Art Pact 166 - Red Circus


"Oh yes," the guide agreed enthusiastically. "All the greats came here. Einstein. Nobel. Marx. I could go on."

"Please do," I prompted. The guide stopped for a second, bit his lip, frowned.

"Curie," he said after a long pause. "And countless others."

Yes, quite, I thought. I could have believed Einstein's presence, but Nobel seemed very unlikely. Marx, possible again - he had spent a long time living in London, after all - but Curie no. My suspicions as to the guide's accuracy were now confirmed, and the only thing remaining to be decided was whether he was an innocent chump in the scheme or whether he was the mastermind behind it (although I use the word mastermind less than seriously).

"Is there a plaque up somewhere?" I asked. "I mean, don't they put plaques up, the heritage people?"

He looked at me, his eyes narrowing and shooting daggers at me. Then, for a second, I noticed his gaze flick across the crowd to the woman standing at the back, and the young man beside her in the shooting jacket that I'd spotted earlier. Now that was interesting - they'd been quite bubbly at the beginning of the tour, was it possible they were stooges? Or even the real brains behind the operation.. I saw the girl mouth something indistinct, and I looked quickly back to the tour guide just in time to see him nod and a brief look of relief pass over his face.

"Normally yes," he told me (and I could not help but detect a certain triumphant tone in his voice), "but here the historic character of the buildings means that plaques aren't allowed. It's a complicated thing to do with local councils and the listed building system."

...all of which sounded like utter bullshit to me, but just plausible enough to fool the other punters. I looked around me and noticed two more things. First, the other punters clearly were fooled, because half of them were nodding and smiling to show that they understood. Second, I was in very real danger of making myself the bad guy, because the half that weren't smiling and bobbing their heads like toy dogs were staring in my direction with the sort of malevolent concentration that suggested they were willing me to shut up. They wanted to be on with the rest of the tour, and I realised that I had little chance to strike now anyway - the two on the edge of the crowd would be away on their toes before I could get anywhere near them, and grabbing the guide himself in the middle of his presentation seemed foolhardy in the extreme. I nodded - although I kept my face neutral as a sop to my own conscience, lest I appear too heartily approving of the guide's blather.

"Now, if you'll follow me we'll move on to the meeting place of the famed literary group the Circle Rouge."

My ears pricked up. Could he really be so blatant on his normal tours, or was this for my benefit? Had I been rumbled? I risked a quick glance back at the other two, but they seemed to have shifted their position in the crowd in order to stay out of sight. If they were Red Circus then the whole enterprise began to make sense. The tour guide position seemed like a poor way to make money, but if it were a test or preparation for a more complicated endeavour? Then it could be as poorly-paid as it liked - a money loser, even, as long as it gave the guide enough experience in confident extemporisation, acting, and general lying as a Red Circus member required. I pushed forwards a little, using the natural ebb and flow of the group as we weaved our way through the light foot traffic that accompanied us along the pavement. My fellow tourists, speeding up and slowing down to examine post-boxes, advertising bills, shop windows and so forth, created an ever-shifting pattern of roadblocks and voids which I  was able to exploit in order to carefully nudge closer and closer to the guide.

He himself strode at a slow but steady pace, marshalling the rest of the group with a flag on a stick - a fairly innocuous yellow one, devoid of any identifying insignia. I tried to focus on the bouncing flag rather than the man himself so that I didn't look too obvious that I was closing in. I made it to within a couple of meters of him when I felt a hand on my elbow and a voice murmured into my ear:

"Keep walking, keep smiling. Don't turn around"--this last as I swivelled my head to try to catch a glimpse of the owner of the voice. It was the woman from the back of the crowd, I was sure of it. Apparently while I'd been sneaking up on the tour guide she'd been making faster progress moving through the rest of the group. I slowed my pace slightly, and felt an extra point of contact in the small of my back - something metal-hard, but blunt. "Keep walking, nice and easy."

We moved together, her steering me through the sparse pedestrian crowds by means of gentle nudges with the barrel she'd pressed against me. I felt like a joystick-operated robot, but I kept eyes front as directed, and tried to clear my mind enough to watch the one person I could - the tour guide. He seemed somewhat more relaxed, and I wondered if his colleagues had managed to signal him in some way. Could they be wearing transmitting earbuds, I wondered? Little bluetooth bulbs, tucked away? His hair was dark and unruly, spilling over his ears. Plenty of cover for an earpiece. And the woman had had long hair, her companion a woolly hat pulled down low. Yes, that was it. They must be communicating with each other. Which meant that I had a possible weapon - my radio squelcher. It might work, it might not.

I let my left hand brush against my trouser pocket as I walked - subtly, as if it were just swinging - and by deftly flicking out a finger managed to toggle the on switch through the fabric. On the next pass I pressed down on the squelch button.

The effect was instant - the tour guide recoiled madly to one side, and I felt the gun move away from my back. The woman yelped in surprise, and I turned round to grab the gun from her as she was desperately pulling the earpiece from her head with her free hand.

"Aha!" I shouted, pointing the gun at her.

To my surprise, there were no sounds of alarm from around us - certainly not what I'd expected from pulling a gun in the middle of a tour group. I looked around nervously.

The rest of the group had formed a tight circle around us, shielding us from the passing members of public. Every single one of the other "tourists" had a gun in his or her hand. They were all pointed at me.

"Oh balls," I said, lowering the weapon.

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