Diamonds and Stripes

Within the Shady City there are the shades. Everyone has their motives – greed, desperation, a selfless pursuit or the unwavering protection of others. There are the shades and then there are two colours that are so polar opposite you could never imagine them emerging into a pleasant picture. In Kingsgate, the ancient part of town, where the cobbled stones are engrained in centuries of law and order reside the Bergman family. They are owners of the Diamond Parade in City Main. They are wealthy and influential in Law Maker circles. Patriarch, Howard Bergman, is a kind man. He is a law abiding man and raises his son and daughter to always do the right thing when they are faced with challenges. He is a fine role model for his nephews. If you were to ask any in City Main they would tell you that Howard is an upstanding man. That is, of course, those who don’t have an agenda against him and by agenda I mean a complete lack of understanding that someone with such integrity could possibly exist. 

Then, at the opposite end of such a spectrum, exists the Stoker family. Proprietors of the Stoker Circus they live an existence that sees them travelling here and there. They are not people of integrity. They are such that they will carry out any task, no matter the filth, if the pay is right. Their family is of a huge number not only of blood relatives but of circus stow aways they have picked up on their travels. They have three tents. First is the red, featuring the stunt shows and in ode to travelling performances of old, macabre freak displays. This lies under the control of Freddy Stoker. Freddy is ideal for leading the exhibit of oddities because he is something of an oddity himself. He is boyish and engaging in a car wreck sort of way. The blue tent is next and this lies in the hands of Freddy’s Uncle Valdrick or Val as he is more commonly known. The blue tent is ironically the holder of shows to cure your blues. The clowns, comedians and animals are generally what you will find on offer. Val himself is a juggler so he is adept at handling many things at once. He prefers to reside himself in the Rumilaw of City Main. If you aren’t familiar with this particular area, it is home to unlicensed dentists, cheap lawyers and to no surprise a villainous little juggler who operates a pawn shop. Val and his treasured wife, Gigi, are looking to make a home for themselves in Coldford but before your mind rings with, ‘that’s a terrible idea’ let me complete the tents with the great striped Big Top. Clasped tightly in the long fingers of Val’s younger brother and Freddy’s father, Irvine, The Stoker Big Top really is a site to behold. Even when she is raised among their struggling theme park in the Alford area she brings a glory of past days that will probably never be rekindled. 

I’m reporter, Sam Crusow an

***

If you were to ask Howard Bergman how he managed to make such a name for himself, whilst not finding himself a target, he would tell you modestly that ‘doing the right thing,’ is his policy. He prides himself on his consideration for others and showing respect. What he wouldn’t tell you was that believing in that simple truth was what helped him cope with a traumatic experience he had many years before. He arrived in Coldford as a young child, seeking refugee from the Country of Levinkrantz. A political upheaval there had led to an event termed the bomb blitz that literally and figuratively tore young Howard’s life apart. He believes that had more people with integrity come together, such a disaster could have been avoided. When the Good Gang took shape it gave him great relief to see all that he had held onto through his darkest times step into the light.

Howard Bergman raises a glass to the future of Coldford.

“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, step right up for a sensational, inspirational, full in your face expectational show. I’m Adrien Stoker and welcome to Stoker Circus!” 

The image was a little grainy but the advert was allowed to run in its entirety. Sat on the floor with the empty bowl in his lap Freddy Stoker smiled at the advertisement for an old Stoker show. 

I’ve introduced the current Stoker players but allow me to take a moment to discuss Freddy’s grandfather. Adrien Stoker was known as the Amazing Adrien. His magic and escape acts as the Stoker ringmaster earned him this title. What also cemented the amaze that preceded his name was his commitment to bringing joy to the people of Levinkrantz even during their darkest time. 

“We’ll be here for three weeks so be sure to come on down and check out our exciting new acts. It’s fun for all the ages and remember, there is only one rule for the Stoker tents and that is you are not allowed to leave sad.”

Adrien beamed a wide smile. The advert jingle played. The message was fun and clear but being spoken in the language of Levinkrantz added a coldness. The advert disappeared into the screen. Despite warnings against inviting undesirables into this tent, Adrien continued to play his shows. The brewing civil unrest caused everyone to live in a climate of fear. Adrien, with his circus spirit, broke it as best he could. The Amazing Adrien was a man to be admired. 

Freddy smiled at the blank screen. Freddy was not the same as his grandfather. 

A hand landed on his shoulder. He moved little as though he’d been expecting it. Behind him was Gretel Stoker better known as ‘the legless woman’. She was one of Freddy’s oddities. Gretel joined the family when her own well to do parents discarded her in a river as a child. I suppose in that respect it could be said that they are still doing their part in bringing people together. Freddy exploits his exhibits for the feel of a coin in his hand. That same coin keeps them loyal to him. 

“We better go,” Gretel said. 

Climbing to his feet he took off the glasses he had been wearing. Turning to the sofa he observed the body lying with his head resting towards his right shoulder. Freddy slipped the glasses back onto the corpse with gloved hands. He stepped back and observed a little closer this time. Leaning forward again he adjusted a few locks of the departed’s hair. He took the spoon from the cereal bowl, opened the corpses mouth and gathered DNA on it. The spoon and the bowl, with only a small dribble of milk left lying at the bottom was set aside but at an askew angle so that it appeared casually discarded. 

He lifted a bag that was now filled with valuable possessions that had been found about the home. Nothing too large or ambitious. Small items such as jewellery or cash were easier to carry and when the circus was moving town you had to learn to be mobile. It had to look less conspicuous too when the police arrived and uncovered the body. 

Freddy had not committed murder. The corpse was Mr Brewer. He had a middle class home in Swantin. He sat himself on the sofa with the intentions of enjoying the latest instalment of soap opera, MARCH OF OUR TIMES when he felt his heart flutter and he took his final rest. He had been lying there for so long a smell began to resonate with the neighbours. When attention was called to this, the telephone of the City Pest Control rang and who should answer but Ellard Stoker. Ellard listened to the neighbour suggestion that an animal of some kind had gotten trapped in vents and died. 

It was only a matter of time before Ellard, pest controller by day and animal trainer by night, had alerted his nefarious relatives. 

There was a pest in the building, that much was true and that pest had cleared the home of any viable loot. He was now taking one last look at the room to confirm it was exactly what the police would expect to find. 

“Time to go,” said the legless Gretel again. 

Freddy opened his arms. Climbing up his leg, Gretel rested into his clutch and he carried her from the house. 

Falling from the Amazing Adrien, to scavenging the homes of the recently deceased is quite reflective on who the Stokers are. They have that hero in their family the likes of which Howard Bergman would be admiring of. However, they take their inspiration from that bag of loot. If only they watched those old adverts a little longer. 

The effect Amazing Adrien had on those who came to see his show wasn’t completely lost on his eldest son, Valdrick. Val did admire his father. His Big Top was a symbol of joy in a war torn land. It would rise above the chaos that was being left behind with its vivid blue and red stripes. The problem was one man’s symbol of joy was another’s symbol of disobedience. Such are the way things go.

‘You were a real trooper there,’ Val thought of his father. But joy ain’t going to do jack shit when the real world starts to bite. Joy isn’t going to feed such a big family. No worries there kiddies, you might not have had a solid meal in days but we got plenty of joy. Grab a plate and we’ll spoon that shit out. Tastes great joy does but when that moments over you’re still hungry and still freezing your ass off in a tent because you can’t afford any warm clothe. Wow! Pass me another plate of that joy. That first one was so good I just to have me another before I blow my Goddamned brains out I’m so fucking ecstatic. 

Money makes the world go round and it’s easy for wealthy people like the Bergmans to feast on a complete diet of joy. Who wouldn’t be joyful when their whole existence is diamond encrusted? 

Money is the route of most problems and the biggest problem you can have is having no money. Where his nephew was scavenging from homes no longer required Val was accepting any item of value for pawn, an arguably more legitimate but no less despicable route. The gross mark downs offered and the money lending on the side made Val no less than a juggling little swindler. He knew this. He was okay with this. He knew his father would have expected better than him. He knew with the blood of the Amazing Adrien in him he could do great things. Think of all the joy you could get with that! Val knew these things and he thought about them more than he would ever care to admit. He should have had the Big Top. He was the head of the family but he just couldn’t do it. He couldn’t bring himself to be amazing. He had to think of himself and his beloved wife Gigi too of course. Val and Gigi had the blue tent but they had all but left the life behind. They wanted a quiet existence now. They actually wanted to do better things if what I’m told is true and that meant leaving the circus behind. There was only one thing holding them back and it certainly wasn’t a lack of joy. 

“This is just getting worse, missus,” Val complained. He was staring into a mirror, adjusting a tie. 

Gigi, who’s height towered a considerable amount above his own, was adjusting the collar of his shirt. 

“I know, sugar,” she replied, looking over her husband’s shoulder, tidying her platinum blonde hair. “But we’ve got a whole lot of trouble coming our way and we can’t exactly pay our way out of it.” 

The trouble was stirring from the motherland. It was a bit of baggage that should have long been left behind and never brought to Coldford. The money lending business had been proving quite fruitful but when the bills came in faster than you could fleece the suckers it left you with a very firm final reminder situation. They didn’t need reminding. They just needed to get themselves as far away from Coldford as they could. If only you could fly on joy. 

“Good morning, Mr Whitley,” Val said into the mirror as though rehearsing. “I’m Mishokov Froraderick and this is my wife, Sue,” 

“Hello!” Gigi yelled in a heavy Levinkrantz accent, leaning on Val’s shoulder and reaching her hand out as they she were shaking the hand of the unfortunate sap they clearly had their mark on. 

“She doesn’t speak much English but we’re in the market for a new home and the more fancy pantsy the place is the better. Give me a whole lot of a joy with five bedrooms.” 

“Do you have one with pool?” Gigi asked the mirror man in this rehearsal of misfortune. 

Val broke character. He turned to his wife. 

“Do you have pool?” He imitated her character’s accent. 

“The leaflets that were made up said pool,” Gigi was certain. 

Val shook his head. “Yes, I know, my dove, but you don’t speak much English remember? Why would you ask for a pool?”

“I could speak enough English to know to ask for a house with a pool,” Gigi surmised. 

None of this mattered though. The byplay they were in the middle of was interrupted by a little jingle. That little jingle may as well have have been the sound of joy because through the doors of the pawn shop in shady city’s shadiest corner of Main stepped Diamond Daughter, Elsa Bergman. 

Val and Gigi both turned to her like dancers on a music box. That joyish little tinkle lit a smile on their faces. 

“I need to borrow some money,” said Elsa. She didn’t want to pretend she was in their domain for any other reason. 

“Your daddy’s loaded,” Val frowned. “What would you need to borrow money for?” 

“I’m in a spot of trouble,” Elsa admitted. “I’d rather keep my dad out of it.” 

The word around the city was that Elsa was losing bad at gambling. That is certainly something the clean cut Howard Bergman wouldn’t want to become public.

“How much?” 

Whatever amount Elsa asked caused Val and Gigi to turn back round again. 

“This is the big break we’ve been waiting for!” Val said in an aside. 

Gigi wasn’t so certain. “She’s Howard’s daughter.” 

“I know!” Val stated, thinking that was just about the cherry on top of the proverbial cake. 

He had known Howard a long time. They were friends once. He decided the level he was bothered by this did not match his need to set he and Gigi up. 

“Alright, Missy,” he said to Elsa. “I hope you know what you are getting yourself into.” 

The deal was done, debts were reshuffled and Elsa left the Rumilaw with some easing of her shoulders. She was a little cash cow that was going to bring a whole lotta joy! 

Val and Gigi Stoker outside the Big Top.

***

“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, step right up for a knuckle whiting, nail biting, full in your face exciting show. I’m Irvine Stoker. Welcome to Stoker Circus!” 

The ring master of the three tents was Val’s younger brother and Freddy’s father, Irvine. Irvine Stoker is a striking man and that is before he adorns his Stoker jacket and ring master garb. He has a looming, insect like frame that can bend into interesting shapes. He is full of charisma as you would expect. To meet him on the street you would find him odd but intriguing. His welcoming voice would catch your attention. The bright colours surrounding him would draw you closer and then before you knew it you were swept up in his arms and taken along for a journey you didn’t realise you had already paid for. 

Irvine kicked the dust of the centre ring aside. One of the animals had shat there again. The whole place was falling to the pits. He reached his arms up and in a swift movement another set of hands clasped his from above. He was raised up and he went soaring towards where the audience would be seated later that afternoon. He clutched the arms of trapeze artist Eroll Easy, who with his sister, Ethel formed a duo called the Trapeezy Easys. Irvine was dropped in among the audience area and he skipped back towards centre ring. Before he reached there Ethel had swung down and collected him under his arms and they soared towards the middle. She dropped him back on his starting point. He landed in the animal excrement he had kicked dirt over. 

“Eugh!” Irvine groaned. As if things weren’t shit enough. “You wanna watch were you’re dropping?” He called up to the easys.

“Sure thing, boss,” Eroll swung past. 

Irvine shook his head, wiping his shoe in the sand and readied himself to start all over again. Rehearsals were cut short though because he received a call from his strong man, Otto.

“It’s time, boss,” he said. 

There was a show to get going but Irvine took the time out of rehearsals to bid farewell to one of their own. They would expect him to say something. 

Coming together in times of loss was something the Bergman family and the Stoker counterparts would share. The two Easys dropped down and they made their way to the back of the Big Top where a group of mourning Stokers were gathered. They parted when they saw their ring master. Irvine made his way to the front laying a consoling hand on Otto’s broad shoulder. He removed his hat and he turned to his family. 

“She was a fine mare,” he said. “It’s always a tough one to take when one of us dies. Trot on Sparkles.” 

“To sparkles,” the others sounded off. Sparkles was the leading Dressage horse of the Stoker Circus. They weren’t kidding when they said she was a sore loss. She was a beautiful animal. She was also the highest earner of the herd. This is where the Bergmans and the Stokers differ in their thoughts on loss. 

After offering a respectful send off to the stables in the skies the carcass was dragged off to be disposed off. Luckily Olga the clown arrived on scene with her replacement. Olga had on her blue and red clown face paint on but was yet to complete with her wig. 

“What the fuck is that?” Irvine asked.

“It’s what the Perry’s sent,” Olga informed him. It had been she who had brought the animal from Perry Zoo. 

“We asked for a horse,” Irvine claimed. 

“It is a horse,” Olga shrugged. 

“That is not a horse,” Irvine growled impatiently. 

“It looks like a horse,” Olga reasoned. 

“That is a fucking donkey,” said Irvine, clasping the animal’s snout and shaking him. The donkey did not appreciate this in a slightest. He hee hawed his objection.

Olga handed him the rein. “I’m just passing it on. You’re the ring master, boss, you deal with it.”Deal with it? Teaching dressage to a donkey just about summed up the state of affairs for the Stoker family. 

***

And those, dear readers, are the Stoker and Bergman families. One, a symbol of kindness and integrity. The other a symbol of greed and selfishness. However, like most things in Coldford there are the shades. The Bergman struggle could very well test their integrity and as the Stokers continue to keep themselves breathing above water it could offer them the chance the realise that whilst it is easier to con, fleece and sneak their way through life, in the long term doing the right thing will see them much better off. Joy, they would find, is a currency worth spending. 

The Stoker Circus family and the Bergman diamond merchants have a long history. They finally find common ground when a cult group gathers popularity. They are very different though so deciding how to deal with it will prove problematic.

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