Frank Catelli sat in his car, watching the children play. He had a newspaper on his lap, but wasn’t reading it. It was only for show, in case someone came up and asked what he was doing. Always best to provide yourself with an innocent excuse for anything you’re doing. In the same way, his final meeting with Nora Eckhart had taken place at the circus, in a crowd of people, almost right under the noses of her employers. In a crowd, no one looked at you twice. And there was no harm in going to the circus.
Frank watched little George Reiner as he played on the slide and smiled a cruel smile.
Enjoy it while you can, kid, he thought. Next few days aren’t gonna be as much fun.
That was the worst part of his job; having to hear the kids cry over the two or three days until their parents decided to pay up. He couldn’t stand the whining. That’s why he always tried to use a place that had a good, strong closet or something, where he could lock the kid up and leave him without worrying that he’d figure a way out and from where he couldn’t hear the screams. He’d gotten a good one this time; an old cottage off in the woods where no one would ever think to go and that had a root cellar with a heavy wooden door. Three or four days of peace and quiet, and a fat pay off at the end of it. He really did have the perfect job.
All that was remaining now was for him to signal Eckhart the nanny, who would then lead little Georgie over to the car, and before the kid knew what was happening, they’d be on their way. He just needed to wait for the right moment, when the other people in the park weren’t paying attention. Wouldn’t be long now; the only other kid was being gathered up by his mother and led away. As soon as they were out of sight…
Frank cursed aloud. A clown in full regalia, big floppy shoes, oversized pants, and an electric blue wig had come waddling into the park dragging a brightly-colored cart full of balloons, popcorn, and other treats. And he was heading right for little George.
Nora Eckhart glanced around. Frank shook his head slightly to indicate she should wait.
The clown, meanwhile, was waving at George, his colorful face seemingly one enormous grin.
“Hi, there!” he said.
George stopped his play, hovering by the monkey bars indecisively. The bright colors and friendly demeanor of the clown interested him, but he was cautious as well.
“Hello,” the boy answered.
“Would you like a nice balloon? Or some popcorn?”
George nodded, but didn’t move.
“My dad says I’m not allowed to talk to strangers.”
“And very right of your father!” said the clown in a serious tone. “You certainly should not! So, my name is Cosmo, and this…” he suddenly produced a large hand puppet of a chicken with a top hat and monocle. “Is Lord Cluckington.”
George Reiner laughed in delight at the sight of the puppet. Already, Frank could tell, the clown was getting past his defenses.
“And your name is Georgie Reiner,” the clown went on. “There! Now we’re not strangers anymore!”
“I guess not!” said the boy.
“That’s good, because Lord Cluckington doesn’t talk to strangers either. But maybe he’ll talk to you, if you’re polite to him. Go ahead! Say ‘hello.’”
“Hello, Lord Cluckington,” said Georgie.
“Good-day, to you, young man,” the clown answered in a faux-dignified voice. His ventriloquy, Frank had to admit, was very good. The puppet bowed, and the boy laughed with delight. “It is rare,” the clown went on in the puppet’s voice. “That I should meet such a distinguished and obviously noble child such as yourself. I must apologize for the uncouth manners of my associate.”
“Oh, now!” Cosmo said. “I think that’s going a bit far!”
“I will not lower myself to discuss the matter with you, beyond saying ‘bawk, bawk,’ sir.”
Georgie giggled. Cosmo cast him an apologetic look.
“It isn’t easy living with the rich and famous,” he sighed.
“My daddy’s rich too!” Georgie said.
“Oh?” said the puppet with interest. “Does he possess many grain silos?”
“No,” said Georgie. “He’s in business.”
“Oh, I see,” said the puppet in a politely disappointed ton. “Well, I suppose that is a very worthy calling as well. You don’t happen to have any grain on you, do you?”
Georgie shook his head.
“I have some popcorn, my lord,” said Cosmo. “Would you like to share some with Georgie?”
“Share? I am far above sharing, my good fellow. Bagawk. However, I may make an exception in this case.”
Cosmo produced a bag of popcorn and Georgie eagerly took some of the salty treat, then handed a few to the puppet.
“Much obliged, sir,” said the puppet as it feigned pecking at the corn. He made sounds as though satisfied. “Hm, that is quite enough for me. I am dining with the ambassador of Estonia later. Perhaps you would care to finish the rest?”
Georgie was, of course, only too happy to accept, and Cosmo the clown, with his absurd puppet, said their goodbyes and left the boy happily munching his popcorn on the park bench while he took his cart elsewhere. Nora looked back again, and Frank motioned for her to wait a moment.
“Give him a minute to leave,” Frank muttered. “Then we take him…”
Frank swore as the clown’s painted face suddenly popped up at his window, chicken puppet and all.
“I know you!” said Cosmo the clown, pointing at him with an exaggerated look of excitement. “You were at the circus the other day!”
Frank did a double take. At the circus he had been preoccupied with his job and hadn’t paid much attention to the acts, but now he realized that this particular clown had been there and had performed. Or at least, someone wearing similar makeup.
“Yeah,” he said, feigning a smile. “Great show.”
“The greatest show on Earth!” said Cosmo much too loudly.
“Right. Look, pal, do you mind? I’m kind of busy right now.” He indicated the newspaper.
“Oh, I know!” said the clown with exaggerated concern. “You have been so very, very busy these past few days. Not only fixing up that cottage that no one knows about, but renting this car, paying off Miss Eckhart, and carefully mapping out little Georgie Reiner’s routine. You must be exhausted.”
Frank stared at him. His hand moved to his holster, but he didn’t draw. The smiling face of the clown – the clown that had just accurately described everything he’d been doing to prepare for this job – seemed to hypnotize him.
“But, of course, this is just what you do, isn’t it?” Cosmo went on cheerily. “You kidnap children and hold them for ransom! You don’t care that it scares them; you don’t care if they get hurt. You don’t care about them at all, except that they can get you money.”
“Look,” said Frank. “Just how the hell do you know all this?”
“I am Cosmo!” said the clown with a parody of a stage magician. “I know all!”
“Yeah? You know what this means?” Frank drew his pistol and pointed it at him. “It means beat it and keep your painted mouth shut, clown, or you’ll end up in a body bag.”
Cosmo clapped a hand to his mouth, laughing as though he’d never seen anything so hilarious in his life.
“You think that’s funny?” Frank asked. This clown was clearly off his rocker.
“Well, no, not too funny,” said Cosmo, chuckling. “But Lord Cluckington here, he just thinks it’s a riot!”
The chicken puppet said nothing. Frank stared. Nothing in all his years of experience had prepared him for this.
“Now, Mr. Frank Catelli,” Cosmo the clown said. “That is your name, right?”
“Yeah, so what?”
“Well, the reason I stopped by is that Lord Cluckington really, really wanted to meet you. So, without further adieu….Lord Cluckington, may I present Frank Catelli, sometimes known as Frank Carlyle, sometimes by a host of other names. He is a professional kidnapper of children and he’s planning to kidnap little Georgie Reiner.”
Lord Cluckington considered Frank, then leaned in to whisper in Cosmo’s ear. Frank wasn’t sure whether he should shoot or not; a murder might spoil the whole job, but this clown…
“Oh, you already knew that?” said Cosmo, speaking to his puppet. “Because you saw him? Because we both saw him making these preparations?”
“What are you talking about?” Frank snapped.
“Cosmo the magnificent excels in all the arts of the clown,” he said with a solemn air. “Tumbling, fumbling, bumbling, juggling, but my favorite is impersonations. Specialties include passing drunks, window washers, janitors at car rental establishments, and realtors who happen to have perfect kidnapping cabins!”
Frank stared, then squinted at his face. It was almost impossible to tell under the makeup, but now that he mentioned it, he could just see the slightest resemblance between this clown and the man who had rented him that cottage.
“So, Lord Cluckington,” Cosmo went on. “Since we’ve seen Mr. Cateli at all these tasks, and heard him make all those very incriminating statements, what do you suppose we should do about it?”
Again, the puppet was made to whisper in his ear, and the clown adopted a look of mock solemnity.
“Lord Cluckington says we should eat your soul,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone. “But I think we ought to just inform the police. What do you think?”
Frank looked from the clown to the puppet, then lowered his gun and laughed. The job was ruined now, of course, but damn if the clown didn’t know his business. The image of ‘Cosmo’ marching into the police station to swear out a statement against him, corroborated by Lord Cluckington, was hilarious.
“Go ahead,” he said. “I’m sure they’ll listen to the likes of you.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t tell them,” said Cosmo. “Lord Cluckington would! He is a very respected person, as you must know. The police will believe everything he says.”
“I just bet they will,” laughed Frank.
Lord Cluckington opened his beak, and a perfect recording of Frank repeated, “I just bet they will.”
For a moment, Frank Catelli froze. He slowly realized just what his position had become. He raised the gun, but Cosmo was too quick. Lord Cluckington shot forward and hit him full in the face. The puppet, as it turned out, didn’t only have a recording device, but also a metal frame.
When Frank Catelli came to, it was to the sight of flashing red and blue lights, his own hands tied to the wheel. Little Georgie was in the arms of his mother, who was talking to the police. Nora Eckhart was already in the back of a squad car, looking dazed. And right in front of him, two detectives were looking over a pile of documents and tapes that appeared to have been left on the hood of his car in a brightly wrapped package.