Ibuprofen and coffee have become the two most important staples of my diet since I began traveling with the circus. I used to eat a tomato with a dash of pepper as part of the ritual before my performance, but then Suzette died and my appetite for them went the way of the dodo. Suzette was the sword-swallower—a pretty young thing Hector hired when we were touring in Newark—and she went on right before me, coaxing the rubes to the edges of their seats with her deadly simulated fellatio. She warmed the crowds up real good until that night that she sneezed with a sabre halfway down her throat. It put me off tomatoes forever. Don’t like catsup, either.
I was sharing a nip with Hector and the Flying Graysons when the dirty old man confessed that he never should have hired Suzette. He'd thought her looks were enough to sell tickets, but because her parents were devout church-going folk, he figured there was no way she'd dance the coochie. He'd set her up with Clark, who had been swallowing scimitars since he was 14.
"Clark said she was ready, so I put her on. She was really something for a while, wasn't she?"
I stood up and left the table. Hector had done right by me, but sometimes, I couldn't stand to look at him.
I was halfway back to my trailer when the clown fell in beside me. I didn't like his look. He was narrow and sick-looking, and he wore these tight suits, not the baggy threads you usually saw on clowns. I never saw him without his make-up or his greasy green wig.
“What do you know, what do you say?” the clown said, flashing yellowed teeth my way. “You’re Brand, right? The aerialist?”
“Yeah, that’s me.” I kept moving, wanting to get in my trailer and away from the creep as soon as I could. I had a feeling I was going to need some ibuprofen even more when our conversation was over.
His laughter was a gruesome cackle. I’d never really heard a fella cackle before, but his glee conjured up images in my head of bubbling cauldrons, black cats, and Halloween bats. He slapped me on the back as if we were both in on some secret joke.
“You’re sooo serious! You remind me of someone I recently became acquainted with in Gotham, but your ears aren’t big enough.” More laughter. I wondered if he could make it through a set without laughing at his own jokes. Hector always opened with clowns, elephants, and all the traditional kid-friendly stuff. The working acts like Clark and the Graysons and me always came at the end so’s to give the wallflowers and old ladies time to shuffle home before we got their hearts racing.
“Too bad about Suzy,” the clown said between peels of laughter. “I guess something she ate didn’t agree with her.”
I’m no saint. Never have been, and there was a rumor the Graysons were going to have a kid, which meant the crowds were going to be oohing and ahhing at me—that didn’t break my heart at all. Still, green as she might have been, Suzette had been one of us.
So I knocked the clown on his ass.
He didn’t stop laughing. “I hate to break it to you, but you have no future as a strong man.”
I turned my back on him, my trailer a few paces away. I was billed as Deadman, and the costume Hector had convinced his wife, Annette, to throw together for me was ghoulish-looking, but it kept the audiences hypnotized, like they were watching a ghost roll through the air from trapeze to trapeze. I had never been a big fan of the costume, in spite of the attention it got. Boston Brand was the one who should have been the star, not Deadman. Still, I was grateful for the mask that night. I didn’t want that clown to see how much he had gotten under my skin.
I stepped into my trailer, leaving him cackling in the dust. I peeled off my costume and started picking up the place. My trailer had been a mess since Suzette’s accident. Funny thing, though—my pepper was gone.
The clown disappeared a few nights later, and that was fine by me. Our troupe was already a full deck; we didn’t need any jokers.