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Lakewood Times

Lakewood Times

    “Face Paint” by Lauren Hildum

    I’ve been pacing back and forth in my kitchen for over an hour. Moonlight pours in through the glass doors, the only thing keeping me from tripping over my cat that swarms my feet with concern. I keep rethinking the past few days’ events, trying to answer the questions that have arrested my mind into a prison guarded by clowns and acrobats.

    A cup of camomile tea fails to melt my ice-cold hands as I revisit previous events, trying to find a clue in my memories. I had parked my car behind the circus tent and was about to take my daily run in the forest that borders the beach. The circus had been at that park for only three days when it happened. When I stepped out of my car, I was trampled by a stampede of clowns and acrobats flooding out of the circus tent. I was too overwhelmed by the carousel of colors spinning endlessly around me to make sense of the situation. When they finally thinned out around me I stood up from the muddy ground to see where they were going, expecting a scene that would provide a rational explanation for what I had just witnessed. What I saw couldn’t be further from that expectation. Lined up on the shore of the beach, what appeared to be three dozen canoes sat in the sand. I had watched as the clowns and acrobats dragged them into the water and piled into them, eventually paddling across the lake.They screamed and cheered the whole way, sounding like one of their audiences. At that point I was completely dumbfounded and just stared at the retreating canoes, still waiting hopelessly for an explanation. It wasn’t long before the police showed up and began to examine me for injuries. Mud painted my skin and clothes and they found that my arm had been broken and drove me to the hospital. I felt no pain. The horror and shock of the last twenty minutes numbed every nerve and excited my brain into a spiral of over-analyzing what had happened.

    I was released from the hospital in less than a day, but before I could start my real recovery a detective had showed up at my front door. Detective Mike, as he called himself, named me as the only witness to the bizarre incident and encouraged me to work with him in trying to solve the case. I was reluctant, but just as curious as he was and agreed. He told me it was very rare for a witness to be as involved with the solving of the crime as I am, but the circumstances allowed and I am now waiting for noon to arrive to meet him at the circus tent. My bed is welcoming now, so I set my tea on the counter and return to my bedroom, the cat trailing after me the whole way. He tries to lay in the crook of my broken arm, but must settle for

    my left arm as the cast on my right leaves no room for him.

    “Goodnight, Marble,” I whisper into his fur before I’m finally blessed with a dreamless sleep.

    * * *

    My car is quite warm in the presence of the summer morning’s sun, nearly calling me back to sleep as I wait for Detective Mike to arrive. Only five hours of sleep was left for me when I finally climbed into bed last night, and usually I require ten in order to function. In order to keep awake, I stare out my car window at the horizon, the same horizon that the clowns and acrobats sailed into just seventy-two hours ago. Now the water was calm, absent of all signs of circus entertainment. Staring out at the glistening water used to bring comfort, but now the clowns and acrobats dance disturbingly in its memory.

    My train of thought is halted when a hear soft knocking on the window across from me, snatching me from my trance. Detective Mike stands outside my car, wearing a camera around his neck and a notebook in hand. Without so much as a wave I step out of my car in front of the circus for the second time in three days.

    “Nice to see you again, Mora,” He smiles a friendly smile, not at all like we’re about to try to figure out why a storm of circus entertainers decided to steal canoes and travel to Canada.

    “Hello,” I reply dryly. I just realized I forgot to feed my cat and am most eager to go home.

    “I guess we should dive right in,” he opens his notebook to a blank page. “Can you describe the scene you saw, where the boats were, etcetera?” I nod and begin walking down the steep slope of rocks not far from my car that leads down the the beach. It’s a cold summer day, the gray skies like oyster shells to the pearls that are the clouds. A threatening breeze chills my arms even with a sweatshirt as cover.

    “There were about a dozen canoes lined up right here,” I point to a spot on the sand only about four or five feet from where the water brushes up against the shore. I pause to let Mike write before continuing.

    “I was just getting out of my car when about fifty clowns and acrobats ran out of the tent. They were cheering and screaming, got in the boats, and headed north across the water,”

    “Did they say anything coherent?” I shake my head.

    “No recognizable faces?” I shake my head again.

    “Follow me please,” he retreats from the beach without a word and I follow him, trying to keep up despite the sand beckoning my feet back to the water.

    I’m led inside the circus tent, but not the ring where the performances are. On the outer-circle of the tent is the back-stage, dressing rooms and an office. We walk into the cramped office, where we’re met by an older couple, around fifty years of age.

    “You must be Detective Mike,” the lady smiles and crosses the room to shake Mike’s hand.

    “Yes, ma’am,” he confirms. I go unacknowledged, just listening to the couple’s claims about money being stolen from their safe by their former employees.

    “Why would they want to steal money from you? Why would they storm out like they did?” Mike continues to question.

    “They had previously went on strike about their pay. We gave them more, just not what they requested. It wa enough to have them work for us again though,” the husband, Mr. Tyler, answers. I start to wonder why I’m here. I’d much rather be home with my cat. My question is answered when Detective Mike finally turns to me.

    “This is Mora Robinson, the only witness to the crime. I’ve asked her to be here to identify suspects,” he explains to Mr. and Mrs. Tyler. Their eyebrows furrow, as do mine, at his explanation.

    “Do you have a list of your employees’ names?” Mike asks. Mr. and Mrs, Tyler glance at each other, their identical blue eyes seeming to pale at the detective’s inquiry.

    “Well, of course,” Mrs. Tyler speaks up, turning to a filing cabinet behind her skittishly. As she does so a sudden clap of thunder crushes the the short lived silence and makes Mrs. Tyler jump in surprise, like someone snuck up on her. Following the thunder comes rain pecking the tent above us.

    “Looks like it’s going to be a dark and stormy night,” Detective Mike chuckles to himself.

    “Here we are,” Mrs. Tyler lays a packet of paper on the small desk Mr. Tyler sits at. Mike and I hunch over it to read the list.

    “But these are just names,” Mike stares intensely at the paper, as if what he wants to see will appear if he stares at it long enough.

    “Well yes, of our employees and their ages, birthdays, addresses,” Mr. Tyler frowns at the detective.

    “But without pictures, Mora can’t identify them.”

    “Our apologies,” Mrs. Tyler whispers.

    Detective Mike proceeds to fingerprint the dial on the safe where Mr. and Mrs. Tyler keep all the money they make at the circus. He and I walk into the many dressing rooms, looking for pictures, toothbrushes, anything that might help identify any suspects. I tried telling them that unless we found a picture of one of the acrobats, I won’t be able to identify anyone. All the clowns wore face paint that cleared them of any possibility for recognition. We don’t find pictures, purses, or even cell phones, which deepens my curiosity for the case. What we do find, however, are many hairbrushes. Detective Mike gathers various hair samples to be sent to a lab. Later in the week I’ll be called to identify suspects.

    “Thank you for coming here today,” Detective Mike says as I walk to my car through the cold wind and heavy rain.

    “No problem,” I smile weakly. I’ve been at this circus of horrors all day. The sight of the orange and red tent makes me nauseous. Mike and I part ways and the wild goose chase comes to a close, for now.

    Later that week Detective Mike visits, and I assume it’s to identify suspects.

    “Find the people who did it?” I ask, eying his briefcase expectedly. He seems troubled, but I don’t pry. He looks as if he’s about to tell me.

    “I won’t be needing you to identify anybody. Not anyone on the employee list anyway.” I invite him to sit at my kitchen table, which he accepts.

    “There were fingerprints other than the Tylers’ on the safe dial,” he starts, already exciting the adrenaline that’s been building up all week.

    “But when we researched the names on the employee list, only a few of those people existed. Those that did had nothing to do with the circus. Hell, some were even dead,” he scoffs. I’m on the edge of my seat, hanging on his every word. My cat must sense of anxiety, because he hops onto my lap and begins to purr.

    “I had gone back to the circus to investigate a couple of days ago. I’d neglected the bedrooms on my first visit. The employees had been staying in campers in the parking lot of the park. I inspected all of them, and found that none of them had locks on the inside, but rust on the outside handle. The doors had a metal piece connected that aren’t typically on campers.

    “What’s that supposed to mean?” Detective Mike has lost me now. I’m not sure I understand.

    “The campers had locks on the outside, it appears, and were removed,” he says plainly.

    “What does this mean?” At my question Mike takes something from his briefcase and sets it on the table before me. It’s a stack of newspapers.

    “Do you recognize any of the faces on the front pages?” he asks solemnly. Detective Mike had been very light hearted through the investigation. It’s strange to see him so serious and disturbed.

    “This one,” I point out a man’s face as I shift through the dozens of newspapers. “And her,” I point to a young woman. I recognize them as acrobats. I point out two others, but the incident was so fast that many of the faces never registered.

    “Any others?” he asks. I shake my head.

    “But these people weren’t on the list,” I observe out loud, my fingers tracing over the nmes underneath the pictures.

    “Take a look at the titles of the articles those people are featured in,” he whispers. I look up at the one I’m currently holding. They went missing. I look at every newspaper. All the faces were of people missing. Some have been missing for years.

    “The hair samples traced back to all of these people,” he voices my suspicions.

    “So, Mr. and Mrs. Tyler-” I trail off, not able to believe what Detective Mike is implying.

    “They were behind all of these. They may have hired someone to get these people, but they seemed to have done this for free labor. The locks on the campers were to trap them there.”

    “And the fingerprints on the dial of the safe?” That part still didn’t make sense.

    “Mr. and Mrs. Tyler may have forces a hand on it, or there was an attempted robbery. The fingerprints belong to one of the employees, so we know it wasn’t an outside source. Either way, the clowns and acrobats escaped,” he finally finishes, and is now catching his breath. I’ve barely talked and I feel the same way.

    “Are they okay?” I ask after a long silence of loud thoughts.

    “We think so. We have people looking for them now. It’s going to be hard because they could be anywhere by now. The clowns were in costume when they escaped, and can’t be identified by our only witness, even though the hairbrushes help. What I really want is for them to step forward,” he shrugs. I don’t say anything, just think. I think of the storm of clowns and acrobats. It was a child’s nightmare come to life. The absurd costumes and overwhelming facepaint contribute to my flashback. The face paint, however, will not compare to the face paint of this whole case. The Tylers’ wore innocent face paint that even fooled me. The circus tent wore cheery face paint that said only happy things happened inside. Looks are truly deceiving.


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