Clara followed Quentin and Betty down the corridor towards the double doors leading to the auditorium, where the rest of the company were waiting. She hung back from the pair, lost in her own thoughts over what Betty had just revealed. Clara could not remember any kind of trap door in the stage when they had been rehearsing, but then she had been rather more preoccupied by having been flung into her first ever – and hopefully last ever – fan-dance rehearsal, with time very much a factor. Was it possible that one of the girls could have dropped through the floor unnoticed by her? And even if they had managed this astonishing sleight of hand, they would have to be replaced by another body instantaneously. Then again, sleight of hand was all part of the cabaret’s allure, wasn’t it? What would be the point of a trap door that was glaringly obvious? Could someone have really employed a cheap vaudevillian trick in order to – to do what exactly? As the double doors swung open, Clara watched Betty and Quentin join their people. What on earth had Aunt Terri got her in to? If Clara thought coming to London was going to solve all her problems, the events of the past few hours had left her in some doubt as to whether she might not have been better off facing the music back home in Meltcham. She turned her attention now to the assembled group before her, feeling very much apart from them. Draped across a corner banquette upholstered in that undefinable blue, the four remaining chorus girls seemed to present a tableau of the stages of grief. Lola, her gum-chewing gone into overdrive, was clearly embodying Anger. Clara watched as the girl performed a pantomime of outraged arm movements; insisting on justice here, incredulous as to the lack of accountability there. Fifi, propped up beside her, had turned from the sobbing, inconsolable creature that Clara had last encountered in the hallway, and slipped into Depression with a similar swiftness of reaction. Her slumped demeanour accentuated quite how thin the young woman was; her clavicle prominent, her shoulder blades acute as a maths problem. She sat with her head slung low between them picking the cherry red nail polish from her battered fingernails. Next to her was the girl who had been hanging around Quentin during rehearsal. Had she fetched him a drink at some point? Sukki, Quentin had called her. She seemed to be intent on Bargaining at present; comparatively bright, mentally scrambling to find some kind of sense or reason to all that had happened. And then there was Ginger. Clara could remember her name easily enough because, perversely, she was not the red-head of the group. What was Ginger displaying? One might call it Denial, Clara supposed. But it might just as easily be mistaken for indifference. Touching up her make-up in a small, gold compact with a face any poker play would long to have in their arsenal, Ginger’s demeanour seemed to be more that of a passenger experiencing a slight train delay. A nuisance yes, and probably some disruption to the rest of her day incurred, but nothing that couldn’t be handled with a slight rejigging of appointments. Business-like, Clara thought. Ginger’s form of Denial was most business-like, if indeed Denial it was. And this was, after all, a place of business, wasn’t it? Perhaps there was no love lost between Ginger and the deceased? When she had arrived, Betty had told Clara they were a family. Clara was beginning to wonder quite how much that rang true. Anger, Depression, Bargaining, Denial. What was missing?
“Looking for a motive?” Betty was suddenly beside her.
Acceptance, thought Clara, almost instantaneously.
“Just…looking,” came Clara’s feeble reply. She was relieved at least to see Betty was no longer grinning. Now that they were alone the grinning was gone and in its place a stony defiance had appeared on the beautiful, painted doll-like face.
“Do you suspect foul play?” Betty asked abruptly.
Clara hesitated, before replying “I was thinking back to something you said to me this afternoon.”
“Yes. When I arrived you told me ‘You’re home now. We’re family’. Is that what this place is to the girls?”
Betty took a long look at the outsider, as if seeing her for the first time, before saying “What is a family? A group of people thrown together, often against their own will. Who try to make the best of their circumstances, sometimes raising one another up, but often letting each other down. My own biological family consists almost entirely of liars, cheats and dead-beats, and you can write that down in your notebook and quote me.” Clara felt the gloves had now been well and truly taken off, when it came to Betty’s opinion of her.
“I told you something else when you arrived too,” added the blonde. “I’m surprised you don’t remember.”
But Clara did.
“Don’t ask, don’t tell,” she almost whispered.
“We are a bright spark!” said Betty, folding her arms. “And that might make your job here a teensy bit difficult.”
“Job? I don’t know what you mean,” blinked Clara.
“Don’t you? Well, dear Clara Pin, if you are looking for motives and suspect foul play, then it’s clear to me even if it is not to you, that you’ve taken it upon yourself to solve this mystery.”
And with that, Betty turned on her heels and walked back towards a table near at back of the auditorium where Quentin Treadwell and Willie Tell had already gravitated.
Is that what Clara was doing? Scanning this room and its inhabitants for a motive for…for…she did not want to say the word she was thinking. Inspector Peebley was clear that cause of death would be pronounced in a day or two after a post-mortem were conducted. This one was of the few things the man had been clear about. And yet, it certainly was a mystery, that was a word Clara could get behind right away. A young woman found dead in an otherwise empty room with no obvious signs of being attacked, and each of the other people – her eyes scanned past the four dancers to the three musicians together at a table in the second row, and on to the final three more senior staff members at the back. Ten. And she made eleven, yes. Each of the eleven people in the locked building at the time each other’s alibis for the thirty minutes unaccounted for between the young woman last being seen alive and the discovery of her body. That was a mystery, certainly.
Yes, she was happy with mystery as a word, now.
“Someone in this room is a murderer!”
Clara turned to see Quentin Treadwell floating towards her through the empty tiers of tables, chairs and banquettes, fanning his robe out behind him like a train and relishing the audible reaction to his statement from the rest of the company. He reached the floor and, turning, stood close to Clara.
“Now come on, darlings, we are all thinking it. And in my role as Master of Ceremonies, it is often the job to point out elephants in rooms. Why not rip off the band aid, as our friends in America would have it?”
“Who said anything about murder?” Ginger cried out indignantly, as if she had a sudden portent of further train delays disrupting her day.
“Exactly. Maybe it was an accident,” said Troy
“That would suit you very well, wouldn’t it?” Lola called backed to the drummer.
“What do you mean by that!”
“Everybody knows you had a thing with Ruthie!”
“Who didn’t have a thing with Ruthie?” Betty’s tinkle this time, was slightly discordant.
Sandy, who had been quietly polishing the lens of a serious and expensive looking camera, set it down gently and stood up, clearing his throat.
“Perhaps we might also consider the possibility of suicide. Ruthie was very highly strung. ”
“Being highly strung should be reserved for perverts who photograph women without their knowledge – highly strung up!” Lola was standing now too.
The sandy-haired pianist pinched the bridge of his nose with thumb and forefinger and took a long, deep breath, “We have been over this time and time again…”
“Did you think time would erase what you’ve done?” Sukki this time, up on her feet.
“I haven’t done anything,”. Sandy again, steadying his voice. Keeping level.
“Happy now, Clara?” Betty called from the back of the room, “There’s two motives for your collection, right there!”
Lola crossed her arms, “Collection?”
“Oh yes,” tinkled Betty, warming to her subject matter, “Didn’t you know? Our Clara Pin here has taken it upon herself to play detective.”
“We don’t even know her!”
“If we should be suspicious of anyone it’s her.”
All the girls were up out of their seats now, even Fifi had been roused by this new revelation. Troy was still vaguely attempting to defend himself from arrows of accusation, as Willie limply appealed for calm. To one side of him, Betty’s eyes sparkled at the mischief and mayhem she had created.
Just then, Fingers slowly lifted the trumpet that had been lain in his lap throughout, and put it to his lips, blasting the group with one defeaning note that had them holding their ears and taking their seats again. His work done, he gave a curt nod to Quentin Treadwell, who gladly took the baton.
“Thank you Fingers,” began the Emcee, “This young woman is a stranger to you all, yes,” he put his arm around Clara’s shoulder in a gesture of defiance, “But she comes with the highest of recommendations from someone known to both myself and William, not to mention Leonora Lewis herself. She is the niece of my old stage partner and I have every faith in her. As an outsider, perhaps she’s exactly the one amongst us to play Judge Judy and Executioner.”
Having tipped his head, an awkward silence followed where Clara assumed Quentin was used to some kind of ovation under normal circumstances. And whilst the assembled group grappled with yet another of his more confusing remarks, Clara – still held tightly in the older man’s arm – took the opportunity to speak up.
“Thank you, er, Quentin. It’s true that I am a stranger here. It’s true that you have very little reason to trust me. We don’t know whether your colleague Ruthie was…murdered, yet. She may have taken her own life, for reasons we cannot fathom. It may be that we are all innocent bystanders of a terribly accident. But one thing is certain, and that is that we have a mystery to solve and I would like to provide my assistance in solving it. From what we’ve seen of Inspector Peebley and his men, I do not think we can wait around and expect them to help save your jobs or the reputation of this club. And if names shall need to be cleared, a little further down the line, I’d like to have the data at hand to clear mine. Wouldn’t you?”
Sensing a general warming of her previously cool audience, Clara ploughed on. “The last thirty minutes of Ruthie’s life are currently unaccounted for, and each one of us was in this room rehearsing…”
“Is that what you call what you were doing?” Lola piped up once more, a wry smile this time by her constantly grinding jaw, “I’ll give you an alibi to any court in the land!”
Clara smiled, in spite of herself, “I suppose I was rather a spectacle.”
“Spectacle?!” Troy joined in, “it’s lucky my drum kit is insured.”
“And your hands,” added Fingers.
People were laughing. Gently, warmly. A couple of heads were nodding. Where was all the anger and the outrage of moments ago, Clara wondered. These theatre folk were a strange lot indeed – flying from one emotion to the other without any warning. Life in Meltcham was not like this. People were steady. Emotions not welcome. Except for Aunt Terri. These truly were Terri’s people. But were they Clara’s also? She realised she rather liked the warm sensation creeping up from her tummy to her chest, and the feeling of Quentin Treadwell hugging her closer with one arm. She wondered if this was their idea of family, here at The Blue Angel.
She wondered, too, which of the family was a murderer.
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.