Clara stood in the doorway of the main dressing room, staring down at the girl lying on the centre of the floor. A sea of voices, as if underwater, floated around her vying for attention, and yet she did not have space for anything but the girl.
“Poor Ruthie. Still so young.”
“We need to contact her family.”
“Does anybody know her real name?”
Clara had never seen a dead body before. Certainly, the merciful shooting of a lame horse on their small holding might have featured in the periphery of her childhood, but this? This was human. This was a life. Snuffed out. A vital, young life capable of so many things, such a short time ago. Ruthie was dressed now for the outside world, with all but her coat on. Her splayed limbs looked perfect, save for one hand which she seemed to have attempted to bandage. An old tin box painted white with a red cross on it lay open on the work bench above her, its contents spilled onto the floor. Surrounded by bandage, gauze, pills (was that usual?) and tiny scissors, she looked for all the world like the game of Operation that Clara would play at Christmas-time back home in Meltcham. Ruthie’s head was turned in a manner that might be thought coquettish, but on second glance was too severe. The angle too acute. She seemed as though she was playing dead, like her brother Freddie had done as a child, dramatically draping himself at the foot of the stairs for Clara to find him. Limbs limp, tongue lolling, eyes sparkling mischievously, giving away the great game that it all was, always was with Freddie. Clara looked now at Ruthie’s eyes. No sparkle. No light. She bowed her head silently for a moment amidst the din of pointless platitudes and directionless questions. And then, as if surfacing from a deep dive, she emerged with clarity into the reality of their situation, snapping her head up with grave determination.
“I suppose somebody has, in fact, checked her pulse?” Clara asked abruptly.
The others stared at her, dumbfounded. Quentin, Betty and Willie filled the small doorway with her now, and the chorus girls and boys from the band in the corridor, in various states of shock.
“Look at her. She looks – perfect. There’s no strangulation marks around her neck. No gun-shot wound. There’s no blood, she’s not cut,”
“Oh, what a horrible thought!” Betty whimpered.
“She’s got a pretty badly mangled hand, that’s on display for all to see, Toots” chewed Lola, leant up against the corridor wall, comforting Fifi.
The loose jaws of the congregation squared off; their surprised eyes narrowed in Clara’s direction. The newcomer. The stranger.
“Not entirely perfect, then, my dear.” offered Quentin Treadwell, in what was the least declamatory speech he’d given since Clara’s arrival. Her eye twitched an imperceptible little twitch.
“No, indeed. And yet, one does not die from a couple of broken fingers. That,” Clara breathed slow and steady “is plain, common sense.”
“I told her to go and get her hand seen to,” sniffed an inconsolable Betty, “Then I just carried on rehearsing and forgot all about her.”
“And we saw her in the wings, still in her rehearsal gear.” added Treadwell
“We did,” agreed Clara, “I watched her run off down the corridor that leads directly to this dressing room, presumably to get changed and leave for the doctors.”
“So you were the last people to see her alive?” Confirmed Betty.
Treadwell and Clara glanced at one another, then back to the others in case anyone had anything further to offer. They did not.
“Lola,” Clara calmly persisted with her line of enquiry, “Were you and Fifi the first on the scene?”
“First on the scene, now I like that!” Treadwell was warming to the possibilities this new drama might hold
“Quentin, please.” Clara snapped.
“I do apologise.” He countered.
Lola stepped towards Clara, leaving Fifi to hug the bare breeze block wall of the corridor, “Yeah, we seen her first. Just like you saw her last.”
But Clara would not be intimidated, “And did either of you actually enter the dressing room?”
“Nah. I left Fi here and came to get Betty. An’ you” Lola’s face darkened.
Troy spoke up then “When me an’ the boys came out of the rat run, Fi was here in the hall alone, sobbing her heart out.”
“Rat run?” Clara enquired.
“It’s the space behind the stage’s back curtain and the real back wall that links these corridors.”
“It can be a tight squeeze” wheezed Willie, whose bosom was in far too close proximity to Clara’s face, for the latter’s liking. Not only was this place a potential death-trap, it was also a maze of doors, corridors and confusion.
“We’re getting ahead of ourselves,” Clara tried again to focus the assembled group, “If no-one has entered the dressing room since Ruthie has been discovered here, can we agree that she has not, in fact, been declared dead?”
“Well, do you think she’s taking a nap, dear girl?” snapped Treadwell
“Really Clara, this is all so gruesome. And you’re so insistent on confirming death?” said Betty.
“Yes. Yes, I am. If it’s that or standing in a doorway crying, then yes, I would like to at least confirm that we have a dead body on our hands. Give me strength! Willie?”
“Oh, I – well, I can’t bend down quite as easily as I once could,” Willie creaked, coughed and mopped their profusely sweating brow.
“Mr. Treadwell?” Tried an increasingly frustrated Clara.
“Well, I’m flattered, of course my girl. And thank you, so much, for thinking of me. But whilst I was down to the last two for Doctor Findlay’s Casebook, I must confess that when it comes to, well, I don’t know exactly what I should be looking for…”
Clara stared at the bumbling, pathetic man in front of her, a look of incredulity spread wide across her face. “Is anybody here going to take charge of the situation?”
A voice from further along the corridor spoke then, low and clear, “I’ll do it. Out of my way.”
And very slowly, Fingers pushed past his still, erect band leader, past his nephew Troy and the listless clump of girls draped across the walls of the empty corridor, until he reached the doorway and gently shouldered Betty aside. He poked a long bony finger into Willie’s stomach and Clara watched as it disappeared for a moment into the doughy, tweed-clad flesh. She thought for a flash of the Witch in Hansel & Gretel, checking the children were fat and juicy enough yet to cook.
“Can’t bend down as easily!’ Fingers repeated, shaking his old head as he pushed past the fleshy mounds of tweed and proceeded to kneel effortlessly in front of the body on the dressing room floor. He glanced back towards Willie once more “You need to find yourself yoga. And a salad.” before turning his full attention to the girl, and gently placing two expert fingers on her long, thin neck, as is she were one of his many musical instruments that he might still magic some music from.
“She dead.” declared the man, as he stood up and pushed past the group once more, mumbling “Can’t bend down no more.” and shaking his head forlornly, as he wandered down the corridor.
“Where you going, Pops?” Troy called after his grandfather.
“I need a drink.” the low, clear voice replied, without looking back, as he headed towards the double doors.
Animated at last by this suggestion, Sandy spoke up, “Perhaps we should take the girls back to the auditorium whilst you decide on the best course of action?” And without waiting for agreement, he scooped up Troy, Lola, Fifi, Ginger & Sukki and they all followed the nonagenarian towards Front of House.
“William”, Clara spoke gently to the chided caretaker, “Perhaps you might be able to find some paperwork on Ruthie?”
“Yes, of course.”
“And telephone the authorities”
“The authorities, yes.” Willie moved away slowly, like a wounded horse, all swagger and bluster vanished for now.
“Betty?” Clara faced the blonde girl square on, proffering a handkerchief from her pocket. Betty took it, and sniffed one last time.
“Yes. Thank you.”
“What’s to be done?” coaxed Clara
“Well,” Betty began, “I suppose I should go liaise with box office about refunds.”
At this Quentin Treadwell snapped wide awake “Refunds? What on earth are you talking about? Old Ma Lewis is on her way!”
“Quentin, stop.” Betty tried to calm Treadwell’s hands, which were beginning to fly about animatedly.
“This is just a blip. A blip, that’s all! Open the first show a little later, smaller gap between that and the late show. Joe Public’s none the wiser!”
“A girl is dead.” Betty said firmly. Treadwell’s hands stopped fluttering. He nodded a small nod, his chin to his chest. Betty silently made her way towards the double doors and Front of House with the others.
“Don’t let anybody leave.” Clara called after her. Betty stopped for a moment and then silently resumed her graceful exit without turning around.
“Right,” sighed Clara, turning her attention to the lifeless girl and the dressing room once more. “Quentin, I need you to think. You’ve been here for thirty years, yes? Longer than anybody else, I presume?”
“And where has it got me? They’re bound to get rid of me now. Probably tear the place down and turn it into a T J Fax. I can see it now; shoes and separates where the bar once stood. This is just the excuse Old Ma Lewis has been looking for. And you.” the man turned on Clara now, his eyes sparkling blue under a furrowed brow “What are you doing here, really, Clara Pin? If, in fact that is your real name…”
“Well of course it’s my real name,” sighed an exasperated Clara, “Why on earth would anybody change their name to something so frightfully dull, Quentin Treadwell?”
Treadwell eyed Clara cautiously. The girl met his gaze and did not falter.
“It is frightfully commonplace…” he offered. “But you must admit that it doesn’t look good. A complete stranger appears in our midsts and then this happens. Where were you exactly, when this girl lay here dying?”
Clara’s eyes widened. She took a breath “I was standing on a stage in full view of the lot of you, making a complete hash out of a fan dance routine, if you remember. I’m most likely the only person that everybody had their eye on the entire time.”
“You did make quite a spectacle of yourself,” Treadwell relented, unknitting his brow a little.
“An occurrence I would not wish to repeat, but it may – as it turns out – be my saving grace. They all think I hurt this girl. Killed her.”
“And you really are Terri’s niece?”
“Look, we’ll put a call into her just as soon as possible, but first I need you to look at this room. You do understand that this is a crime scene?”
“ I do!” Treadwell clapped a little clap “Isn’t it thrilling?!”
Clara gave the man a hard stare, chastising the man,
“But quite, quite tragic, of course, for dear Poopsie.” He reflected
“We’re going to have to work together.” Clara continued.
“A double act! Just like your Aunt Terri and I!”
“Quentin, this is serious.”
“You’re dead right, it’s serious. I’ve not shared billing with somebody else for decades..”
“We’re going to need to save my reputation. Not to mention the family name!” continued Clara
“My name will go first naturally, – ‘Treadwell & Pin’. Are you absolutely married to that?”
She grabbed the man by the hands which had taken flight once more, “We are going to save your career.”
Quentin Treadwell’s old eyes settled genuinely, for the first time since meeting him, Clara felt, on her own. He squeezed her hands back warmly, saying
“We’re going to save The Blue Angel.”
Dear Reader, I hope you enjoy my story ‘The Blue Angel’ as it unfolds week-to-week. Like my daily vlog & fortnightly podcast, it is free at the point of consumption, but I welcome one-off donations (or ‘tips’) to www.paypal.me/paullmartinpay or you might consider becoming one of my Patrons with a monthly pledge from as little as $1 via www.patreon.com/PaulusFabulus. Thanks for reading. Paulus.