table and poured hot golden-brown fluid into it. "My goodness, you have made a conquest, haven't you?" He handed the cup to Doyle.
When Doyle gave him a blank look, Derek pointed at his own shoulder, indicating Basil, precariously but happily perched on Doyle's.
"This baggage, you mean? She's adopted me, Bodie says."
"More than that, she's facing old demons for you, I'd say. She hasn't poked her head in here for ages."
"That's right," Doyle realized. "She wouldn't come in yesterday."
Simon pulled a turned-over box nearer the table for Doyle to sit upon. "Saw you this morning on the trap for a few minutes. What ever are you doing here--in a dive like this, I mean?"
Warming his hands around the mug, Doyle did not look up. "It's been a long time for me. Thought I should start out slow."
"Must be quite a come-down: Donny Devereaux's Circus, ten years ago-- right?"
Doyle raised the hot drink to his lips. "Sure about that?"
"Absolutely. You're not as old as you look." Simon rubbed at his own chin as if pulling at a beard. "That's the worst of it; it makes you look ancient. Surely you've considered cutting it off?"
"No." Doyle concentrated on containing his disquiet. "I've grown fond of it."
"Well, it's certainly grown fond of you, there's so much of it. Won't you at least let me take the gray out?"
"A hair at a time?" Bodie asked cheerfully from the opening. "What are you badgering the poor bloke about, Simon?"
"Oh, Bodie, just look at his hair! It ages him ten years at least."
Holding out a hand, Bodie mimed impatience until Simon produced a cup filled with tea and a splash of milk. "Adds to his allure, surely?"
Tilting his head to one side, Simon frowningly scrutinized Doyle's face. "No," he declared. "It just makes him look old."
"You're a bitch, Simon," Bodie stated with conviction.
"It's true, Bodie." He stood up and came round behind Doyle. Before Doyle could guess his purpose, Simon had placed both hands over his beard, thumbs lying across his upper lip. "See! Ten years younger in an instant."
Bodie did not speak for a moment. "The beard gives him a distinguished look. It is a nice beard, you must admit."
"Flyers are not meant to look distinguished," Simon informed him frostily. "They are meant to be dashing, exciting, fantastical--not distinguished."
Derek signed something terse; Simon poutingly removed his hands. "Oh, all right. But I still think--" Another twist of Derek's fingers and Simon closed his mouth abruptly.
"Did you get everything settled with Sergei?" Bodie pretended the exchange between the other two men had not occurred.
Hiding a smile in his mug, Doyle mumbled, "Hmm."
"Don't suppose this lot has had a chance to work on you yet?"
"Hardly," Simon said peevishly. At a sharp glance from Derek, he went on in a more conciliatory tone, "Was talking about his early days. It's been a while since your Doyle was on the bars."
"Donny Devereaux's lot, touring the West Country about ten years ago. Was terrible, what happened."
Casting Doyle a curious glance, Bodie took a long swallow of tea. "Something I should know about?"
Doyle said quietly, "Lost my partner in a fall."
"Oh--but it wasn't his fault, Bodie!" Simon interjected. "The other lad, the one who fell, was working the fixed trap at the beginning of the show. One of the cables gave way."
"You were there?"
Doyle's eyes shot up, but Bodie was addressing Simon.
"Yes, I was there," Simon said hollowly. "It was dreadful." He sighed. "I shouldn't have brought it up, Ray. I am sorry."
"As you said, it was ten years ago."
"But you left the cir-- Ow!" A fierce glare was turned Derek's way; it was, however, Simon who shrank before the blistering expression on his lover's face. Even more contritely, he said, "Derek thinks I should take your measurements now."
"Ready when you are," Doyle said lightly.
Tucking the tape-measure up against Doyle's groin, Simon bent low to reach the arch of his foot with the other end of the tape, steadfastly keeping his touch professionally impersonal. A number was jotted onto a small pad of paper. "Right, now turn round." He measured Doyle's shoulders and the distance from the nape of his neck to the upper swell of his buttocks. "That's it, Ray. Lily and I'll get to work on these right away. You did get to meet Lily, didn't you?"
"Yes, this morning. She said you do the buttons."
"She's lying, silly old cow. I draw up the patterns and cut out the material. Sometimes I even stitch them--your flying costume, for example. The equestrian outfits, she completes. And on occasion we just divide the load between us."
"How long does it usually take?"
"When we have the time it goes very quickly."
"And when you don't?"
Simon broke into a disarming grin. "We always find the time. One thing about Sergei: He likes his artistes to project the proper image--his male performers, anyway."
"Derek is probably growing impatient," Bodie stated, reminding everyone that the animal trainer had gone on a few minutes ahead to prepare the horses in the ring. Bodie had hung about to watch Doyle undergo Simon's meticulous attentions.
"Oh, I can't wait," Doyle murmured sardonically. "My bum hasn't recovered from yesterday's session."
"You should have said!" Simon exclaimed. "I have just the--"
"Careful, Simon." Bodie clucked his tongue. "Derek won't love you if you make him jealous."
"Bodie, you're a monster. Here, Ray. It's liniment. And don't listen to him. He's the jealous one. Can't even keep any of his groupies-- Oh," Simon reconsidered, "except that tall, dark, and very good-looking one."
"Shut up, Simon," Bodie said warningly.
"You thought I didn't see him the last time he sneaked out of your caravan. Well, I did. 'S why I wasn't surprised when you didn't make a rumpus over Roger leaving." The way Simon spoke, he clearly thought little of the ex-flyer.
"Thanks, mate." Doyle took the plastic container from Simon's hand and unscrewed the cap. Wrinkling his nose, he gasped. "Yes, this smells familiar."
"Maybe you can get Bodie to rub it in for you?" Simon suggested sweetly.
"I'm sure Bodie has better things to do."
Ogling Doyle's derrière unashamedly, Simon shook his head. "If he can pass that up, he's a disgrace to his sex."
"My God, Simon," Bodie snorted. "If Derek doesn't give you a bash, I shall!"
"Oh, masterful, isn't he!"
As Doyle fell into stride beside him, Bodie said, loudly enough for Simon's benefit, "We'll tell Derek that Simon offered to rub that on your bottom, shall we?"
Doyle chortled wickedly. "And then I'll show him my bruises--and swear they weren't there yesterday."
"Don't you dare!" Simon hissed after them, holding the tent flap stiffly open. "Or I'll boil your dog for tonight's stew."
"What d'you think, Basil?" Doyle asked. The dog trotted blissfully at his heels. "Bet you'd enjoy a warm bath, eh?"
"That's our Simon," Bodie observed. "Always has to have the last word."
Entering the big top from the horse corridor, Doyle noticed that the filtered light took on an ethereal, misty glow. In the ring, two horses, the Andalusian and the Friesian, waited, presently unencumbered by the raiment that would adorn them during their public performances. To Doyle's eye, they needed none to enhance their appearance. Beautiful in their own coats--the black's lustrously deep and silken, the grey's as sleek and smooth as swan feathers--they seemed creatures of another time and sensibility: elegant in their perfect breeding, arrogant in their superior schooling. Four ears angled forward in the direction of the two men approaching. Intelligent, bright eyes studied them in the aloof way of all horses.
"Oh, you are a beauty," Doyle greeted the grey.
The mare pushed her muzzle up against his chest, demanding something more substantial than pretty words. Obliging, Doyle fed her a small piece of carrot, filched from Derek's stores, all the while stroking her throat and the underside of her muzzle.
The outside of the ring was aflutter with activity: The clowns were tussling and thumping each other with enormous, harmless bats; the dogs Doyle had seen the first day were wriggling their way through their paces; and the juggler was practicing his skill. Watching the dogs, Doyle thought of Basil. His eyes scoured the ring, the benches, the heavy red curtain that opened onto the horse aisle--she was not to be seen.
Accustomed to the animal's sudden disappearances by now, Doyle thought nothing more of it. Derek signalled from the opposite side of the ring that he wanted them to begin, and thereafter took total command of Doyle's attention for the better part of the afternoon.
It was, in fact, a little after three before the small group was satisfied with the day's efforts. Tuppence, though asserting her personality on more than one occasion, had come to accept Doyle's control within the first hour. She was a clever, responsive creature, grown the slightest bit lazy in her declining years. Doyle, greatly admiring, could forgive her much, however, for he had never sat a horse so collected. Freed of Derek's undermining influence of the previous day, they seemed almost to meld into one body, rider and horse sharing a single thought.
Afterward, still exultant with their success, Doyle dismounted and, holding the reins slackly, walked her toward her caretaker. "She's incredible, Derek!"
For an instant there was no reaction from the bluff-featured man. His eyes, light brown with tiny golden flecks, surveyed Doyle as though probing into the most secret places of his brain. Then he smiled, slowly and approvingly.
"You already have the job, Doyle," Bodie said caustically. He stood beside the huge Friesian, running the palm of his hand up and down the solid withers.
Deciding not to let Bodie's cynicism irritate him, Doyle said cheerfully, "Quite right. I take it all back, Derek. She's a dismal wretch, the worst in the world. When can I ride her again?"
A soft, guttural laugh rattled in Derek's throat. He flicked two fingers familiarly in Bodie's direction, then collected both sets of reins and led the horses up the main aisle. The sound of their hooves was muffled in the much-used earthen floor.
"And you, mate," Bodie called after him. A few feet away, just outside the ring, the pre-performance water keg squatted on an overturned tub. Bodie helped himself to a long, long drink from the tin mug left there for that purpose, before splashing a goodly portion of it onto his face.
"Are you off onto the rigging now?" Doyle inquired politely.
Wiping his hands on his trousers legs, Bodie grunted his confirmation.
Wondering what he had done to alienate the other man, Doyle made no further attempt at conversation. He wanted to see how Bodie performed on the fixed traps, however, and as he had been invited earlier, he chose a likely stretch of bench and made himself reasonably comfortable.
Unselfconsciously, Bodie stripped off water-marked dark trousers and his woollen polo-neck shirt. Exposed to view were worn leotards which closely hugged the compactly built body beneath.
Quietly appreciative, Doyle let his eyes roam, scarcely aware that a few short days ago he had been forbidden this particular freedom. Not that he had never viewed another man's physique with an eye to beauty; after all, it seemed everyone did, male or female. But he had learned long ago to conceal his interest, for it was the way one looked that gave a person away--not the looking itself.
As Bodie strapped his wrists, lending them the strength needed to support his weight, Doyle studied the solid design of him: the powerfully developed neck; sculpted shoulders, upper arms, and forearms; blunt-fingered hands; broad, smoothly defined chest very lightly dusted with dark hair, tapering into comparatively narrow hips; flat abdomen; and corded thighs that bunched as he shifted weight--both front and back athletically proportioned--and calves that curved like hewn stone into surprisingly small feet. A fillip of heat curled inside Doyle's belly, a purely animalistic response to an extremely attractive male. The leotard was actually a blessing in his opinion, safeguarding the other man's nudity while emphasizing the uncommonly fine form beneath.
Bodie went up via the web--apparently his preferred mode of ascent. The instant his feet left the ground, the waiting workmen erected the safety net. Briefly distracted, Doyle watched only long enough to ensure that they had been thorough in their undertaking, noting to himself that Bodie must trust them unstintingly not to oversee their actions personally.
By then Bodie was on the trap. He made use of the small resin bag tied to one of the supports, white puffs of powder disappearing into the air in front of him. With his balance evenly distributed, Bodie then rolled backward until he hung suspended from his knees. In the next second he threw his arms down behind his head to initiate a backwards swing, using momentum and aggressively taut abdominals to increase the forward motion.
The rest of the ring receded from view; jugglers, dancing dogs, and clowns all ceased to exist for Doyle. His entire being was concentrated on the man overhead. When Bodie reached out for the second trap, his body unrolling from a smart somersault, Doyle's shoulders felt the strain of connection; when Bodie thrust himself up and over the bar, caught by widely parted ankles, Doyle's own lower legs curved and tensed preparatory to the rough press of the bar that broke his empathic fall; and when Bodie, chest gleaming with sweat, face hard with purpose, sprang into the air, propelled by a giant swing, and defied gravity unmoving for several seconds before slicing smoothly downward to the opposite trap, Doyle's heart came to a standstill. He had never seen that particular maneuver so dramatically--nor so perfectly--executed.
It was the uninvited clasp of an arm round his shoulders that brought Doyle back to his surroundings. He coiled to strike, but recognized Sergei just in time to forestall the launch of a white-knuckled fist.
"I startled you." Sergei patted him, sliding his palm up along the slow slope of Doyle's neck before removing his hand. "You were watching him like a child--surely Bodie's skill cannot hold such fascination for you when you are so very good yourself?"
Silently reminding himself of his present situation, Doyle merely said, "Bodie's--different."
"Different like you?" Sergei wondered. "Like--us?"
Doyle picked his words with care, showing nothing of his irritation. "Just unique. Look at him: He's built to be a catcher. But the way he moves--in a horse you'd call it 'collection'--he's always in control, always ready."
"Yes," Sergei commented with an unctuous grin, "And like a horse, his loins are said to be very robust."
A wintry smile iced the corners of Doyle's mouth. "Who could ask for more?"
"Perhaps some of us appreciate subtlety--and grace. Bodie displays none of that." Sergei observed Doyle's reaction to this statement out of the corner of his eye.
"Bodie suits me," Doyle said evenly, well aware that it was far too soon to be showing any part of his hand, but quite incapable of withdrawing the words once they were said. More than that, he had no desire to.
"But the question is, do you suit Bo--?"
Sergei's question died unanswered at the precipitous arrival into the net of the subject of their conversation. Bodie bounced once, then got his legs under him. He came off the ropes at their feet.
It was only an impression, but for a second Doyle could have sworn that Bodie was boiling with anger. Scrutinizing Bodie's expression, however, he found nothing to support his imaginings, Bodie as affably unforthcoming as ever.
"Sergei. Surely you're not trying to incite the peasant to rebel?"
At this ambiguous remark, Sergei gave Bodie a wary look.
"Doyle," Bodie explained pleasantly, a flick of the finger indicating the man at Sergei's side. There was a definite edge to his voice. "I'm sure he'd like to go up on the trap with me tomorrow, but I've already told him, no."
Despite the accusation against Doyle, Bodie's unmistakable aggression was directed entirely at Sergei. Puzzled, Doyle began to doubt that he was interpreting Bodie's signals correctly.
Sergei, apparently, was not. "Not at all, Bodie. We were talking about you."
Bodie strode a few yards away and picked up his towel. Over his shoulder, he said, "Oh, well, that's all right then." With an arrogant lift of the head, he finally looked straight at Doyle. "You wanted to go into town? I'll be ready in five minutes."
Suddenly Doyle understood: Bodie was protecting him from Sergei. If this act of gallantry had not been so singularly uncalled for, Doyle might have laughed. Instead, he glanced back at Sergei with new eyes, only to find the older man sizing up his newly perceived competition darkly.
Head lowered to hide the first, ungovernable spasms of laughter, Doyle said in a faintly strangled voice, "Great." Ruthlessly, he quelled his twitching mouth at the same time that he abandoned the urge to bash both their heads together. Turning toward Sergei, he managed composedly, "If there's anything I can pick up for you or Rose--?"
Sergei replied with an abrupt flap of the hand, his burning gaze still fixed on Bodie. "Thanks, no."
"Right. Meet you at your caravan, eh, mate?" Doyle caught Bodie's eye for just an instant, but there was no mistaking a malicious twinkle glittering off the surface of unfathomed cobalt. Knowing he would make a fool of himself--and Sergei--if he remained a minute longer, Doyle simply pushed off from the bench and strode away.
Cowley would never be allowed to hear the end of this.
The Mini bucketed down the narrow road, throwing up gravel and great wheeling clouds of dust in its wake. Making no effort to speak in the confines of the noisy vehicle, Doyle sat with one hand curled steadyingly round the dog standing on his leg, the other hanging onto the overhead strap to keep them from being unnecessarily pitched about.
Even before Doyle had finished changing into a sweat-free shirt, the presumptuous toot of the Mini had summoned him forth into the late afternoon gloom. A soft rain was falling, and for that reason if no other, Doyle was grateful to Bodie for the offer of a ride into town. Basil, who had been dozing on the seat of Doyle's motorbike upon his return to the caravan, had leapt into the front seat as though this were not a rare occurrence. When Bodie had not protested, Doyle had removed her onto his lap and closed the door after them.
Bodie kept his own counsel, having greeted Doyle's appearance with no more than an impatient scowl. His driving skills proved to be excellent, if a little showy. Never really comfortable as a passenger, Doyle had nonetheless quickly determined that Bodie was not likely to cause them to career into a ditch somewhere. Mind wandering, he closed his eyes and let his head rest against his upper arm.
The wind blew in frigidly wet through the window that had been wound down for Basil. The dog delightedly took in the passing countryside, which was soon superseded by the outskirts of town, whuffling the air in great snorts, her ears standing straight up, eyes half shut.
Half an hour later they came to a stop in front of a large Sainsbury's.
"I'll be back in about an hour," Bodie said.
"Right." The rain was falling quite heavily. Shrugging deeper into his jacket, Doyle opened the door. At the same instant he thought of barring the dog, she had sprung over his arm down onto the pavement. Landing with a splash, she anchored herself on all four feet and shook violently, sending water spraying in all directions.
"Basil, stay!" To Doyle's relief the dog obeyed at once. "D'you have a bit of cord?"
Grudging amusement eased the hard set of Bodie's face. "Yeah. Hold on."
"Ta, mate." While Bodie rooted in the boot of the car, Doyle waited patiently, keeping a diligent eye on the dog.
He caught a coil of sturdy cord one-handed.
Bodie slammed the lid down and returned to the driver's side of the car. "You and that bloody dog," he groused. "Be ready, right?"
"Promise. Thanks, Bodie."
As the pale green Mini drove away, Doyle gestured to the dog to follow him to the sheltered area near the main doors. A little doubtful, but unresisting, Basil sat neatly while Doyle collared her and tied the other end of her improvised lead to a bit of railing. "Won't be long, Bas."
Roaming from one aisle to the next, Doyle picked his purchases with care. This assignment would not accord him a monthly income to match his CI5 wages; therefore, he must play the role of impoverished circus performer from the beginning. All the same, with the few pound notes he had brought with him, and the small advance given him by Sergei, he had more than enough money to tide him over for a week. From the fresh meats counter he acquired bones for Basil--on the off-chance his little admirer would continue to stay with him.
Well under the time limit established by Bodie, Doyle passed through the main doors to the front pavement. He immediately glanced over at the railing where he had left Basil tethered. There, a small crowd had gathered, young people mixed with old. Before the first exclaiming voice could reach his ears, Doyle suffered a quiver of alarm; in the next instant it was gone.
"Oh, she's a charmer!"
"Look at that! Isn't she the clever one?"
"Oh, mummy, she can dance!"
Maneuvering himself behind a young boy, Doyle glimpsed the wiry terrier suspended mid-somersault. Mouth open, tongue hanging out, spotted chest heaving with noisy pants, she looked quite happy to be the center of attention.
"I'll give her a piece of my choco--"
"Not that," a woman's voice interrupted. "Chocolate isn't good for dogs, you know."
"But she should have something," a small girl piped up. "She's worked ever so hard."
"Here," Doyle said, and opened the newly bought box of dog treats. "Give her one of these."
"Oh, yes, thank you!" Round brown eyes gazed gratefully up at Doyle. Basil yipped once in greeting, but she readily accepted the tidbit when it was offered. Everyone watched with varying degrees of satisfaction as Basil bolted her reward.
"I've never seen a dog so well trained," one of the women marvelled.
Dropping his voice conspiratorially, Doyle murmured, "Circus Sergei. And she's not even one of the performers." Several pairs of eyes turned upon him with new respect. "Not good enough, y'see."
"Not good enough!" Dark braids tossed in disagreement as the girl raised her head defiantly. "She's wonderful!"
Doyle placed a finger to his lips, and lowered his voice. "Of course she is. But come and see the others, eh? They're very good, too."
"D'you work there?" This lad was ten at the most, his hair the color of nearly ripe strawberries.
"With the dogs?" another girl prompted.
"No," he said with a smile. "We're just friends."
"I'll bet you're a trapeze flyer," the boy hazarded. "Or--maybe one of the clowns?"
"Thank you!" Doyle countered with mock hauteur. "Right the first time, actually; though I won't be performing till next week."
"Isn't it frightening being up in the air so high?" Enormous brown eyes commanded Doyle's honest reaction.
"It can be. If you're not careful."
"The performances begin tomorrow, don't they?" The woman stood almost as tall as Doyle. She smiled pleasantly at him.
"That's right. Just on seven. And there'll be two performances Friday through Sunday."
A familiar horn sounded from the driveway in front of the store. Doyle shot a look over his shoulder--it was Bodie, an enigmatic expression lighting his eyes as he took in the tableau through the front windscreen.
"Must go," Doyle said. He reached over and slipped the lead free of the railing. Basil sprang up to his lap. With a helping hand under her bottom, he boosted her onto his shoulder. A ripple of oohs and aahs lapped at his ears as he straightened up, carry bags dangling now from both hands. One of the girls giggled delightedly as he hurried into the drive lane. The car door swung open in front of him and he clambered in. As Bodie slowly accelerated away, Doyle stuck his head out of the window and shouted, "Don't forget: tomorrow evening at seven o'clock!"
"Drumming up a bit of business, Doyle?" Bodie inquired a moment later, having allowed him a chance to arrange himself and his burdens to his satisfaction.
"Not me--Basil." In response to a skeptically arched brow, Doyle went on, "'S true. She was doing her part to capture the public's interest. A bit of the old soft shoe, y'know?"
"Idiot dog." Bodie guided the car onto the road turning east. "Did you get everything? Do we need to stop anywhere else?"
"No, I'm set, thanks. How'd you get on, then?"
"You want dinner when we get back? If you've nothing else planned, that is."
Bodie cast him a thoughtful glance. "Yeah, why not."
Slumped bonelessly in the dining nook booth, Doyle was content, warm, and satiated. Opposite him, Bodie finished mopping off his plate with a large slab of buttered bread. His quiet, unassuming company was a major contributor to Doyle's state of mind. They had spoken little since Bodie had come round late in the evening, their conversation desultory, topics ranging over the morning's exercise work-out, the dressage routine, Tuppence and Piper and their relative merits, and myriad other innocuous topics.
On the floor Basil lay sleeping, legs and muzzle twitching occasionally as fitful dreams stirred quiescent muscles. She had eaten greedily upon their arrival home, then had begged a few scraps while Doyle prepared the meal. Once Bodie had shown up, she had subsided into a limp curl on the rug, nose tucked under her hind leg.
Overhead, the thin metal roof rattled with rain. Doyle found the sound almost as soothing as it was annoying. He longed for clear skies and the heat of the sun. It seemed as though the rain had been falling forever-- certainly since Chandra--
"You ready for tea?" he asked abruptly.
Bodie eyed him curiously. "Sure."
"So what happens tomorrow? What with the performances beginning, we won't have all day to use the ring anymore."
"Won't need it," Bodie said. He picked up his wiped-clean plate and carried it to the sink. Waiting while Doyle filled the kettle, Bodie remarked, "I spoke with Tegler today."
"Checking up on me?"
Bodie rinsed off his plate as Doyle plugged in the kettle. "Yes."
"He told me about Keith Leland."
Doyle pushed the rocker switch to the ON position and turned round. "Regular nosy parker, aren't you?"
"Sergei thought you might be on the run."
"On the run?"
"Don't often get people with your ability looking for a position with a circus like this."
"Doesn't think too highly of himself, does he? But you're right; I can see what he means: 'S an excellent place to hide, this."
"Told you before, Sergei's not stupid."
"And he isn't even Sergei. His name's Alfred Weatherby, according to Tegler. But it's like that in the circus; you expect a bit of deception here and there. What's the big deal, Bodie?"
"It is like that in the circus. But I told you before, our Alf doesn't want the police snooping round. In fact, he avoids that at all costs."
Folding his arms across his chest, Doyle stuck his chin out. "'S not a problem because of me."
"No. Tegler would back you up on that."
Doyle's brow furrowed. "He said that?" When Bodie gave an idle nod, Doyle persisted, "Then, I don't understand. Why'd you even bother to mention it? Since Tegler told you I'm okay, you didn't have to tell me a thing. Or d'you think he was lying?"
"I haven't decided. He hadn't seen you for a few years--and about the time you come sniffing to him for a job, there's an opening with Circus Sergei. Bit of a coincidence, don't you think?"
"None at all, really." The water began to steam; Doyle splashed a little into the teapot and set the kettle down. "I've been watching the circuses round the country. There aren't many small ones anymore, and I'd rather not take on one of the larger groups just now." He reached up and spun the diamond stud in his earlobe between thumb and finger. "When the Flying Falconis managed to have a second accident, it just seemed logical to see if they'd be looking for another replacement."
"'Another replacement?'" Bodie echoed. He helped himself to a chocolate biscuit from the small plate Doyle had prepared earlier in the evening.
"You beat me out on the last occasion--of course, you wouldn't know that."
"Really? Thought Tegler said you'd been working the streets--"
"Working the streets!" Since this was not something Cowley had sketched out in Doyle's prepared profile, he was frankly taken aback.
Bodie laughed. "Easy, son. Tegler likes to spin a good tale. Admitted you'd been doing a laborer gig off and on to earn your crust." He snagged a second biscuit.
"Why don't you just finish off the whole packet?" Doyle asked tartly. The kettle clicked off; he emptied the teapot and refilled it with tea bags and freshly boiling water.
"No, thanks, these'll do."
Doyle wrapped a tea-towel round the pot; he lacked the amenity of a proper cozy. "So was Sergei satisfied with that--what Tegler said?"
"Seemed to be. But then he was hoping for a good report, y'know," Bodie said dryly. "Likes you, doesn't he."
"Hm. I had noticed. Don't worry, I won't encourage him."
"Hardly my place to worry," Bodie said rather distantly. "That's your business."
It was on the tip of Doyle's tongue to remind Bodie of his intercession earlier in the day; deciding that might well be impolitic, he changed his mind. "Just so."
"Although you'd be an idiot to let him--"
Doyle raised his brows questioningly.
"You know." Bodie popped the second biscuit into his mouth and returned to the dining table, deftly stepping over a somnolent Basil on the way. "Unless you're the kind who sleeps his way up the ladder."
A rude laugh bubbled up from the depths of Doyle's chest. "We haven't known each other long, Bodie, but do I really seem that sort?"
"Nah." Bodie slid sideways into the narrow booth, letting his feet hang out over the edge. "But Tegler couldn't tell me all that much about you--"
"Why should he?" Doyle demanded. "What are you so worried about, anyway-- if you don't have something to hide? Is there something I should know about Circus Sergei that nobody's bothered to mention? Or maybe something about you?"
Unfazed by Doyle's pugnacity, Bodie simply shrugged. "No. Just do your job, Doyle. Do your job, and everything will be fine."
After Bodie left, Doyle took the time to clean up his tiny kitchenette, his mind working overtime as he washed and dried soiled dishes, cutlery, and pans. It had been Cowley's opinion that Bodie was unaware of Sergei's involvement with the IRA; Doyle had to wonder now if that opinion was unfounded. If, in fact, Bodie did not know about Sergei's outside activities, he nevertheless knew--or suspected--something.
It was almost midnight when Doyle took Basil out for her evening's constitutional. The rain had stopped at last, leaving a high, loamy scent flourishing in the air. Doyle wandered a little way into the field, putting needed distance between him and both the caravan site and the circus compound. Although the area was not well lit to begin with, the farther he got away from the built-up grounds, the separation of shadow and light became much harsher, shimmering starshine and crescent moonlight giving forth a cold, ghostly brilliance.
"Tomorrow sunshine, Basil," he said hopefully. She reared up on her hind legs and placed muddy feet against his knee. "Come along, you witless bugger," he said tiredly.
The promise made by the cloudless night carried through the hours before sunrise. Rising early, Doyle washed his face, had a cup of coffee, donned his fleecy running clothes, then went out into the pre-dawn darkness. It was very quiet, a susurrant breeze softly licking at the tall grass and touching Doyle's cheeks with a frigidity that belied its gentleness. Grateful for the beard that afforded his face remarkable protection, he turned into the direction of the fitful wind, glancing back only once at Basil, who seemed uncowed by the temperature or the lack of light.
It was impossible to think clearly at first, every nerve ending in his body clamoring either in response to the cold or the imposition of movement. Once he had loosened up a bit and his blood had begun to flow more warmly in his veins, the cobwebs began to lift and he could concentrate a little easier.
Inhaling deeply of fresh, dew-rich air, he loped toward the circus compound, taking in the already familiar configuration of tents and equipment, bereft now of color and decoration, great, looming shadows against a sky that had lost its moon. There stood the wooden structure that housed the generators; the costume tent; the sideshow kiosks and tents; and round the front, the main tent, its scalloped valances swinging to and fro in the early morning breeze.
Padding lightly, Doyle swung round toward the road leading into the valley, Basil staying at his heels without difficulty. As he started down the first drop, he glanced back at the other side of the main tent, and beyond it, to the animal enclosure. A jolt of interest went through him: The back end of a heavy lorry jutted out, just visible at the end of the stables.
Without hesitation, Doyle circled inward, his pace necessarily slowed by the tall grass and scrub plants that occupied the field. In his wake, Basil was forced to leap like a dolphin in a vain attempt to keep up.
When he had come within a few feet of the lorry, Doyle began a more stealthy approach, while steadfastly evincing an air of curiosity; after all this vehicle had not been here the evening before. Why should it arrive in the dead of night, when all were fast asleep?
The back end was closed up, none of the lamps lit. Skirting round to the front, Doyle trailed a hand across the grille: it still radiated a faint heat, which, in this chill air, meant it must have been brought in fairly recently. Creeping round to the side nearest the stables, he paused when a low whicker reached his ears. Basil stumbled into him. She regained her feet and slightly affronted, sat back and waited for his next move.
Cautiously, Doyle started back to the rear of the vehicle, an ear cocked for sounds of movement from within the animal enclosure. The ground was muddy here, though straw had been spread to keep vehicles moving in and out from getting mired. Doyle's trainers squelched through the patches that had been missed; behind him, Basil fastidiously tugged her mucky paws up and down in unwilling parody of the in-place trot of the dressage horses.
The back-gate was latched, but not locked. Taking a grip of the forged steel bumper, Doyle vaulted silently onto its narrow width and sinuously straightened up. He took hold of the latch in fingers made thinner by the cold, and carefully worked it open. It gave with an unforgivable, grinding creak that brought Doyle's heart into his throat. Just as he stepped to one side to peer into the depths within, he heard a whistle, tuneful but low, essaying the "Marseillaise."
At once Doyle leapt off the edge of the platform, barely missing Basil, who had kept vigil below. The muffled tread of footsteps accompanied the spirited, if hushed, rendition of the national anthem of France, and rapidly neared the tent flap which opened onto the vehicle park.
Aware that he would be seen before he could reach the other end of the stables, Doyle hunkered down and raised the bottom of the canvas where it hung loosest between two stakes. Allowed no time to reconsider, he slid under the wing of fabric--and remembered only at the last possible instant to scoop Basil in beside him.
The dog gave a tiny yelp, but Doyle had already silenced her with a hand round her muzzle. In the pitch black confines in which they found themselves, Doyle at first held himself very still, keeping the dog pressed to his chest. She squirmed unhappily, as flexible as an eel. He should have realized that the stables were the last place she would want to be.
"Steady on, Bas," he hissed right into her ear, where only she could hear him. Surprisingly, the dog obeyed, but she began to tremble, long violent shudders that left no part of her body in peace. "Shh. 'S all right."
From the depths of the darkness came a querying sound--not the whuffle of a horse, nor the whine of a dog. Stupefied, Doyle realized what he should have recognized at once, had he not been awash with adrenalin: he had not blundered into one of the horse's stalls--the scent alone should have told him that. Musky and commanding, the pungent odor brought the hair up on the back of his neck and stilled the air in his lungs.
Panic surged inside him--but only for an instant. Reason reasserted itself as he remembered that no more than a thin sheet of canvas separated him from the rest of the world outside. This sort of animal must certainly be caged, no matter how well trained, docile, or decrepit. Gingerly, he moved forward to assure himself that this was indeed the case, and in the darkness that his eyes had begun to make some adjustment to, he caught the faint glimmer of metal bars, extending from floor to fabric ceiling, and disappearing into the gloom on either side.
The low rumble came again, sounding once more to Doyle like a patient inquiry. As the great head moved, jaws opening in a massive yawn, Doyle could just make out the yellowed canines, the pink slab of tongue, and the long, wiry whiskers. When the animal blinked, Doyle felt yellow eyes burn into him, placidly undisturbed by his presence, but questioning it, for this was out of the ordinary.
Fascinated despite himself, Doyle went nearer the metal bars, staring hard to make out the full length of the beast, which was considerable, the regal shape of head and enormous paws, the pale pink trapezoid of its nose pad. Vaguely he could distinguish the long, curving stripes that proclaimed the big cat's breed.
Doyle wished quite irrationally for light so that he might see the magnificent creature better. It had been so long--
His wish was granted.
Overhead a single, unshielded bulb flared into brilliance, blinding Doyle and rooting him to the spot. He had not forgotten where he was, nor that he was about covert business; nevertheless he had believed himself undetected. His discoverer had moved with such perfect stealth, not a whisper of sound had betrayed his arrival.
Chaotic thoughts dervished in his mind--but only for an instant. The lack of verbal challenge proclaimed the other person's identity as plainly as a broadcast over the Tannoy.
Remaining where he stood, Doyle asked, "Why do you hide him? He's beautiful."
Only then did he look round, face carefully molded into sheepish resignation.
Derek hung back in the shadows, near the opening of the tiger's private quarters. His features told Doyle nothing, although the glint of his eyes was hard and unyielding. In one leather-gloved hand, he held a long, curving, metal hook.
"I apologize," Doyle said. "I know I have no business here, but I smelled this chap yesterday when I visited the stables, and again this morning when I spotted the truck and came over to have a snoop."
He allowed the word to linger in the air between them, his forthrightness intended as redress for this unpardonable behavior.
Gripping the dangerous-looking hook between both hands, Derek came a step nearer. The sawdust and tanbark floor bore his weight without a rustle.
"Why didn't someone tell me the circus has a tiger?" Doyle asked. His attention was so totally focussed on Derek, he startled visibly when a voice came to him from the dimly lit entrance Derek had just vacated.
"Because the circus doesn't." Simon leaned heavily against the front support pole, delicately hiding a wide yawn beneath a curving hand. "Sanjay is one of Derek's mercy cases."
Despite himself, Doyle swivelled round to study the huge cat, which was languidly swabbing the pads of its left paw with its tongue. "There's not something wrong with him?" He canted his head to one side. "Sanjay is a him?"
"Yes," Simon murmured sleepily. His short, fine hair lay mostly flat against his head, obviously subject to recent, hasty finger combing. A busy Chinese-patterned, red satin dressing-gown fell to just below his ankles; the slippers on his feet were made of utilitarian black corduroy. Fiddling with one of the frog closures that bound the slick fabric across his breast, Simon explained, "He's got a bad case of old age. Sanjay may not look it, but he's on his last legs. Derek didn't think he'd make it through the winter."
Sanjay applied a last lick to his leg and rolled over, onto his side, gazing yellowly up at Doyle through slitted eyes.
Turning back with reluctance, Doyle murmured, "Hm?"
"Derek wants to know why you were sniffing about."
Soothingly petting Basil, who had remained remarkably quiet throughout, Doyle said guilelessly, "The lorry wasn't there yesterday. Just curious what was being delivered that required such a big transport."
Whatever Derek was thinking at that moment was kept well hidden behind an impassive facade. Derek, Doyle decided, would be hell to beat in a poker game. The fingers of Derek's left hand moved sharply--a silent communication for Simon, who responded with a faint wince.
"You may want to do something about your curiosity in future," he said pityingly to Doyle. "Derek says since you're so interested, you get to help him unload it."
Doyle's mouth fell open. He shut it. Then he broke into a grin. "Fair's fair. Be happy to. Anyway, looks like this old feller is settling in for a nap; he'd probably prefer a bit of privacy."
Slapping the arm of the hook against his palm, Derek gave an unpleasant grunt and strode out of the tent.
Sighing, Doyle said to Simon, "Sorry."
A knowing smile warming his eyes, Simon said, "You're not. But next time, ask, will you? Derry is terribly protective of his brood."
"Oh, I shall. I promise."
"So this is where you've got to."
A high-pitched yap answered this greeting; Doyle, breathing hard and caught in the middle of wrestling a bale of hay into the stables, didn't bother to add any commentary of his own.
"How ever did you talk him into this?" Bodie insisted as he slowly walked round the end of the lorry platform, arms folded across his chest, his question directed toward Derek, who had kept the role of overseer at the back of the vehicle.
A low, gravelly sound erupted from Derek's mouth--having heard much of this limited vocalization over the past hour, Doyle recognized the curt Anglo-Saxon phrase with ease. He dropped the bale on the floor and rolled his shoulders achingly. Rubbing at the small of his back, he returned to the lorry for the next load.
Bodie tsked, and shook his head. "Such abominable manners. You should be in charge of the livestock, my man."
Repressing a grin, Doyle stabbed Derek's metal hook into the last bale of hay waiting perched on the edge of the platform, and drove it home until he had a good anchor. Balancing himself, he slowly dragged the unwieldy bundle to within easier reach. "What a novel idea," Doyle chimed in. Using heavy-duty gloves borrowed from Derek's seemingly endless supply, he wrenched the bale off the platform and stumbled with it into the tent.
"You have everything well in hand," Bodie observed, following Doyle inside. "Pity, as I was about to suggest that you might like some help."
Simon, just visible where he sat at the small table in the tackroom, giggled. "There's tea, lads, if you're interested."
"Oh, Christ, yes," Doyle panted. He straightened up, drawing a face as his lower back gave another twinge.
"Your Ray made the mistake of recceing Derek's feed delivery lorry. Got himself press-ganged into service, didn't he."
"Do tell. And here I thought you were out on a bloody long run."
After a second's hesitation, Doyle owned, "Was worth it: I got to meet Sanjay."
"Sanjay? What's Derek's puss got to do with you poking your nose where it doesn't belong?"
"Got a whiff of him, Ray says." Simon spoke before Doyle could answer. "Wanted to know why we hadn't mentioned the old bugger to him before."
"I do hope Derek saw clear to explain that to your satisfaction?" Bodie said, with manifest insincerity.
"Sort of." Simon held out a large mug filled with steaming, creamy brown liquid. He waited until Doyle, bemusedly silent, accepted it. "You know Derek."
"It's a wonder he's not hanging from a tack hook," Bodie commented sunnily, and took a mug for himself.
"Leave off, Bodie." Simon poured milk and tea into a shallow bowl. "He's paid for his sins. Derek's worked him like a navvy, and Ray hasn't complained once. Here, Basil. Would you like some?"
All bright eyes and wagging tail, the dog presented herself at once, following the progress of the bowl downward until it came to rest on the trampled grass and sawdust at her feet. Lapping enthusiastically, she paid no attention when Derek entered the tackroom, only the squeak of his wellingtons betraying his arrival.
"Here, love, time you had a little sit-down," Simon instructed. He picked up a fourth mug and began to pour.
Stripping off his gloves, Derek walked past the other two men as though they were nonexistent, leaned over Simon, and gently kissed him. As he drew away, he curved a finger round Simon's cheek.
"Hm," Simon murmured dreamily, "I love it when you've been mucking about with all that nasty, smelly farm stuff."
"Think that's our cue to exit." Bodie gave Doyle an exaggerated wink. "You had breakfast yet?" He tipped back his mug, draining it in one long swallow.
"You must be joking. And I'm starved. You wouldn't be offering, would you?"
"Don't be silly. It's your turn. Come along; let's leave the lovebirds to themselves."
Following his pre-dawn exertions, Doyle half-hoped Bodie would abbreviate their work-out. His hopes were dashed within the first forty- five minutes. Whereas before they had done basic calisthenics, Bodie now introduced exercises that paired them together, working with and off each other. Before very long, Doyle could see the benefit of this, while marvelling anew at the uncanny rapport he shared with this man. That first session on the trapeze had only hinted at the level of communication between them. Virtually any move Bodie might make, Doyle could anticipate; any untoward action, he could counter. Bodie was swift on his feet, and very strong. Doyle was fast and limber, and his strength nearly matched Bodie's despite their disparate physiques and sizes.
Beyond that, Doyle could sense the germination of an intense, mutual attraction. Were it allowed to take root, Doyle recognized he might be in for an emotional rollercoaster. He was expected to bed this man, after all. But while he had always performed to satisfaction for CI5, never had he slept with a target who appealed to him on more than the most basic level required to accomplish the task. Might he become too involved? Might Bodie--who was merely a means to an end--become too important to him?
As he swarmed up the rope ladder to the trapeze, such questions posed no threat. The old exhilaration, so long missed Doyle had almost forgotten it had ever existed, was back, fizzing in his veins, intoxicating as no drug or spirit could ever be.
It was not his imagination, either, that Bodie seemed to share something of that feeling. Together, they soared, swinging high above the net- safeguarded ring, effortlessly in sync. Today, Bodie urged him to display his aerial prowess where yesterday he had denied it. Happily, Doyle complied. Pirouetted returns to the bar were followed by gymnastic displays of strength and agility as he hoisted himself over the bar, tumbled with furious speed through a double somersault, then dove into Bodie's waiting hands. Bodie's shouted instructions formed a catalogue of every maneuver Doyle had ever learned.
At the end of an hour they were exhausted. One after the other they dropped into the net, then took themselves light-footed to the strange solidity of the floor.
An unexpected noise caught Doyle's attention. Looking round askance, he was rather rattled to discover that the other acts who had been working on the outer edges had stopped their own practice sessions to applaud them.
Bodie slapped him jarringly on the back, simultaneously shoving a dry towel into his hands. "Not bad, is he? Imagine what he'll look like come Wednesday next."
"Wednesday next!" Sergei, who had been supervising the pacing of one of the clown acts, dismissed his group with a wave of the arm. Moving swiftly for one so cumbersomely built, he stepped smartly over the curb and joined them in front of the net. "He's perfect already, Bodie, and you know it! Why keep him back? People want to see flyers on the flying trapeze--not stuntmen forty feet above the ground!"
"Because we haven't established a routine yet, Sergei," Bodie replied patiently. His forbearance was a facade, however, for in the next second he snapped, "Bloody hell, man, the bloke's only been here two days. So we're good together--that's practice. Besides," he added petulantly, "I've an idea, and it's going to take some time to work out."
"What sort of idea?" Sergei demanded.
Doyle looked at his partner with equal interest.
"A play, like." Bodie's lips were pursed defiantly, chin out-thrust.
With weird certainty, Doyle clarified, "He means, a panto."
"Not exactly," Bodie said heavily. "But d'you remember the first time you saw Doyle fly? Remember when he hit the net and bounced back up? Like a bloody great bird, he looked, only lacking the feathers. Be a shame not to capitalize on that."
Sucking a tooth, Sergei subjected both men to a flinty stare. "You're not having me on, Bodie?"
"Don't worry, Alf. It'll be something simple, but oh-so-spectacular. We'll have the audience riveted to their seats, I promise you."
"Spectacular, eh? Don't call me 'Alf,' you bastard. Hm." His eyes ran over Doyle from sweat-drenched hair to bare feet. "What about his costume? Simon and Lily are already working on it, aren't they?"
"That won't make any difference," Bodie assured him. "He's not really going to wear wings, for God's sake. It'll be a tragedy: The hero plummeting to the ground--Icarus, maybe. Or just a benighted sod struck down by magic, who gains heaven as his reward. I haven't had a chance to think it through yet."
Sergei pushed his face nearer to Bodie's. "And you think you can have something like that ready by Wednesday next?"
"Guaranteed," Doyle said with quiet certainty.
A smile oozed across Sergei's lips, reminding Doyle of nothing so much as a shark spying a school of fish. "You'd better get him dried off," he said to Bodie. "Or your act will be off the slate before you've even started."
"Haven't you anything better to do, Alf?" Bodie asked rudely, taking the towel from Doyle's hands and beginning to apply it with undue fervor to Doyle's hair.
An exasperated epithet was hurled Bodie's way, but Sergei did not stay to argue the point, and stalked away.
"Give me that!" Doyle jerked the terry cloth off his head. Rubbing himself down, he glanced sidelong at Bodie, who had bent over to fetch his own towel. "Where did all that come from, then?"
"From watching you," Bodie said. "You haven't an idea how incredible you look up there, have you?"
"Reckon I haven't. Not the way you go on about it, anyway."
"You'd've made a great dancer, Doyle. All legs and muscle, and bloody graceful, to boot."
"Missed my calling?"
"Not by much. We'll make you a dancer on the trapeze, that's all."
"What about you?"
"Nah. I'm a catcher; never be anything more."
"I don't believe that," Doyle stated firmly. "You've got the body to fly as well."
"And have done. I prefer catching."
"Where'd you learn? I've kept my eye on the circuit for years, and I never noticed your name."
"Some other time." Bodie tossed his towel onto an overturned tub. "I've got to get back up there. Show starts tonight; this is my last practice session."
"Right. D'you want some tea?"
"Yes, please. How about some of those chocolate thingies you picked up at the store yesterday, too?"
"One chocolate thingie coming up."
"Make it two."
"Get on with it, why don't you?" Doyle's irritation was for show; Bodie could charm the sun out of the sky, if he wanted to.
Leaving the path through the field, Doyle high-stepped over the curb, then started across the gravel topping toward his own caravan. As he rounded the unit belonging to Zoe and Aidan--two of the clowns who had been working before Sergei's keen eye--he came upon Rose Weatherby and several small children, one of whom Doyle thought he recognized as Basil's former companion. His guess proved correct when the girl gave a little wave, her face splitting into a grin at sight of Basil perched on Doyle's shoulder.
"What are you up to with this lot?" He crouched down so Basil could leap off his shoulder. The small terrier chose to remain at his feet, however, rather than join the children who were beckoning to her with soft whistles and whispered Here, Basils.
"An excursion," she replied in her whisky contralto. "Their parents are all very busy, and they're feeling neglected."
"So where are you off to?"
"Into town for ice creams. Can you imagine--in March?"
Doyle tipped his head back and surveyed the clear, sun-filled sky with mild surprise. "You won't get a better day for it."
"Sergei--" The woman dropped her gaze, thick, feathering lashes sweeping onto her cheeks.
"Yes?" Doyle asked gently.
"He thinks you're--very good." Her head came back up. "He says you're the best he's ever seen."
"He is, Rose," the little girl exclaimed. "Mum let me watch yesterday. He's fantastic."
"Another admirer." Rose essayed a brittle smile. "You have several, y'know?"
"Have I? You wouldn't've thought that if you'd seen me this morning. Derek'll have me mucking out the stables next." He had decided to be completely open about the incident in the tiger's cage; what better way to quash rumours before they could start? "Well, I'm off: Bodie wants a cuppa and something to tide him over till lunch."
"You're getting along well, the pair of you?"
"Very well." If Doyle applied unnecessary emphasis, he thought he might be forgiven, given the circumstances.
In fact, Rose's face had already lost some of its hauntedness. "That's wonderful." At a tug on her hand, she turned a genuine smile on the small girl who continued to adore Doyle with her eyes. "We must go, too. Tonight's the night, y'know."
"It'll be fine."
Returned to the main tent after brewing a pot of tea and collecting a few items, Doyle took a seat near the ring that gave him a view of the fixed trap overhead, and not far away, of Hannah and her trained dogs. Bodie was going through the last paces of his act, redoing a pirouette, followed by an up-and-over, which appeared not to be flowing as smoothly as he would have liked.
Rubbing at his neck, Doyle let his head roll forward, trying to ease an incipient crick. Hannah and her troupers came into view, little furry bodies hurtling hither and yon with incredible purpose and training. Intending to allow himself only a moment of distraction, Doyle soon found himself immersed in their various antics, as well as the trainer's subtle command of her group. Her signals were attenuated almost to the point of invisibility. A slight movement of a finger held low and close to her body sent the dogs into a frenzy of activity--a twitch of the thumb, and they subsided instantly. Impressed, Doyle noted the gestures she used and the results they gained.
A solid thud on the ring floor a few feet away drew his attention back to Bodie, who now stood before him. Doyle unscrewed the cap of the thermos flask he had brought back from his caravan, and poured out tea premixed with milk and sugar.
"Very nice," Bodie said gratefully, and gulped down the contents of the plastic cup. He held it out for a refill, and while Doyle obliged, fetched his towel from the overturned tub.
"You're pushing," Doyle suggested mildly.
"Not much." Leaving his hair in tufts, Bodie continued to swab himself from face to ankles. "The worst of it is the trapeze. I have to work straight through, because we can only have the net up in the mornings. Working the horses is a doddle."
"And tonight you begin performances."
Bodie sat down on the bench next to Doyle. "Where's my chocolate thingie?"
"Great. Hm." Taking a huge bite, Bodie chewed perfunctorily for only a few seconds before washing the mouthful down with another cup of tea. As Doyle obediently refilled it once more, Bodie said, "You know what the first house is like: You've enough adrenalin to fuel Concorde."
"And the next day you have to be scraped off the floor."
"I'll manage. Where's-- Thanks." The second sweet disappeared into Bodie's mouth. "You been to see Simon lately?"
Straining to understand what Bodie had said, Doyle laughed tolerantly. "I think you asked if I'd been to see Simon? If so, the answer is, no. Why?"
Bodie raised the cup to his lips and savored a long, soothing sip. "Needs to check the fit of your costume."
"He didn't mention that earlier."
Grinning wickedly, Bodie remarked, "Derek must've diverted his attention. He said something about it yesterday; forgot to tell you."
"All right. I'll take myself off, then." He planted the empty thermos flask and crumpled paper bag next to Bodie's thigh. "You get to clean up this lot. See you back here after lunch."
The flask started to tip over; Bodie and Doyle grabbed for it at the same instant. For a second, their fingers overlapped, and neither man moved. Then Doyle unhurriedly pulled his hand away. "Bye."
With Bodie's parting echoing in his ears, Doyle left the ring and strode up the center aisle. Sunshine greeted him at the main entry. Turning his face toward its brilliance, Doyle aimed himself in the direction of the stables.
He could still feel the heat of Bodie's touch.
"Simon? Derek? Anybody home?"
The tackroom was empty, the stalls filled with horses who regarded him with some suspicion. Doyle went down the row to visit with Tuppence and Piper. In their rehearsals, he had come to admire both animals equally. Intelligent and well-tempered, they performed Derek's dressage routine with the ease and grace of the Spanish Riding School's star performers. Although many of Derek's haute école movements were lifted from that ancient discipline, a circus twist had been added--the bit of flash and dazzle expected of the ring.
"Ray, is that you?"
"In the stable," Doyle called back. He thought Simon's disembodied voice had originated from Sanjay's tent on the other side of the tackroom, but until the voice was accompanied by Simon himself, he was not certain.
"Oh, it is you. Thank heaven. Derek needs some help with Sanjay. Bodie or Sergei usually--"
"Of course. What's wrong?"
Simon waved him into the connecting tent. "He doesn't want his medicine; he's been very fretful this afternoon."
In the tiger's tent, one of the overhead flaps had been peeled back to allow in the sun. Sanjay stood somewhat shakily in the center, his striped coat capturing the light. Beside him Derek held an unneedled syringe, filled with clear, colorless fluid.
"Derry, Ray's here. He said he'll help."
Derek's hard gaze raked over Doyle. He jerked his head once, indicating that Doyle should join them.
"Slowly, Ray," Simon warned, unlatching the door to the tiger's cage.
Yellow eyes seized on Doyle's slight form as he stepped into the animal's domain. Derek had obviously been at work in here; the smell that had drawn Doyle earlier was much diminished. He wondered as he made his cautious approach what the tiger thought of him, for the creature's eyes had yet to leave him. So far, they had not dilated, which could be a sign of warning, but neither did they move away, steadily gauging him as to possible threat or benefit.
While still a few feet away, Doyle came to a stop, arms hanging loosely at his sides, feet braced apart in a stance that implied both strength and determination. The cat's head tilted back a little, and suddenly its maw opened, displaying a full set of teeth in dauntingly good, if yellowed, repair.
At that, Doyle came closer and stretched forth a hand, fingers tucked under, for Sanjay to inspect. The long, white whiskers twitched. Doyle brushed his knuckles under the great cat's chin, then raised his hand again. Bored, Sanjay gave a low rumble that reverberated in Doyle's own chest, and sat back on his haunches.
"What d'you want me to do?" Doyle asked Derek.
The animal keeper, who had watched Doyle as closely, if not closer, than the tiger, indicated a spot on the other side of the beast's shoulders. Doyle stepped there with caution, not wanting to startle Sanjay if at all possible. The cat seemed undisturbed by Doyle's presence, however, and merely smacked his lips together, as though his teeth were causing him pain.
Derek mimed how he wanted Doyle to encircle the animal's neck, with a precaution that he not choke him. Doyle murmured his understanding and moved into position. The heat exuded by the cat warmed him as he pressed nearer, the distinctively patterned fur coarse where it met his skin. Hardly aware that he was doing so, Doyle began to speak softly, his voice low and huskily calming. The cat's ears briefly flattened before settling into a reassuringly relaxed position. Encouraged, Doyle fixed his grip and gave Derek a nod.
The medicine was administered without interruption. Derek emptied the fluid into a pocket formed at the corner of the cat's mouth. There was a loud gulp and Sanjay mewled his displeasure.
With a pleased nod, Derek gestured his dismissal. Gently and very slowly, Doyle began to remove his hold. With a speed that belied the animal's age and decrepitude, Sanjay whipped his jaw to one side; in the next instant, Doyle's left forearm was caught between the tiger's teeth.
"Ray!" Simon hissed, his fright and horror communicated across a distance of three meters.
Derek shot his lover a fulminating glare, but otherwise held himself rigidly still.
"'S all right," Doyle murmured, using his free hand to lightly stroke the cat's throat. "But I'll need that later today, y'know." He continued to speak nonsense, but his voice was unfaltering and normal-toned. Only he knew, as the others could not, that the cat, while gripping him tightly, had not begun to bear down. Nevertheless, it was not a comfortable feeling.
"Come on, you silly lad," Doyle said quietly. "Give us back our arm." For the first time he pulled against the cat's hold; the cat's jaws bit down harder.
"That's enough, me old mate. I'd like to be friends with you, y'know, and I wouldn't want us to get off to a rocky start." With that he jerked hard against the animal's mouth, well aware that only a show of force would gain him freedom at this point--but genuinely loath to hurt the bloody-minded cat--or himself, for that matter.
As if coming to a decision of his own, Sanjay parted his jaws at the same instant, making it appear as though he had spat Doyle's arm out. "You're a right bastard, old son," Doyle said lightly. He remained next to the tiger, knowing that if he was to deal with the creature again, they must reach an understanding now. His arm hung at his side, tingling a little as full sensation returned. With the other, he stroked and scratched Sanjay's head, and when the cat seemed to invite it, he gave the left ear a little special attention.
Slowly the massive animal sank to the ground, glancing up inquiringly when Doyle did not immediately follow. "Ready for another kip, eh, sunshine?" Doyle muttered, crouching down beside him. For only a moment he lingered, running long fingers through the animal's thick fur.
The yellow eyes blinked lazily shut. Doyle let his hand glide over the animal's back one last time, and rose to his feet.
"You stupid bastard."
Bodie filled the cage entry, his face chalk white, eyes black as midnight.
"Not to worry," Doyle said imperturbably as he started for the cage door, with Derek behind him. "He didn't hurt me. I'll be able to fly and ride without any pro--"
But Bodie had already pivoted on heel and was marching away, his back rigid, hands balled into fists at his sides.
Having swiftly cleared his path, Simon glanced after Bodie, who had disappeared into the connecting corridor, then back at Doyle. "I don't think he was worried about that."
"How long was he standing there?"
"You mean, how much did he see?" Simon corrected him. "All of it. He showed up just about the time Sanjay decided to make a meal of you." The cage door clanged shut.
"He told me to come see you about my costume. 'S his own fault, really."
Simon laughed. "You're amazing, y'know. I'd've been shrieking the place down."
"Nah. A nice, graceful swoon would be more your style."
"Don't you believe it, petal. Wouldn't work with an old brute like that."
"Perhaps not--" Doyle froze as Derek came up from behind him and took hold of his left arm. "It's all right, mate. I told you--"
"Forget it, Ray," Simon said, looking on proudly as Derek carefully peeled back Doyle's sleeve to expose the fine-haired forearm underneath. "After that little performance, he's not going to let you out of here unless you're one hundred percent."
With Derek probing and palpating, Doyle raised his head questioningly toward Simon. "Why? I've said I'm okay."
"Because Bodie'll have his hide if you've been hurt. Pay attention, Ray."
Derek bestowed a withering stare on his lover, and began to gingerly rotate Doyle's arm.
"Right," Simon said contritely. "Think I'll just see to lunch. You are staying, of course?"
"So long as it doesn't consist of any of that stuff we unloaded this morning, sure. Ow."
Derek gave him a grin in lieu of an apology--revealing a slight gap between his two front teeth. He let Doyle's wrist go, but not before tugging the sleeve back into place, and then delivered a jolting thud to his undamaged upper arm.
Taking that as a sign of approval, Doyle followed the bold-featured man into the corridor. "Thanks, Derek," he said, far more politely than was strictly necessary.
Today, he filed in his mental report to Cowley, the tiger tried to eat my arm. Luckily, he changed his mind. My cool-headed handling of this event seems to have increased my credibility with his trainer. I do hope, however, that he doesn't own a cache of man-eating snakes.
Behind him, Sanjay gave a somnolent growl.
The Friesian came out of its bow of obeisance with precision, carrying its rider as though he weighed no more than a slip of paper. Responding to an unseen signal, he then clip-clopped out of the ring, toward the horse entry. On the Andalusian, Doyle already waited beyond the partially drawn, blood-red curtain, watching the two finish the act they had just walked through--at Derek's instruction--as though it were the actual performance.
Lunch had been a pleasant affair. With Simon speaking for himself and Derek both, the two men had regaled Doyle with jokes and anecdotes far more hair-raising than his encounter with Sanjay. Derek seemed to have finally lowered his guard, although Doyle sensed he would likely never drop it altogether.
He understood distrust; it was as much a part of the circus as its counterpart, trust. And he also understood that only time--if he were allowed it--would prove to Derek that he was not a threat to either of them. Whatever turned up during his stay here, Doyle hoped that none of the troupe would be affected--except for Sergei, whom he had disliked at first sight, and whom he knew to be deserving of a good rollicking--even before addressing his more serious crimes against the State.
Piper cleared the curtain, which was then allowed to drop, save for one corner through which the ring remained visible. This signalled the completion of their act. The horse blew loudly, and swung his head toward Tuppence, who brushed her muzzle against his jowl.
"Almost perfect," Doyle remarked. He did not expect a reply, as Bodie had been determinedly distant since the episode in Sanjay's tent.
"As close as it gets." Bodie's voice was flat and cold.
Derek semaphored to them from the ring, summoning them back.
Dismounting a few feet away, Doyle gently scratched behind the horse's ears while Derek communicated something to Bodie. From the frown growing in Bodie's eyes, Doyle guessed he was being told something he did not particularly want to hear. Surprisingly, the irritation vanished, and Bodie gave a nod of agreement.
"What are you two plotting, then?" Doyle asked, walking the horse nearer the other men.
"Derek reckons you're ready for the public."
"Only on horseback, mind," Bodie said crushingly. "Simon and Lily should have your gear ready before the performance."
"And if they don't?"
"Derek'll slay 'em." Swinging one leg over the horse's back, Bodie stepped down. He loosened his hold on the reins, freeing the horse from its collection. At once the Friesian's long black neck stretched out, then curved back in. He nipped lightly at the Andalusian's near knee; she butted his flank, then pushed her nose up under Doyle's hand, demanding attention.
"How's the arm?" Bodie asked.
"Okay. Derek checked it out."
Dark blue eyes swung round to Derek's face. "Derek?"
In the midst of gathering the reins, he met Bodie's interrogative expression unconcernedly, answering him with a ready nod.
"I want to see it," Bodie demanded.
"Fuck off," Doyle countered, without rancor.
"I'm still the one calling the shots here, mate," Bodie informed him icily.
Wordlessly, Doyle unbuttoned the cuff of the shirt he had changed into following lunch, and rolled the sleeve up to his elbow. Then he thrust the arm out under Bodie's nose, and moved it this way and that so no angle would be missed. "Perhaps you'd rather I didn't ride tonight? After all, it is bruised and a little red here and there."
"You're lucky you've got a fucking arm," Bodie said with sudden venom. To Doyle's astonishment, Bodie then wheeled on Derek, who, apparently expecting this, had continued to wait a few feet away. "And you, you jealous bastard, that's a sodding stupid way to see just how crazy this bloke is. If he'd been injured--"
Derek raised his free hand commandingly. When Bodie ground to a halt, Derek looked straight at Doyle and mouthed the words, "I'm sorry."
"'S all right," Doyle said, more amused than embarrassed. He conjured a rueful laugh. "Bodie may not believe this, but I did know what you were about."
A tiny smile etched its way across Derek's mouth. He tilted his head and beamed at Bodie, as if to say, "I told you so."
"Why do I fucking bother?" Bodie muttered.
"Maybe it's genetic?" Doyle ventured. Then, before Bodie could thump him, he offered, "How about some tea, mate?" Prepared for rejection, Doyle unconcernedly withstood the virulent glare that would have scorched a lesser mortal.
Exhaling raggedly, Bodie grumbled, "Why not? This place will be bedlam before too much longer."
In the event, Bodie fell asleep on Doyle's bed, too short and badly sprung though it was. On the frayed rug that covered the linoleum floor, Basil was also prone, warm in a bit of old, freshly washed horse blanket that Doyle had charmed out of Derek on her behalf. Doyle himself sat at the kitchen table where he laid waste to the cooling contents of the teapot, trying not to stare at the man lying vulnerable only a few feet away.
Bodie was a conundrum. As yesterday, when he had held Sergei at bay, and today, when he had fretted over Doyle's injury, he had exhibited almost as much anger as concern--rather as though he had come to have some serious regard for Doyle. There was no question in Doyle's mind but that Bodie's interest was genuine; why it should have formed so quickly and so intensely, however, he couldn't quite comprehend. And maybe that was because Doyle had rarely let his own guard down so swiftly.
With a muffled yip, Basil began to chase dream hedgehogs, the tips of her paws fluttering, muzzle jerking, eyelids rippling over darting eyes. Concerned that she might disturb Bodie, Doyle reached out, hunkering down to rouse her. At his touch, she woke instantly and began to wag her tail, sending out a long, pink tongue to lick his hand.
"Abandoned pups and tigers: quite a combination," Bodie drawled.
With his head propped up on his forearm, dark stubble peppering his jaw, and eyes as lustrous and entrancing as sapphires, Bodie was irresistible.
Yet Doyle retained a modicum of sanity, regaining his feet and forcing himself to approach the other man slowly. Though he ached to kiss that sleep-soft mouth, he lifted a finger and traced the curving, pouting outline instead. When Bodie didn't flinch away, Doyle brought his head nearer, but unhurriedly so Bodie would have plenty of time to refuse.
The kiss was gentle, searching, and utterly chaste. Doyle's heart leapt into his throat--this was something he had yearned for, for so many years; the reality of it now was almost more than he could assimilate.
Bodie's hand came up, blunt fingers sinking into Doyle's hair. He lifted himself onto his elbow to get nearer, while bringing Doyle closer to him.
The sudden restraint cut through Doyle's euphoria--he pressed a hand against Bodie's chest and broke free. Breathing shallowly, he stared, stunned, into Bodie's face.
"I shouldn't've done that," he said hoarsely.
"Why not?" Bodie's gaze seemed to penetrate into the heart of him.
"Too soon. I--" He opted for honesty. "I haven't had a lot of experience with men."
Fearing derision, Doyle was grateful when Bodie merely digested this in silence. "Okay," he said sanguinely. "There's no hurry, mate. What time is it, anyway?"
"Nearly four. The gates open at five, don't they?"
"Yep. Better check on Simon and see how your outfit is coming." Swinging his legs over the edge of the bed, Bodie just missed Basil, who had observed their activities with intense curiosity. "Look out, Basil."
She leaped up and landed on the bed beside him, then began to home in on his cotton-knit shirt. Before she could get her nails snagged in the material, however, Doyle snapped his finger as he had seen Hannah do; the dog sat down and went instantly still.
"Well done, Basil!" She leaned into his finger, which Doyle put to work scratching behind her ear as reward.
"That's impressive," Bodie remarked. "What else can she do?"
"I'm not sure. Let's try this." For the next few minutes, Doyle attempted every finger and hand command he had witnessed during Hannah's session with her dogs. He was as surprised as Bodie when the dog immediately obeyed each and every one.
"Hannah said she couldn't hold her attention long enough for all that. How long have you been working with her? When have you been working with her?"
"Haven't," Doyle confessed. He explained about watching Hannah earlier in the day. "Maybe it finally clicked, that's all."
"And maybe she finally got the right trainer--nothing against Hannah, mind."
"Oh, I know. Hannah's bloody marvellous."
Basil threw herself onto her back and squirmed with anticipation. Grinning down at her, Doyle felt the weight of Bodie's eyes on him.
"She's not the only one," Bodie said lightly, and bent forward to plant a quick kiss on Doyle's mouth. Pulling carefully at Doyle's beard, he murmured, "Lucky you keep that so well trimmed; could be a problem otherwise."
With those words Bodie reminded Doyle why he was here--and it pricked at him, like a sharp knife. "Oh."
"That's all right, son," Bodie said bolsteringly, misinterpreting Doyle's reaction. "It looks good on you."
Sighing out loud, Doyle said, "Gosh, thanks, Bodie."
That night Circus Sergei came alive. With the excellent weather, and the enticement of first night, the public came out in droves. Being fitted for his costume with last-minute adjustments, Doyle listened from the dressing tent to the rumble of car engines as the field in front of the circus became a temporary car park. Giggling children's voices rose above the drone of those less impressed by the magic that was circus. Doyle clung to that innocent sound, recalling a time when it had sprung from his own lips.
Doyle missed the first acts, captive to Lily's desire for perfection. He could almost hear Riley's opening remarks broadcast over the Tannoy and supplied in his mind the image of the older man riding out alone into the ring atop the dun gelding Flash, bathed by the light of a single spotlight mounted on one of the four main tentpoles.
As Lily diligently stitched, Doyle went through various stages of undress. Both of them kept an ear out for each routine to finish. A barrage of fast-hand acts--juggling, plate spinning--coupled with tumbling and low-wire balancing routines were followed by a frantic clown and dog skit that produced roaring laughter clearly audible across the compound.
Doyle managed to escape just as the clowns were pelting each other out of the ring. From the curtains of the horse entry, he saw Simon, riding sidesaddle, dressed as a lovely young woman in crinoline and ringlets, timidly come into the spotlight. With the ringmaster providing running narrative, Simon and Pat, his voltige horse, performed the story of sweet young Bess, who, to meet her lover, had dared ride bareback into the woods. The trees, with long, treacherous branches (provided by young web-hangers costumed in leafy, brown suits), plucked at her clothing and hair until, bit by bit, she was forced to jump on and off the steadily cantering horse--no matter that the horse never paused a step--all the while losing various bits of clothing and detachable ringlets, until Simon was made to be seen a he and not a she. The audience applauded and shouted its pleasure at having been duped. Simon and Pat enjoyed an extended ovation before racing off the sawdust floor together.
The next act took the ring with no break intervening. While the fire- eater appalled and amazed her onlookers, accompanied by thunderous musical support from the band, Bodie and Derek came into the corridor leading Tuppence and Piper. Keyed up in a way he had not been in years, Doyle mounted the patient Tuppence, while Bodie took his place on Piper.
"Simon and Lily came through I see." Bodie lazily surveyed Doyle's brown coat with dark velvet cuffs and collar; white shirt foaming at throat and wrist with ruffled lace; tightly fitted breeches; high-topped boots; and Regency style hat sporting a short, but thickly feathered plume. Bodie's outfit was identical; in Doyle's opinion, it suited him better, emphasizing Bodie's wide shoulders and neatly tapered hips and flat abdomen.
"Would've been nice to have a run-through in this gear," Doyle complained, saying the first thing that came to mind, for he was having some difficulty concealing the lascivious nature of his thoughts.
"Not needed," Bodie said with supreme confidence. "All you do is keep your seat and let the horse do all the work."
"And try not to breathe too deeply or I'll split a seam."
Bodie gave him a calculating look. "Maybe we'll switch you out with Simon; get you down to your knickers that way."
"There are easier ways," Doyle murmured.
Just then the audience broke into loud clapping; the ringmaster announced their act. Listening for the first brassy notes from the band, Doyle forced himself to concentrate.
Bodie entered first, sitting proudly upright, the arrogant cavalier, as Piper high-stepped into the ring. A hush fell over the audience as Piper bore him to each of the four compass points of the ring, at each of which the magnificent black Friesian extended his near, or left, foreleg, and curled his off, or right, under his body in a perfect bow. A beat behind, Doyle followed, at opposite points, until their horses pirouetted and came to face one another. An instant's surprise, as though spying oneself unexpectedly in a looking glass, and then the tentative movements to gauge the other's aptitude, employing simple challenges at first, increasing in difficulty. A raised foreleg; a brief, in-place trot; a few steps of full-travers--first one way, then the other; a pause--then Bodie guided the gelding round, to face out into the audience, and Doyle, copying each action precisely on Tuppence, did the same.
Now the movements became more strenuous, the demanding "airs above the ground." The Friesian, with its powerfully built hocks and cannon taking its full weight, raised his forehand into the air; through brute strength and years of training, he maintained the position known as the levade for several seconds as Doyle, still a beat behind, adroitly urged the Andalusian into the same posture.
The heart-racing anticipation of first night flowed from the audience to the riders and from them to their mounts. Yet the men in the ring remained as still as statues, the instructions given to their horses silent and unseen. All the while Tuppence and Piper executed each more incredible movement of the haute école with astonishing fluidity and confidence.
The band, having started out with a bawling flourish, now quietened as the audience fell more and more under the horses' spell, the Strauss waltz just loud enough to be heard above the steady thud of hooves striking sawdust and soft, trampled ground. In fact, the musicians played to match the movements of the performers, a notable achievement all circus bands were highly skilled at but few onlookers were ever aware of.
Piper came out of the courbette--an extension of the levade in which he kept head, upper body, and forelegs off the ground and jumped three, four, five times--just as Tuppence undertook to do the same. The audience gave a single, awed sigh--which instantly turned into a gasp as Bodie urged his mount into the croupade.
The animal seemed to fly into the air, all four feet curled under his body. He hung there, several feet above the ground, for long seconds before deigning to return to the unrarefied earth. Spontaneous cheering and thunderous clapping erupted from the audience, which carried on as Tuppence, invoking images of Pegasus without wings, rose into the air with equal verve and comportment.
But more was yet to come. Cantering slowly in place, Piper gathered himself and defied gravity once more, Bodie sitting with total aplomb, as though it were an everyday occurrence to ride a flying horse. Into the air the great black surged, higher and impossibly higher, until at the instant his forehand had reached its zenith, he kicked out with both back legs--the justifiably famous capriole.
Back on the ground once more, not a hair out of place, he pirouetted round to face his mimic, resuming the dignified, stationary trot--the piaffe.
Incapable of matching the Friesian's feat, old Tuppence was forced to concede defeat. She came back round to face Piper, then dropped her muzzle and began to back out of the ring, her well-shaped head bowing smoothly up and down.
The soft, happy lilt of the waltz gave way to a more somber melody. Tentatively, Piper stepped forward, lifting his own head and whuffling with some distress, his lack of understanding at losing his mirror companion pathetically evident.
But Tuppence continued backing toward the red curtain, where at last she stopped. Her muzzle went up, soft brown eyes seeming to beckon the black. She rose on her haunches and performed a final twirl, then paused briefly with her tail swishing. Through the curtain she went, her meaning clear: Join me.
The music stopped. A hush, in sharp contrast to the manic enthusiasm of only minutes before, informed the interior of the big tent. Piper's hooves ceased their elegant motion; for the length of a yearning sigh, he stood unmoving. Then his ears pricked up--Tuppence's throaty whicker came through the curtain--and he began to move forward, knees peaking impressively with each arched step of the centuries-old passage.
The curtain closed behind Bodie and the black Friesian--and the house held back none of its heartfelt response, a wave of warm emotion underlying their applause.
Keeping clear of the liberty horses as they cantered into the ring, Doyle peered through the side of the curtain with Tuppence at his back. He said drolly, "I think they bought it."
"Romantic nits," Bodie agreed. "If they liked that, wait'll they see what we're going to do with you on the trap; they'll eat it up."
Doyle let go of the curtain and gave Bodie a faintly jaundiced once- over. "More romance? On the trapeze? You and me?"
"Not romance as in sex, you moron," Bodie chided. "Romance as in heroes and dying well and ludicrous dreams."
"All that on the trapeze? You and me and whose army, then?"
Bodie dismounted from the Friesian and led it down the corridor toward the stables. "Just you and me, old son--and that 'old' wasn't a reference to the beard, mind."
"'Course not." Doyle allowed himself a final peek at the goings-on on the other side of the curtain.
In the ring the liberty horse routine was already in full swing, galloping hoofbeats reverberating off the heavily trodden sod as the 'Motley Crew'--as Simon referred to them--commenced their act. Riley himself was putting the ponies through their paces, he resplendent in silk top hat and black tails, the ponies wearing only check reins, harness, and bridle--all gaudily decorated--and huge, bobbing plumes secured at the crest of both the bridle and belly band.
Regretfully, Doyle abandoned his vantage view once more and turned to follow Bodie. Beside him, Tuppence came without demur.
At the opening to the stables, Derek greeted the Friesian with low, clucking sounds and gentle hands. Simon bent over the kettle in the tackroom, pouring boiling water into the teapot. His lavishly feminine make-up had suffered from his exertions and the powerful spotlights. "Want some?" he asked as Bodie and Doyle passed by, heading for the side exit that opened onto the dressing tent.
"No, thanks," Doyle said.
Hearing longing in his voice, Bodie said over his shoulder, "Stay here, if you like. Just remember to join me for the parade."
"'S not that." Waving a hand vaguely in the direction of his backside, he explained, "Felt a seam pop when I got off Tuppence. Thought I'd see if Lily could do a quick stitch-up."
Bodie laughed wickedly. "You were right, weren't you?"
"Careful, Bodie, or you'll be laughing out the other end yourself. Those breeches look as though they were painted on you."
"Complaining?" Bodie wondered innocently.
"Not at all, mate," Doyle replied fervently.
A look almost of startlement flicked over Bodie's usually composed features. Quickly gone, Doyle thought perhaps he had imagined it.
"By the way," Doyle said off-handedly, "Sergei was right."
"About what?" Bodie asked.
"He said you were more impressive on horseback than the trapeze. I didn't believe him."
"Equally as good, surely?" Bodie sniffed exaggeratedly.
Doyle wrinkled his nose at him. "Close."
"It's the costume. All this lace and leather." Bodie stepped through the flap leading to the outside; he held it open until Doyle could take it from him.
"Maybe," Doyle conceded.
The night was brisk and studded with stars; they winked above them like tiny jewels, radiant and precious. Doyle filled his lungs to capacity; after the closeness of the big tent, he savored the crisp air. Surprisingly, he had forgotten how much he disliked the sense of confinement in the tent once it was teeming with people. As they walked along, he mused on how much worse it could be on the trapeze, especially when the weather warmed up. The heat collected in the upper rigging-- considerably more concentrated there than in the stands--and could stifle a person, even in early summer.
Through the propped-open flap of the dressing tent, Lily could be seen to be drowsing in her chair, hands folded neatly in her lap, legs crossed at the ankles. She looked up sleepily at the first scrape of a heel on the threshold. Bodie gave her a nod of greeting as he went behind the screen and began to shed his Regency outfit.
"They were noisy tonight, Ray," Lily drawled, her eyes approving.
"First night excitement."
"Don't give me that. You and Bodie must have been good."
"As Bodie said, we only sit there; the horses do all the work. 'S a good thing, too. Lily, I need a favor."
"What's that, son?"
"My trousers have come undone. Think you could put in a few stitches for the closing parade?"
"Certainly. Soon as Bodie's finished with the--oh, there you are."
Bodie strode out in sequinned leotard, strapping a full-cut, spangled cape round his shoulders. "'S all yours, sunshine."
This the first time he had seen his partner in costume, Doyle found himself staring: Bodie was the epitome of the self-assured male, all well-formed muscles, proud bearing, and devastating good looks. "I'll let you know," he murmured.
A dark brow arched inquiringly at him. "Let me know what?"
"If you're as impressive on the trap. In that get-up...." He let the sentence complete itself unspoken.
Bodie gave his head a toss. "Told you so."
"Nice alliteration. See you in a bit."
As Bodie strode out of the dressing tent, Doyle was hard-pressed not to follow, just so he could keep looking. Remembering belatedly that he had an audience, Doyle glanced round at Lily, who gave him a Cheshire grin.
"Gawd," Doyle snorted, and took himself behind the screen to peel off his trousers. "D'you have something else I can put on?" he called, draping the material over the thin wooden frame. "Bit chilly over here."
"There's a whole rack of things, Ray." Lily twitched the trousers off the screen. "Go on, help yourself. I won't look. Promise." She returned to the chair with Doyle's breeches, and opened her sewing kit.
"Hm." Taking her at her word--with no real choice not to--Doyle padded quietly out from behind the screened-off area and began to troll along the rack of clothing. He found a pair of corsair-cut trousers and raised a foot to pull them on. One leg in, he glanced across at Lily--and met her unabashed stare head-on.
"So I lied," she said merrily. "Lovely legs, Ray. You wouldn't need me to do up your shirt as well?"
With all the insouciance at his command, Doyle struck a pose, then red- cheeked and chortling, finished dressing. "I'll be back, all right?"
"That's fine, love. You've a few minutes yet till Bodie goes on."
Outside, Doyle grinned up at the heavens, listening to the raucous, rolling laughter that announced the teacher-horse and pupils-shetland pony, poodles, and clown act. This would be followed by a clown low-wire balancing routine--Doyle had about fifteen minutes to roam before Bodie appeared.
Realizing that Derek must be in the ring overseeing the horses, Doyle decided to pay a brief visit to Sanjay. His arm still ached from the pressure of the great cat's jaws; accordingly, the animal had not got far from his thoughts.
Doyle went in through the stables. Simon was nowhere in evidence, but the pot was still warm, and held enough tea for one cup. Helping himself to milk as well, Doyle took a deep drink from the mug before carrying it with him across the corridor to the other animal enclosure. Slipping through the canvas flap on noiseless feet, he allowed his eyes to adjust to the darkness before proceeding. A muffled rumble greeted him.
"How are you doing, Sanjay?" he whispered.
Dark yellow lights gleamed in the dark, flickered as heavy lids blinked once, twice, and were extinguished altogether as the cat fell back into a doze. He seemed to be breathing well, if with a soft rattle that could not be quite normal.
His eyes picking out more detail through the shadowy dimness, Doyle saw a huge paw fold over its mate, the rise and fall of the cat's chest, the twitch of tail tip.
Both Sanjay and Doyle flinched at the sound of an engine starting not far distant. Sanjay settled back down with a somewhat disgruntled snarl. Dragging one paw over his head, he swiped at a pad with his tongue, then closed his eyes once more.
"Oh, love, you can't do this." That was Rose, her voice carried faintly on the breeze.
"Leave off, I said. It's nothing to do with you." Alf.
"Isn't it? I know you're doing some--"
"Nothing concerning you. I've told you that."
"Oh, please. This is crazy. If you're caught--!" A slight pause. "Alf, you're hurting!"
"Then quit your bleating, woman. You know I can't do anything else. Not now."
"You can." Rose's voice was tight with tears. "If you loved--" A sound-- a slap? She broke off, whether through coercion or choice, Doyle could not tell. Fists clenched, he decided that Alf Weatherby had a lot to answer for.
Heavy footsteps approached the tiger's enclosure, became very loud as they strode by, then faded into the distance. Barely allowing them time to pass, Doyle slipped out of the tent into the corridor that gave access to the field.
The woman stood, a solitary figure in the starshine and moonlight, arms clasped convulsively across her chest, head bowed. Her shoulders were racked with the force of silent sobs.
Sparing a single glance back toward the other end of the enclosure, Doyle stepped out and walked slowly toward her. "Rose."
"Oh!" She looked up fearfully. "Ray?"
"Yeah. You all right?"
Gathering herself at once, she said with ragged dignity, "Of course. Where were you hiding?"
"Not hiding anywhere," he countered. "Checking on Sanjay. He's not been doing well, y'know."
"Oh. Yes. Yes, I know." She rubbed her eyes, embarrassed. "You heard us."
"Did he hit you?"
"No! Well, yes--but it's nothing. I'm fine, Ray."
"I don't think so," he disagreed.
Her head came up uneasily. "What?"
"He's doing something he shouldn't, and you're scared."
Rose gave him a shaky smile. "You'd have been better off not hearing any of that."
"Who would I tell?" Doyle reached out and placed a finger under the woman's trembling chin. "I've never worked a circus where someone didn't have something to hide."
Her eyes studied his face intently. "No?"
"'Course not. Look, come back to my caravan, and have a cuppa?"
"You already have one." She gestured toward his hand. Doyle had forgotten the cup filched from the tackroom.
"See," he said with mordant good humor. "I stole this from Simon. Who am I to speak, eh?"
Catching her lower lip between her teeth, Rose regarded Doyle with agonized indecision. "All right," she breathed, her voice snatched away by the breeze so quickly Doyle almost didn't hear her.
"Right. Come on, then."
Once seated at Doyle's table, Rose seemed to have second thoughts. "I shouldn't be here," she murmured fretfully, as Doyle prepared her cup.
"Why not?" he insisted. "We aren't doing anything we ought not to." He placed the mug on the table in front of her.
Curling unsteady hands round the chipped ceramic, Rose took a sip of very hot tea before saying with mild reproach, "You want to know what we were arguing about."
"No. I want you to drink that down." Doyle sat opposite her, cradling his own mug between cold fingers. "And then you can do what you like."
Rose sighed. When she looked up again her eyes were huge and watery. "Oh, I am sorry, Ray. You're being kind to me, and I--" She stopped as Doyle covered one of her hands with his.
"Just drink up, okay?" Taking his hand back before its presence could become obtrusive, Doyle tended to his own mug. "Sometimes it's nice just to have someone around when you're worried. No matter how awful something is."
A swallow seemed to choke in Rose's throat. "It is awful. Oh, I don't know--" Gazing inward, she seemed suddenly on the brink of tears again. "Ray, will you drive me into town?"
"Right now. If I wait until the public are gone, he'll come looking for me. Please."
Not having anticipated this, Doyle stalled for a second to consider the ramifications. "I only have a bike, Rose. You'd be uncomf--"
"Just let me get a few things. I won't be long, I promise." This time her hand came down on Doyle's, the clamminess of her palm communicating her state of mind more clearly than any number of words.
"Please, Ray. I shan't be a nuisance. The bike will do, really it will."
Doyle ran through possible alternatives quickly: He could refuse her and gain nothing--except perhaps Sergei's grudging thanks; he could aid her, and possibly learn more about the argument with her husband--and almost certainly bring down Sergei's wrath upon him; or he could play Good Samaritan, learn nothing, and find himself packed and on the road back to London at first light--with Cowley's far more intimidating ire awaiting him. With no clear option to choose from, Doyle followed his instincts, though not without reservations. "All right. If you're sure?"
Eyes glittering, Rose said soberly, "There's nothing else I can do."
"Go on, then, get the things you need. Unless you want me to come over while you--"
"No, that won't be necessary. Alf won't come home for a long time yet. Not on first night."
Doyle went to the door and held it open. As Rose slipped past him, she stretched up and kissed him very lightly on the cheek. Without another word she hurried down the steps into the darkness, her feet carrying her swiftly toward her own caravan.
The scratch of nails on gravel bespoke Basil's arrival.
"And where have you been?" Doyle asked irritably.
Wagging her tail from her ribcage to the tip of her tail, Basil trotted past him into the trailer, zeroing in on her water bowl. Slurping loudly, she drank her fill before coming back to sit at Doyle's feet.
"Don't suppose you'd be keen on coming along?"
The dog's ears rocked forward, her head at an angle.
"'Course you would. And I'll need someone to watch me back when I've done."
Aware that he was acting outside the strict bounds of his assignment, Doyle nevertheless reckoned that aiding Rose in a midnight flit was preferable to searching out her miserable oaf of a husband and thumping some sense into him. Although--given his new role of knight errant--he might yet allow himself that pleasure.
After exchanging the Regency coat for his heavy bomber jacket, Doyle switched off the lights and went out to the motorcycle, Basil at his heels. He climbed on, worked the choke, and fired the engine. It started with minimal coaxing, the staccato complaint of the engine recalling the tiger's bass growl. Closely watched by the dog, Doyle patted the fuel tank. She leapt up with tremendous energy, and landed safe in his arms. He tucked her inside the front of the jacket and zipped it up round her, leaving only her head free, with space enough for her to pull it in out of the wind, when she wished to.
Rocking the bike off its stand, he drove very slowly to Rose and Sergei's caravan. The more he thought about this, the bigger a mistake it seemed. It occurred to him to withdraw his help completely--yet, in so doing, he would shatter whatever confidence he had built in Rose regarding his genuine concern. More than that, and far more prosaically, if he hoped to ferret any real information out of her, he would have to carry this through.
Her arrival put an end to his deliberations. She had changed out of her skirt and blouse into woollen trousers and a sweater. In her hands she carried two bags, one a hold-all, the other an overnight case--neither of which was unworkably bulky.
"Are you certain this is what you want to do?" Doyle asked, compelled by conscience to do so.
She only offered a bleak smile and a quick nod of the head. "Can we go at once?" Moving carefully, she swung her leg over the passenger seat and sat down.
"Can you manage those?" Doyle indicated her luggage.
Her answer was to place the thinner of the two bags between them.
"You'll have to hold on to me, too, y'know."
"I'm set," Rose said in a soft, quavering voice. "Oh, please, Ray, just let's go."
Asking no more questions, Doyle primed the engine; the bike pulled forward. As they drove out of the caravan site, Doyle felt a twinge of regret that he would not see Bodie perform on the fixed trap this night-- nor possibly ever again. With Rose holding on to him from behind, and Basil facing nose-first into the wind in front, he suspected that he might be scuppering everything he had worked so hard to accomplish these last three days.
Somehow, like Rose, he had no other choice.
It was well past eleven before he returned to the circus compound that night. The field was empty of cars, the huge lights in the big tent had been switched off; the hustle and bustle of only a few hours ago might never have been visited upon this mist-muffled stillness.
The final quarter mile to the caravan site was accomplished on foot, Doyle pushing the bike alongside. Basil stood shiveringly at its head, paws firmly braced on the handlebars, her back feet not so steadily sliding from side to side atop the petrol tank. She had made it known, however, that she preferred this to sharing Doyle's jacket. He half suspected she believed herself to be driving the bike and Doyle merely slogging along beside.
The venture had proved singularly unproductive--for him anyway. Rose had remained incommunicative throughout, and once in town, had directed him via single syllables to a place where she could stay with friends. Then she had thanked him and fled, leaving Doyle alone and uncomfortably aware that in a good light, he must look an interesting spectacle in corsair trousers and a flowing white shirt that spilled onto the fur collar of his leather bomber jacket.
Since that niggling concern had been the least of his worries, he had disheartenedly driven the bike out of the neighborhood--after first memorizing the address of Rose's sanctuary--and started back toward the outskirts of town where the circus compound currently lay. What should have been a straightforward trip had been delayed by a pile-up involving emergency vehicles at one of the major junctions. After spending an exasperating half hour trying to find an alternate route out of town, he had only succeeded in getting himself well and truly lost. Another twenty minutes later, he had managed to turn back onto the main road. By then, the tailback had lengthened and Doyle had lost all advantage.
Resigned to his fate, he had been compelled to wait until the traffic finally broke loose a half mile later. From there it had been a comparatively quick shot, but still he had arrived too late to offer a credible excuse for his absence--other than the truth, which he suspected would yet result in unhappy recriminations.
With the bike mounted on its stand and Basil turned loose into the field, Doyle went across to Bodie's caravan, thinking it perhaps best that he at least explain his whereabouts to him--and hoping his wrath would not be too great. Through the curtained windows a dim light still palely shone. After rapping on the door and receiving no immediate reply, he knocked again--and stepped sharply back when it swung out and almost smacked into his face.
It was not Bodie. In his place stood a tall, dark-haired man, wearing a towelling robe that was far too short for him. "Bodie's in the shower, mate."
Doyle took in the other man's appearance: tousled hair, darkly furred, bare legs and forearms, sleepy grey-green eyes--all of which proclaimed him a visitor for the night. The moment stretched and held before Doyle could find his voice. "Right. I'll...see him in the morning."
"'Night, then," the other man said affably.
But Doyle hardly heard him. He stepped awkwardly off the wooden platform, the sudden rush of blood pounding in his ears obscuring anything else the man may have said. Doyle reached his own door just as Basil emerged from the field. Numb, he stood back while she bounded up the steps. With a last glance at Bodie's caravan, he entered behind her, and quietly shut out the night.
...Continued in Chapter 5...