Goren Hargus cinched his pants up further, constricting his artichoke thighs. On tip toe, he numbered among the skittering creatures — most of them crabs — down by the lake shore.
“Quit yer tight ropin’!” Ungulen threw his head back and brayed with laughter at Goren’s fear of the ooze and general wetness. All around them there was a fleeing pasture of tiny claws. Muck crabs.
“Buckets for bread you said,” Ungulen chided. “It was your idea in the first place to restock the mess from the land.”
“Land, precisely.” Goren complained. “I don’t like getting my slippers wet.”
“Then don’t wear your pussing slippers!” Ungulen rattled his bucket at Goren, alighting droplets of murky, unctuous water onto the man’s face. Goren whipped out a ready handkerchief and cleared them away.
“I don’t want to muddy my leathers either.” Goren sighed, “You’re right though.” He took his slippers off and set them aside. He finger-tucked his pant legs in and over themselves to keep them aloft. Then he made his way barefoot through the slime and chased a few crabs around. He pincered one or two into his bucket.
“Ungulen,” Goren said presently. “There’s a matter I’ve been meaning to discuss with you.”
“I was reconciling payroll last Sunday to see if there were any opportunities for forestallment.” Finding opportunities for forestallment was one of Goren’s favorite things about reconciling payroll. “But I noticed something peculiar. More than half a dozen of the lever boys have dipped out as recently as last month. Three alone since I last did the totalling.”
Ungulen shrugged. The shift employ were always running off. Working for a circus wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
“I know. I know. At first I thought they were probably just waywards too. But usually when a lad’s about to duck, he tries to collect his wages early. It’s all pleadings ‘Mr. Hargus this and Mr. Hargus that’ for their train tickets home or one last rose for Dahlia. That sort of thing.”
“And none’s collected?”
“None. Not a one. And where’s the sense in absconding if you don’t make a grab for the church funds?”
Ungulen’s ears twitched. That was peculiar. “So what’s yer theory?”
“Well my first idea was perhaps they’re all traveling through the woods together. Some kind of ritualized hubris. You know how the midranged ones can get when they’re spoiling for dancer crush. But then I looked at the boys who were missing. They didn’t really fit together companion like. All disparate, you know?”
Ungulen moved towards understanding. “Popular or unpopular?”
“Un. Very unpopular.” Goren paused. “And no one’s said anything to you about them? I thought maybe you’d have a version of this through the social vines.”
“No,” said Ungulen, straightening himself to his full height. He fixed Goren with the stern attention of a troubled herd animal. The horizontal slits of his pupils burned with millenia’s worth of experience in identifying predators.
Ungulen asked, “Mr. Hargus, what do you think of the doctor lately?”
Goren was momentarily thrown by this apparent change in topic. Then his mental abacus adjusted.
“I’m not sure I like him,” was the accountant’s reply.