With a genius IQ, a past career as a circus acrobat, and a black belt in karate, criminology professor Dr. Robert Frederickson—better known as “Mongo the Magnificent”—has a decidedly unusual background for a private investigator. He also just so happens to be a dwarf.
Mongo’s days as a professional acrobat are long over, but when he learns his former boss is down on his luck—and the circus has been sold—he heads to Florida to rally his fellow ex-performers to help buy back the spectacle they once called home.
With seductive snake charmer Harper Rhys-Whitney in tow, Mongo sets out to make a deal with the traveling show’s mysterious new owners. But when they track down the talented troupe in America’s heartland, Mongo and Harper discover something has shifted under the big top: A string of grisly murders has dogged the circus’s route, causing local tabloids to cry “Werewolf!”
Now, if he wants to save his old gig, Mongo will have to get back in the center ring to figure out what’s been going bump in the night . . .
The Fear in Yesterday’s Rings is the 10th book in the Mongo Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
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Memories, some truly happy and others merely wearing the false grimaces of tired clowns, tumbled like acrobats in my mind as I stared at the old, crumbling circus posters laid out on the hospital gurney in a curtained-off cubicle at the rear of the emergency room in the Bellevue Medical Center. The posters' original garish colors had all faded to mud shades of brown, yellow, and green, but considering the fact that they were more than twenty years old, they were reasonably well preserved as a result of having been sealed in the plastic bag draped over one steel rail of the gurney. I doubted there were many posters of their vintage left in existence outside of a few art museums with specialized collections.
All of the posters advertised the Statler Brothers Circus. The largest was dominated by an illustration of a rather diminutive fellow riding triumphantly between roaring columns of fire on the back of a trumpeting elephant. Ringing this central illustration were smaller pictures, framed in ovals, featuring other performers and freaks, including a giant, a "crocodile man" with green, scaly skin, and a "snake woman" who was depicted unconcernedly chucking the chin of a monstrous, nasty-looking snake that was coiled around her body — which was only slightly less buxom in reality than it had been in the artist's fevered imagination.
The giant's name was Hugo Fasolt, and some years before he had died saving my life, using his great tree trunk of a body to absorb a hail of bullets meant for me. The "crocodile man" was now a real estate mogul and the best poker player I'd ever met, and the "snake woman" was someone I'd once loved. The elephant's name was Mabel, and she was one of the few African elephants ever to be successfully domesticated, if that was the word, and coaxed into circus performing; even on her best days, Mabel could be considerably more cranky and dangerously unpredictable than her mellower Asian cousins.
The little guy on top of the elephant, a star performer the poster identified in bold, black lettering as Mongo the Magnificent, was me.
"That's you, Mongo, right?"
I turned toward the intern who had spoken, a midnight-skinned Haitian by the name of Jacques Lauture, who also happened to be the third baseman on Frederickson and Frederickson's championship softball team. I grinned and nodded somewhat shamefacedly. "Right. It's none other than yours truly, in his callow youth."
"Damn," Jacques said, shaking his head as he stared at the poster, obviously impressed. "Did you really ride an elephant, jump through rings of fire, and all that?"
"Jumping through rings of fire was the easy part; riding that damn elephant was something else again. In fact, I was the only person who could ride her. Her name's Mabel, and she's African. See the big ears? Most of the elephants you see in circuses are Asian. African elephants are bigger and meaner, and they don't take kindly to either captivity or people. She was a baby and sick when we got her; my boss had taken her off the hands of a sleazeball carnival owner who'd been mistreating her. For some reason, she took a shine to me."
"Wild," Jacques said, still shaking his head. "Everybody knows you used to be in the circus, but I never realized you rode elephants and did all that other stuff. Jesus, you were a star from the looks of this poster. I always figured ..." His voice trailed off as he stepped closer to the gurney. He placed his index finger on the face of the crocodile man and shrugged. "You know what I mean," he finished weakly.
"You thought I worked as a freak?"
"No offense, Mongo," Jacques said quickly, looking at me strangely.
"No offense taken, Jacques. It would be a natural assumption. Sideshows used to be known as 'dwarf heaven.'"
"Hey, I'd never call anybody a freak."
"As a matter of fact, the people in the sideshows prefer to be called freaks; it's what they call themselves, and they don't consider the term derogatory. They think of themselves as business people, entrepreneurs exploiting the only assets they have. Some of them are pretty shrewd. The last I heard, that guy with the green skin and scales you just had your finger on was married to a former Miss Georgia and owned a string of upscale motels across the South. He's worth millions."
Jacques grunted softly. "How'd you manage to, uh, get where you got?"
"On top of Mabel, in the center of the poster?" I paused and laughed at the memories, which were beginning to lose some of their sharp edges under the gentle buffing of Jacques's open, honest curiosity and naive awe. I felt a twinge of nostalgia and found myself more willing than usual to talk about my circus days.
"Garth and I grew up on a farm in Nebraska," I continued somewhat distantly as I gently stroked one of the fragile posters with the back of my hand and smiled grimly. "Nebraska's a whole different planet, my friend, and I was the resident alien. In your small farming communities in the Midwest, ninety percent of the social activity and talk centers on high school sports, especially football and basketball. Garth was a star in both sports. I desperately wanted to belong, to be able to compete at something, but it's hard to find a football or basketball team that has much use for a sixty-eight-pound dwarf. So I had to find something else to do.
"I'd always had excellent coordination and above-average upper-body strength. I'm an achondroplastic dwarf, and those skills sometimes go with the territory. I'd been doing somersaults and cartwheels just about from the time I could walk. I was a pretty good gymnast even in elementary school — I'd taught myself by watching sports programs on television. Hell, tumbling was something I could do better than anyone else in school, and I worked at it every chance I got.
"Anyway, our high school had a gymnastics team — of sorts; it worked out on prehistoric equipment in a storage area next to the boiler room, since the gym was always being used by the basketball team." I paused to execute the obligatory self-deprecating mock bow, continued, "Well, yours truly made the varsity team when I was in seventh grade, and by the time I graduated from high school our team was nationally ranked. People came from all over to see our meets — actually, to see me, if I may dispense with false modesty. I was a three-time High School All-American, and our team won the high school nationals when I was a senior. It damn well should have gotten me a scholarship to a school with a world-class gymnastics program, but it didn't. Representatives from all the schools with top gymnastics programs came to see me, admitted I did things no other high school student could do, but then said they didn't think I'd be able to compete successfully at a college level. Of course, that was bullshit. What they really meant was that they were afraid people would laugh at them if they had a dwarf on their team; to them I was a freak, and they were afraid their meets would be seen as freak shows if I was on the team. Well, the fact that I'd been born a dwarf in the first place tended to make me feel just a bit disgruntled from the time when I first realized I was different from other kids, and now the fact that all of my athletic accomplishments were being written off and I was being denied a scholarship because I was a dwarf really pissed me off.
"Big brother Garth had graduated two years ahead of me. He was in an excellent college, and I knew it was costing my parents a pot of money to send him there. Now my folks wanted me to go on to school. There was never any mention of money, but I knew they'd have to take a heavy mortgage on the old homestead to do it. I didn't want that, especially since I was still plenty pissed about being the best high school gymnast in the country and being denied a scholarship.
"That summer the Statler Brothers Circus rolled into Peru County, Nebraska, for the first time. It gave me a perverse notion. I hung out there from dawn to dusk for days in a row, checking out their aerialists and gymnasts. I'd never been on a trapeze, swing pole or teeterboard, but I knew that I could control my body in the air. They had routines, glitzy costumes, and acting flair, and they were all good, of course, but I judged that my basic acrobatic skills were as good as or better than those of the people I saw earning their livings under that circus tent. That's where I wanted to work — but if I wanted a job with the circus, I was damn well going to have to find a dramatic way to show whoever owned or managed that circus that I had the goods, and I didn't have a lot of time to do it. The circus was leaving town the next day.
"I went home and took one of my father's old straight razors. I sharpened it up, then lashed it to the end of a clothes pole that was about twice as tall as I was that I'd sharpened to a point at the other end. Then I went to see the owner of the circus. His name was Phil Statler, and his 'office' was the cab of one of the flatbed semis they used to haul the circus around the country. Phil Statler was a tough man, Jacques, with a whiskey voice like a buzz saw, but at the same time he was one of the kindest men I've ever known. Here he was faced with a smart-ass seventeenyear-old dwarf who said he wanted to be a circus acrobat, and the man never blinked an eye, never even smiled. He just told me to show him what I could do. I'm sure he thought he was only humoring me, but he had the courtesy and sensitivity not to show it. The man took me seriously, which was what I needed most at that time in my life, and it was enough to make me love him on the spot.
"We went out to a patch of dirt behind where they'd pitched the main tent, and I stuck my clothes pole in me ground with the straight razor at the other end three or four feet above my head. Then I asked him to tie my hands in front of me. By this time I could see that I was making him a bit nervous, but he went ahead and did as I asked.
"I hadn't practiced the trick I intended to do, because I couldn't afford a mistake. If I slashed a wrist practicing, the circus would be long gone by the time it healed, and I didn't even want to think about what my father would have to say. So this was the first time I'd tried a stunt I'd only thought of the day before; it was one all-or-nothing performance. I paced off about twenty-five yards, then went into a running and tumbling routine, gaining as much speed and momentum as I could as I approached the pole and the razor. At the last moment I threw what I knew had to be the highest backflip I'd ever done, straightened out in the air as I passed over the pole so that I could scrape the rope around my wrists against the razor." I paused, shrugged. "It took me three passes, but damned if I didn't finally manage to cut through the rope around my wrists with no more damage than a nick on my left thumb that a BandAid took care of. Phil offered me a contract on the spot — provided I agreed to let the pros in the circus help me work up a safer routine, and that my parents gave their permission. It was the last point that worried me.
"My folks were not exactly pleased when they found out about my little performance with my dad's straight razor, and they were shocked and more than a little disappointed when they found out I wanted to join the circus. But they also realized that, considering the fact that I'd risked my life to make my point, it was important to me. Phil promised to look after me as if I were his own son, I promised to continue my education during the off-season, and my folks checked off on the deal. Phil did treat me like his own son, and I did use my earnings to go to college during the off-season. I went on to improve my acrobatic skills, and I eventually became a headliner. Phil considered me somewhat otherworldly, so I was given the performance name 'Mongo' after a small planet in the Flash Gordon series." I paused, smiled wryly, shrugged again. "I was billed as 'Mongo the Magnificent' because I was, after all, absolutely magnificent. End of story."
Jacques stared at me for a few moments. He seemed mildly disappointed. "Yeah, Mongo," he said at last, "but what about the elephant? The story about you and the razor is pretty cool, but how did you learn to ride the elephant?"
I resisted the impulse to roll my eyes toward the ceiling, breathed a small sigh. "Jacques, you really want to hear about the elephant, don't you?"
The Haitian nodded eagerly. "Yeah. I like elephants."
"Well, my friend, how I learned to ride that elephant is another long story, and I'll tell it to you some other time. Where on earth did you get these posters? Statler Brothers Circus isn't exactly Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey, and I wouldn't think there are too many of these old handbills left around."
Jacques frowned slightly. "Didn't I tell you over the phone?"
"No. You just asked if I could drop around for a few minutes because there was something you wanted to show me."
"They're not mine, Mongo," the intern said in a low voice. "These are the only things we found on this old derelict they brought in off the street last night; he didn't have a penny in his pockets, not even a rag to blow his nose in. There were just these old posters. He kept them in that plastic refrigerator bag you see there, taped to his belly; whatever happened to everything else he owned, he managed to hang on to these. They must be very important to him. I figured maybe he had something to do with that circus, and when I saw your name all over them I figured maybe you knew him. From the looks of the old guy, he could sure use a friend."
At first I didn't recognize the emaciated old man lying asleep or unconscious on the hospital gurney with tubes up his nose and needles in his arms. The ward to which he had been assigned was already filled to overflowing, and his rolling bed had been pushed back against a wall in the corridor. Even in the noisy, crowded hallway, his raspy breathing was clearly audible, and it sounded all too much to me like a death rattle. When I did recognize him, I groaned, then felt tears come to my eyes. When I reached out and touched his arm, his loose, liver-spotted skin felt like cold parchment.
"Mongo?" Jacques said in alarm as he stepped up beside me. "What's the matter?"
"It's Phil Statler," I replied, choking back a sob.
"Oh, Jesus. The guy you were telling me about, the guy who hired you for his circus."
I wiped tears from my eyes, nodded. I hadn't seen Phil Statler in more than a decade, when he'd appeared in my office to hire me to find a strongman who'd skipped out on his contract with the circus. It was a case that had eventually involved me with the Iranian Shah's secret police, almost cost me the love of my brother, and then nearly cost both Garth and me our lives. I estimated that Phil would be in his mid-sixties now, but he looked closer to eighty lying between hospital sheets that were only a shade or two whiter than his flesh. His eyes were a very pale blue, watery, his face mottled and florid, marbled with alcohol-ruptured veins, his rotting teeth uneven and tobacco-stained. His hair, still black when I had last seen him, was now all gray, the color of his grizzled beard.
He looked terribly out of place away from his circus.
"What's wrong with him, Jacques?" I asked quietly.
"Oh, man, he's got a bagful of health problems — but he's not as bad as some I've seen. He's a derelict; we get a lot of them in here, especially during the winter."
"This is July, Jacques."
The intern shrugged. "When they're found unconscious on the street, dying like this one is, the cops bring them here no matter what the season. There are always guys like your friend here who just won't go to a shelter or accept any other kind of help."
"How do you know he wasn't in a shelter?"
Jacques looked at me, sadness swimming in his ebon eyes. "He's missing a few fingers and toes: gangrene brought on by frostbite. It's what happens when they won't go inside when it drops below freezing. The amputation scars aren't that fresh. He didn't lose the digits this last winter, so it means he's been living on the streets through at least one winter before the last. Right now he's suffering from heat exhaustion, pneumonia from the sound of him, and a host of parasitic infections. That's just for openers; he hasn't had a complete examination yet. He could have tuberculosis; a lot of them do."
"Where was he found?" I asked in a voice that had suddenly grown hoarse.
Again, Jacques shrugged. "I don't know; just on some street, or in some alley, or maybe Central Park. A couple of young cops brought him in."
"I don't understand how he could have ..." I paused when my voice broke, swallowed hard, continued, "God, we haven't been in touch for years, but he knows I live in New York. He could have looked up my number in the phone directory. I don't understand why he didn't call me if he needed help."
Excerpted from "The Fear in Yesterday's Rings"
Copyright © 2017 George C. Chesbro.
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