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Regularly spaced strings of festive, low-voltage lights dropped from the ridge line to the sidewall, red bulbs alternating with white. Twinkling white lights surrounded the main entrance.


One of the four Peterbilts housed the power source. The only sound in the night was the rhythmic chug-and-growl of gasoline-fed generators.


Above the twinkling lights of the main entrance, a banner warned


PREPARE TO BE ENCHANTED!


Heeding that warning, we drew our pistols, checked to be sure the magazines were fully loaded-though we had checked them before leaving home-and eased them in and out of our shoulder holsters a few times to assure ourselves nothing would inhibit a quick draw.


No one had come forward to greet us when we parked and got out of the car. In spite of the tents and the lights, the meadow seemed to be deserted.


"We're probably misjudging Virgilio," Jimmy said.


"If Konrad Beezo thought he was a monster, then he's probably a saint," I reasoned. "Because when was anything Konrad said ever less than full-on nuts?"


"Exactly," Jimmy agreed. "And if Punch thinks he's a festering canker on Satan's ass-"


"-swine of swines-"


"-animated sewage-"


"-worm from the bowels of a syphilitic weasel-"


"-spawn of a witch's toilet-"


"-then he's probably a sweetheart," I concluded.


"Yeah."


"Yeah."


"Ready?"


"No."


"Let's go."


"Okay."


We had tied shut the silver box. Jimmy carried it by the new red ribbon, and together we crossed the meadow to the tent. We went inside.


Under the big top, the meadow grass had been mown short, but no sawdust had been spread.


The bleachers to accommodate the paying public had not been assembled. This was meant to be a show for an audience of two.


At each end of the tent, they had erected the sturdy frames that supported platforms and trapezes for the aerialists. Rope ladders and loop lines provided access to the heights.


Aimed toward upper realms, banks of footlights revealed flyers in the air. The men looked like cape less superheroes in silver and red tights. The women wore one-piece, legless, silver-and-red gymnast uniforms, their bare limbs fetching.


They hung by their hands from trapeze bars, hung by their knees. They arced, they somersaulted, they twirled, they flew, they snared one another out of thin air.


No circus band played; no music was necessary. The performers themselves were music-elegant harmony, exquisite rhythm, symphonic in the complexity of their routines.


Jimmy put down the box of money.


For a few minutes we stood entranced, still aware of the weight of our wardrobes, pistols heavy in our holsters, but all thought of danger relegated to the backs of our minds.


They concluded with a particularly amazing series of midair exchanges during which aerialists flew from trapeze to trapeze with stunningly precise timing, three in flight at any time, only two trapezes available, collision and catastrophe always a possibility.


Out of this bedazzlement of wingless birds, one of the men soared high off a bar, twirled in midair, folded into a somersault position, and tumbled down, down. At the last moment he spread his arms like wings, came out of the ball position, and landed on his back in the safety net.


He bounced high, bounced again, rolled to the edge of the net, and dropped to the ground, on point like a ballet star, his arms raised above his head, as though he had just completed an entrechat.


From a distance of thirty feet, he appeared to be handsome, with bold features, a proud Roman nose. His barrel chest, broad shoulders, slim hips, and trim figure made him an imposing man, lionesque.


Although his hair was coal black and though he appeared to be no older than forty-five, I knew this must be Virgilio Vivacemente, for from him radiated the pride of a king, a master, a paterfamilias.


Because even in 1974 he had been the patriarch and the brightest star


of a famous circus family, father of several children, including his twenty-year-old daughter Natalie, he must have been seventy or older this night in April. He not only appeared much younger, but had just proven himself to be athletic and extraordinarily limber.


The circus life seemed to be his fountain of youth.


One by one, the other performers dropped from high flight into the net. They bounced, descended to the ground, and lined up in a crescent behind Virgilio.


When they were all earthbound, they raised their right arms high overhead. Then, theatrically lowering their arms to point at me and Jimmy, they said in unison, "The Flying Vivacementes fly for you!"


Jimmy and I started to applaud, but caught ourselves, and also stopped grinning like children.


Members of the troupe were male and female, all good-looking, including a girl who appeared to be eight or nine and a boy of ten. They bounded out of the tent like gazelles, gamboling together as though the demonstration high in the big top had required' no serious effort, had been mere play.


Through the performers' entrance where the group made their exit came a tall muscle-bound man with a scarlet robe over his arm. He went to Vivacemente and held this garment while the star slipped his arms into the sleeves.


The carrier of the robe had a brutal, scarred face. Even at a distance, his eyes seemed as menacing as those of a viper.


Although he departed, leaving us alone with his boss, I was glad we were carrying pistols. I wished we'd thought to bring attack dogs.


The heavy yet beautifully draped robe was of a luxurious fabric, perhaps cashmere, with padded shoulders and wide lapels. In it, the aerialist had the air of a 1930s movie star, when Hollywood still had glamor instead of glitz.


Smiling, he approached us, and the closer he drew, the clearer it became that he had taken measures to stave off the effects of time. The glossy black shade of his hair was too inky to be real; it had come from a bottle. Perhaps he had earned his physique with vigorous and relentless exercise-and with steroids for lunch every day-but age had been trimmed from his face by battalions of scalpels.


We have all seen unfortunate women who began having extensive face-lifts much too young and who submitted to subsequent surgeries too frequently, until by their sixties-sometimes even sooner-their faces have been stretched tight to the point of snapping. Their Botoxed brows look like plastic. They cannot completely close their eyes even to sleep. Their nostrils have a permanent flare, as though they are perpetually testing the air for an offensive odor, and their enhanced lips are pulled and puckered into a permanent pouty half-smile that inevitably reminds us of Jack Nicholson playing the Joker in Batman.


But for the fact that he was a man, Virgilio Vivacemente looked like one of those unfortunate women.


He came so close that Jimmy and I involuntarily backed up a step or two, which elicited a sharky smile from our host. Apparently, part of his manipulative style was to invade the space of others.


When he spoke, he had a baritone voice closer in register to bass than to tenor. "Of course you know who I am."


"We've got a pretty good idea," Jimmy said.


Because the ten-year-old boy who delivered the box of money had been terrified of having the crap beat out of him by this man, and because of the offensive implications of the money itself, we refused to extend to him courtesy that he had not earned. He'd chosen to play a game called Who's the Big Dog?and we could bark as loud as he could.


"In every corner of the world," said the patriarch, "everyone knows who I am."


"At first we thought you were Benito Mussolini," I said, "but then we realized he'd never been an aerialist."


"Besides," Jimmy said, "Mussolini's been dead since the end of World War II."


I said, "And you don't look like you've been dead nearly that long."


Virgilio Vivacemente smiled more broadly, and his smile even less resembled a smile than it did a knife wound.


Although the tightness of his face made the nuanced meaning of his various smiles impossible to read, I recognized the glaze that came over his eyes as he listened to Jimmy and me. He was a man who possessed no sense of humor whatsoever. Zero. Zip. Zilch.


He didn't realize that we were joking between ourselves, and because he didn't grasp our tone and intent, he also didn't realize that we were insulting him. To his ear, we were talking gibberish, and he was wondering if we might be mentally retarded.


"Many years ago, the Flying Vivacementes became stars of such worldwide renown," he said with sonorous self-importance, "that I was able to buy the circus of which I had once been an employee. And now today there are three Vivacemente circuses playing at all times in every significant venue in the world!"


Pretending suspicion, Jimmy said, "Real circuses. You even have elephants?"


"Of course we have elephants!" Vivacemente declared.


"One? Two?"


"Many elephants!"


"Do you have lions?" I asked.


"Prides of lions!"


"Tigers?" Jimmy asked.


"Snarling hordes of tigers!"


"Kangaroos?"


"What kangaroos? No circus has kangaroos."


"No circus is a circus without kangaroos," Jimmy insisted.


"Absurdity! You know nothing of circuses."


I said, "Do you have clowns?"


Vivacemente's stiff face froze entirely. When he spoke, his baritone voice issued between teeth set edge to edge like the jaws of a nutcracker:


"Every circus must have clowns to draw the weak-minded and silly little children."


"Ah," said Jimmy. "So you don't have as many clowns as other circuses do."


"We have all the clowns we need and more. We are infested with clowns. But no one comes primarily for clowns."


"Lorrie and me, all our lives, we're crazy about clowns," Jimmy said.


"Or is it," I proposed, "that all our lives, clowns have been crazy about us?"


"Crazy is in there somewhere," Jimmy said.


The aerialist blustered on: "Our biggest draw is always the immortal Flying Vivacementes, the greatest circus family in all of history. In all three of my shows, every member of every aerialist troupe is a Vivacemente, related by blood and by talent that makes lesser performers weep with jealousy. I am the father of some, the spiritual father of all."


To me, Jimmy said, "For a man who has achieved so much, you might expect his pride to be overweening, but how wrong you'd be."


"Humble," I agreed. "Remarkably humble."


"Humility is for losers!" Vivacemente thundered.


"I've heard that somewhere," Jimmy said.


"Gandhi?" I suggested.


Jimmy shook his head. "I think it was Jesus."


Eyes glazing again with the conviction that we were idiots, Vivacemente said, "And of all the Flying Vivacementes, I am supreme. On the trapeze, I am poetry in motion."


Jimmy said, ""Poetry In Motion," Johnny Tillotson, top ten, back in the early '60s. Good beat, you could dance to it."


Ignoring him, Vivacemente boasted, "Transiting the high wire, I am moonlight walking, the love of every woman, the envy of every man." He drew a breath, expanded his big chest, and continued: "And I am rich enough and determined enough always to get what I want. In this case, I am certain that what I want is what you will want, because it will bring


wealth and great honor to you as you otherwise would never have known."


"Fifty thousand dollars is a lot of money," Jimmy said, "but it isn't wealth."


Vivacemente winked to the extent that his trimmed eyelids were capable of completing a wink. "Fifty thousand is just earnest money, proof that I am sincere. I have calculated the full sum to be three hundred and twenty-five thousand."


"And what do you expect in return for that?" Jimmy asked.


"Your son," Vivacemente said.


Jimmy and I could have left the big top and driven home without another word to the maniac aerialist. Having walked out, however, we would not have understood his reasoning, and we would not have had peace, wondering what his next move might be.


"His name is Andy," said Vivacemente, as though we needed to be reminded of our only son's name. "But I will create a better name, of course, something classic, less plebeian. If I am to shape the boy into the greatest star of his generation, I must begin instructing him before his fifth birthday."


As darkly funny as all this might be, it had also become too scary to play his game any longer.


I said, "Andy, which will always be his name, has no talent as an aerialist."


"He must. He has Vivacemente blood. He's my Natalie's grandson."


"If you know about that, then you also know he's Konrad Beezo's


grandson, too," Jimmy reminded him. "Surely you'll be the first to admit he's too much clown for the high wire."


"He is not tainted," the patriarch said. "I've had him watched. I've studied the films of him. He is a natural."


Films of him.


Although the night was mild, my heart had gone cold.


"People do not sell their children," I said.


"Oh," Vivacemente assured me, "people do. I myself have bought the children of certain Vivacemente cousins in Europe, whose family lines were strong enough to produce fine aerialists. I have bought some of them from the cradle, some at the age of two and three, but always before the fifth birthday."


With revulsion that no doubt eluded our host as much as did our humor, Jimmy pointed to the box on the ground. "We brought your money back. That's the end of it."


"Three hundred seventy-five thousand," Vivacemente offered.


"No."


"Four hundred thousand."


No.


"Four hundred fifteen thousand."


"Stop it," Jimmy demanded.


"Four hundred twenty-two thousand five hundred, and that's my final offer. I must have this special boy. He's my last chance, my best chance, to create another like me. The blood of aerialists is concentrated in him as never before."


As Vivacemente's tucked and tightened face tried to express the operatic emotions that raged in him, I half expected it to crack at every corner and peel up from the bone.


He pressed his hands together as if in prayer, and he began to beseech Jimmy instead of bullying him: "If I had known in 1974 or any time during the years immediately after that Natalie had given birth to twins, that you had been given to the baker and his wife"-the word


baker issuing from him with the acidic disdain of a blue-blood snob"I would have come for you, I swear. I would have bought you back or rescued you one way or another. I always get what I want. But I thought I had only one son and that the vicious Beezo had fled with him."

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