Authors: Leslie Leigh
The wind was picking up. Autumn in Vermont brings with it a chill filled with all the foreboding of winter. There were also clouds gathering. And the skies looked as though they were about to break.
Such was the walk from her car to the Verdenier Opera House.
Ernie the stagehand had let her in, and she thanked him sweetly, and the sixty-year-old man blushed when she did. It melted her heart.
"I need to borrow some props, would you do that for me? Lend me some props?"
"Depends. What are they and how much of them do you need?"
"The glasses. The ones you guys used the other day to toast with the champagne."
The big man shrugged. "I don't see a problem. The show's not going on. And you don’t exactly look like the kind that'll run off with nothing."
He led her backstage and to the prop room. It was tiny, too small for this theater, Allie thought.
"Small town show biz, gotta love it," Ernie said, as if reading her thoughts.
To add to its diminished appearance, the room looked like King Tut's tomb, crammed floor to ceiling with treasures. And yet, there was a neatness to it that you could tell just by looking at it for under a minute.
Ernie went right to the glasses as if he'd put them there himself.
"You sure found them quickly."
"I got lucky," the old man smiled. "I didn’t put these back. I think Angus did. He's lazy so he put them right up front here. They're supposed to go up on that shelf over there."
"Wait, so Angus put these back? Why? I mean, if he's lazy, why would he offer to do it?"
"Everyone here helps out. I'm not saying everyone does a good job, but everyone helps out. Small town show biz, gotta love it. He's a good guy, Angus. One of us. A union man."
Allie stared into the man's kind eyes and smiled. "Ernie, can we talk for a minute?"
She walked from her car to the front door of Ben's cottage amidst the hurried leaves scratching across the pavement, a tote bag filled with breakables.
The glasses clinked around nervously inside. She had no time to wrap them up individually. She'd gotten Ernie to lend her a single piece of bubble wrap to line the bag and that was it.
Ben greeted her warmly, as he always did, and invited her in.
"So, twice in one day? What did I ever do to be so blessed?"
"I need your help with something. To the piano."
They went over to the piano. Ben sat down as Allie put her bag on the floor, reached in, and extracted five champagne flutes. She lined up all five atop the instrument.
"I did a little research. We'd be in trouble if these were from some expensive set. Thankfully, theater production companies have to stretch their budgets." She bent down and got a pencil out of her bag. "Ok. Ready?"
Ben let out a snicker. "Ready for whatever."
"Ok," she said, catching her breath. "What note is this?"
She struck the first glass in the line.
Ben plunked around three or four keys and found the note. "E flat."
"Ok. Now this one."
And thus, they went through all five. Allie had to go through all five to be sure, even though the second one she'd struck had been the D natural. It was the only D natural in the set.
She breathed out a sigh of relief that she felt like she'd been holding for a week.
"Thank you," she said. She picked up the D glass and left the others. "Do you mind if I leave these here?"
"Uh, sure, why not."
She kissed Ben on the forehead and left abruptly.
The rain let loose just as she got into the car.
She could tell Sgt. Beauchenne wasn't happy about meeting out here in the rain. Although they were under a covered bridge, the bridge was old and leaky and did nothing to shield them from the icy gusts that ripped through the tunnel.
Allie found she had to raise her voice in order for the sergeant to hear her over the din of the storm.
"This is the glass you need," she yelled, handing over the prized bit of evidence, which she'd wrapped carefully in a several sheets of highly absorbent paper towel. "It may still have a trace of Haldol in it. This is the one. Don’t ask how I know."
Beauchenne took the glass from her. "How did you—"
"I said don’t ask."
She watched the man's gray-stubbled face for any signs that would betray how he felt behind his wonderful eyes.
"Are we cool?" he finally asked.
"You tell me."
He smiled. "You are one pain in the—"
"Oh, don’t even."
"What's wrong Allie? What's really on your mind?"
"I'm sorry I kinda freaked out on you the other day. And this morning."
"I have it coming to me sometimes. The cop thing, you know, it makes me a little callous."
"True, but sometimes I get lost in my own head. And I don’t know what I'm saying because I'm too busy thinking. Does that make sense?"
"From anyone else, no. From you, it makes perfect sense."
"Well, I'm sorry, Frank."
"I'm sorry too, Allie."
They hugged, and it lasted a little too long. And Allie felt a teenage nervousness beginning in her belly. She pulled away and looked into his eyes.
Time to snap back into reality.
"Tad's not the only lefty in the bunch," she said.
She was at her house, gathering herself together, feeding the cat, when her phone rang.
"Hi Douglas," she said.
"Dougie the bartender."
"Yup, I know. How are you Douglas?"
"Lousy. The missus has got me trussed up like little Lord Fauntleroy over here and I'm stuck serving bottom feeders as appetizers. Other than that, everything is fine. I got this tooth problem though."
"Douglas, I'm sorry to hear that. What can I do for you?"
"Well let me tell you about my tooth. It's the back molar. We were eating popcorn, the missus and I, while we were watching that movie about the Titanic."
"Yeah, that's the one. With that woman with the eyes who gets naked and that blond kid who freezes to death?"
"I've seen it."
"Awful. Anyway, we were eating popcorn. And you know how when you eat popcorn, you get those little things in your teeth? What do you call those things?"
"Yeah? I always called them corn skins. Anyway, I start digging around in there with my finger trying to get it out."
"Douglas, I'm running a little late here."
"Alright, but just listen. And so I'm digging and digging. And my wife she tells me that I look like a schlub doing that and will I please cut it out so she can watch the boat sink. So I'm sitting there and I start digging at my molar with my tongue. It's terrible. Did you ever try and dig a corn skin out of your molar with your tongue?"
"I don’t believe I've ever had the pleasure."
"Pleasure? Not on your life. I would have given anything to change places with that blond kid in the movie. So I wake up the next day and this thing is still stuck in there. So now I gotta go to the dentist. I haven't been to the dentist in years. Turns out, they all wear gloves now. Ain't that a kick? My dentist when I was a kid used to stick both his bare hands into my mouth. Anyway, I'm sitting in the chair and he says let's take an x-ray. He takes a picture of my chompers and says I need a root canal. I say that's fine but while you’re in there can you get this corn skin out? He says yes and he grabs these long tweezers. And he reaches in there and he yanks the thing out. And then he says something interesting. He says my teeth are so bad that I could probably use a whole new set."
"Oh my, Douglas, that's terrible. But I really need to—"
"Hang on, I'm getting to it. What's interesting is that he looked at my teeth and said that the corn skin got stuck in the one tooth that had nothing wrong with it. He said it was a perfectly straight tooth, almost a what do you call it—an anomaly. He said that's the one you have to watch out for, he told me. Keep an eye on that tooth. You're gonna need that one."
"Well, Douglas, that was a very interesting—"
"Yeah, but there's a point. You know I know you like to investigate these little murder mysteries and such. This is a good lesson. Watch the good guys, the ones that don’t look like they're up to anything. The ones that ain't got a reason to do nothing bad."
"Ok, Douglas, will do."
"Alright, listen, I'm not a philosopher. I'm dressed like Bob Cratchit over here and I'm trying to pass the time cuz business is dying."
"Well, Douglas, I have to go. Good luck to you. I'll see you soon, alright?"
"Ok, sweetheart. Bye bye."
Whatever would she do without that man, she thought.
The rain poured down in thick sheets. She walked briskly from her car to the office door of the barn.
Susanna Comfort was there filling out invoices.
"I think you know more about this than you’re letting on."
The girl was flustered. "I'm not— What do you mean?"
"You're good, Susanna. But you're forgetting that I've known actresses. There's a certain flawlessness to every performance that you just don’t get in real life. You were too good the other day, that is, when you were following your script. When we chatted about life and your dreams, you were spontaneous, more real. That wasn't Susanna Comfort I was speaking to, that was Jo."
The girl watched the rain for a moment.
"What's going through your head?" Allie asked with soft comfort in her voice.
The girl breathed heavily. "You know the thing about Vermont? The land is so vast in between cities and townships that I look off at those mountains over there and I can just feel that there's a world beyond them. And here I am, cleaning out stalls, shoveling hay, delivering milk, doing office busy work. Some glorious actress life I lead."
"It could change, Susanna. Angus isn’t the only director out there who'll look at you. What did he promise you in return for keeping tabs on me?"
The girl's eyes widened.
"It was tough," said Allie. "I couldn’t understand what it was that bothered me. You know, this has happened before. Some little detail is stuck in my head, all fuzzy, and I can't make it out. And it drives me crazy. I start pacing and walking in circles like some caged animal. And I look around everywhere for clues as to what this fuzzy, blurry thing in my head could be. It hit me when I was with Ben Sokol. We had a little music lesson, he and I. He taught me a little about the notes on a scale and frequencies and so forth. And I looked at the music on top of his piano. All those notes. I could never understand them. Then I remembered, all of a sudden, neither could you."
The girl's face had drained.
"How could you have encoded that note with such a detailed musical reference with no help at all?"
"How did you know I can’t read music?"
"Del told me. She also told me you're an amazing singer with loads of potential."
Allie let this sink into the girl's head. She watched a confused jumble of emotions war for dominance on her face.
The girl finally straightened up and spoke with assurance. "He told me you were looking into Sally Kane's murder. He wanted some things to come out about her personal life. Things only he could know. So he entrusted me with the secret about her and that group. He told me all about it and it scared me. But then, you know how Angus can be? No, you couldn’t know. How could you?"
"I have a feeling I know where this is going. But go on."
The artist in her spoke now, hurt and longing to find a dream. "He's very good at it, you know? Telling young girls and boys that they'll be big stars. He makes you believe only he can see it. And then when you see the way he treats others, you start to believe you’re something special. Anyway, he told me to leave that note for you. Told me you'd eventually find out who sent it. I couldn’t believe how quickly it took you. I honestly didn’t think it would be that very day. It kinda scared me. I wasn't prepared for it."
"That's why you ran from me when I came down here and visited you."
The girl nodded.
"And so I guess you told him about our little chat that day?"
To Allie's surprise, the girl shook her head. "I couldn't. I felt too strange about it. I just told him you hadn’t been down to see me yet."
Allie smiled at her. "You've got a pretty good head about you, you know that?"
"He's not a bad guy, Allie. He's just...Angus. He's an artist just like me. He's got a lot of passion. He takes care of his mom, who should really be in an institution. Encourages young folks about—"
"Wait," said Allie. "What did you say just then?"
"A lot of passion."
"No, about his mom?"
"Yeah, he takes care of her."
"You said institution?"
"Yeah, she's mentally disturbed. He's got a lot on his hands with her. That's why I feel for him. And I think that's why he can be so mean."
Susanna Comfort's words died away, and all Allie could hear were the words Angus had spoken to her over their lunch together. They started as a whisper. Now they rang out like crystal bells in her skull:
I drove her crazy, literally.