Inspector Peebley had no chin. Or, to be more precise, Clara could see no differentiation between the man’s neck and head. He had been talking – droning, really – for some time now, and it was all Clara could do not to yawn in his face. “We shall have to wait for the post-mortem, of course, before a cause of death can be confirmed. Shouldn’t be more than a couple of days.”
“But you must have some idea, Inspector? An early hunch?” Clara cajoled.
“I’m not in the business of speculating,” sniffed the man. Clara’s brow knitted, surely that was exactly the business he was in? The Inspector resumed his droning and Clara drifted off once more. All in all, he was little more than an oblong with arms, she concluded. As if someone had dressed up a runner bean in a police officers uniform and sent him out into the world to protect the public. His lack of physical stature might not be quite so discouraging had a vibrant personality shone through. “The body may have been removed, but this is still a crime scene, little lady.” Peebley sniffed. Clara’s eye twitched. Still stood in the backstage environs of the club, Clara had been in the company of the man for a fair while now, and patronising was, finally, the one personality trait she had managed to glean from him. Well, he may be offensive but at least he’ll be efficient, she thought, “You’ll want to interview everyone as soon as possible, I assume? I told them nobody should leave the auditorium,” she said.
“All in good time,” sniffed the man, “This is not an Agatha Christie novel, you know. My boys have taken down everyone’s particulars.” He briskly pulled down his buttoned up jacket and prepared to leave.
“So, what’s next?” Clara persisted.
“Forensics next. Photographer. Fingerprints. That type of affair” Was the man being charged by the word? Like a money-saving telegram, perhaps? Just as Clara was deciding whether to shake some life into him, or simply tug on his tiny, black moustache in order to elicit some kind of emotion, she heard Quentin Treadwell approaching down the echoing corridor. Quite how he managed to make such a theatrical entrance in an empty, soulless line of breeze blocks was both impressive and baffling. Treadwell advanced on his prey like a satin-clad panther and draped himself over the door jamb, “Still with us dear Inspector? Whatever have I done to deserve such attention from our boys in blue?” he purred. Clara had never seen a person without a chin retract said chin with fright before. It was a curious, fleeting moment that she wished she could watch on replay to better observe the ticks of the man’s face and the tightening of his orifices as the shock of Treadwell’s voice – less a purr, really, than a bunch of rusty nails rolling around inside a bucket – penetrated through him. The inspector sniffed again, “Right, I’ll be off then. Don’t,” he mustered one final declaration of pomp in the face of his predator, “Enter this room until forensics are done.” Clara watched with barely concealed glee as Peebley performed an unbidden pas de deux with Quentin, the latter refusing to move from the doorway as the former affixed ‘scene of crime’ tape across the threshold. “You must come to the cabaret Inspector, once we reopen,” Quentin persisted, warming to his theme now, “As my guest, of course. Front row seats – that’s the splash zone!” he winked “Perhaps you’ll bring Mrs. Weebley?” And as the Inspector was opening his mouth to reply, Quentin grabbed him by the shoulders and frogmarched him back up the corridor towards the auditorium. “So wonderful to meet you. Thank you for all you and your colleagues do. Don’t be a stranger now.” The doors swung behind the inspector, “Odious little man,” declared Quentin in a voice no less booming as he turned back to Clara. “I suppose odious does count as a personality trait, does it? I was beginning to think he was devoid of them.” She smiled wryly at her partner. Were they partners? She thought it best to be direct,
“So, am I vouched for?” she asked.
“You are in the clear. My dearest Terri, – what a joy it was to speak to her again after all these years – she confirmed your story one hundred percent, although I’m sure I still don’t understand why she sent you here with orders to speak to William, they were never as close as she and I. Not by a country mile!”
“How is he?”
“Willie? Not good. I think the word I would use is catatonic. When I went into the office to telephone Terri, he was just sat slumped. Staring ahead with a pile of paperwork slowly sliding from his hands onto the floor.”
“That doesn’t sound good.”
“No, indeed. He kept talking about her skin. Ruthie’s, I mean. Remarked on how unchanged it was.”
“Yes, I thought something similar,” admitted Clara.
“He said ‘Still so life-like. Creamy and smooth,’” Quentin shuddered at the thought.
“You called her Ruthie,” smiled Clara.
“Well, of course I did, my dear. You don’t think this old fool is as foolish as he makes out, do you? She was one of our own,” his voice dropped to a whisper, as he bowed his head “One of my girls,” and then, just as suddenly, he snapped back into action “If your aunt thought William was the more reliable of the two of us, I’d hate to think what she’d make of him today.”
Clara was beginning to realise that, behind the bravado, Quentin Treadwell may well be really quite offended that her aunt had sent her here in search of someone other than her erstwhile partner. “Perhaps she didn’t want to bother you?” said Clara as gently as she could.
Treadwell shook off the mood like a dog shaking off water, “Bother me?! Terri is family, and therefore, Clara Pin, you are family also.”
“So we are in business?” Clara brightened.
“We are!” Quentin put out his hand and Clara shook it.
“Right, now tell me – this dressing room. What do you see?”
Quentin sighed his most theatrical of sighs “Oh, we’ve been through all this before the Inspector arrived. I don’t know what you mean darling!”
“You have worked here for thirty years, yes?”
“So what? So has William.”
“But Willie doesn’t spend the same amount of time in here as you. You have to walk through this dressing room to get to your own. After all that time, there is no-one better placed to tell me what is out of the ordinary here?” Clara wheeled the man around so his chest was pressed against the big cross of tape Peebley had left in his wake. She waited. Clara tried to follow her partner’s gaze as he scanned the dressing room. Ruthie’s coat was still lying on the floor near to where her recently removed body had lain, the first aid kit and its detritus still spilling from work surface to carpeted floor. Clara saw stains on the threadbare, municipal grey carpeting. The bags, coats and costumes of all the girls were flung around. The one long work surface was teeming with glasses, wet wipes, towels and the make-up bags and their contents of at least six people. Headdresses, wigs and props lined a high shelf the length of one wall, the sporadic blank faces of bald, unseeing wig blocks peered out, punctuating the whole. If they had eyes they would have seen something. Something happened in this room.
“This is impossible, darling! I simply don’t know what I’m looking for.”
“But there has to be something not quite right.” Clara persisted.
“Other than the bin having been emptied, it’s the same utter chaos as always, my dear.
“What about the bags and coats? Do they all belong to the girls?”
“No,” said a voice behind them.
Clara swung around to find Betty standing in the hallway. Was this the first time she hadn’t tinkled as she entered a room?
“These things don’t all belong to the girls?” Clara clarified.
“Of course not,” Betty smiled a beatific smile, “Some of them, at least, belong to the Spesh Acts.”
Clara blinked “Ah yes, of course. The Spesh Acts.” Clara was beginning to wonder how much longer she could go on pretending she knew what the blazes a ‘Spesh Act’ was, and why on earth she didn’t she ask. There was something about Betty, something that intimidated her. For all her smiling and tinkling, Clara felt the persona didn’t ring quite true.
“Of course, none of them were here at the time of the – incident,” said Betty discreetly.
“Are we certain on that?” Clara asked
“Absolutely. The boys were gone to their other gigs, or to eat before their appearance here. I saw them off just before rehearsal began. Each and every one of them. The floor staff were out on break, also.”
Quentin interjected, “Since we stopped serving food, the barmen and waiting staff tend to abandon ship for their final chance of sustenance and fresh air before submerging themselves underground again until the wee small hours.”
Clara could not argue with that logic. “Are we certain then,” she persisted, “That other than Ruthie herself, everybody left in the building was involved in the rehearsal?”
“Well, I wouldn’t exactly say I was involved darling, but I was there, wasn’t I?” Quentin rolled his eyes, dramatically.
Betty, flexing her fingers and arching her back in the most lady-like way imaginable spoke clearly and concisely. “All my other girls were on the stage with you,” she indicated Clara, “And the band. Quentin was by the double doors. I was on the floor in front of you all. Willie was in the sound booth.” She finished, staring Clara directly in the eye and smiling a mannequin-like smile. Clara blinked, but did not look away. “And that’s everyone.”
“That’s everyone.” Betty’s smile widened.
Quentin, thundering through the tense atmosphere like a camp knife at a fancy dress party, added, “If William is otherwise engaged the doors would be locked until it’s time for the floor staff to return from their break.”
“And on that occasion, I locked them.” Betty stood firm.
Clara swallowed. “And none of the floor staff can get into the building until break is over?”
“Not unless somebody lets them in,” confirmed Quentin.
“And we were all busy rehearsing.” Betty’s smile seemed to be taking over her face, very much like the Cheshire Cat. Clara wondered, not for the first time, if perhaps she really had fallen through a looking-glass earlier that day. Why was the woman still smiling at her? Why could Clara not look away. Never one to allow dead air for long, Quentin broke the silence once more, “Any chance we could get out of this godforsaken hallway, darlings? I’ve experienced more ambience at one of Lionel’s dinner parties…”
“Just one last thing that you two could help me fathom out for now,” smiled Clara, refusing to move her gaze from the blonde woman smiling back at her.
“Anything to help!” tinkled Betty.
“Yes, anything to help,” huffed Quentin, “But enough with the bloody grinning.” He slapped the hands of the two women with each of his own, “Honestly, I’m having flashbacks to being on the Generation Game!”
“Were you on the Generation Game?” shimmered Betty.
“I was! At it’s peak, of course. Had to bob for apples wearing a rubber mask of Richard Nixon.”
“Sorry. You were saying?”
“I was wondering the possible ways of getting from the auditorium where we were all rehearsing, to this room?”
“Well that’s simple, darling! There’s three.”
“And they are?”
“You can come through the double doors from the auditorium and walk up this corridor.”
“As I just have,” added Betty.
“Or you can come through the rat run behind the stages back curtain…” continued Quentin.
“Like the band explained,” nodded Clara.
“Or,” Quentin ploughed on, miffed that his soliloquy was being interrupted, “you leave from the back of the auditorium and come down the side corridor that links to this one.”
“It’s how you get here from the foyer, darling. We haven’t got a stage door – and not all the acts are here before the doors open. Can’t have them running through the auditorium half-naked in front of the punters now, can we?”
‘“That’s three,” Clara agreed.
“But the trap door makes four,” tinkled Betty.
“Trap door?” Clara repeated.
“Of course! The one in the stage, silly.” smiled the blonde.
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.