Disclaimers - See Part 1.
SUMMER'S CIRCUS - PART 4
Though Alison had kept the visit from Victim Support brief and hogged the fast lane of the motorway for most of the way, it was nearly 4.30pm by the time she turned off the M5 and began threading her way through the streets of Bristol. She hoped fervently that Tommy Blake's circus matinee wasn't in full swing when she arrived.
Much to her relief, dayglow-orange 'This Way to the Circus' posters were prominently displayed at most road junctions - Uncle Tommy obviously believed in advertising - and the derelict building land that was his circus's current site (a phone enquiry to his Head Office had proved informative) soon came into view. What's more, the empty public carpark indicated that the matinee had yet to start.
Blake's Circus was much bigger than Summer's, noted Alison, parking the Fiesta and making her way towards the Back Door of the massive white marquee. A little man in clown makeup intercepted her and directed her to the office, where Tommy Blake was expecting her.
"Miss Carmichael." He greeted her with an easy smile and a firm handshake. "Please, take a seat." He gestured to a chair.
"Mr Blake." Summer's uncle must have been quite a looker once, thought Alison, but time had thickened his waistline and greyed his dark hair and dapper moustache.
She sat down and took out her tape recorder, glancing surreptitiously at her surroundings, noting the ringmaster's outfit - white tails and trousers, a gold-coloured cummerbund and top hat - hanging from a coathanger.
"What can I do for you?" he prompted.
"I'm glad you agreed to talk to me," she said. "I'm here about Summer's Circus."
The warmth leached from his gaze immediately. "I see. If you'd explained that on the phone, I could have saved you the trip. Summer's Circus has nothing to do with me."
Alison ploughed on. "Are you aware that there was a fire in Summer's Big Top yesterday and that your niece may be forced to put her Circus on the market as a result?
For a moment, she thought he wasn't going to answer, then he blinked and she knew she had him; his eyes, she noticed absently, were the same vivid blue as her lover's.
"I’d heard about the fire," he admitted. "She's thinking of selling?" His gaze was thoughtful. "Well, it's about time."
Alison felt a sudden dislike for the man. "Do you hate her that much, Mr Blake?"
His face hardened. "My relationship with my niece is none of your concern." She could tell that he was hanging on to politeness by the merest thread. "Now if you wouldn’t mind …." He stood up. "I'm a busy man."
Alison didn't budge. "When it comes to the woman I love," she said evenly, "everything is my concern. Especially the fact that you've done nothing to help her cope with all the grief and loneliness she's had to carry for the past ten years. In fact you've made it worse."
Blake sat down again with an audible thump.
She pressed her advantage. "Wouldn't your brother have wanted you to help your niece rather than instigate a vendetta against her?"
He was staring at her as though she'd grown two heads. "You leave Jack out of this …."
Alison realized, belatedly, that he was looking rather pale. "Are you all right?"
He gestured weakly towards the grey metal filing cabinet standing against one wall. Puzzled, she crossed to it and opened the top drawer. Inside was a bottle of Scotch and some glasses.
She poured him a largish whisky, which he accepted gratefully, and resumed her seat. As he took a huge gulp, then another, she was relieved to see the colour returning to his cheeks.
Wouldn’t do to give my lover's uncle a heart attack, she thought wryly.
His first words when he got his breath back were a surprise. "You love Summer?"
"Yes," she said firmly. "And I hope she feels the same about me. You got a problem with that?"
Blake laughed … actually laughed. "No …. By God, girl! You remind me of Moira when I first met her."
Alison chewed her lower lip. "Is that a good thing?"
He snorted. "We've been married for thirty years."
"Oh!" She tried not to smile, and also not to get distracted from her purpose. "Look, Mr Blake. I'm really concerned about Summer. She's had a rough time lately."
He frowned. "You said vendetta." His tone was suddenly defensive. "It's not. What I'm doing is for her own good. She's not cut out to run a circus. You must see that."
"I see nothing of the kind. Neither do the people that work for her. Talk to them, Mr Carmichael. Ask them whether they think she's fit to run a circus or not." She raised a hand to stop his objections. "And before you say anything, I know about the cruelty conviction. She'd be the first to admit she made a mistake in not keeping a closer eye on her trainer. But we all make mistakes. What's important is that she's not the person she was when Robbie died. She's older now, wiser. Losing those you love does that to people, you know."
He sighed. "I know."
"If you could only start over, get to know the Summer I know. She needs your help, Mr Blake, not your opposition. Don’t you think that's what her father would have wanted from you too?"
"You fight dirty, Miss Carmichael."
"Call me Alison," she said. "And yes, I fight dirty. When it comes to Summer, I’ll fight any way I have to."
"So, Ms Walsh. It seems you had a little accident, eh? Don’t say I didn't warn you."
Summer's visitor gazed meaningfully at her cast … or would have, she imagined, if his sunglasses hadn't spoiled the effect.
"Get out of here before I call the police," she growled. She wondered what the prison term for murder was these days. It would almost be worth it, just to see this penny ante racketeer put out of business.
"Now, now." He wagged a finger reproachfully at her. "I understand there's a little matter of an insurance claim. You wouldn’t want someone to tell your insurance company about those breaches in safety, would you?"
She glared at him. "What breaches? We've kept scrupulously to every regulation and you know it."
"Lady, you know it, and I know it, but the merest suggestion would mean a thorough investigation which would mean delays you can't afford -"
Her heart began to pound as rage pumped adrenaline into her system. If the little shit messed up the insurance claim, if she was forced to sell the circus ….
The door to Summer's office burst open and Uncle Tommy and two of his bully boys came in.
I do not need this, thought Summer, before belatedly registering the blonde haired woman who accompanied them. "Alison!"
The journalist smiled reassuringly at her. "It's OK," she mouthed.
Summer took a deep breath and hoped her lover's optimism was justified.
"Peter Reilly. I might have known." Uncle Tommy was staring at Summer's ginger-haired visitor as though he had a bad smell under his nose.
"Mr … Mr Blake." Reilly's voice had gone up an octave.
"I suppose you're behind these 'accidents' that have been plaguing my niece's circus? The loose lighting rig, the fire in the Big Top …." Uncle Tommy glared at Reilly.
Summer blinked, bemused by her Uncle's uncharacteristic defence of her.
"I had no idea you were taking a personal interest in this Circus, Mr Blake," stammered the by now sweating Reilly. "I assure you, if I had -"
"Thanks, Uncle Tommy, but I can handle this," said Summer. Her Uncle frowned briefly, then shrugged and stood back.
Summer advanced on the racketeer. "Listen, you little weasel," she dropped her voice to a feral snarl, enjoying the terror that appeared in his eyes. "Trying to blackmail me is one thing, but maiming me or those close to me -" she glanced at Alison, "- is something I take personally. And when I take things personally, I tend to -" she flexed her hands meaningfully, "- take things into my own hands."
She was dimly aware of Tommy's appreciative glance. It almost threw her, having his approval after all these years.
"I assure you, Ms Walsh," Reilly ran a finger round the inside of his collar, "we would never have … intentionally, that is …."
Summer restrained an urge to hit him and simply stared down at him in disgust. "Now GET OUT, and don’t come back," she shouted.
He jumped like a startled deer, then bolted for the door, stopping in consternation when the men in front of it refused to budge. At a nod from Tommy, his men stood back, and Reilly practically fell through the door in his eagerness to get out.
"Good riddance," muttered Uncle Tommy.
Summer felt a soft touch on her arm. She looked round into warm and understanding eyes, and, as if by magic, the rage drained away.
"Hi," she said softly.
"Hi yourself," said Alison.
Summer threaded Alison's arm through hers and turned to face her uncle. "I didn't expect to see you here," she said bluntly.
"I didn't expect to be here." He glanced ruefully at Alison. "But you have a very persuasive girlfriend."
Allison's cheeks went pink.
"This was your interview?" queried Summer.
The blond woman nodded sheepishly.
"We need to talk, Summer," continued Uncle Tommy. "Don’t we?"
She blinked uncertainly at him. "Talk?"
"Yes. For one thing, I hear you're thinking of putting this place on the market."
"Let me guess." Summer glanced at Alison, who pretended nonchalance. "A little bird told you."
"A very loyal and loving little bird," agreed her Uncle.
Summer grinned with astonished pleasure, and watched Alison examine her hands intently.
"So," said her Uncle, taking charge as always, "while my men make themselves useful," the men blinked at his words and turned to go, "let's get started, shall we?"
For a moment Summer remained motionless.
"That is, of course," said Uncle Tommy, an uncharacteristic look of uncertainty crossing his face, "if it's all right with you?"
Summer let out the breath she been unconsciously holding.
"Sure," she told him. "It's very all right with me."
Time passed slowly for Alison, as she waited in the ringmaster's caravan for Summer to finish her discussions with her Uncle.
She tried to amuse herself, but the only fiction on Summer's tiny bookshelf seemed to be trashy detective novels and thrillers, and she wasn't in the mood for those. In the end, she was forced to skim through some tattered books on circus history. Fortunately, they proved quite interesting - especially when Alison realized that the erratic crayonings on the pages of one book were by the five-year-old Summer.
The caravan door opened, and Summer stepped in. Alison glanced at her watch and put down the book. Then she peered at her lover's face. "Whatever you and your Uncle have been discussing for the past three hours, you seem pretty happy about it."
Summer grinned at her. "I am." She leaned down and gave Alison a passionate kiss. "Thank you."
"Whoa!" said Alison breathlessly. "Remind me to make you happy more often."
"I mean it, Alison," said Summer, her gaze suddenly serious. "Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I'd have lost everything if it wasn't for you."
Alison patted her on the arm. "It's nice of you to say so, but I'm sure you'd have got through it somehow."
"Maybe." Summer sat down next to her and placed a warm hand on her thigh.
"So," an embarrassed Alison changed the subject. "I'm betting he made you an offer for the circus. Am I right?"
"Partly." Summer's grin returned, and Alison found herself grinning too. "He wants to become an equal partner. A silent partner. Put money in and leave me to run the show."
"Yeah, wow." Summer looked like a child who had been given the keys to the sweetshop - delighted, and still in shock. "He said that's what Dad would have wanted." She turned to Alison. "And he's putting the word out so I'm no longer blacklisted. I can hire British acts if I want to." Her gaze turned thoughtful. "There's this really original acrobat act I saw when I was in London last year -"
"Hold on a minute, Tiger!"
Summer gave her a crooked smile. "That's the second time you've called me that," she said. "I like it." Her gaze turned mock thoughtful. "Perhaps I should find you a nickname too … how does 'bunnykins' sound?"
Alison manfully declined to take the bait. "Of course, you'll have to buy a new Big Top first," she said.
"A minor obstacle," said Summer loftily. "Besides, with the great publicity that will undoubtedly result from your article," she glanced slyly at Alison, "audiences are bound to improve."
This new playful side of Summer delighted Alison. "Hmmm," she said, "What if I decide to blacklist you?"
Summer grinned wickedly and began to nibble Alison's earlobe. "What …" nibble, "happened to that stuff about …" nibble, "making me happy?"
The pleasurable sensation made it almost impossible for Alison to think and breathe at the same time. "Urk!" she managed.
"And it'll make me very happy …" nibble, "if you visit my circus regularly from now on ..." nibble, "say, once a day … or, even better, once a night."
The nibbling stopped and Alison registered the fact that Summer was regarding her anxiously. The lighthearted comment, she realized, was more serious that it seemed.
She inhaled, then let out the breath, surprised to find that the most important decision she'd ever had to make was also the easiest.
"Just try and stop me." She stroked the other woman's cheek gently and gazed into her blue eyes … and tried not to think about how she was going to break this news to her Mother!
The frown lines smoothed from Summer's face and she grinned broadly. "'Course, all those circus tickets will prove very expensive … And I can't have you going short. Will a Backstage Pass do?"
Alison hugged her lover firmly. "Of course," she said. "But only if it's valid for life."
A big thank you to my beta readers Catherine C and Midgit (who said that, if she were writing this Uber, "Poor old Ali would have had the s**t beaten out of her when the guy attacked her in the car park. The big top would have burnt down on a busload of schoolkids. And they would have made Summer's caravan rock off its wheels." <LOL>)
My thanks also to Catherine Cook for help with information about Policing in the UK.