Kelsey Quitch dropped the leaking paper bag on Freddie Wotoch’s desk and flopped down on the lemon melamine chair across from him with a deep sigh.
Freddie did not stop scanning the weekly Saccharine dispatches unrolled in front of him. The Saccharine layer in the upper atmosphere retained a half life salty residue after magical occurrences and was a crude but effective predictor of the state of the magical sphere. “You found the safe,” he said, not looking up.
“There was nothing in it,” said Kelsey. “Nothing except that.”
The paper bag was busy staining the edges of the stack of papers on the left corner of Freddie’s desk a dull pink.
“And that is?”
“Trevor. Well, not all of Trevor, just his head.”
“And Trevor is?”
Freddie leaned back in his chair which creaked ominously and intertwined his fingers under his chin. “Kelsey Quitch,” he said, “I am saying this now even though you know it already. Finding that safe and what was supposed to be in it was the first step in a line of dominoes that must not fall. Not finding it means that that first domino is teetering on the edge.”
Kelsey leaned forward and placed her elbows on her knees. “That you have said before. And a head was not what I was supposed to find. That I know. But what I don’t know was what I was supposed to find.”
Freddie said nothing. Kelsey waited for what could have been a whole minute before she gave up. “Dammit Freddie, give me something.”
Freddie shrugged and leaned forward and picked up the roll of Saccharine dispatches again.
Kelsey slammed her hand flat on the desk so that the bag with Trevor’s head wobbled and rolled away from the stack of papers. “Give me something or I walk away from this one,” said Kelsey, clenching her jaw tightly.
Freddie placed the dispatches slowly down on the desk and for the first time looked at Kelsey. “There is evidence that the safe has been used as a dimensional airlock.”
Kelsey jumped up so that the melamine chair scraped backwards. She walked three paces away from the desk, scratching the back of her head violently before she stopped and turned back. “What kind of evidence? Who gave the evidence? Dimensional lock to where? Used by whom? You tell me something by telling me nothing Freddie. Do you have anything or is this a joke?”
“No joke,” said Freddie.
“So what do you want me to do then?”
Freddie’s voice softened. “Get some answers to your questions Kelsey, because they are our questions too. This may be something or it may be nothing. But if it is something it is something big. Big enough to burn the MCT. Start with where we got the evidence from.”
Kelsey stuffed her fists in her sides. “And that is where?”
“An anonymous tip. A sealed vanilla flask that came through the tubes. No authorisation code, no nothing.”
“A vanilla flask? I thought that was a myth.”
“Scarce, but no myth. It came down the Twelve Wheel Tube. Track it back to the end of the line or to where it came from.”
Kelsey shook her head. “That’s all you got.”
Freddie shrugged and picked up the dispatches.
Kelsey kicked the leg of the melamine chair just hard enough for it to slide sideway before she turned to go.
The metal door of the downtown loft rattled open and Heidi Fade walked in, straight past Augusto Manteufel who was sitting cross legged in his underpants in the middle of a rainbow coloured rug, contemplating his next masterpiece.
Heidi grabbed the kettle in the kitchenette and filled it, wildly splashing water all over the counter top, before she slammed it down and switched it on.
With a groan Augusto got up from the ground and slowly walked over to the kitchenette while rubbing his stiff legs. “What are you doing here?”
“Where’s the sugar?” said Heidi.
“It’s in the pot.”
“No, the pot is empty.”
“Look in the bag in the cupboard.”
Heidi snatched open the cupboard door and stared inside. “This is a mess. How can you live like this?”
Augusto dragged a stool closer to the small island and sat down heavily, leaning with his weight on the top. “Are you upset about anything dear?”
Heidi turned round and leant against the cupboard, folding her arms tightly. “Trevor is dead.”
“That’s not good, is it?”
Heidi bit her lower lip and gave Augusto a look that made it clear that it was not a good thing.
“No, of course not,” said Augusto, “You’ll have to start over with a new mark?”
Heidi grabbed the dish towel and blew her nose loudly. Then she wiped her eyes.
“Are you crying?” said Augusto with a grin on his face. “Did you love him?”
Heidi sniffed loudly and dabbed the corners of her eyes. “Maybe just a little.”
“Oh you vile temptress.”
The kettle started boiling with a shrill whistle and Heidi switched it of. Then she started making tea.
Augusto sat staring vacantly into space while scratching his sparse beard. “At least you do not have to change jobs and names. Maybe you can catch even a bigger fish on the rebound.”
“Maybe,” said Heidi, “but that could take months and money is already tight now — you will have to do something to help out.”
“Please tell me you do not want me to sell my work. It is not ready yet.”
“Then you will have to give up the loft and move in with me,” said Heidi as she leaned across the island and grabbed hold of Augusto’s hand.
“No, I can’t. Not that dingy place. Where will I work? And anyway, it will ruin your cover. I have to stay here.”
“Then you will have to bring in some money.”
“I can’t sell my work,” said Augusto, “just the idea of it, it is vile.”
Live theatre in Lidgrink had reached a level of competitive popularity that was only superseded by that of suburban wargames. The demand for new plays was frenzied and it was not uncommon for even the least enthusiastic theatre supporter to see three plays a week. Most successful theatres debuted at least two plays a week. One week in late summer the Spit & Corn Theatre tried opening seven new plays in one week while maintaining the regular run. The excessive friction on the backdrop pulleys locked the whole system with an ominous screech and the smell of burning oil halfway through act two of the fifth play, drowning out Lord Stanley Kildrick’s triumphant last line.
Plays six and seven, a ballroom farce and a political thriller, and the matinees and late shows of the run were all played out on a frozen tundra and the Spit & Corn had to close for three days to get their backstage unstuck. It took them six months to get back into the swing of things and only one of the seven plays got a repeat performance. And only because a wealthy patron insisted to hear Lord Stanley Kildrick’s last line in order to settle a bet. He lost.
Despite the theatrical boom breaking onto the scene with a new theatre house and troupe was a very difficult enterprise. The lucrative possibilities caused many to try despite the odds. One of these were Seth Fledgling, the new creative director of the rebuilt Crimson House Theatre. He was cautiously optimistic with the backing of an anonymous investor and access to the three hundred and four unpublished plays of Kieran Gill. Seth had chosen a thrilling mystery called ‘The Locked Box’ as an opener and had enticed a star performer, the incomparable Sarah Style, to take the lead.
It was opening night for both the Crimson House Theatre and ‘The Locked Box’. Money on the rebuilt was a tad short and the stage had no curtains yet so that the audience would enter with the set visible. A raked stage with the floor papered in a dog bone pattern and the infamous box, an office safe, on a wooden scaffold just of centre stage. Sarah Style had arrived an hour early to get herself ready and into the zone. She stood barefoot in the centre of the stage wearing only her dressing gown and humming the chorus of the operetta ‘The Mice of Third Night’.
Suddenly a door slammed at the back of the house and Sarah stopped humming and peered into the dark auditorium, her hand shading her eyes from the lights. “Anybody there?” she said.
A woman came out of the dark, strutting down the left aisle. She spoke loudly, in a high pitch, clearly not trained in proper vocal projection. “I have to talk to you.”
Sarah placed her hands on her hips and instinctively dropped her voice lower. “You can’t be in here.”
The woman had reached the left stage stairs and came onto the stage and into the lights. As if the brightness had struck her in the face she staggered and lost her balance for a moment and turned round with her eyes closed and hands out to balance herself before she came to a stop squinting upstage past Sarah.
Sarah took a small step downstage.
“I’m Heidi Fade,” said the woman, “and I want to know why you got my flowers.”
“I get lots of flowers,” said Sarah, “what’s that to you?”
Heidi jumped and hiccupped with high screech when another woman stepped into the light and spoke. “Where did you get this?”
“For goodness sake,” said Sarah, “it is opening night, not open mike night.”
The third woman, with long dark hair and dressed in grey slacks and a black leather jacket, took a spot centre stage and folded her arms while studying the locked box, an Eld-Eyre Mark 3 office safe, mauve in colour, guaranteed to be unpickable and precariously balanced on a wooden scaffold. “So, where did you get this?” she said.
Heidi shook her head and planted her hands on her hips while sticking out her chin. “I was asking first. I’m not talking about any flowers. My Trevor sent you some flowers. Why?”
Sarah lifted an eyebrow and then also turned to look at the safe. “Whoever did the set found it in the basement. It must have been there for ages.”
The woman pulled a programme for ‘The Locked Box’ out of her jacket pocket and looked at it. “You say whoever Sally, but it is in fact you who designed the set.”
Sarah’s hand flew to her neckline. “Not under my real name. Wait a minute. Who are you? Where did you get a programme? Did Seth put you up to this? That—”
The woman pulled a badge from another pocket and held it up. “Kelsey Quitch, Magic Circle Technics, Rule Director. The MCT do not believe that this safe came from your basement.”
Heidi stepped in between Kelsey and Sarah and got right into Sarah’s face. “Why did Trevor send you flowers?”
Sarah threw her hands in the air. “Who is Trevor?”
“Lots of people send me flowers. I’m famous. People love me. That’s the way fame works. But I don’t know them all.”
Kelsey firmly pushed Heidi aside. “I’m going to have to ask you to open it.”
Sarah pulled the front of her robe together and wrapped her arms tightly. “The safe? I can’t. That’s kind of the theme of the play: a locked box. Don’t you get it?”
Kelsey rubbed her chin. “So, you don’t open it during the play?”
Sarah snorted and turned her back on Kelsey and started walking into the wings. “I can’t tell you that. You will have to come watch the play.”
After having stood dumbfounded for a couple of seconds Heidi came to and jogged after Sarah. “No, Trevor loves me.”
“Then I will have to take it with me,” said Kelsey and walked back to the safe and started pushing against the wooden scaffolding holding it up.
Sarah glanced over her shoulder and stopped dead in her tracks. Heidi bumped into her with another high pitched screech but Sarah ignored her. Only she and Seth knew that they had put the play together on a budget that would have starved a cockroach and that she not only designed the set but also constructed most of it herself. She was fairly good with a hammer but not that good. And anyway, she ran out of nails. “Hey, get away from there,” she said rushing back, too late.
The safe twisted on its perch and then, as if it was making a deliberate attempt, slid forward onto the stage where it bounced, leaving an inverted triangular hole in the floor. Then it fell over flat on its side. Well, mostly flat, because Sarah Style’s left lower leg got in the way and wedged underneath the safe.
Sarah lay on the floor pulling on her leg and wailing loudly while the safe rocked back and forth.
Slowly the door of the safe fell open and clanked down on the stage floor and a round object dropped out with a dull thud and rolled slowly across to where Sarah lay.
Heidi started screaming “Trevor, Trevor, Trevor,” in a counterpoint to Sarah’s wails, who was still not losing any impetus, and eerily enough in the same tempo as the chorus of ‘The Mice of Third Night’.
Kelsey stepped over Sarah and peered into the safe. “As I feared,” she said, “empty.”
The round object stopped rolling right in front of Sarah and as she realised she was staring a severed head in the face she cut her screaming short. “Oh, that Trevor,” she said, rolling her eyes.