“Ah, the end of the week!” Arthur Conan Doyle takes a deep breath of fresh air as he walks home from a long day at his medical practice. “And lovely weather, too! I should wonder if there is anything going on this Saturday,” he says aloud to no-one in particular. As if on cue, a stray poster glides along the breeze and catches him square in the chest. “Oho, what have we here?” He asks rhetorically as he reads. “Circus and carnival, eh?” He shrugs. Might make for a jolly afternoon.
He broaches the topic after dinner. “What do you say, Mrs. Doyle?”
“Spot of fresh air might do me a bit of good,” she admits, hand reaching up to touch one pale cheek. “I'm just as glad I didn't bring the children along to that voting-rights rally, given what you said happened.” Her gaze falls on their eldest, Mary. “I am rather glad that you went, of course.” She smiles, coughs, and turns her attention back to her husband. “Yes, Arthur, I rather think a day at the circus sounds lovely, and rather safer than some of the activities you seem to get up to,” she concludes, making her feelings rather clearly felt. Doyle winces. He has been meaning to cut back on his time with Jenny and Vastra and all, but he can't quite bring himself to give it up. Well, as Louisa said, the circus should be safe. “We could bring your mother,” Louisa suggests. The older woman has been lonely of late, since her husband had passed away. “Make a family outing of it. She loves spending time with the grandchildren.”
“Capital idea,” Doyle proclaims.
“Where're you off to in such a hurry?” Bert asks.
“The circus,” Henry mutters.
“Ooh, and with the girlfriend?” Moses teases.
“I am going with Nellie, yes.” Henry tries his best not to fly into a rage. He has gotten older, he thinks, not like when he was literally half-animal. He can control his emotions instead of the other way around.
“Better watch yourself, laddie,” Moses continues. “You don't lock her up, I might make a pass.” Henry takes a deep breath, and leaves.
“You got lucky there,” Bert tells his younger brother. “Baby brother isn't quite as much of a shrimp as he used to be. Needs to fill in a bit, but getting tall.”
Moses shakes his head. “Be worth getting popped a good one if the little one would get off his hind legs and chase that girl he fancies.”
“Care for a date at the circus, lover?” Mirabelle asks Anaya with a winning smile. It's almost unfair, she knows, to use that smile on Anaya—it takes all of the younger woman's willpower to resist. But she tries not to use her looks to her advantage. Well, not too often. “We can afford it, the way business has picked up after that rally.”
“Has it?” Anaya asks teasingly. “I'd never have guessed the way I've been run ragged these past few days.” They share a laugh and a kiss. “The circus sounds excellent,” she declares.
“I haven't been to the carnival in ages,” Nellie gushes.
“You are only 20, little sister,” Allison teases her. Jim and Neville stump ahead like brothers as their mothers keep a weather eye on them and Henry, smiling, leads the way, making sure they don't stray out ahead of him.
“You're dreadful,” Nellie retorts. “Let's just enjoy the weather and the show, shall we?”
“As please you; and the view?” Allison tacks on, gesturing towards Henry. Nellie blushes to her ears but says nothing. “I'll take that as a yes.”
“Dreadful and a cradle-robber,” Nellie mutters.
“The circus is in town, madame,” Jenny offers tentatively. They haven't been to one, either on business or pleasure, since the day they met. Jenny has a few fond memories of the animals and the music, but she isn't after recapturing girlhood nostalgia. She just doesn't want to see her wife haunted by her past. Indeed, it is strange, even unnerving for her to think of Vastra—strong, martial Vastra—afraid of anything, let alone something as childish and innocent as a circus.
“Mmm.” Vastra replies, deep in thought. Her thoughts run, as they so often do, in parallel to Jenny's. She should, she supposes, face this irrational phobia of hers sooner rather than later. “Circuses are often home to seemingly supernatural phenomena,” she observes, apropos of nothing but her own thoughts. Which means that she may well be called in to investigate one or another at some point. Which means that she should be prepared to do so without that nagging worry at the back of her mind clouding her judgment, that fear that she might be thrown back into a cage, and this time never escape. If nothing else, a small, devious part of her mind reminds her, it's affecting your sex life: bondage and stripteases both out of bounds despite the pleasure of the kinks. Quiet, she tells that voice. Fear is irrationality enough without lust. And it is truly irrational—this time, she has friends who would look for her, and who could do something to help her should she be captured. Indeed, she has had to rely on Jenny and the others to rescue her on more than one occasion. “Yes,” she says at last, heedless of whatever delay she may have spent inside her head, “the circus is a wise idea.”
“I quite agree, madame,” Jenny says. “I took the liberty of packing our bags special; trouble does seem to follow us around these days.”
“So, how is the writing going?” asks the elder Mary Doyle of her son.
“Well enough,” Doyle replies. “How did you like Jane Annie?”
“Well, it wasn't Holmes and Watson meeting Peter and Wendy, which is what I might have expected,” she begins, “but all in all I thought it was delightful entertainment.” Doyle beams. “You know, perhaps you should ask Mr. Barrie if he would consider such a collaboration!”
Doyle laughs with slightly forced merriment. He is under strict orders from his inspiration to keep any such fantastic elements from the pages of his stories. Partnering up his detectives with an ageless boy who carries away a girl (and then her daughter) for wonderful adventures is probably a bit close to home. “Perhaps I shall,” he tells her, knowing that he will do no such thing. Come to think of it, is there something odd about this carnival, he wonders? His attempt to put a finger on it fails when his mother interrupts his train of thought.
“And is it true that you solve crimes as well?” Mary asks. “One hears stories, you know,” she adds eagerly, and he can see the younger Mary's ears prick up as well—Daddy's tales from work are always well-received.
“Madame Vastra does consult me from time to time,” he admits, walking a careful line between his wife and his mother. “Medical advice and a bit of legwork, mostly. Sometimes just the input of a scientifically-trained mind.” He shrugs. “Nothing too exciting.”
“Tell grandma about the robots from outer space, daddy!” the younger Mary yells.
Doyle blushes and sweeps his daughter onto his shoulders. “I don't think grandma wants to hear about that one,” he whispers. “What did daddy say about his special stories?”
“That we mustn't tell anyone,” Mary pouts.
“That's right,” Doyle reminds her. “Who wants a popcorn?”
“What was that about robots from outer space?” the elder Mary prods.
“Oh, just daddy's imagination running wild,” Doyle blusters. “I've been thinking about inventing a new character,” he bluffs.
“Oh? You mean like Mycroft?”
“No, a new character in a new series of stories,” Doyle continues inventing. “One who would have more fantastical adventures, like the works of Jules Verne.” Mary frowns and Louisa's normally pale face is reddening with anger; he has told her about the Doctor, after all, and traveling around with Jenny and Vastra is outrageous enough without adding all of time and space into the bargain. “Pure flights of fancy,” he adds, trying to reassure her.
“Hmm,” Mary begins, mulling over this new development. “Well, as long as you don't stop writing Holmes for this new fellow.”
“No, no,” Doyle backtracks, “just an idea I've been kicking around. Not remotely ready to start writing yet.” At least the second half of his excuse was true, he thinks, as both Mary and Louisa appear to accept this turn of events. He buys his daughter a popcorn, and is quite relieved to hear her crunching away happily. And Kingsley isn't crying, he notes. Splendid, he thinks, and gives no further thought to the odd thoughts the carnival had been giving him.
“Step right up,” calls the barker. “Three balls for a penny; win the young lady a doll.”
“Go on then,” Allison says, pushing a shocked Henry towards the game. “Make my sister proud.”
Henry stammers but produces the penny. “Look sharp, laddie,” the gamesman tells him, tossing him the ball. Henry hefts it, tossing it up and catching it a few times as he sizes up the targets: Half a dozen milk-bottles in a simple triangle. Shouldn't be too hard, he thinks, and chucks the ball at the bottom-center bottle.
To his astonishment, the ball's path breaks sharply to the right, clipping the rightmost bottle instead. “Must be weighted funny, or a trick of the light,” he mutters, and takes the second ball.
“Saying something, sonny?” the operator asks, and Henry shakes his head, trying not to be angry at what is probably a rigged game anyway. He aims a bit more to the left this time, and is baffled when the ball darts up, knocking off the top bottle only. “Last try,” the barker cautions him. Henry is briefly tempted to cream the man right in the face, but with his luck, the ball would come flying right back at him. Besides, he thinks, there are women and children watching, so he lets fly rather haphazardly, and is dumbstruck when the ball seems to grow bigger and faster as it leaves his fingers, clobbering the remaining bottles easily. He blinks, barely noticing the trinket that he hands off to Nellie.
“Eh?” he asks, shaking his head to clear the fog.
“I said good throw,” Nellie tells him. “Are you feeling well?” I didn't realize he was that far gone on me, she thinks. I might have to take him on a date just to clear his head. Unless this is a date, she realizes in horror.
“Fine,” he tells her, casting one more suspicious glance at the game before following her away.
“Such fine children you have,” drawls a woman's voice. “I'm sorry, I don't mean to interrupt, but I couldn't help myself.” Louisa and Doyle turn to face the newcomers: a couple in their early sixties, American South by the accent. The husband taller, with a military bearing; the wife shorter, with an almost grandmotherly warmth. Both had pale skin and dark hair streaked with white, hers in curls and his in a sharp widow's peak.
“Colonel and Mrs. Boatwright,” her husband introduces them. “Pleased to meet you.”
“Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle, my wife Louisa, my mother and daughter—both Mary, and my son Kingsley.” Colonel Boatwright bends to kiss the hand of the elder Mrs. Doyle.
“I'm still in mourning, you scamp,” she tells him, eyes twinkling, and they all laugh genially.
“I hope you don't mind if we tag along,” Mrs. Boatwright asks. “A circus is a more charming place when filled with the laughter of children.”
“I can't see why not,” Doyle says, and the party is joined.
Anaya and Mirabelle share a carton of hot, candied walnuts as they cross the fairgrounds. “Who's going to try to win whom a prize?” Mirabelle teases.
“You're the one holding the nuts,” Anaya jests in return, pushing her towards an attraction.
“I can't very well swing the hammer and hold our food,” she points out. “You give it a try; you do all that running around with your friends, after all.” Anaya obliges, handing a penny to the woman holding the hammer, but she immediately sags to her knees. “It's too heavy,” she gasps, straining even to budge the impossibly dense mallet.
“You just need to get a better grip,” the barker tells her, picking the sledge up between her thumb and forefinger and twirling it around her head like a baton. Anaya's eyes bug slightly—that shouldn't be possible, even at a normal weight. As the gameswoman concludes her spinning routine, she flips the hammer to Anaya who, on a hunch, grabs it by pinching it between her thumb and first two fingers. She shares a smile with the barker as she wields it expertly, ringing the top bell with ease to Mirabelle's cheers and applause.
“Must be some sort of trick,” Mirabelle tells her.
“Must be,” Anaya agrees, not believing it for a minute. If that hammer didn't shed a thousand pounds of weight in a split-second, she'll eat her hat. Not that she's wearing a hat, she admits to herself as she crunches another handful of nuts.
“Come on, it looks like the show is about to start,” Mirabelle points out, and they meander towards the big top.
Nothing to fear, Vastra tells herself. Nothing to fear. She loosens her white-knuckled grip on the purse filled with knives and other handy tools and forces herself into a comfortable pace beside Jenny. Nothing here but smiling children playing games and eating candy. “Excuse me,” comes a voice from behind her, and Vastra nearly screams.
“Yes?” Jenny asks, taking her cue from the fingers dug into her forearm. To be fair, she thinks, she is almost certain that there had not been anyone behind them a moment ago.
“You are the detectives, are you not? Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint? You came highly recommended to me by your previous employer, Mr. Fanque, among others.” A dark-skinned man wearing a garish red suit and top hat bows. “My name is Orlando; I am the ringmaster of this circus, and I am afraid that I need your help.”
“Oh?” Jenny asks, trying not to grimace.
“There's been a murder,” he explains, leading them to the rear of the circus, where the performers live. “One of our tightrope walkers; I saw her myself not half an hour ago.” If possible, Vastra goes an even paler shade of green, practically seafoam. They have only been at the circus for an hour themselves. Orlando's voice lowers further. “The killer is still on the grounds,” he whispers. “A man you have met before, if I am not mistaken.”
Jenny looks at him skeptically, but only for a moment. She doesn't know how he knows this, but she doesn't doubt it. “We shall investigate her death, of course.”
Vastra's mind, meanwhile, is writhing with paranoia. Who could this mysterious man who knows so much be? Or the killer, for that matter? Surely not Clarence DeMarco, she thinks before correcting herself. Surely it must be: who else would kill under their very noses, as if to humiliate them at every turn out of spite. She is going to relish killing this one, she thinks.
Jenny is relieved, in a strange way, to see that the corpse is of an ordinary human female. Between madame being at her wits' end, the murderous stalker they seem to have acquired, and the decidedly queer feeling she is getting about this whole place, she doesn't know how much more she can take. She shakes her head. Sad sort of business when a murder is par for the course, she thinks, but someone's got to do it.
“Daddy, daddy, the show,” Mary demands, and the Doyles and Boatwrights make their way towards the big top.
Doyle grins with recognition. “Anaya? Fancy meeting you and Mirabelle here.” The Boatwrights blanch and his mother looks quizzically at the pair. “Mother, this is one of Vastra's network of assistants, and one of her coworkers; they run a salon together.” Yes, he thinks. Coworkers.
Mary Doyle nods. “Pleased to meet the two of you,” she says with a bow of her head. “Perhaps I shall visit this salon of yours—it does me good, I think, to get out of the house.”
“We'd be proud to have you,” Mirabelle tells her. “And you, madame?” she asks Mrs. Boatwright.
“No, thank you!” she replies, and she and her husband stalk off. Just loudly enough to be overheard, she continues. “We came to England to get away from those people.” Anaya merely rolls her eyes. She's long since gotten past listening to the voices trying to tear her down.
“I don't know what set her off,” Louisa says in a desperate attempt to paper over the obvious insult. “But let's take our seats.”
They meet Henry and the Sanderses inside; Anaya shares her experience with the Boatwrights with them, chortling despite the bigotry. “We've had a good time otherwise,” she continues, and tells them about the game with the hammer.
“You know, I had a similar experience while trying to knock over a bunch of milk bottles,” Henry observes.
“If there's something strange going on, why don't we look into it?” Nellie puts forward. “Kids are all settled now and they can play and watch the clowns.”
“Splendid,” Anaya decides. Well, as splendid as aliens at the circus can be. She whispers an excuse to Mirabelle, who nods, used by now to her girlfriend running off into trouble.
Behind them, the Boatwrights watch as the three young ones sneak off. “Up to no good, I reckon,” observes the Colonel. “Care to go hunting after those degenerates, Fanny?” His wife nods gleefully, and they steal away.
It had all been going very well so far, Clarence thinks. Visiting a carnival in broad daylight had seemed like a bit of a risk for a man with five bodies in his wake and the most famous detectives in all of Britain out to find him. But his benefactor had guided him there and through the crowd, just where nobody seemed to be looking, and right behind the so-called great detectives themselves. He'd nearly blown his cover laughing at that, saved by the antics of a troupe of clowns. His hat and collar also went a long way to conceal his features as well, he thinks, not quite willing to trust himself entirely to his mysterious ally. The whispers in his ear had led him back to one of the performer's wagons. Kill her, the whispers had told him, as if he had needed any further prodding. She had struggled exceedingly prettily as he strangled her with a length of cord. Tightrope indeed, he thought, smiling at his own joke.
But now... He had ducked back into one of the tents, cutting a rope to make a loose flap, as he had tried to make good his escape. But this looks nothing like what he had expected from the inside of a circus tent, and he has been going in circles for what feels like hours but could be seconds or days. He shrugs and takes out his knife. He isn't in any hurry.
They find the loose tentflap in short order: slashed, not snapped or come untied. Jenny's mind flashes to her practice with knots, tying and undoing them, often in uncomfortable positions, the better to simulate a possible escape (or more pleasant ventures, before madame's phobia had gotten the best of her). That was just one of the many arts she had mastered in order to break into or out of a secured building, she muses: how to pick a lock or even just kick down a door without injuring herself. She wonders if madame's own experiences had driven Vastra, even unconsciously, to drill her so mercilessly at how best to free herself. They were both free in another, less pleasant way, now, she muses. Both of them are cut off from their old friends and family, leaving them free for their current choice of companionship; her family had explicitly kicked her out of her old home for kissing another girl, and she doubts that Silurian society would look with favor upon cohabitation with an ape. Lord only knew it had taken her long enough for Vastra's rough edges to wear down, so to speak. Still, free didn't always mean easy or painless.
Vastra feels a bit silly walking in the dark with her knife in one hand and her purse in the other. But the scanner had proved useless—erratic readings, mostly off the charts—and the portable torch was decades away. Still, she longs for the familiar grips of her twin shortswords, or even just to grasp Jenny's hand for a moment. But she refuses to give into her fear even to that small extent, and instead recites the Silurian warriors' code and prays to the Goddess and runs through her wedding vows to Jenny, come to that: anything to keep her mind from idling. She lets the unfamiliar setting pour into her through her senses, nerves taut, awaiting the slightest provocation to make them sing. But the corridors of cloth seem endless and featureless, muffling sound and fluttering meaninglessly. Still, she knows, somehow, that her quarry has come this way, and presses on.
She is taken aback when Jenny takes her hand, and stops dead in her tracks. “Don't want us to get separated down here, madame,” she says in the flat tone she usually reserves for the servile mask she wears in public. Sometimes she regrets Jenny's ability to hide her emotions so well, and worries that her fear is showing and has become contagious. But Jenny's hand is warm and does not tremble, and Vastra draws strength from it. And if she cannot walk as fast or as freely as before, then at least it is a limit of her own desiring, and for the first time since they entered the fairgrounds, she smiles, and kisses her wife.
Anaya realizes, a bit belatedly, that this is perhaps a fool's errand. They don't have any weapons, any fancy devices, or even any right to be doing what they are doing. If they get caught, they'll have no choice but to bluff their way out of it or make a run for it. She would say 'just don't get caught,' but they're actively searching for trouble amidst what feels like an infinite monotony of cloth passages. She sighs and stays close to her friends just as the path widens out into a proper room. “This is different,” she remarks just as a new face joins them. New, she thinks, but oddly familiar, she thinks, just as the man brandishes a knife at them. Now she remembers where she's seen it: a wanted poster. It's that DeMarco bloke they've been tracking for months, and now he's found them. She laughs nervously as they dodge the slashes of his blade; usually it isn't this easy. Well, insofar as being attacked by a knife-wielding madman is easy. “Help!” she cries. “Help!”
DeMarco presses his attack with an ugly smile. He had thought today was going to be good when he walked into the tightrope walker's wagon; he didn't realize how good it might be. Why, he might be able to get all three of them before their detective friends show up if he hurries. He cuts through the cloth with an errant blow as Anaya dodges away from him, taking him far enough around that he doesn't see Henry as the youth bowls into him, knocking him off-balance. As he goes high, Nellie goes low, and cuts his legs out with her shoulder, forcing him to stumble. That lets Anaya dart in and stomp on his wrist. She takes a shallow cut to her calf, but DeMarco drops the knife and clutches his wrist. Anaya, the closest of the three, scoops up the blade just as the Boatwrights appear.
“Up to no good; what did I tell you, Fanny?” the Colonel observes, conveniently ignoring Anaya's leg wound and DeMarco's crazed appearance.
“Ganged up on this poor fellow, by the look of it,” Fanny adds. “So much for fair play,” she snorts over the protests of the others.
DeMarco doesn't wait to make a principled argument. Instead, he backhands Anaya and reclaims his weapon, then grabs Mrs. Boatwright as a hostage. Henry, Nellie, and a perplexed Colonel circle around him. “I say, what is the meaning of this? Let my wife go!”
“We were trying to tell you that he's a murderer,” Henry tells him as Jenny and Vastra arrive. At this, DeMarco stabs Fanny and cuts his way to freedom with the bloody blade.
“Don't worry about me,” Anaya tells Vastra as she bends to examine her bruised head and bleeding leg.
“Don't worry about her,” Nellie tells Jenny as she binds Mrs. Boatwright's wound; she is no Doyle, or even Strax, but it should keep the woman alive long enough to reach a hospital. “She and her husband nearly got us all killed.”
“In that case,” Jenny says, looking wistfully at the torn fabric DeMarco left behind him, “I hope I kept you alive long enough to learn the error of her ways.” She turns to Vastra and shrugs. “Shall we go home, madame?”
“Assuming Anaya feels well enough to walk, I believe so,” Vastra decides, and Anaya nods. “I want to speak to the ringmaster, and tell him what has befallen here. But then I shall be perfectly content to return home.”
“Are you alright, madame?” Jenny asks Vastra quietly. This whole business had rattled Vastra more than she might have thought, she could tell that much.
Vastra nods. “I shall be more pleased once we have gotten everyone safely home, but yes, for present I am content.” This, she realizes, is true. Somehow the fact of finding a dangerous, elusive criminal in a place she had feared has served to normalize that place rather than aggravate its frightful nature.
Once the Boatwrights are gone, off to seek medical attention, Orlando, the ringmaster drops in on their little circle.
“I should have thought you would still be inside conducting the show,” Vastra observes coolly.
“I have a few moments while each act performs,” he replies with a disarming grin.
“What is this place?” Jenny asks, blunt as ever.
“The circus is home to many mysteries; I thought you should know that by now,” he replies cryptically. “And not all mysteries are dangerous.”
“No,” Vastra agrees. “I suppose not.” She still looks at him with some trepidation, but even with her relatively limited capacity for reading humans, she suspects she will get nothing further from him. “Good day, then.” Her stomach rumbles. “Shall we get lunch while we wait for the show to end?”
“So, what are we going to do about the circus?” Henry asks.
“Nothing,” Vastra tells him.
“I expect there isn't anything we could do if we wanted to,” Jenny adds.
“And simply being scared of something different is hardly a good enough reason to try,” Vastra concludes, and that is the end of that.
“So, what are we going to do about DeMarco?” Nellie asks.
“Still can't believe that wretched woman thought I was a bigger threat than he was,” Anaya grumps.
“To be fair, you were holding a knife,” Nellie points out.
“One look in his eyes should have told you everything you needed to know about the situation,” Anaya counters. “Something not right about that one.”
“We should ask Doyle about that when he gets out,” Jenny notes. “I don't know enough about the science of the mind as I might like.” She pauses and thinks. “You don't suppose he's being affected by that psychic field the Rani told us about?”
“I had not considered the possibility,” Vastra admits. “She did theorize that an unhealthy mind might be weak enough to succumb to its influence. In that case, it would be for his own good that we find him quickly.”
“At any rate, it doesn't stop the fact that he's killing people,” Jenny adds.
“Doesn't excuse it, either,” Henry scoffs. “You don't just kill someone because someone else tells you to.”
“No, though we don't know how much influence this field or whatever it is has on him,” Nellie points out.
Jenny nods absently and whispers to Vastra. “Are you alright, madame? With the carnival and everything?”
Vastra chases a few crumbs about her plate before responding. “Yes, I rather think so. I expect I shall always be afraid of being put back in the cage, but some things are wise to fear. The true danger lies in being paralyzed by your fear.” Jenny smiles, happy to have her back to normal.
He watches the little knot of friends from a distance, skulking in the shadows despite the midday sun. He allows himself a tiny smile: they seem to have taken his bait rather nicely. Now he merely needs to wait until they contact the Doctor. Then he can have his revenge. But for now, his plans involve watching, and waiting.