by Andrew MacRae
The Case of the Villainous Vaudevillian is part of an anthology by Andrew MacRae called The Case of the Murderous Mermaid and Others, which was reviewed here in KRL. It was published by Untreed Reads. There’s a link at the end of this story where you can purchase the anthology.
“No, no, a thousand times no!” Polly Pure crossed her hands over her rather generous bosom and looked with defiance at the man confronting her. “I’ll never marry you, Barty Backstabber!”
Barty twirled one end of his magnificent mustache and smirked. “You will, even if I must,” he faltered as he regarded Polly’s girth, then pressed on. “Even if I must carry you away!” Polly’s face reddened, and she glared at Barty. That pause was not in the script. The audience loved it though and laughed and clapped as Barty struggled to lift Polly to his shoulder. Giving up after one last look at the audience for sympathy, Barty took his captive by her ample shoulders and steered her off the stage to appreciative applause as the curtain closed behind them.
Tempers flared backstage at the Historic Irvington Playhouse.
“Raymond, how could you humiliate me like that?” There were tears in Polly’s eyes and her voice quavered.
“What else was I to do, Agatha, dear? You didn’t expect me to attempt to lift you, I hope.” With a sneer better fit for his stage persona, Raymond Rice turned on his heel and stalked off, barking orders at stagehands assembling the next scene.
“Tony! I want more fog this time. Much more fog. This is supposed to be The Great Dismal Swamp, not a tea garden! You,” he pointed to a hapless stagehand, “go up to the box office and tell Frank to remind the audience that all cell phones are to be turned off during the performance. I distinctly heard one ringing as I made my entrance. That will not be tolerated!” He strode on without waiting for an answer.
A minute later the backstage lights flickered.
“Thirty seconds!” called Tony, the stage manager. Another man in costume joined Raymond in the stage wings. He turned to the newcomer.
“Dick, dear boy, try not to upstage me tonight, won’t you? Let’s not forget for whom the audience has come to see.”
Dick Lockridge, alias Tommy Trueblood, flushed under his makeup. “But Raymond, I’m the hero. I’m supposed to get the attention. That’s what heroes do.”
Raymond’s reply was preempted by the curtain opening and the pianist playing the opening chords of the show’s theme. A moment later there was a round of applause and murmurs of appreciation as the audience took in the scene presented on stage.
The set was that of a trackless swamp. Artificial plants and vines filled the stage and around them all swirled a thick fog that flowed downstage from hidden pots of hot water in which chunks of dry ice bubbled and burbled. Blue and green lights illuminated everything, heightening the illusion of vast murkiness.
With years of experience guiding him, Raymond waited until the perfect moment at which to make his entrance, striding across the stage and beginning the scene.
One of the stagehands whispered to Dick, who was watching and waiting for his cue. “He acts like he owns the place.”
“That’s because he does,” came the whispered reply.
An hour and a half later, the stage of the restored vaudeville theater looked much different. The show, an afternoon matinee performance, was over, and the audience was gone. The house lights were up and work lights lit the stage. The cast and crew of The Perils of Polly Pure were assembled, some resting in the first few rows of audience seats, others on chairs brought out on stage, others simply standing and waiting. At long last, Raymond Rice, star, director, and principal playwright deigned to saunter on stage. He was shorn of makeup and costume but the magnificent long handlebar mustache that adorned his face was real. Its blackness mirrored the color of his slicked and parted hair, and the coolness with which he was greeted by his fellow players
Raymond tapped the stage floor with his heavy-handled walking stick. The theater grew quiet.
“I suppose you are all wondering why I’ve called this meeting,” he began.
“Come on, Raymond. It’s almost four thirty. We have to be back here by seven for tonight’s performance, and we want to rest and have supper. Can the speeches and tell us what’s up.” Raymond looked around for the speaker.
“Ah, Tony, ever the practical one. Not to worry. I shan’t be long. I simply thought the rest of you might be interested in knowing…”
“What?” “What’s going on?” “What is the news?” came questions from every direction. Raymond held up both hands. His teeth gleamed in the harsh light.
“In knowing,” again he paused, relishing the attention, “that among the audience this afternoon, at my special invitation, were three representatives of the Cawdor Foundation. And, based on what they saw today, as well as the application I submitted many, many months ago, they are willing…” Raymond stopped and looked around at each member of the stage company, “They are willing to grant us money enough to enable the Irvington Playhouse to become a full time operation with six productions a year!”
Gasps of surprise filled the theater as everyone began speaking at once. Raymond held up his hands for silence, but it was at least a minute before he could be heard.
Agatha Marsh spoke first. “But Raymond, we’re a volunteer group!” She turned and looked around. “We all have jobs and responsibilities. Two shows a year is all we can handle.” Others in the group murmured their agreement.
“Agatha, dear, I understand and believe me, I will take your and the other’s limited availability into consideration as I write and cast our new shows.”
It took a long moment for the full meaning of Raymond’s words to sink in.
Dick Lockridge found his voice. “You mean you’re planning on using other actors?” A buzz of anger swept through the group. Raymond tried to placate them.
“Now, don’t get upset. Don’t worry, you’ll all still have a place here. After all, most of you were with me when I bought and restored this wonderful little theater fifteen years ago. But think about what this means. Instead of struggling and skimping and making do with the small interest I receive from my trust fund, we can finally make this theater the success it deserves to be. Besides, it’s only natural that after all this time we injected a little new blood, right?”
Agatha was still trying to understand Raymond’s words. “But I’ll still play the ingénue, won’t I? It’s the part I’ve always played.” She looked around for support. “People love to see me play that part. They expect me to play that part.” Her words were greeted by an uncomfortable silence.
“Agatha, pet, let’s face it, you no longer quite fit the role.” Whether or not Raymond intended his words to remind the others of the recent need to expand Agatha’s costumes for each new season, the effect was the same. Agatha’s face went white as several people snickered. A distinguished looking older man standing next to Agatha put his arm around her.
“Really, Raymond. Have you no tact at all?”
Raymond regarded the man before answering, as if calculating how to play the scene. Stan Gardner, an estate lawyer by profession and an old friend of Raymond’s late mother, played father figures in the plays. He was one of the few members of the company Raymond treated with respect. Raymond made a short bow of deference.
“I’m sorry, Uncle Stan. Agatha, my apologies, I suppose I could have put that better.” He turned to the others. “But be that as it may. The fact is that our little group is changing, evolving and growing. All parts and activities from actors to stagehands from ticket sellers to ushers, from props to wardrobe will be open and filled by whoever is best suited, whether by a current member of our little company or by someone new. It’s time we learned that no one person is indispensable.” He chuckled and pointed a long finger at his chest. “Well, no one except for me.”
“What, you’re still going to play the villain? Gee, how appropriate.”
Raymond glared at Dick Lockridge.
“I shall cast the best person I deem fit for each role.”
The meeting broke up shortly after that with the actors and crew leaving in small groups, discussing the news Raymond had given them.
“Frank, may I have a word with you?” Raymond called to a small, slight man who turned back and joined him on stage. Raymond eyed the man as he approached. Frank Dixon wore a red and white striped shirt, a bowtie, and a straw boater.
“First, let me thank you for taking the time and effort to look the part when in the box office.” Raymond had pitched his voice so those remaining could hear. “I only wish others were so supportive of our efforts.” His point made, he lowered his voice. “Frank, a favor if you could. The Cawdor Foundation is sending someone to go over books the day after tomorrow and you know I rely on you for anything to do with numbers. Would you be available to help?”
The two men walked off together toward the theatre offices with Raymond describing in excited detail his plans for the future of the Historic Irvington Playhouse – all the while not knowing he was about to make his final exit.
“I did it! I killed Raymond Rice.” Agatha Marsh burst into sobs and lowered her head to the table. She was in the theater’s green room, the place where the cast and crew relaxed during performances. She sat at a small table, flanked on either side by the corpulent Sergeant Ferguson and his partner, Detective First-Grade Kelly Stone, new to the force and forever, or so it seemed to him, junior to his partner.
It was seven in the evening. The police had been summoned to the theater an hour before when Tony Collins, the stage manager, discovered Raymond’s body when he returned to the theater to prepare for the evening’s performance.
Ferguson looked from the sobbing woman to Stone. “Well, Sonny Boy, I guess we’ve got this case wrapped up.”
Much as he hated to agree with his disagreeable partner, Kelly had to admit he could be right. “Miss Marsh,” he began in a gentle tone. “Miss Marsh, we need to clarify a few details, if that’s okay
Agatha Marsh raised her head and nodded.
“Would you like a glass of water?” Agatha nodded again. Kelly got up and went to a nearby water cooler. It glugged and dispensed a cup of water which Kelly brought back and set in front of Agatha. She took it with both hands and drank.
“Now, tell us in your own words what happened.”
“Well, I came back after everyone left the theater, just a little after five.” She looked from Ferguson to Stone as if unsure to whom she should address her words. Kelly nodded in encouragement and she continued.
“I was upset about what Raymond had said about my not playing the ingénue in new shows. I wanted to try to change his mind. I saw Raymond’s car in the parking lot so I knew he was here. When I came in, he was sitting in a chair on the stage with his back to me, scribbling on some papers. I saw his walking stick leaning against the wall where I came in and…”
“Go on,” prompted Det. Stone in a gentle voice.
“It’s like I was in a trance or something, as though someone else was doing it and I was only watching. I walked up quietly behind him and bashed him over the head with the walking stick.”
“And then what happened?”
“Nothing. I mean, he just sort of slumped over with his head on the desk.” Her voice caught. “It was horrible. His head was all bashed in. I didn’t think a walking stick could do that, but it was horrible.” Agatha began crying again.
Kelly and Ferguson exchanged looks.
“That’s not what we found,” said Ferguson.
“What do you mean?”
“We found Raymond Rice lying on the floor, several feet away from the desk, and his head was not bashed in.”
“But it was. I saw it. It was all out of its normal shape.”
Understanding came to Kelly. “Miss Marsh, what you saw was his toupee slipped sideways from his head. When you hit him with the walking stick you must have knocked it off.”
“His toupee? Raymond wore a toupee?” Agatha’s eyes grew wide.
“You didn’t know?”
“No, we all thought that was his real hair. He kept preening about his hair and mustache.” She grew indignant. “Why, that, that phony!”
There was a knock on the door. A uniformed officer opened it and peered into the green room.
“Sergeant Ferguson, Doctor Armbuster wants a word with you.”
“Tell that quack he can talk to us back at the station. We’re interrogating a suspect.” Ferguson answered.
A short, stout man pushed past the officer.
“You can tell this old quack yourself, Ferguson.” He turned to Kelly. “Hello, Detective Stone.”
“Look, Doc, we’re busy here,” Ferguson said. “Miss Marsh has just confessed to killing Raymond Rice by bashing him over the head with his walking stick. So, if you don’t mind, how about just finishing your report and getting out of our hair.”
“Fine,” snapped the doctor. “In that case, I’ll just be on my way.” He went back to the door and then turned. “Except that it just might interest you to know that your Mr. Rice was not killed by a blow to the head.”
“He wasn’t?” Agatha gasped.
“No, my dear woman, he wasn’t, and you didn’t kill him. You knocked him out and possibly gave him a slight concussion, but nothing more serious than that.”
Detective Stone asked the question all three wanted to know. “What killed him, doctor?”
The doctor started out the door, then turned and delivered his exit line. “Raymond Rice was suffocated.”
Detective Kelly Stone stood in the middle of the stage with most of the cast and crew of the Historic Irvington Vaudeville Playhouse surrounding him, some sitting in chairs, some standing. The evening’s performance had, of course, been canceled, and disappointed ticket holders turned away at the door by a uniformed officer. Kelly had been relegated, as usual, to acquiring background information while Detective Ferguson, the senior detective, pursued more promising leads. In this instance, supposedly searching through the theater, looking for plastic bags that could have been used to suffocate Raymond Rice. Stone suspected most of the search was being done from a comfortable chair in the green room, as he was familiar with Fergusson’s fondness for naps.
Kelly was in the middle of trying to piece together a picture of the events of the afternoon, from the matinee performance through the meeting afterwards to when each person had left the theater. Tony Collins, the stage manager, had just finished explaining how the fog machines hidden behind the artificial bushes worked. “And we keep the dry ice in a small freezer over there.” He pointed off stage.
As if on cue, Detective Fergusson strolled onto the stage from where the stage manager pointed, followed at a discrete distance by Stan Gardner, who walked over to stand next to where Agatha Marsh was sitting. She looked up at him and took his hand in hers.
Ferguson studied the anxious theater crew, and then spoke to his partner.
“Okay, Sonny, now you get to see how real police work is done.” He raised his voice so all could hear. “You see, Detective Stone, while you were out here playing twenty questions, I received information from a certain anonymous source that has cracked this case wide open.” There were gasps from those on the stage.
“You mean from Mr. Gardner?”
“How the blazes did you know that?”
Kelly shook his head. “Ferguson, the two of you walked in together.”
“Oh, right. Well, anyway, Mr. Gardner tells me that Frank Dixon over there admitted to him that he was cooking the books, shorting the box office, padding the expenses, that sort of thing. He’s been doing it for years.”
Ferguson waved the hapless bookkeeper over. “How about it, Mr. Dixon? Isn’t it true you’ve been embezzling from the theater for years?”
Frank Dixon looked around wildly. His eyes landed on the lawyer. “Stan! I told you that in confidence. You said you couldn’t repeat what a client tells you.”
Gardner shook his head. “Ah, but Frank, you aren’t my client.”
The little man stamped his foot in impotent rage. He tore the straw boater from his head and threw it on the stage floor as he struggled to find words, finally spitting out, “You cad! You fink!” More than one person looked as surprised at Frank’s choice of epithets as they did at his admission of stealing from the theater.
Ferguson produced a set of handcuffs and secured Dixon, then proceeded to read him his rights.
“But I didn’t kill Raymond,” Frank Dixon insisted as he was led away.
Ferguson turned before leaving. “Coming, Stone?”
“You go ahead without me. I’ll be along soon.”
The rest of the members of the Historic Irvington Playhouse began dispersing. Detective Stone asked Dick Lockridge as he passed, “What’s going to become of the theater now?”
“I suppose it depends on Raymond’s will. He talked about leaving the property and the proceeds of his trust fund to the theater group some day. If he has, then I suppose we’ll continue on, though I doubt that the Cawdor Foundation will still be interested in giving us that grant. Raymond was a bastard, but he was the one who made this place work.” He hurried to catch the others and together they left, leaving Detective Stone alone on the stage.
Within a few minutes the old theater was almost deserted. Tony Collins found Detective Stone still standing on the stage. “I’m locking up now, Detective.”
“I don’t suppose I can stay a while longer by myself, could I?”
“I don’t see why not. Just be certain to set the lock on the door when you leave.”
“I promise I will. But, before you leave, I wonder if you would mind showing me a couple of things?”
A little over an hour later the stage was empty, save for the fake swamp bushes and the worktable and chair at which Raymond was sitting when he was attacked. The work lights hanging down from the fly space were off and soft green and blue stage lights lit the stage, making it an eerie place of light and odd shadows.
Detective Stone walked from the stage wings to the table on the stage where he laid some documents and a small plastic cooler he was carrying. He looked around as if checking that everything was in its place. Apparently satisfied, he walked over to one of the fake bushes and reached behind it and flicked a switch, then returned to the table. A few minutes later the sound of a door opening and closing and footsteps approaching from off stage caused him to look up. A man stood in the shadows at the edge of the stage.
“Detective Stone? I had a message that you wanted to see me.”
“Yes, Mr. Gardner. Thank you for coming.”
Stan Gardner walked out onto the stage next to where Detective Stone waited. He looked at the blue and green-lit set. “Why are the stage lights on?”
“I asked Tony to show me how to run the light board. I’ve always enjoyed theaters and how everything looks different when the stage is set.” Stone took a deep breath as if tasting the smell of paint, canvas, sawdust, and glue.
Gardner looked at his watch. “Is this about Frank’s arrest? I don’t know what more I can add to what’s been said. I certainly had no knowledge of his skimming money from the theater.”
“No, I never saw the theater’s books. Raymond entrusted them to Frank. Besides, I’m a lawyer not an accountant. It’s true I handle trust funds and endowments, but only from a legal perspective.”
Kelly Stone held up his hand. “Let’s get back to that in a minute. First, I wonder if you’d help me finish setting the stage.” He opened the small cooler. White vapor spilled from the interior.
“You know what this is, I suppose?”
“It looks like dry ice, the kind we use in our fog machines.”
Detective Stone took a handkerchief from his pocked and using it to protect his fingers, reached into the cooler and removed a piece of dry ice. He offered it to Gardner.
“I wonder if you’d put this into the container behind that fake bush over there. The water should be hot enough. I turned on the heater a few minutes ago.”
Gardner raised one eyebrow but didn’t object to the request. He took the frozen material carefully, using the handkerchief to avoid touching its surface. He carried it to the indicated bush and placed it in the receptacle hidden behind it. A slight splash was heard as he dropped it into the water. Gardner returned to the center of the stage and gave the handkerchief back to Stone.
“I really don’t see the point of this.”
Stone pointed to the bush. “Watch.” Gardner sighed and did as he was told.
After a few seconds, a cloud of fog spilled from behind the branches of the bush, pouring out onto the stage floor, and spreading across it. The stage lights gave it an eerie bluish-green glow.
“Very pretty, detective, but I’m quite familiar with the effect. We’ve used it in countless performances here. Raymond was very fond of his fog machines and tended to write them into all the melodramas.”
“Ironic, don’t you think, considering that’s what killed him?”
“Raymond was killed by fog? Detective Fergusson said Frank Dixon suffocated him with a plastic bag.”
“He was suffocated, but not with a plastic bag.” Stone walked over to the stage bush. “Remember, he was found lying here, right next to this stage bush. Someone found him unconscious at the table and dragged him over here and laid his head next to the fog machine. Then they turned it on, added a piece of dry ice from the freezer over there, and left Raymond to drown in carbon dioxide.” He walked back to the table and looked straight at Gardner. “That person was you, Mr. Gardner.”
Gardner gave a forced laugh. “That’s absurd. What possible reason would I have to kill Raymond?”
“One of the oldest reasons there is. You’ve been stealing from him for years, and he was about to find out.”
“But I’ve already told you, I had nothing to do with the theater’s finances. Nothing whatsoever.”
“I’m not talking about the theater. I’m talking about the trust fund Raymond’s mother left him. The trust fund you set up for her and the one you manage for Raymond. The trust fund from which you’ve been embezzling ever since.”
“Really?” Detective Stone picked up the papers he had laid on the desk. “From what I gather from the papers I received from the bank, you’ve looted the fund pretty well.”
Gardner looked at the papers in Stone’s hands. He recognized the bank’s logo on them and his face grew white. “That’s confidential information. They had no right giving it to you.”
“You’d be surprised at what can be obtained with a subpoena.”
Gardner sat down heavily in the chair next to the table. He put his head in his hands. “If only Raymond hadn’t decided to accept that grant. It ruined everything. There was enough in the trust fund to keep the theater going for a couple more years. I figured I had enough time to replace the money I took as long my investments worked out.”
“Except they never did, did they?”
Gardner looked up at Stone and shook his head. “No, they didn’t. I kept taking more money from the fund to invest in other things, each time hoping to make enough to cover what I’d taken, but even when I made money it was never enough.”
“And when Frank confided in you about his own skimming from the theater’s books, you figured he’d make the perfect fall guy.”
“I didn’t want to go to prison for embezzlement.”
A wheezing voice came from the wings. “And instead you’ll go to prison for murder.” It was Ferguson. He walked out on stage. “Not bad, Stone. We’ll make a detective of you yet.”
“You got my note, I see.”
“Yeah, thanks for nothing. I get all the way to the station with Frank Dixon only to find a message from you telling me I’ve got the wrong guy and that you’ve got the real killer back here.”
“I needed Mr. Gardner to believe we were convinced Frank had done it.”
“Yeah, well just as long as you understand that as senior partner on this team I’m the one making the bust.”
Ferguson pulled Gardner to his feet and put handcuffs on him. He turned to Kelly and reached out his hand. “I’ll take those bank statements, too, if you don’t mind.”
Stone smiled. “Bank statements?”
Ferguson pointed to the documents on the table. “Those. The papers you got from the bank with the subpoena.”
Kelly gathered up the papers, folded them, and placed them inside his jacket. He began walking from the stage, then turned back. “Ferguson, you know it takes longer than I had to obtain a subpoena, let alone get to the bank and serve it. These are just papers from the bank for a car loan I hope to get.” He turned away and headed for the door. “See you back at the station.”
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