The homicide officers tromped through the morning mud to the main tent of the Big Top Circus. The ringmaster was waiting. He led them around to the rear and pointed to the stacked bags of elephant chow just outside the tent flaps. When the officers peered over the top, they saw Aeriel Cummings lying facedown in the mud.
Aeriel was in her circus costume, loosely covered in a robe. Even from this distance, the officers could see the welts around her neck. The hand marks were clear on her pale skin, the outline of two thumbs pointing down toward her bare shoulders.
"Strangled," the ringmaster explained needlessly. "It poured heavy last night, starting around 2 a.m. This morning I checked for rain damage. That's when I found her. Aeriel is our star acrobat. She does a balancing act with her partner, Rudolph."
Before approaching the body, the officers checked the wet ground and saw prints of the ringmaster's pointy boots all around the body. The only other footprints were a huge set, at least a size 20, just outside the bags of elephant chow. "We'll need to talk to your clowns."
It didn't take long to track the prints to Smiley Cummings, the head clown and Aeriel's sour, dry-eyed husband. "I kept telling her, 'You play with men the way you do and you're asking for trouble.' I guess someone finally took her flirting seriously."
Aeriel's partner confirmed her reputation. 'As far as I know, it was all just flirting," Rudolph said kindly. "Aeriel was with me last night after the show, practicing a new trick. We finished up around midnight. Then I guess she went back to Smiley's trailer."
But Smiley said she never arrived. "When she didn't come home, I put on the nearest pair of shoes, clown shoes, and I went out looking. I circled the tent, but I didn't see her. Of course, I wasn't looking for her on the ground hidden behind some bags."
The senior officer returned to the rear flap, studying the corpse and the two sets of footprints. "It seems pretty clear who did it."
Whodunit and how did he know?
The whodunit above was provided by American mystery fiction author Hy Conrad.
In addition to his work in mystery and crime puzzles, Hy was also one of the original writers for the groundbreaking TV series Monk.
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