I'm constantly updating chapters in order to make things clearer, fix errors I might've missed, or rearrange passages to benefit the story. Nothing I do significantly changes the storyline, but it may add flavor to a scene or character. Thanks so much to any and all who review this story. Your advice is appreciated and incorporated whenever possible. :)
P.S. Note whose POV it is! It helps.
chapter last updated: 8/20/11
Snow drifted through the air, giving the train a makeshift roof. A black snake in a valley of white, the tracks had been cleared of snow earlier in preparation for departure.
The outside of the train cars read: Circus of the Belles, Where Nothing is Ever as it Seems.
Walking up to the train, I snorted, my breath visible in the frigid air, and rolled my eyes at the supposed mysteriousness of the logo. It didn't seem so creative to me as I wrapped my thin brown jacket tighter around myself to keep warm. Beside the painted sign, show posters from a few months ago clung desperately to the train. One featured a bear on a balancing ball, another an acrobat soaring through the air. The freshest and most colorful depicted a tiger jumping through a hoop of fire. It was dated November 16th, 1898. Just a few weeks ago.
I swung onto the idle train car using its side ladder. Once on the platform between the cars, I pushed open the door and stepped inside.
Rubbing my hands together, I blew hot air on my fingers. I wished I had brought gloves, but I had left my last home in the spring, when thoughts of winter nights were far from my head. Sealed crates and instrument cases littered the inside of the cart and an assortment of carnival mirrors lined the walls, reflecting the moonlight flitting through the windows and illuminating the room. The place wasn't first class, but at least it sheltered me from the wind.
During the season when witches were rumored to be about, not a soul could be seen or heard this time of night. Perfect.
I swung my bag off my shoulder and set it on one of the crates. Weighted with a change of clothes, two years worth of journals, and a few days worth of food, it made a respectable thunk as it hit the wood. I opened it and rummaged until I found my map of the United States. I had mapped the train's route earlier using information from town. Starting point: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Destination: Columbia, South Carolina. I unfolded the map and traced the train's planned path with my index finger.
Trying to calm my racing thoughts, I took a deep breath and let it out. Most of the time, I could confidently say I liked my life as a wanderer. The idea of a straightforward life had never brought me any satisfaction. Never once had I regretted running away from home at fifteen, but nights like this, when I was low on cash and needed to stowaway on a train in hopes of finding a place to spend the winter, brought me pretty close. It hadn't all been this bad, really. I almost smiled thinking of my cozy Boston apartment where I'd spent last winter working as newspaper editor's assistant. Too bad I'd had to go and get myself fired. Maybe one of these days I'd learn the benefits of shutting up and doing what I was told. I shivered, wrapping my worn overcoat tighter around my shoulders.
"Who's there?" My breath caught in my throat at the sound of the voice from behind me. Whoever it was had already been in the car; there was no way he could've come in without my noticing. I repacked my bag and picked it up. Seething at my ill luck, I turned to face my interrogator. A young man, tall and well built, stood from behind a crate, rubbing his eyes. His clothes rumpled and his brown hair unkempt, he looked like he had just woken up. That was probably the case, thanks to my clamoring.
"Who're you?" the young man asked again, scrutinizing me. This time I could hear his southern drawl.
"Adam. Adam Jefferson," I said. My name is Joseph Baxton.
"Never heard of you. Why don't you get lost?" The young man gave me the I-know-you're-not-supposed-to-be-here look. It didn't faze me. I'd seen it too many times.
"Why don't you get lost?" I frowned. An old trick I'd learned when I'd worked in Boston trying to sniff out dirt to put in the papers: if caught, answer a question with another question.
My words struck a nerve. The young man's eyes fell, and he glanced to the corner where he had been sleeping. He rubbed the back of his neck and avoided my gaze.
"What is it?" A woman stood—jumped, really—from behind the crate, eyebrows raised in alarm. Her appearance was upset, her simple dress and long brown hair in a tangle, but she was alert. Her brown eyes widened as they locked on me.
"Damn!" she said. The young man and I winced at her voice, too loud for the quiet car.
Looking from man to woman and from woman to man, I grew more relaxed as I realized the predicament of these two. All could work to my advantage yet.
"Honestly?" I said, raising an eyebrow and shaking my head. "This is what goes on in the Belle Family Circus train? Should I even ask about what happens in the performers' compartments?"
Lying on the spot didn't always produce the most reasonable results, but this one had an effect. It was hard to suppress my grin at the looks on their faces. The young man gaped. The woman's eyes widened and she clenched her fists as she demanded, "Who do you think you are?"
"I?" I paused, making her feel stupid for asking such an obvious question. Acting sure of yourself usually convinces people you're telling the truth. It worked well for me, since I was lying through my teeth and nervous as hell. "I am a private detective. I was hired because rumor has it that the Belle family has been obtaining animals in an illegal fashion. By which I mean stealing, of course, and judging by the acts of it's employees—"
"And breaking and entering isn't considered illegal?" The woman crossed her arms over her chest.
"Be that as it may, I must report all that I see to my superiors." Swinging my bag over my shoulder, I headed to the door and hoped they would be too stunned to follow.
"Not likely." The woman grabbed my shoulder and whipped me around so fast I stumbled.
"How old are you?" she asked, examining me closer through the shadows.
"Twenty-one," I said. I was seventeen.
"I doubt that." She glowered, pursing her lips. Her hand still clasped my shoulder.
"If he's not who he says he is, he's looking for trouble. We should turn him in," the young man said.
"But Jim..." The woman looked down. Ducking, I elbowed her in the ribs and shot for the door. She snatched my bag as I ran, spilling its contents. I faltered, and Jim tackled me from behind and I fell. My chin hit the floor first, and my teeth clacked painfully. My chest followed, knocking the wind out of me. Biting my tongue, a metallic taste filled my mouth and coughed blood on the floor to keep from choking.
"Hold him, Sarah. I'll be back in a minute." Jim left without hearing Sarah's cry of protest.
She sat on my back, keeping my arms pinned. I was too disoriented to struggle, so I focused on breathing through my squished lungs. I needed a decent breath so I could knock her off and—
Sarah slid off of me and ducked behind a crate as the door to the car opened. I gasped for air, untwisting my numb arms. Footsteps approached. Using a crate for support I scrambled to my feet.
"He doesn't look like much."
I didn't need to ask who the stranger was. Wearing a top hat, a red swallow-tailed coat, and carrying a white-tipped cane, George Belle was manager and ringmaster of his family's circus. He looked imposing even with his dark hair going gray.
I did not like it when people with big names got caught in my affairs. I most certainly did not like it when they caught me red-handed hitching a ride on their property. Heart pounding, mind racing, I wondered how I could get myself out of this. Determined to say as little as possible, I locked my jaw and met his gaze. Jim started to say something, but Belle cut him off.
"Don't bother yourself, Jim, I'll handle this one fast. Go back to Tony and ask him to give you something to do."
Jim hesitated, glancing around. Looking for Sarah, no doubt, but she was still hiding. Belle waved him away with a flick of his wrist. With a last look about, Jim left.
"Don't try to make up an excuse. I've seen your lot before." Belle looked me up and down with sharp blue eyes that said he was unimpressed by my unwashed traveler's clothes and now-bloody face. I had no intentions of impressing him or making excuses, so I gave him similar treatment, my chin up and my eyes narrowed. To my surprise, he grinned at my disdain.
"You're not the first to try to catch a free ride, and you won't be the last. You're not looking for work, are you?"
I weighed the question in my mind, wondering if I could gain any favor by answering yes.
A soft thud came from behind me. Sarah, I thought, remembering my demanding captor. Without thinking, I started to turn in the direction where I knew she was hiding, but caught myself mid-turn. Did I want to reveal her? My eyes wandered to the funhouse mirrors along the wall I had noted earlier.
A scruffy looking, brown-haired teenager peered back at me from the glass. In one frame I was tall and slim, and short and fat in another. Belle's red coat stood out, drawing attention away from his face and hair, which looked even grayer in his reflection than in real life. Looking closer, I saw that it wasn't gray; it was blond. And Belle seemed to have lost a lot of weight, even though that wasn't the thin mirror…
I caught sight of a regular mirror showing our true images and did a double take. No longer did I see myself standing in front of George Belle, but a tall blonde woman dressed in his clothes.
All this took place in a second, then I turned to face Belle. I started. A stranger dressed as a ringmaster looked at me, Belle's uninterested amusement painted on her face. The transformation was so sudden I gaped. The mirrors had shown Belle as a different person, and once I had seen that reflection the figure in front of me had assumed it as if it had always been there, the old man simply an illusion.
"I'll take that as a no?" Belle's voice was an octave higher than before.
"No," I said, my throat dry. Afraid she would notice something was wrong, I repeated myself. "I'm not looking for work." Belle—that's the only name I could think to call her—arched a feminine eyebrow. I kept my expression blank, a practice I knew well, but she looked to the wall with the mirrors, curious about my change of face. When she saw the silvery reflectors, for a split second her continence cracked. Her mouth fell open and her eyes grew wide. But as she turned to me her face resumed its previous expression.
"It appears, my friend, that we have come to a dilemma."
I hadn't trusted George Belle as a showman and I did not trust him as a smiling witch. What else could she be? As much as the thought terrified me, no doubts remained as to what she was. Truth be told, I was getting a little desperate. I needed to get out of here, and fast.
"A dilemma, sir?" I asked, my voice even. "I don't understand what you're talking about."
"Oh, please." Belle rolled her eyes. "Don't pretend you haven't seen—"
I had no time to spare for witches. Kicking her shin, I cut her off as I sprinted past her in my second escape attempt of the night.
As I ran, a strange sensation came over me. The colors of the room dulled, almost fading to black in the darkness. When I got to the door I was almost blind. I groped for the handle, my panting breaths visible, but my sense of touch was gone, and my fingers might as well have been detached from my body. The crisp winter air became warm and thick, making me feel drowsy. My energy abandoned me. Leaning on the door for support, I turned to look at Belle.
Her shadow loomed through my failing vision, but I could barely make out her face as I slid to the ground. She walked toward me, her lips moving, but I couldn't make out the words. I tried to get up, I tried to yell, but I was suffocating.
Colors appeared again, blinding me. I took a deep breath of freezing air. My senses returned to me, and, exhausted, I could do nothing but stay collapsed on the floor.
Belle knelt in front of me, the scariest smile on her face.
"A rushed work, I must say, but very convincing." She examined my face with a satisfied nod.
Vision swimming, I felt disconnected. My eyelids closed, but before I lost my senses Belle stood and bolted away from me shouting:
"Help! Tiger! There's a tiger on the loose!"
What was she talking about? There was no tiger...
It wasn't until I looked down and saw a black-and-orange striped paw that I realized she meant me.