St. Croix Noir Writing Challenge Winner: Tiger Tracks By Jim Guhl

The phone jangled five times before Burt Norby stirred from his slumber and grabbed it.

“Norby,” he growled.

“Good morning Detective.  Officer Penquist here.”

Detective Norby glanced at his clock—4:05 a.m.  “This better be good kid.” 

“A man’s been killed at the train depot, sir.”

“Gunshot?”

“Tiger.”

* * * * *

Coffee in hand, Detective Norby walked along the railroad tracks with the Charlie Chaplin look-alike, Penquist, yapping at his heels. 

“It’s the Dixon Brother’s circus train, sir.  They’re in town for three shows.  Have you seen the posters?” 

“No.”

“They’ve got a human cannonball sir.  Are you going?”

“No.”

“There’s a woman there with hardly any bones.  She can—“

Detective Norby spun.  “Tigers, Penquist.  I’m interested in the tigers.”

“This way, sir.”

The colorful circus train cars practically glowed in the pre-dawn light.  Several flats stood loaded with side-show booths, rolls of canvas, poles and cages.  The stink of animals pervaded the surroundings.  Elephants trumpeted from somewhere.  The men stopped and gazed through iron bars.

“This is where they found him—or what was left,” said Penquist. 

Three adult tigers lay quietly over a smear of blood.  One yawned.

“Could it have been an accident?”  Norby asked.  “Or suicide?”

“No chance,” replied Penquist.  “Somebody locked the cage door behind him.”

“Watch yourselves.”  The comment came from a man wearing dung-covered overalls.  “The ringmaster don’t take kindly to snoops.”

Norby flashed a badge.

“He don’t like cops neither.”

“A man was killed here last night?”

“That’s the rumor.”

“These bars are too narrow and the door was locked.  How did he get in?”

The man shrugged.  “Ask the cat trainer.”

“Where can we find him?”

“Her.”

Norby’s gaze drifted from tigers to the man.  “The cat trainer’s a lady?”

“She lives with the ringmaster.  First car behind the engine.  Ask for Louise, but be careful.  Things have a way of happening to people who sniff around in the ringmaster’s business, and that includes cops.”

Officer Penquist recognized the opportunity to make an impression.  He tugged at his belt, took a half step forward and sniffed.  “What’s your name fella?”

The circus worker turned sour-faced.  He studied Penquist like he was gazing at a third grader, then turned back to Norby who was looking away and reaching for a cigarette.  Quick as a snake, the roustabout struck a match stick and offered the flame. 

“Thank you,” said Norby.  “You’re a good man.  What was your name again?”

“Hirsch.”

Penquist scowled at the slight.

The detective drew his lungs full of smoke and blew a white stream toward the sky.  “So the cage key is with the lady and her boyfriend?”

“That’s right.  Take my advice and walk away, detective.”

“Why?”

“Ringmaster Hobbs guards Louise like she’s his prize cow.  Best leave her be.”

“First car behind the engine you say?”

“That’s right.  Pink curtains on the windows.”

* * * * *

Norby sent Penquist for more coffee, then made for the front of the train.  At the pink-curtained windows he looked left and right, then knocked. 

The door creaked open.  “Yes?”

Norby’s pulse quickened.  She was gorgeous.  Tall, blond, electric green eyes.  She wore a royal blue cape with matching pants and held a smoldering Tiparillo. 

“Louise?”

“Yes.”

“Burt Norby.  Detective Burt Norby that is.”

“Go on.” She flicked an ash and looked away.

“I’ve got two problems Louise, and was hoping you could help me with both.”

She looked him up and down, then smiled and twisted a lock hair.  “A man like you?  Problems?”

“The first relates to the death of a man in your tiger cage last night.”

“This is the circus, Detective.  Accidents happen.” 

“I believe he was murdered.”

“Harsh words.”

“Do you know anything about it?”

“No more than you do, Detective.”

“But the tigers are yours.  You hold the key to the cage”

“One of many copies.”

“I see.”  Norby leaned closer as if to smell the woman’s perfume.

“Did you have a second problem?” asked Louise.

“Yes.”

“I’m waiting.”

“I’ve missed you.”

“Have you?”

“Would you join me for dinner?  Tonight?”

“Dinner first?  Well, haven’t we moved up in the world?”

“We could skip it if you’re not hungry.”

“Maybe I could muster an appetite.”  Her lips pursed slightly and then relaxed again.

“Seven o’clock at The Flamingo, Louise?”

She smiled and shut the door.

 

 


Tiger Tracks by Jim Guhl was a submission of the St. Croix Noir Writing Challenge, part of NEA Big Read in the St. Croix Valley. NEA Big Read is a program of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest. All submissions for St. Croix Noir Writing Challenge were judged by a committee of St. Croix Valley writers and readers.