Authors: Leslie Leigh
Tad Mills was a strapping fellow with a flair for fashion that bordered on the melodramatic. Sauntering down the theater aisle in a wool trench coat with a Burberry scarf, his black Beatle boots announcing his presence along with his quick, determined gait, he looked almost like a Victorian character actor. He came down the aisle, peeling off a pair of kid gloves finger by finger.
"I suppose I'm in for some putrid whining from Master MacFetridge today, Benjamin?"
Allie turned around, stealing a look at Angus, who looked back with indifference once he saw who it was that had taken his name in vain.
He kissed Ben on the cheek and looked at Allie.
"And who do we have here? An amateur sleuth from our own squalid little dent in the Lower Champlain Valley?"
He smiled crookedly at Allie, with a twinkle in his eye. He was about six-foot-three, a mustache and goatee groomed to perfection amid a lustrous expanse of immaculate skin—an expanse, as it were, despite the thin face and high cheekbones. His eyebrows were plucked, and he had dark eyes that pierced through her when he smiled.
"You know exactly who this is," said Ben.
"Allie Griffin," he said with a mellifluous tone. "I know all about you. From the lurid embellishments of our dear friend Benjamin to the icky featurettes on that boom-mike crashing travesty that Verdenier has the unmitigated gall to call a local news station."
Allie Griffin was falling in love; even though she knew it would never work out, Tad and Ben being of a similar persuasion. But it was nice to gawk, and wonder.
"Charmed," she found herself saying, and took the hand he'd offered.
"Charmed indeed. I suppose Ben has been talking about me."
"He has. He said you have some sort of tale to tell."
"Ah yes. But not here. Too many gnats about. All with giant ears and Napoleon complexes."
"Where would you like to talk?" said Allie.
"I was thinking of the Creek Falls café? Unless, of course, you prefer to hang around here and listen to the squawking of a half a dozen theater nerds?"
"You don’t have to hang around here?"
"I do for a bit. Lord MacFetridge says he's got an announcement that he wants us all here for. After that, we shall have lunch. My treat."
Angus was pacing on the stage, elbow in palm, fingertips stroking the three or four days' worth of growth on his face. His lips were pursed, as if he was in deep thought or contemplation. Every so often he picked his head up to look around. Allie was fascinated with his appearance: the dark blue blazer over the buttercream turtleneck; the hardened features of a struggling artist, cut and shaped and smoothed to hide their wear and tear. Finally he stopped pacing, put his hands on his hips, and called out in a very loud voice for all the cast and crew to gather round. Sally Kane was the first to come up, and she bore a large bottle of champagne. One of the stagehands bustled out in front of the orchestra pit with a tray of glasses and plastic cups.
Once the cast and crew were assembled, Angus cleared his throat.
"Folks, I bet you're all wondering what I'm doing here with champagne."
What he announced next was something that was becoming more and more ordinary as time went by. Some time before, the New York Times had featured Verdenier as one of New England's hidden gems. Since that article appeared, every now and again some celebrity or notable name "discovered" Verdenier once again, making it known to the world and rekindling interest in the tiny burg for a time. There followed in the rambling wake a tide of minor celebs and go-getters, each ready to claim Verdenier in his or her own name. So when Angus MacFetridge announced that, "Sir Ivor Kelmscott will be attending our first performance," though everyone was ecstatic over the prospect of a major theatrical producer attending the show, no one blinked at the notion of such a lofty name gracing the ledger of the nearest hotel.
There arose, however, a chorus of squeals and sounds of rapture. Sir Ivor Kelmscott was going to be here. One of the biggest names on Broadway was going to see and hear what Verdenier had to offer. Perhaps he was here for leisure. Perhaps he had no designs on the denizens of tiny Verdenier whatsoever. It didn’t matter. This performance was going to lodge in his subconscious. He was going to go back to the glitz and glamor of Broadway with the sounds of Verdenier's best artists buzzing in his ears, and the sights imprinted on his brain.
Sally Kane sipped heartily and milled about, not enjoining much in the celebration. Allie could tell—the champagne preview notwithstanding—that Sally Kane had already been privy to the news.
Some had glasses, obviously from some limited set. The rest had plastic cups. Angus, being the director, naturally got a glass. It was filled almost to the brim when he sipped.
Angus flicked at his glass with his fingernail. "Where is Mr. Perfect Pitch? Tad Mills, what note is this? Don’t tell me. You'll run the risk of ruining your reputation as a bloated know-it-all." He flicked the glass again. "C? No, C sharp!"
"Close," said Tad. "D natural."
"Damn, and here I thought I was improving with age. I bow to your superior skills. Now go back to your hole, you blister-footed brat."
The chorus of excitement had died down almost as quickly as it had begun. It was as if a cloud rolled in, generated by the heat of eagerness and enthusiasm, and threatened to dump a deluge of bad tidings. It was something that Allie could feel in the air, and a quick analysis of snippets of conversation that passed her by told the story. Struggling artists are naturally cynical. With every bit of good news comes the inevitable storm afterward to douse any hopes of stardom. Hope is dangerous in the theater. There was work to do, and it was going to be tough. Every single person involved with this show was now accountable for its success or failure.
Del came over to her eventually, a cup of champagne in hand. "Oh my goodness."
"I don’t know what else to say."
"Del Collins is at a loss for words? Hold on. I have to get this on video."
"This is huge," said Del. "Do you have any idea what we're in for here? And do you have any idea what this means?"
"Excuse me, yeah. Even I know who Ivor Kelmscott is. You nervous?"
"Nervous isn’t the word." Del suddenly stiffened. "Heads up. I'm going to introduce you to someone."
A young girl with a short crop of dirty blond hair approached.
"Susanna Comfort," said Del, "this is Allie Griffin. Allie Griffin, Susanna Comfort."
Allie extended a hand. "Nice to meet you."
In Allie's estimation, Susanna Comfort was a young woman with an extreme lack of confidence. At five-foot-three at best—she was about Allie's own height—she looked three feet smaller. She stood with one arm gripping the other, as if it were a safety rail on a roller coaster. Her arms were muscular, however, and yet she stood self-consciously at a fixed amount of degrees away from anyone speaking to her, as she did to Allie at this moment, swaying her body away ever-so-slightly like it was on bearings and had a natural bend in that direction. Her hair was spiky and the color of straw. She wore a pout on her face that disappeared when she smiled, and returned with a vengeance once the smile was gone.
Susanna Comfort took Allie's hand weakly. "I've heard about you."
"Everyone has by now. It's starting to get a little annoying."
"I'm sorry," the girl said.
"I'm just kidding. Sort of."
"She doesn’t know your sense of humor," said Del.
The young girl gave a half-hearted chuckle through her nose.
Allie hated awkward silences, and one was creeping in just then. "So," she said in an attempt to defuse it, "what role do you have?"
The girl smiled. "Understudy."
Allie waited, and there was nothing else from her.
"Ok then." She turned to Del. "Delaney. Don't we have a...thing?"
"Yes, we have to go do that thing."
"Well, it was nice meeting you," said Susanna Comfort.
"Likewise," said Allie, and she grabbed Del by the arm, leading her away.
"Holy moley," she said once the two of them were out of earshot.
"Would you believe that's Sally Kane's understudy?"
"You're kidding. She's like some sort of...silence machine. With the batteries taken out."
"And you wanna know the pity of it?" said Del. "She's actually an amazing singer. She lacks confidence is all. Oh, and the ability to read music. That's easily fixed. The pity of it is she could be stellar if she'd only muster up a little of what Sally has by way of self-assurance."
"Speaking of," said Allie, motioning ahead with her chin.
"We have not had the pleasure," said Sally Kane, sidling up in clip-cloppy heels, her mouth pulled up in the same phony smile she'd given Angus.
Self-assurance was the right word to use, Allie thought. Confidence, poise, and grace. A natural-born actress. Her voice projected in full, rich tones, and in singsong notes of emotion. Her full, red lips and her wide, staring eyes spoke of controlled flirtatiousness. She was a platinum blonde, an obvious trophy to someone who sought such things in women; she had a classy, vintage look, like the actress Jean Harlow.
"Allie Griffin," said Allie Griffin.
"The woman who solves crimes," said Sally. "I know who you are, Allie Griffin. Listen, I'd love to stay, but I've a great many things to do, if you don’t mind. Cheers!"
Allie watched her walk off the stage. What she wouldn't give to have that kind of presence, even if it was only skin-deep.
"Well? What do you think of Sally Kane?"
"She's pretty amazing, I have to say."
"Maybe you just don’t know her, but she'd stab you in the back just as soon as look at you."
"That's very interesting. Well, I gotta go. I've got a lunch date with your choreographer."
Del giggled. "Tad?"
"He wants to talk to me about something."
"Have fun. He's adorable, but...you know."
"You can look, but don’t touch."
As Allie was about to make her way out, Angus brushed by her as he bolted onto the stage with his empty champagne glass in hand.
Mesdames et messieurs
! One more time before we break! We're going to nail this one if it lands every one of us smoldering in an urn on some loved one's mantelpiece!" He scowled at Ben in the orchestra pit and tapped the empty glass with his fingernail. "Right, maestro, in the key of D!"
The Creek Falls café was bustling as usual. The hipster waitstaff flitted from table to table, and the sounds of dishes and orders called out in strong tones created a tiny concerto in the atmosphere of the small eatery.
A young waiter with whom Allie had flirted in the past came over, chatted small talk and flirted back at her, took their orders and scurried off again.
"He's cute," said Tad. "Not my type, but adorable."
"Unfortunately he is my type."
"I've heard," the man said with a wink.
With an urgent need to change the topic, Allie said, "Tad, my boy, lay it on me."
"Right. For the last week or so, I've been getting what you might describe as a rather bizarre series of phone calls. The phone rings, I pick up, I hear a distinct tone lasting about three seconds, and then the call ends."
"Like maybe a fax machine?"
"Not exactly. I know that sound. No, this is more like the tone you hear from those emergency broadcast system tests. Only those are usually a double tone, in the interval of a major second, if you really want to know."
"Yes, it's called a sine wave. More trivia. Perfectly useless in the real world."
"I love trivia. I have a lint trap of a mind for things like that."
"Well, for me, it comes with the territory. My background is in piano. My parents discovered that, at a very early age, I had perfect pitch. What they never discovered was my loathing for instrumental performance. I was and have always been a dancer right here." He tapped at his chest. "I was never a musician."
"What exactly is perfect pitch?"
"Some call it a gift, others a curse. I call it a distraction. Those afflicted can tell the exact name of any note on the scale when they hear it, anytime, anywhere, without the use of any instrument or pitch pipe for reference. Think of it as being able to accurately estimate the length of a tree branch down to the quarter inch from a mile away."
"Yes. Wow. Only it has absolutely no practical application in music—save for being able to tune a guitar by ear—and it has no practical application at all outside of musicianship."
"Still," said Allie, "it's an amazing talent to possess."
Tad shook his head. "Not on your life. It's a parlor trick at best. I can tell you the name of any note you hum. The only way anyone can tell I'm not lying is to have an instrument on hand, or someone else with perfect pitch—there's only one in every ten thousand. Our dear Angus MacFetridge has excellent relative pitch. He only needs to hear a note once, as a reference point. But he doesn’t suffer like I do. Anytime a singer is off-key it's like nails on a chalkboard, pardon the banal phrase."
"I was never musically inclined."
"Count yourself among the blessed. I've never met anyone in the industry who is one hundred percent at peace. The artist's temperament, you know."
"I've heard. Del is quite the textbook case."
"Delaney Collins is a treasure among treasures. A jewel in the desert."
"I have to agree."
Their food arrived. Tad Mills, a man pushing fifty, winked at the waiter.
A man after my own heart
, thought Allie.
"So," she said, "back to your little mystery."
"Where was I? No, it's not a fax machine. It's a single tone, a sine wave."
"And every time it's the same."
"Well," said Allie, a whole lot of blank running through her mind, "so far I can’t think of there's anything all that strange about it. It may be just a bizarre glitch in your phone carrier's electronics system or something. If you want, I have a friend who's a whiz at that stuff. He could take a look at it. It would only cost me a home-cooked meal."
"Hold on," said Tad, sounding apprehensive. "I haven’t told you the complete story. The calls on their own wouldn’t be so bizarre, if it weren't for the times at which they came through."
"The very first call came in five days ago at 1:55. The tone was a D natural."
"That's very precise."
"Thank you, perfect pitch. But there's another reason to take note. The next call came through the next day at 1:30. The tone was C natural. The next day at 2:46. The tone was B natural. And the next day—"
"Let me guess, A?"
"Exactly. Can you guess what time it came in?"
Allie thought for a moment. She looked at Tad. The man had a wry smile curling around his lips.
She returned his smile. "I told you, I'm not too good at this, but your face tells me there's something to this. So I'm going to take a guess." She thought about it. Music. Notes. Sounds. Something clicked and she said, "Frequencies?"
"Oh, honey, you
good. Yes, frequencies. The A note came in at 4:40. 440 Hertz. That's the exact frequency of an A note in the fourth octave."
"Ok, hold on," Allie said, whipping out her phone. She Googled "music scale frequencies" and opened the first dot-edu link listed. "Ok," she said, "the next call, if it was..." she looked up, "what comes after A?"
"G. Let's see. G in the fourth octave is 392 Hz, so that couldn’t be it, because that couldn't correspond with a time." She looked down the chart listed on the website. "Ok, there is no time that would correspond. The fifth octave is 783. The sixth is 1567..."
"Allie Griffin, I thought you were smart."
She looked up. He stared right into her eyes.
"Think," he said softly.
She looked back down at the chart and shook her head. "I don’t...hold on..."
Of course, she thought. There was no answer in civilian time, but there could be in military time. She looked at the frequency for G in all octaves. The closest she came was the third octave: 196. She thought for a moment. 1960?
Think, Allie think.
Military time goes up to twenty-four for the hours, but follows civilian time for the minutes. So 1960 would equal...
"8:00!" she said, loud enough to draw attention. "Sorry, 8:00."
He sat back in his seat. "Very good. 8:00 on the nose the call came through. Today, of course, I'm expecting a call at—"
"3:49," Allie interrupted, jabbing a finger toward him.
"Exactly." He looked at his watch. "And it is 2:30 now."
"So, I don’t understand. Is someone playing a game with you?"
"Possibly. Only that wouldn't account for this."
He leaned over and reached into the inside pocket of his trench coat and extracted a blank envelope. He handed it to Allie and nodded at her to open it. Inside was a folded piece of paper. On it, in 12-point Ariel font, was the following:
146 329 440 146
"Huh," said Allie.
"I received this in my mailbox two days ago. It was underneath all the other mail in a blank envelope. Somebody hand-delivered it."
She looked at her phone again.
Tad's voice lowered. "If these are frequencies, then there's no question they spell out—"
," said Allie.
He nodded. "
"Do you know who could have delivered this?"
"Not a clue."
"You said the calls started five days ago?"
"If I'm not mistaken, and there are only eight notes in an octave, then the calls could be referring to some kind of countdown."
"That's what I thought."
She tried sizing him up, but it was difficult. Tad Mills was a perfectly composed individual. "I'm assuming you haven’t yet taken this to the police."
"I didn’t think anything of it until this morning when I pieced together the code regarding the frequencies."
"Uh huh. But you are going to take it to the police?"
The man's silence indicated a volume of unspoken words.
"There's more," said Allie, "isn’t there?"
"I think I know who's behind it."
"But you just said—"
"I said I don’t know who delivered it, but I think I know who's behind it."
"Huh. Interesting. Ok then, who's behind it?"
"Is that so? Why?"
"Because I insulted his poor little buttercup, Sally Kane."
Tad placed his elbows on the table and leaned in. "Miss Sally Kane is a talentless hack who gets roles by sleeping with her directors. I let her know this in no uncertain terms, and in front of the entire cast of the last show we worked on together."
"Oh, and I told her she had the face of an overdone omelet."
Allie had started to sip her water, but stopped abruptly at this last line from Tad, dribbling and choking slightly. "Excuse me."
"Listen, sweetheart, you're having lunch with the Wicked Witch of the West here. I can get nasty when I want to. Anyway, I didn’t take it to the police because I didn’t think it was a matter for the police."
"Not a matter for the police?" Allie whispered. "Tad, it's a death threat."
"From a nobody who's just trying to scare me. Angus MacFetridge is a bully and Verdenier is his middle school playground."
Allie looked at the note again and then folded it along its original creases. "This was folded extremely neatly. Like someone who's compulsive about such things. It's really good paper too. Not exactly office copy paper." She sniffed at it. "Nothing unusual. Although..." she sniffed at it again. "A hint of tobacco?"
"Cologne. From my pocket."
"Is Sally Kane the type who would fold a letter like this?"
"For all her prissy exterior, the woman is a redneck at heart. In other words, no."
She examined the envelope. "Self-sealing. Yet they left a tiny bit of the peel-off tape on the seal. For a compulsive person, that's a no-go. It looks like whoever typed this up had it all neatly folded, ready to be sent, and then sent it in a hurry for some reason."
She replaced the note in the envelope and handed it back to him.
"So," said Tad, "what do we think?"
"Well, I'm assuming you came to me because you'd like to know exactly who's behind the threat?"
"You sure it's no
"How can you be?"
quid pro quo
, darling. It's merely retaliation for an insult, designed to frighten me. I'm not frightened, but I am angry. There was nothing I accused Sally Kane of that wasn't true. Everyone needed to hear it. It's a good thing I'm the only choreographer in town, otherwise I wouldn’t be working on this show. It's by the good graces of our producer, the fabulous Del Collins, that Angus allowed me to come on board."
Allie thought for a moment. "Where will you be today at 3:49?"
"Back at the theater. I have to consult with Angus about the dance numbers."
"I'll be there too. I want to observe what happens."
The check came and Tad signed for it.
They walked back to his car, the weather being just a little too chilly for strolling the quarter mile back to the theater. They got in and she thanked him, and he smiled and said nothing.
His smile was gorgeous. Allie could stare into those eyes all day. She could dive into them and swim around. He was complex enough to be interesting.
And then, once again, he mentioned how cute the waiter was.