Payback Time

Avie Cline was being followed. She could tell right away; men like him always wore the same distinct uniform in the name of blending in and being inconspicuous. Dark suit. Dark hat. Dark demeanor. He’d walked into the tent in the middle of her act, the only one watching her instead of the snakes she charmed. She made sure it ran long just to make him wait.

He accosted her as she left, making sure to catch her in an area where there’d be witnesses. “Good to see you, Miss Cline,” he said in a tone that made it clear it wasn’t. “Judging by your reaction, I take it you know why I’m here.”

“Oh, not at all!” she said, smiling like an idiot. “But I’m pleased to meet you, mister…?”

She extended her hand for a shake; he produced a dossier from his jacket and handed it to her instead. “Don’t play with me. I am in the business of looking for… irregularities. And with you, I found a lot of them. I would like to give you a chance to make this right of your own accord, Miss Cline. You’ll find the instructions for doing so within. If you do not, we will be forced to take corrective measures.”

She tried to respond, wanted to put on an act and tug on whatever heartstrings a government man like him had left, but he was already gone. She opened the file folder he’d foisted off on her and scowled. This would have to be dealt with.

She didn’t exactly fear going to Ivor Hawley for help. None of them did, except maybe Kevin, and Avie couldn’t guess what was going on in that little man’s head. Hawley made it clear he was always available for his folk, and indeed, the circus saw him as a father. That made her feel childish and weak, having to go to her father for help. But there was no other option.

“Ringmaster Hawley,” she said when she found him in his private tent. “I need your help. I’m not sure how, but men from the government have tracked me down… bringing up things I’d rather they not bring up.” She dropped the folder on his desk. “They gave me an ultimatum. I was hoping we had something in store for people who make demands like this, to make sure they don’t try it again. Can you help?”

Hawley flipped through the first few papers before he addressed her. “Can I help? Avie, I’m the Ringmaster of the Fourth Ring.” He spread his arms, motioning to the area all around them with a flourish. I don’t just stare down the creatures of beyond, I make them dance and jump for me.” He dropped his hands on the table in front of him and slid the folder back to her. “But the tax man? Darling, even I’m not that fearless.”

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