'The Gazebo Theatre Incident'

by Phineas Redux

—OOO—

Summary:— Fiona 'Fay' Cartwright & Alice 'Al' Drever are private detectives in an East Coast American city, in the 1930's. A soprano's recital causes lots of trouble for the detectives.

Disclaimer:— All characters are copyright ©2018 to the author. All characters in this story are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Caution:— There is some light swearing in this story.

—O—

Lola Montaigne lived big; the best hotels, the best restaurants, the best cars, a Duesenburg; and the best clothes, Balenciaga. She also thought so much of her own worth that her proclivity to look down on virtually everyone had become the deciding factor of her nature. She sneered; sneered so finely, so valiantly, on all occasions that it was now her defining characteristic. She also, of course, knew she was the best, the greatest, the most moving and brilliant soprano that had ever been, anywhere. All this prima donna posturing, as was only to be expected, getting right up the noses of those closest to her; including friends, acquaintances, and even relatives. Bossy, hoity-toity, stuck-up, and simply a dam' b-tch, being some of the lesser obloquies thrown in her direction, when she was out of earshot. At the present moment Alice Drever, of Drever and Cartwright, Private Detectives, was about to add her own two-cents-worth to the general personality assessment of the star of stage and opera.

"I'll kill the b-tch, I will." She stood in the dark corridor backstage in the large Gazebo Theatre in Delacote City, NH, grasping the wrist of her partner and lover Fiona Cartwright in an iron grip. "Now, the only problem being, should I knife her—silent, and satisfying, y'know, dear. Or shoot her with my point thirty-eight? That'd settle her hash nicely, too. Or maybe drown her in her bath? Giving me the satisfaction, again, of a hands-on experience. Or perhaps just invite her on a picnic trip to Ocean Boulevard an' push her off a high cliff—has the decidedly enjoyable aspect of listening t'the wonderful squelch as she lands. Hmm, decisions, decisions."

"Al, lover, y've finally lost it, entire." Fiona knowing when straight talking was needed. "Get a bloody grip, she's only a client."

"Yeah, but such a bloody awful one." Alice wasn't taking prisoners. "Come on, gal; y'know fine well no-one'd criticise us—probably give us medals, instead."

"Fool—God, here she comes."

"Oh, Chr-st."

The corridor was a large one, but it needed all its width to accommodate the approaching natural disas—specimen of mature womanhood, who was Lola Montaigne in all her regal splendour. Though not as broadly built as those European prima donnas' who specialised in Wagner's works, she was still a presence which could not easily be ignored. Now, trailed by her continually harassed private secretary, Isla Gilbert, and several other menials of both sexes, she appeared to be heading a lynching mob intent on their prey; but all was not as it seemed, she being simply on her way to her dressing-room to inhale a bracing cup of cocoa before her recital in half an hour or so.

Although Mozart was her God, she now and then deigned to notice lesser mortals; of whom Franz Schubert was perhaps her most regular standby. She allowing, in interviews, that his Lieder appealed to her pretty substantially. Tonight being one of her Schubert nights, and the attending audience out in the stalls showing their enthusiasm by their numbers, which could be tallied in the several hundreds. Perhaps the only truly happy person backstage in the Gazebo Theatre this night being the manager, Gordon Joubert—busy now in his office counting the ticket-office receipts and grinning widely.

"Ah, Miss Cartwright," Lola had recognised the obstruction in her way as being part of her recently acquired security management team. "All well, I hope? Please God, tell me no-one's found their way into my room; with bunches of roses, an' chocolates, an' cow eyes; dam', how I hate that form of Life. That's always so dam' annoying. Will they never learn I'm allergic to roses? And do try to keep the Hooray Henrys' away from the stage-door, later, when I leave. If there's one form of life I loathe completely it's Stage-door Johnnies. Come now, let me pass; thank you."

In another instant the door slammed behind her and her secretary; those of her entourage left behind meandered away, looking slightly lost; while Fiona and Alice leaned their shoulders against opposite walls and gazed on each other with a wild surmise; like that man, in the poem, gazing on the Pacific.

"See what I mean, darlin'?" Alice practising one of her very best sneers. "It's not the killing, y'know; it's simply the how,—the method, that matters. As I was sayin', I think, on the whole, drownin' her in her bath'll turn out t'be the best bet; more fun fer me that way, eh?—"

Fiona sighed deeply, knowing full well when the realities of life were busy kicking her butt.

"Come on, lover; let's stroll along t'the stage-door, an' see what life on the outside's like."

—O—

It was raining in the side alley outside the stage-door; which, as Alice spitefully remarked to nobody, was just about how the majority of those connected with the great soprano felt. Not heavily, but falling steadily like the stock market on a bad day. Along the corridor, up a flight of metal stairs, along another lesser corridor, round a right-angle, and the small office with its glass front showed in the distance where the stage-door keeper—that most important member of a theatre's staff—held sway. Norbert Raymond by name, he held the distinction of being so old no-one could guess at his true age; he apparently having been in his position since the theatre opened in 1894. An inch or so taller than Alice, but three or four inches shorter than Fiona, he was completely bald, thin of body, but imbued with the energy of two much younger men, and a sharp tenor voice which, when needed, could carry throughout the theatre, even when the orchestra was playing. But under all this lay a quiet peaceful happy nature, if you could only dig deep enough.

"Hi, Bert, she's gone back t'her burrow." Alice being mean because that's how she felt. "Won't see her now till the cocoa runs out, or the sax player tunes up; whichever comes first."

"Har, thought I heard her golden tones in the distance." Norbert shook his head as he opened the door to let the ladies gain entrance to his private domain. "So we're safe for half an hour, or so. What's up, ladies? Everything goin' fine ternight?"

"We finished our rounds a few minutes ago." Fiona sighed as she sat on one of the hard-backed chairs on offer. "Nuthin' much goin' on; except fer the usual pandemonium that seems t'be the normal routine in this bloody shed of a night. Shoutin', banging noises everywhere, an' ladies dartin' around in a state of undress that wouldn't be tolerated in public."

"Yep, that's the usual." Norbert nodded as he stood by the small gas-ring in the corner of the office. "We're puttin' on a general musical performance, with dancin' gals an' everythin', fer the customers enchantment—buildin' up ter The Grand Soprano as climax. Here's a fresh pot o'tea just made—no sugar fer you, Fiona; an' two lumps fer you, Alice? Splash the milk about as ye both sees fit."

Alice raised the hot steaming brew to her pink lips and imbibed with relish.

"Ah, God, I needed that; thanks, Bert, y've just saved a life."

"Ignore her," Fiona sneered over the top of her own cup. "she's just playin' t'the audience; think the atmosphere o'this place's gettin' t'her, finally."

"Meb'be her Highness'll be happier after the first interval, in an hour or so." Norbert sucking on his own cup meanwhile. "My spies tells me there's a full house tonight; that'll buck her up no end."

"How long's her recital gon'na take, tonight?" Alice searching for information as to the manor born. "Jest 'cause me an' Fay wan'na get home at a respectable hour, is all."

"What is it? Schubert Lieder, yeah." Norbert considered the matter with professional acuity. "Well, the last coupl'a singers who attempted Schubert, over the last three years, managed t'bring the whole thing off in under two hours. Suppose La Montaigne might manage an hour an' a half, probably. Say hittin' the home straight somewhere's around ten-fifteen, or so."

Fiona and Alice glanced at each other with raised eyebrows, then Fiona shrugged.

"Yeah, don't expect it'll be any earlier." She sighed again, putting her empty cup down on the small table at the side of the little office. "Well, if my compatriot has filled up on tea we better put our workin' hats back on, an' go walkabout in this old dark house again. God, how many bloody corridors an' floors does this place have anyway, Bert?"

As Alice rose, draining the last dregs of her cup as she did so, Norbert smiled at his guests.

"Corridors? Now yer askin'?" He scratched his head, unencumbered by the intervention of any hair. "There's this here ground floor, then there's two lower floors; one fer the workin's of the machinery under the stage, the lower still bein' a stock-room sort of affair. After which there's the auditorium itself, three floors there. The front saloon with the ticket-office. Upstairs there's the general offices, then a coupl'a attic floors. The whole building takes up half a block, y'realise; goin' back a fair ways, too. Corridors? Make a number up yourselves; y'won't be far wrong, meb'be."

"God, see you later, Bert." Alice shook her head again as she followed her companion out into the wild once more. "By the way, don't let any Hooray Henrys' slip past you; Missy hinted she wouldn't like that."

"Hah," Norbert made a peculiar snorting noise. "The last one o'that breed who made it inside did so in Nineteen and oh-four. No worries there, ladies."

"Har."

—O—

The internal meanderings of the vast old theatre, even after a week's experience, still presented itself as a real life instance of the Minotaur's cave to the two detectives. Dark corridors leading who knew where, lighted corridors of no less mystery, rows of closed doors hiding undiscovered rooms or suites or storage facilities; steel staircases, some straight flights from one level to another, others the more typical spiral members of the species. Some led up, others appeared only to lead down into hitherto unexplored stygian depths. In some areas a curious sustained growl, as of low thunder at a distance, could be discerned if you listened hard enough—the rumble of the audience in their seats and, as a group suggesting almost a single entity, making their presence felt throughout the fabric of the building. And, if they may be so descriobed without impoliteness, the local fauna to be encountered in this terrain—the backstage workers, and the lads and lassies of the chorus line.

Like an ancient castle, with its banqueting-hall at one end of the East Wing and the kitchens at the further end of the West Wing, the inhabitants being lucky if they saw a hot meal once in a blue moon, so with the inner workings of the theatre; dancing girls, in all states of dress and undress from fully clothed to what can only be termed nudity with just enough get-out clause to be legal, seemed constantly to be on the move from one distant corner of the theatre to another, heaven knew why. Everywhere men in jeans, heavy boots, flat caps, and with some tool or other either in hand or a back pocket, littered the landscape—not, as far as the passing detectives could determine, ever doing much that could be identified as bona-fide work.

And above and beyond everything else, the noise; clangings, as of chains from the depths of hell, bangs and clatters as of great mountains of wooden planks crashing to the ground from great heights and echoing as in a vast cavern, yells from management in distress or girls in a panic over a lost button on their costume, assuming we're talking about a gal who was actually wearing something practicably close to clothing, or just the discomfort of being jostled from side to side by passing lines of anxious dancing girls determined to get out on the stage and stun the audience with their combined beauty as fast as possible—hastily abandoned lit cigarettes and half-emptied glasses of beer awaiting their return in their dressing-rooms as soon as they could get on the stage, twist around in what they naively considered an exotic manner, then make a mad dash back to their yearned for sustenance.

"This ain't a theatre, this's a dammed ante-room t'Hell itself." Alice, pushed up against a dirty wall as a line of chorus girls giggled and yelled their way through, was fed up to the gills. "What I can't figure is, what'd we do t'deserve it?"

"Buck up, young 'un." Fiona was made of sterner stuff. "Y'always said y'wanted t'see life, didn't ya? Well, this's it, baby."

"Huh."

As they continued their way along the present corridor; neither quite sure where it led, both having lost their bearings a while ago, a scream rang out from an open door on their left hand. Quick as a flash both women were inside the room with guns drawn, experience telling in their fast reflexes—but all in vain.

"What in Hell d'ya both think ye're doin'?" The lady making this enquiry sat before a dressing-table with a vast mirror fixed to the wall, clad in what appeared to be an evening-gown. She was in her late thirties, and wore an expression of deep disgust. "Has a range war broken out I wasn't invited to, or what? Gim'me a minute till I find my Sharps point fifty, then I'll be right with ya. Who's the prey?"

"What's goin' on? Ya screamed, didn't ya?" Alice coming to the point, in a wholly professional manner. "What's with the klaxon impressions, lady?"

"Oh, that." She was clearly not in the least put out by this leading question. "I was doin' my lips, an' realised I was usin' the wrong colour lipstick's all."

"What?" Fiona staggered by this example of ego in full flight.

"Hah." Alice realising all her previous expectations of the lives of the theatrical clan were coming to fruition before her very eyes.

"Ya both sound kind'a critical?" The lady paused in her make-up routine to inspect her latest visitors. "Ah, y're those private dicks—or should one say, dickesses? Keeping La Montaigne in order, or tryin' to. Havin' any success? She bawled y'out, yet? But of course she has; wouldn't be in character if she hadn't. Well, how're ya both liking bein' on the stage fer a living? Get's ya right in ye're heart-strings, don't it?"

Fiona, closely followed by Alice, put their hardware away back in their purses, trying the while not to appear too embarrassed at their actions. It was Alice who took up the refrain from this point.

"And who, may we ask, are you?" She always liking to get the introductions clear in any situation. "Heading out t'the stage yerself, seemingly?"

"That I am, darlin'." The lady turning back to her mirror, and the proper colour of lipstick. "Irene Maverley's the moniker; drama queen's the grift. I'm a bona-fide actress, dammed unhappy you've both obviously never heard o'me. Trod the boards in thirty-seven of the states so far, an' mean t'make it a full-house before I quit the game."

"What're you doin' here, t'night?" Fiona angling for information, as her occupation allowed. "Ain't La Montaigne supposed t'be comin' it the Schubert in about thirty minutes or so?"

"Ah, this's an extravaganza, you see." Irene gave the women a fleeting glance, with a knowing smile, before returning to her make-up box. "Where's that dammed powder, oh, here. Yeah, thirty minutes; just long enough fer me an' Percy Kraunstein t'come it the dramatic with an excerpt from Darkness Is The Night. You know, the latest drama success on Broadway; not that either me nor Percy were ever on Broadway: that's another of my wishes before I kicks the bucket."

"Jeez," Alice had taken enough, and now came out fighting. "Drama plays, dancing girls in next t'no clothing, La Montaigne doin' Schubert? What kind'a a game is this, at all?"

"It's what the Public laps up by the gallon, dearie." Irene nodded knowingly. "Give 'em a taste o'drama, jolly songs, dancin' gals with hopefully hardly anythin' on, an' a bit o'culture t'finish the evening, an' they all go home happy. Everyone bein' a winner, at the close, y'see."

"Oh, well," Fiona bringing the conversation to a polite conclusion. "don't let us keep ya, then. Come on, Al, we got the rest o'this rathole t'investigate before we can take our shoes off an' relax. Be seein' ya, miss."

"Charmed, I'm sure."

"Bye, break a leg, lady." Alice getting into the local lingo, with only the merest trace of awkwardness.

"Thanks a mil, honey."

—O—

One of the dressing-rooms, unused and apparently long forgotten by the cleaning staff as well, had been given over to the detectives, at the end of a dimly lit corridor which itself seemed to be at the utmost Antipodes as far as the life of the theatre mattered. Here Fiona and Alice could disemburden themselves of their problems without outside interference; Alice having just risen to make sure the door was closed and locked.

"Jeez, what a ghastly dump." She reflecting her thoughts as she saw life. "Who in their right mind'd want t'work in a place like this. Night after dammed night, too. Jeez, it is bloody Hell."

"Them as likes it, likes it, I suppose." Fiona coming it the philosopher. "An' them as has t'suffer the slings an' arrows of—of—whatever it was, just buckles to an' struggles through, is all."

"Oh, that's deep, an' in no way helpful, if I may say so, lover."

"Come on, Al, put some effort in'ta it, won't ya?" Fiona fed up with the constant negative vibes given off by her loved partner. "Try'n see the bright side of Life fer a change, can't ya? Fer one, La Montaigne's payin' us in gold ingots fer our assistance over this week or so, y'recalls?"

If there was one subject which was guaranteed to jolly a gal along it was money, salary, income, or remuneration, falling into Alice's waiting hands. She bucked up in a trice.

"Yeah, there's that, gal." She actually smiled for the first time that evening as the thought wafted through her mind; credit and debit tables dancing in her imagination like the chorus line girls out on the stage at the moment. "Yeah, we are gettin' paid in golden pieces-o'-eight, that's true. I likes that aspect, at least, I allows."

"Pieces-o'-eight were silver, ducks." Fiona coming it the studious one of the duo, a position she dearly loved. "Jest sayin'. Now moidores, they were gold."

"Fay, darlin'; love of my whole life?"

"Yeah, doll?"

"Gim'me a break, an' a rest, will ya,—never mind in which order."

"Oh, dear me."

A quiet five minutes passed over the two women, as they sat in peaceful contentment together; then Life broke into their loving dream once more.

The noise, as of a bull roaming a field and looking for trouble, appeared first at the end of the corridor where the ladies' room was situated; then it turned along said corridor, approaching the listening detectives like a steam train that had lost its brakes.

"No, I will not." The deep voice held a cold authority which brooked no dissent. "Joubert can go an' throw himself in the sea, for all I care. That bloody Montaigne b-tch told him she wanted me off the company' roll, 'cause I cheeked her last night, in the wings? Dam' her; an' dam' Joubert, too. If he tries t'railroad me I'll have my lawyer on his back quicker than a shark on a loose surfer. My contract's rock solid, ducks, lem'me tell ya. Where the hell are we goin', by the way? Tryin' t'get me out'ta the way o'that crazy torch singer, or what. I won't have it, y'know. What's in here?"

The door-knob of the detectives' room rattled to the iron grip of an angry man; but being solid oak the frame stood the test valiantly.

"Locked," From his tone he had lost no whit of his irritation at life. "just what one would expect in this slop-house. Oh."

This ejaculation had been dragged from the irate actor by the opening of the door to reveal Fiona in all her glory; standing an inch and a half taller than her angry opponent, and showing just as much inclination to bow to the blows of the world as he did. She gave him the works, as by honour bound.

"Who in hell'r you, buster?" When riled Fiona could be splendid. "All this noise an' fury, an' ya know what it signifies? Nuthin', laddie, just nuthin'. Wha'd'yer want? What's rilin' yer? Who are ya? Anyone important? Nah, yer just another two-bit actor in this bunk-house, ain't ya? Get lost, buddie, before I kick ya the length o'the corridor. Me an' my partner here are lookin' fer some peace an' quiet—an' you ain't it."

Faced with this level of unexpected opposition the pale-faced thin man, for as such was he now revealed, stepped back a couple of paces, looking as if he wished to emulate the German High Seas Fleet at Jutland—turn and run. The narrowness of the corridor, and the fact his escape route was blocked by his female companion—and the corridor further along merely ending in a blank wall—left him no recourse but to face his destiny.

"Oh, Ah." He straightened his shoulders under the evening jacket he wore, licked his lips, and brought out his apologetic smile No.2. "Sorry, ladies; didn't know the place was occupied. I was just, y'know—er, er,—"

"George an' I were jest lookin' fer a quiet corner t'tell each other the wedding's off, that's all, ladies." The lady in question now stepped forward into the limelight to show as a young blonde with a clear complexion, smiling green eyes, and laughing pink lips. "George an' I break off our engagement regular twice a week, y'understand. An' this's this week's contribution; sorry t'annoy ya all, we'll mosey along an' find some other dust-cupboard t'have a spat in."

"Why go t'the trouble?" Alice had come up behind Fiona and now, giving the two the eye, had made a fast character judgement. "Come on in an' rest the weary plates o' meat. We've got some fresh tea, if that'd help the course o'true love any? Step this way."

—O—

"Philomena Jones; call me Phil, everyone else does."

"George Anstruther, odd-job actor; turn my hand t'anything offered."

Fiona and Alice occupied the two rickety wooden chairs, while their visitors enjoyed the splendour of the long sofa against the far wall.

"So, what's the rub?" Fiona kicked-off the interrogation. "No, don't tell us; La Montaigne comin' it the South American dictator, eh?"

"She may be a world renowned singer, but she seems t'think everyone's against her, men an' women." Philomena sipped her tea with relish. "Gets up the noses of everyone she sees as a subordinate, chorus-girl, dancers, other singers, actresses. An' as for the men; well, she seems t'loathe the sex even more'n us gals."

"Yeah, if y're in her presence for any length o'time, you'll understand she curses everyone out she possibly can." George refreshed himself with the essence of the tea-plant, too. "Even gives Joubert a hard time, an' he's the one who booked her. Well, I mean t'say? What's eatin' her? An' if Joubert buckles an' tries t'give me the air, I'll have my lawyer on his sorry ass so fast he'll think a posse o'hungry coyotes has gotten his scent."

Alice had been sitting quietly, taking all this in. Her usual system was to take copious notes in shorthand in her notebook; but, lacking this fall-back action at the present moment, she now relied on her wits instead.

"Probably lack of self-belief." She nodded, as one in complete command of the situation. "Freud, or meb'be that other guy—Jung, that's the bozo—; meb'be either o'them'd know exactly what was up with her interior fixings, mentally speakin', that is."

"Al, give over with the psychiatrist bunkum, will ya?" Fiona was having none of this high-falutin' nonsense before guests. "Take no notice of her, she has these turns, y'see. You're both workin' on stage here, I takes it?"

"Yeah, we're part of the set-up supportin' the Great Madame." Philomena sounded as disgusted as she looked. "Me an' George here have a bit in a small excerpt of a big play—"

"Darkness Is The Night?" Alice jumping on this clue like a bloodhound.

"That's the thing, yeah." Philomena nodded. "Just something t'jolly the audience along till She-Who-Matters drags herself on-stage an' begins makin' like a cow with the gripe."

"I take it ya don't like the soprano in question much?" Fiona searching for the politic phrase, and very nearly getting there. "She seems t'have the capability of rattlin' the good natures of most everyone she meets, it appears."

Philomena set her teacup down and regarded Fiona and Alice with an intent gaze, green eyes scintillating like gems in sunlight.

"You're both those detectives on hand t'protect the Great Wen, ain't ya?" She cast a suspicious glance from one to the other women detectives. "Shouldn't you be on her side, or what?"

"Y'forget—or meb'be y'jest don't know as yet,—we've both personally experienced the charm an' social charisma of the lady in question." Fiona cocked a knowing dark eyebrow. "We may take her salt, but that don't mean we has ter eat it, much."

"Let's put our cards on the table, people." Alice shook her head with a latent savagery. "If the Soprano-Whom-Everyone-Loves was to fall down one of the multiplicty of spiral stairs in this godforsaken hole an' break her neck neither Fay here nor I'd shed a tear. Nor would we exert ourselves in a professional manner t'seek far an' wide fer any possible culprit, if it weren't an accident."

"Don't let that statement get abroad, ladies." George here piped up, smiling with a cold ferocity. "If it suddenly became public knowledge that of which you speak would become reality in, oh, something less than two hours, I bet."

A comprehensive silence made its presence felt in the small room over the next minute, as all parties took due cognisance of the fall-out likely to obstruct their day if the incident in question was to take place for real. Then, before the subject could be continued, the sound of rushing feet sounded outside in the corridor. A moment later there came a furious knocking on the door; followed by its throwing wide to reveal the portly figure, much out of breath and dangerously red in the face, of the hell-hole—,er, theatre's, manager Gordon Joubert.

"Jee-sus, ladies, she's dead. Madame Montaigne's fallen down a staircase an' broken her neck. Please, follow me."

—O—

The body, for as such the great soprano must of necessity now be alluded to, lay at the foot of one of the notorious spiral staircases; this one being in the eastern wing of the theatre, close to where the singer's dressing-room sat in one of the nearby corridors. She was indeed, as Fiona and Alice quickly established, quite dead; the cause being very obviously, gruesomely so, in fact, from a broken neck.

"Couldn't be brokener." Alice telling it like it was, though callous.

"What d'we do now?" Joubert seemed to have given up any grasp on logical thinking for the nonce.

"Hold-off on the cops, fer a little while." Fiona taking command with a determined growl. "First, we got'ta establish whether it was an act o'God, or a felony."

"Sh-t." Joubert not having considered this latter option previously.

"How can anyone tell?" Philomena pin-pointing the material problem like a good 'un. "She's fallen down a flight o'steps? Broken her silly neck, an' good riddance everybody in the dam' buildin'll be sayin' under their breath. What's ter know otherwise?"

Being given this entre Alice stepped up to the line, oozing professional capability at every pore.

"Nuthin' on the body, probably." She bent to take another, closer, look then straightened again, satisfied. "No chance o'fingerprints, with that frilly gown. Nothing lying around that looks like a weapon; nor anything simply lying about that might have been dropped by any culprit. Nah, what we got'ta do here is go over everyone's alibi's for the last hour or so—see if anyone was free at the likely time o'death, an' so could be the perpetrator; if, indeed, the ol' gal was perpetrated against."

"Jeez, that'd take bloody days, with all the personnel in this joint." Philomena again grasping the difficulty inherent in that option. "Call a meat-wagon, fer Chr-st's sake; have her removed t'the morgue, accidental death,—everyone happy, an' I mean happy. Let her go, is all."

Fiona here shook her head, foreseeing the difficulties ahead like a lighthouse at midnight. "When the cops take charge, an' they will, the first thing they'll do is take the high road—probable murder, till proven otherwise. Everyone in this building is gon'na have to give the Precinct a good alibi for the last coupl'a hours, is what's gon'na happen, I'm afraid. Can't be gotten out off. Joubert, go back t'yer office an' call the 5th Precinct; it's their ball-game now. Come on, people, let's move along; this's gon'na be a police-scene in a few minutes, an' ya don't wan'na be here when Inspector Fletcher arrives; he's got a beady eye, y'know."

The crowd of dancers and behind the scenes workers who had mysteriously congregated around the base of the staircase took the hint and disappeared, like mist at sun-up; leaving only the main players standing around the body.

"Well, she's sung her last leider." Alice stating the obvious, as was her wont in such circumstances. "Say, Fay, what about the audience? Will Fletcher wan'na keep them all in their seats, an' cross-examine each one, too?"

"Be a fool if he did." Fiona snorting impolitely at this idiotic suggestion. "None o'them've made it behind the scenes, so they can't be suspected of anything. This is a right state of affairs, an' no mistake, eh, lover—er, I mean, Al."

"Rest easy, lady," Philomena cast oil on troubled water, with a wink. "this's a theatre, y'know,—life's easy round these parts. So, what're the Feds gon'na do?"

"—'cause everyone a great deal of annoyance, is what, Phil." Alice giving the bad news with one of her best sneers. "It's gon'na be a dammed long night."

"Jeez."

—O—

"So, fill me in on why ya both think it was an accident, then?"

Inspector Jacob Fletcher sat on one of the chairs while Fiona and Alice had taken up residence on the long sofa. The door was again locked and the trio were in conference an hour after Fletcher's arrival; the time now being somewhere close to eleven at night.

"The place she was found, t'start." Alice laying out the problem like a chess grand master. "If someone was gon'na knock the nightingale off they'd have done it in the privacy of her dressing-room, not in public."

"An interesting point, t'be sure; but what was she doin' climbing an anonymous spiral staircase that only leads to the floor where the men see to the rigging for the scenery moves? Nuthin' fer her up there, surely?"

"This den's a bloody maze, Fletcher." Fiona shaking her head as one who knows. "Go down a corridor one day, try the same the next day an' it takes you somewhere dam' else; stairs' the same, lead one place one day, an' somewhere else the next. Figure she thought she was goin' sommer's she thought she knew the way to, but was wrong."

"An' lost her footin' an' fell down, or off, the dam' spiral." Alice sounding like a censorious schoolteacher. "Those spiral stairs only have bannisters like thin rods, an' they only come t'yer knee—easy as punch t'fall over."

A short pause ensued while Inspector Fletcher digested these views, then he came to himself.

"Was rather thinkin' along the lines o'weapons." He lowered his thick eyebrows as he regarded the women. "Things t'hit people with, t'kill 'em, y'know. Plenty o'likely items scattered everywhere in this doss-house, from what I've already seen."

"Jeez, Fletch, it's a dam' theatre." Fiona playing this fast ball wide to the outfield. "Enough dross an' rubbish lyin' around t'choke an elephant. Why, y'could easily find things gatherin' dust at the sides o'corridors that some singer or actress dropped accidental in 1899, an' no-one's since bothered t'pick up."

"Don't make 'em any the less a potential weapon." Fletcher at his most professional.

"You got somethin' in mind?" Alice, ever suspicious. "Fay an' I took a mighty close look at the corpse, before you arrived; didn't see anythin' in the way o'head injuries or whatever, apart from the obvious. Did she have a gunshot wound we never noticed, under that flouncy dress?"

"Nah, don't be silly." Fletcher backing like a ship in a gale. "All I'm sayin' is, there's lots o'heavy odds an' ends, lyin' loose all over the place that might, just might, have been used to, er, encourage her over the bannister-rail, is all."

The second pause in this conversation was wholly taken up with the ladies glancing at each other, and coming to the same conclusion.

"Fletcher, you're a pal; well, most o'the time." Fiona being smoothly patronistic as all get-out. "But this mad search for weapons of mass destruction is all hooey. She fell off the dam' stair. Why she went up it in the first place, maybe we'll never know; but she fell off an' broke her silly neck—end of story. If ya go huntin' fer a crime that never happened you're likely t'cause a whole lot of innocent people a great deal o'pain an' misery t'no end. Give it up. She broke her neck herself; it was an accident. Let's get out'ta this god-dam' hellhouse before it strikes midnight, fer God's sake."

"Yeah, ditto fer me, too." Alice working her back-up routine for all it was worth.

"Stay here, I'm goin' ter talk with the manager, what's his name again?"

"Joubert." Alice suppyling information like a good secretary.

"Huumph." Fletcher stood and made for the door. "Stay here, don't go gallivantin', ye'll jest get in the way o'the investigating officers in the course o'their duties. I'll come back fer ya both when I'm good an' ready. Maybe you better make yourselves another pot o'tea in the meantime?"

"Jeez."

"Chr-st."

—O—

The great thing about theatrical folk is their tendency to gossip at the drop of a hat, or of a soprano off a high stair. The present situation offering so much material it is only surprising the two ladies were left in isolation in their quiet nook for so long; but shortly after Inspector Fletcher went away on his safari of discovery a knock came at their door and Alice darted over to welcome the visitors.

"Phil, George, nice t'see you." Alice waved them into the den, indicating by a regal gesture that Fiona should vacate the sofa for the visitors. "Take a pew, how'd you get past the rozzers? They're everywhere in this dump, now."

"Oh, we know all the back-ways, Alice." Philomena grinned like a naughty school-girl. "Take more'n a cop t'hunt us through this maze, y'know. So, what's up? George an' I have been gettin' it hot an' hard from the rest o'the crew. What's doin'? How's it all goin'? Who did it, an' will they get a medal for it?"

"Ha, that's what Al an' I'd like ter know." Fiona shaking her head with a smile. "Fletch, that's the Inspector in charge, he's thinkin' along the lines o'dirty work at the cross-roads, as ya might expect."

"Wouldn't be a copper if he didn't, I suppose." George accepted a cup of tea from Alice with a nod of thanks. "Lettin' the side down, otherwise, I expect he might feel. Do cops ever think anyone's innocent, at all?"

"Not t'begin with, usually." Fiona giving the question the benefit of all her experience. "It's sort of bred in them from training college—guilty till proven innocent—"

"—an' even afterwards still harbour dark thoughts about them, anyway." Alice giving the guests the advantage of her own view of the world.

"So, what's everyone sayin'?" Fiona striving to get the conversation back on topic. "Any theories of who the culprit is, if said object is actually hoverin' in the offing?"

"Depends, don't it, on whether there's actually been a crime in the first place." George sipping his tea and cogitating at the same time. "I mean, was it an accident, after all. Rather a let-down for everyone if so. I mean, shes gone, certainly; but it'd have been all the more, what shall I say, satisfying if someone had managed to knock her off with malice aforethought, wouldn't it? Oh dear, am I sounding like the guilty party here?"

"No more'n anyone else trapped in this hothouse of an evenin', dearie." Philomena laughed her partner's faux pas off with a grin. "If you're lookin' for culprits you can pretty much take your pick from everyone working at the place, bar none, ladies."

"Did no-one like the gal?" Alice asking the vital question rather in hope than belief.

"If there was they never made their feelings public, far as I ever heard. George?" Philomena glancing at her companion with a raised eyebrow.

"Nah, take it as gospel, no-one had the bad taste t'think there was an iota o'good in the ol' growler." George twitched his upper lip in a half-sneer. "What good can ya say about someone who had no good in 'em? That's the bare truth. She could sing, certainly, but as a human being she failed on every level—unless it was self-love."

"Yeah, she had tons o'that t'spare." Philomena agreeing with her partner with a sad shake of her head.

"What about her relatives?" Fiona pinpointing an aspect of the late soprano's life hardly as yet touched on. "Husband? Mother? Or whatever?"

"Only a husband, and he was run over by a bus on 5th Avenue, NY, ten years ago." George springing this snippet of family history with an insouciant air. "Never re-married—"

"Who'd take her?" Philomena going for reality over romance.

"Uum." Fiona flummoxed at the very start. "We-ell."

"So, no tears at her passing?" Alice being rather more forthright than perhaps was warranted. "Only happy onlookers? Well, begs the question, was it worth anyone's trouble to knock her off?"

"Yeah, after all she's only been in this theatre for just under one week." Fiona puckered her lips in thought. "Hardly seems long enough for anyone to become inflamed enough to send her on her last train journey, free ticket an' all."

"That's what a lot of the gang are sayin'." George put his cup carefully down and sat back on the sofa. "Oh, she could get up anyone's nose at lightning speed, agreed, but even she'd be workin' hard t'do so enough in only six days to warrant bein' murdered for it."

"So what's the general attitude in the theatre, George?" Alice leaning forward to gaze on the actor. "For, or against, murder?"

"All in all, against." He shrugged reluctantly. "Pity, but that seems to be the opinion going the rounds. She fell down the stairs of her own free will an' ill-judgement, bein' the verdict of the jury."

"Huumph, an' there doesn't seem t'be any kind'a evidence to suppose otherwise." Alice nodding in conformity with this suggestion. "Unless Fletcher can come up with something at the last minute, anyway."

"Not much chance there, Al." Fiona shaking her head. "What with all the rubbish an' garbage scattered around everywhere. Almost anything could be dragooned in'ta bein' a deadly weapon. An', anyway, there ain't any evidence of any other wound or bruise t'account for a blow that'd have helped her on her way over the bannister."

"So it looks as if it's goin' t'be a case of adios, goodbye, who's the next act on the stage?" Philomena being true to the traditions of the theatre, like a trouper.

"Bit hard, ain't ya, Phil?" George stirred to answer by this harsh outlook. "After all, the poor gal couldn't help herself."

"Well, the truth is, in a month, no-one'll remember her t'any extent." Philomena raised her chin confidently. "The show must go on, y'know."

"Only, from now on without the Grand Soprano." Alice making the obvious more clear. "Hi-ho. Oh, God."

This last elucidated by the opening of the small dressing-room door again to reveal Inspector Fletcher back from his voyage to the Antipodes.

—O—

"That's a nice way t'greet anyone." Fletcher standing on his honour at such a low-level welcome home. "I might be the dam' Ancient Mariner, for all the happiness on offer. Anyway's, I got news."

"You've discovered the culprit, an' have 'em in cuffs already?" Fiona launching out on the waters of sarcasm and fantasy combined. "Congrats, who was it?"

Fletcher gave Fiona all the power of his No.1 arrrogant stare, known to have brought cold-hearted gangsters to tears—but against the female detective, nothing.

"Thanks fer yer enthusiam an' confidence." He regarding his audience, however, with less friendliness than the sad occasion might be supposed to demand. "Although, you'll all be unhappy t'hear, Doc Vanderlyn's jest had a good look at the remains an' associated area, an' has come up with the goods—accident, sure as pancakes an' maple syrup."

"How'd he work that, then?" Alice all ears, as was her way when any gossip was in the wind. "Thought the general trend was leanin' towards an act o'moral righteousness, though of legal dubiousness; the Big M, in fact?"

Fletcher gave the diminutive detective another sad stare before replying

"If ya must have hard facts, Doc Vanderlyn saw what ya all missed; the corpse was missing one shoe-heel." Fletcher grinned as Fiona and Alice glanced at each other. "Yeah, ya both overlooked that, didn't ya. Well, I didn't; I was jest awaitin' the Doc's corroboration of my opinion, which he did. Took him all of ten seconds t'dart up the spiral stair, an' find the lost item stuck in the holes of one of the metal-work steps higher up, where she'd taken her dive from. High heel caught in the cut-away design o'the step. She'd obviously tripped an' taken her last dive all accidental. So, the show's over, lads an' lassies; go home before ya all begin t'bore me. Hey, you?"

"Me?" George sat up, turning slightly paler than his normal pallor allowed.

"Yeah, you. Ya work here?"

"I am an actor—"

"Hah, tell someone t'get the place tidied up—looks like the corporation rubbish dump along all these corridors; hasn't been swept out, not really swept clean, in about twenty year by the look of it." Fletcher honoured the wilting actor with his most sarcastic sneer. "Someone could easy have an accident round these parts, if they wasn't watchin' their step. Well, I'm off, you lot can take your own tails home whenever the taste suits ya. G'bye, all."

—O—

"Well, that was a bust, an' no mistake." Alice slumped on the sofa, after the room had emptied of it's visitors, leaving only she and Fiona in attendance. "Bit of a damp squib, eh?"

"Oh, I don't know." Fiona busied herself taking the used tea-cups to the small sink at one side of the room. "Wasn't a crime, so no culprit; makes our life easier. If there had been dirty work it'd been up to us to nosey around an' pin the suspect t'the wall, like we usually do."

"Lot'ta work involved there; especially in this dam' theatre." Alice nodding sagely. "What with all the actors, dancers, chorus line, an' the backstage mob, it'd a taken us weeks t'figure out everyone's alibi."

"So, gon'na take a last circuit of the place, before leavin'?" Fiona wiping her hand on a small towel, none too clean. "Our last security check of the day, as it were?"

"Bit late for that, ain't we?" Alice raising her gorgeous eyebrows in query. "Shutting the stable door, an' all that."

"Least we can do, I think." Fiona waxing sentimental, against her better judgement. "Come on, won't take long; then we can hit the highway an' go home."

"Ah, home; almost forgotten what it feels like." Alice struggled up from the low sofa and made for the door. "So, what's keeping you, make a move, lover."

"Jeez."

—O—

The theatre by this time, near midnight, was empty of all visible life. No-one could be heard anywhere in the catacombs of the corridors, though the lights were still on.

"Must leave 'em on all night." Fiona making this suggestion as they wended their way hopefully towards the stage-door. "Hear anyone, anywhere?"

"Nah, not a whimper." Alice, by her partner's side, shook her head. "Fletch's gone home, an' taken his minions with him. There was no sign anything had ever happened at the foot of the staircase, as we saw a minute ago. They cleared the whole scene up in record time."

"Yeah, about the only part of the whole shack that's seen a cleanin' in decades, by the look of it." Fiona giving the place the benefit of her whole disdain. "Wonder if there's a night-watchman at the door; must be, you'd think."

"If there isn't, an' we can get out, who's to lock the place up behind us?" Alice pinpointing the relevant problem with the eye of a eagle.

They turned a corridor and the outside door came into view at the far end of the ensuing long corridor. From the glass partition of the small office where the door-keeper led his lonely life a bright light shone across that part of the corridor, otherwise not well served by illumination.

"Light's on, wonder whether Bert's still in situ?" Alice stepped forward to peer through the glass screen then stood back with a grin as the door at the side opened. "Hi'ya, Bert; dam' glad t'find you still here. Fiona was worried we wouldn't be able t'abandon ship."

"Fool; how's things, Bert?" Fiona smiled as they were ushered into the private domain behind the door. "All the cops beaten a retreat?"

"Dam' straight, ladies." Bert nodded in agreement as he indicated the straight-backed chairs in his little office. "Take the weight off; yeah, everyone's run fer the hills. Only me left t'hold the fort against all attackers. So, ya both glad there weren't no crime? Though, I suppose, it'd have meant work for ya if there had been."

"Oh, we can get along all the same." Alice coming it the experienced trouper. "Suppose with the usual life of this place the ol' gal'll be forgotten in a month or so. Rather a pitiful way to end a long career, it occurs to me."

Bert had poured three cups, and now handed the hot beverage to his guests.

"Milk on the table at your elbow, Miss Cartwright." He sat back on his own chair and contemplated infinity. "It does seem strange, no doubt; but that's the way in the theatrical business. When you're on the stage everyone loves you; but when your time's up the audience, an' those who worked beside you, find other icons t'revere—quicker than you'd think possible, often enough."

"You seen this sort'a thing before, Bert; you bein' so long in place, as it were?" Fiona smiling at their host the while. "Lot's of curious incidents must have happened here over the years, I'd imagine."

"More'n you'd credit, that's fer sure." Bert nodded, as one who knew. "Accidents; accidents that weren't really accidents, but were pushed along thataway; a man was found dead of a gunshot wound in the alley outside the door there, in nineteen and oh-seven. Don't think they ever discovered who'd done it. That's been the whole history of the theatre otherwise, up till today. Wonder if it'll make the papers?"

"Not more than a paragraph or so, I expect." Alice bringing her knowledge of the newspaper industry to bear on the subject. "As you say, not a murder, so no real interest in the story. She wasn't famous enough to merit the entertainment papers going overboard about her untimely demise, either. So, I'd say a week an' the whole thing'll be forgotten."

"Well, we better not keep you any longer, Bert." Fiona finishing her tea with a mighty smack of her lips. "Come on, lady, gulp it down, we've got places t'be t'night, still."

"Oh, where's that, then?" Alice placing her cup neatly on the small table and grinning at her host as she consulted the clock on the wall. "God, it's nearly half past midnight. Come on, gal, I need my beauty sleep. Bye, Bert; and thanks, you've been a doll."

"Yeah, you've been a pal, Bert; see ya later." Fiona placing a hand on her partner's shoulder as they made their way back into the dim corridor. "Right, lady, step lively now—you're holding me back from my night-time cup of cocoa."

"See how it is, Bert?" Alice gave their friend a last grin as they stepped out into the cold night air. "You've done the right thing in never getting married, sure enough."

"God, come along, lady, you're embarrassing me."

"Har."

—O—

As they drove down Pataloc Avenue in Alice's Plymouth two-seater Fiona mused on the late doings of the evening.

"Another case closed, though I don't suppose we can say the customer's really happy with the outcome."

"Having broken her neck, unmourned by one and all, I think you could say that." Alice curling her upper lip a trifle condescendingly. "Her having an accident that way, does it mean we're to blame—responsible for not stopping it from happening?"

"Nah," Fiona was having none of this defeatist attitude. "We'd have needed t'haunt her every footstep. Been alongside her in everything she did from morning t'dusk. No way we could be called out for not being in attendance at the relevant moment. It was an accident; people have accidents—you'll be next, by the way, if ya don't dam' well slow down. Still harbourin' idea's o'bein' Nuvolari, are ya?"

"Idiot." Alice made a noise between slightly parted lips which wasn't lady-like in any way. "What's this you said earlier t'Bert, anyway, as we left? About cocoa? We've tanked up on enough tea over the course of the evening, as it is, to sink a battleship."

"Only a sayin'." Fiona put up a hand to cover her mouth as she yawned widely. "God, I'm tired; been up since seven this morning—yesterday morning, in fact. I'm gon'na go in our condo, throw my coat on the floor, an' flake out till ten o'clock tomorrow morning."

"It's tomorrow morning already, dear." Alice jumping on this simple fact with relish. "An' if you think I'm gon'na be the one to hop about the bedroom collecting your cast-off's you've got another think coming. If you leave the place in a mess just because you're sleepy—well, the place'll still be lookin' like the inside of the Gazebo Theatre when you wake up, lady; have no doubts on that score."

"God, don't talk about the bloody theatre, will ya, lover?" Fiona sighed deeply. "It'll hav'ta be a dam' good show t'ever lure me back inside that doss-house again, believe me."

"Hah."

The End.

—O—

Another 'Drever and Cartwright' story will arrive shortly.

—OOO—