Death at the Theatre: Miss Hart and Miss Hunter Investigate: Book 2

BOOK: Death at the Theatre: Miss Hart and Miss Hunter Investigate: Book 2
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Death at the Theatre

(Miss Hart and Miss Hunter Investigate: Book 2)

 

Celina Grace

 

© Celina Grace 2016

Author’s Note:

This book is written in British English. Therefore some spellings, grammar usage and sentence construction might differ from standard American usage (e.g. ‘realise’ rather than ‘realize’).

Chapter One

 

I saw it as soon as I came up the steps at Oxford Circus. The words were there, booming black on still-white paper; the glaring headlines, the name that had been on everyone’s lips for the last three weeks. Even if I’d been suddenly struck blind I wouldn’t have been able to escape it: the paperboys were calling out the headlines in those half-musical tones that rang out like the cries of a strange bird.

“Lord Cartwright acquitted! Lord C found not guilty! Get your Evening Standard here-yah!”

I froze, right on the steps, and someone cannoned into me from the back and tutted, and I staggered a little in my one pair of good shoes, which had heels slightly higher than I was used to. Someone grabbed me under the arm as I started to fall. They righted me and were gone before I had a chance to thank them – indeed, I just about realised they were young and male before they were lost in the crowd. More than a little shaken, I limped up the rest of the steps, going with the streaming crowd, and approached the newsstand. I fumbled in my bag for a coin and took up the evening newspaper with trembling hands.

It was impossible to try and read it standing there. I hurried into the relative shelter of an office doorway and then realised I had no time to stand and read, even though I wanted to. I bundled the paper under one arm, hiding those shouting black headlines, and began to walk quickly down Great Regent’s Street.

As I scurried along, my feet aching in the unaccustomed shoes, my mind flew from one person to another, wondering whether they knew and what their reaction would be to the news. Inspector Marks, Gladys, Dorothy, Mrs Anstells, Mrs Watling and – just as I rounded the corner to see her standing outside the Connault theatre, almost hopping from one foot to another in an fever of impatience – Verity. Of course.

“Where have you
been
?” she said in an agonised tone as I hurried up to her. “The second bell’s about to go. Come on, come on, I’ve got your ticket, let’s go, go, go!”

I didn’t have time to tell her about that evening’s news. I didn’t have time to tell her anything at all. She grabbed my arm and whisked me through the theatre reception area, waving the tickets at the man standing by the foot of the stairs. “Sorry, Harry, she’s just turned up, we’ll go straight on up,” Verity said and pulled me bodily up the stairs.

“Where are we sitting?” I panted as we rocketed past the entrance to the Dress Circle.

Verity gave me a wry look over her shoulder as she steamed ahead of me. “Gods, Joanie, where else? Free tickets though, so we can’t complain.”

I didn’t have enough breath in me to complain. We eventually found our row and stumbled through the darkness to our seats, falling into them in a breathless tumble fortunately mostly right side up. Luckily our seats were towards the end of the row, near the entrance.

Giggling, Verity and I subsided, trying to control our breathing. There were a few irritated glances and tuts from the few people around us, but this was the Gods, after all – people didn’t expect much. They weren’t bad seats, apart from being high enough to give you vertigo. I leant forward, carefully, and looked at the stage, the boxes either side, the curtain which seemed to quiver in anticipation and felt a surge of excitement. I loved the theatre. I loved everything about it.

We didn’t have drinks, or a programme, or opera glasses or anything like that, of course. I didn’t care. Under cover of darkness, just as the orchestra struck up, I shrugged off my coat and leant back against the red velvet of my seat. I felt Verity grab my hand and squeeze it as the curtain went up, and the lights began to come up over the stage. I threw her a grateful grin – she was the one who’d organised these tickets, after all; her uncle, Tommy, was in the play. As I looked over her way, I could see we weren’t the only late comers. A woman was fumbling her way towards a seat a few chairs along from us. It was too dark to see much – I could only see the curve of her cloche hat and the gleam of some sort of jewellery around her throat. I squeezed Verity’s hand back, as a sort of thank you, and turned my attention towards the stage.

It was a very thrilling play. Caroline Carpenter played the lead role, that of a missionary torn between the love of two men and her religious calling. I’d seen Miss Carpenter once before, and she’d been so good that it was mostly the idea of seeing her act again that had made me want to see the play. She was very beautiful, with a kind of languid grace that gradually tightened into a marvellous taut intensity as the emotional tempo of the scene grew. Tommy, Verity’s uncle, was playing against type as the ‘bad boy’, the lover who would only be bad for her. Knowing Tommy as I did, it should have been quite comical to see him stalking about the stage, his red hair dyed black and a thin black moustache shadowing his sneering lips. But Tommy was gifted too and he made it seem natural. The leading man, Aldous Smith, was new to me. He was good too, not quite as talented as Caroline and Tommy but certainly watchable, not least because he was almost as pretty as Caroline Carpenter.

Breathlessly, I watched as the drama unfolded before my eyes. I’d reached that happy state where I was so engrossed I had almost forgotten I was at the theatre – instead I was there, with the actors, on the deck of a cruise ship sailing for Africa. I was almost unaware of Verity sitting beside me, of the musty smell of the worn red velvet of the theatre seats, of the fact that I was surrounded by hundreds of people, sitting around me, and beneath me, in the dark, equally engrossed.

The final scene of the first act wound to its dramatic conclusion, with the lady missionary looking as though she was going to succumb to the charms of the dastardly adventurer. A moment of ringing silence fell across the stage just before the curtain came down. After another moment of silence in the dark, the theatre exploded with applause. The lights came on, strong enough to make you blink, and then it was as though reality rushed back in to fill the gap.

I sat back in my seat and blew out my cheeks, looking over at Verity. She had a starriness to her gaze that I knew I would see in my own eyes if I had a mirror handy – the look of someone coming back to Earth after an hour of transportation into another realm.

“Golly,” Verity said, smiling. “What a dramatic play. Isn’t Tommy good?”

“He’s wonderful,” I agreed. It was only then I realised how hot it was up in the Gods. I unbuttoned my cardigan and slipped it from my shoulders. “Shall we get a quick breath of air in the interval? Or stay here?”

Verity was saved from replying by a minor kerfuffle occurring in the row of seats in front of us. Apparently a man was seated at the end of the row, blocking access for the four increasingly irritated people who were trying to get past.

“I say, do you think you could move and let us past?” one of the women said in an increasingly vexed tone. The man at the end of the row took no notice. He was sitting with a hat pulled down over his eyes, and it was difficult to see his face.

I don’t know what made me take a second, sharper look at him. His stillness, perhaps, or the way his head was leaning to one side against the back of the seat. I was just opening my mouth to say something – I’m not sure what – when one of the men in the group before us leant down and shook the man by the shoulder. The two women made noises between gasps and squeaks, but the man doing the shaking took no notice. He was a stout fellow wearing a rather dusty-looking topper. I hoped he’d removed it for the performance.

“Bally fellow’s out of his mind with drink,” he said and shook the man again, harder this time.

I moved forward, one hand on Verity to bring her with me, but by that time, it was too late. The body of the man in the end row seat fell sideways, and we all saw the scarlet mess that was his shirt-front. There was a moment of silence to equal that of the one heard at the end of the first act, and then the screams began, as loud and emphatic as those of an opera singer.

Chapter Two

 

The police seemed to take an absolute age to arrive but I suppose they didn’t really – it just felt like that. As soon as the shock of confronting the body had worn off, Verity had raced off to find the manager of the theatre – she knew him slightly, through Tommy – and it was left to me to try and restore some order in the Gods. I don’t think I did a very good job.

“Who on Earth do you think you are, miss?” cried the stout gentlemen as I suggested that we all take some seats over in the far corner to wait for the arrival of the police. One of the women, the one who’d first asked the dead man to move, was having hysterics and I could see her friend wasn’t far behind her.

I don’t know what imp of mischief made me say it. Perhaps it was because I was in the theatre – perhaps some spirit of drama that inhabited these four walls made me do it.

“I
am
the police,” I said, sternly. I made my voice go as steely and as upper class as possible – it was easy, I’d heard Verity do it many times, always to good effect. “Undercover. The uniformed officers will be here soon so I suggest we all move away from the body and wait for them to get here. Sir, if you would?”

Tophat’s eyes bulged. I’m not sure he believed me but he wasn’t quite so sure of himself as to question me, just in case I was telling the truth. The two women were too busy having the vapours to take much notice. Somehow, I got them to move back three rows, and we stood in the aisle in a crowded and awkward group. We were the only people up here, I realised. Had there been any others and had they left by a different exit? Ignoring Tophat’s huffing and puffing beside me, I looked around this level of the theatre. There was only one entrance and exit, the door beyond the dead man. It was then I remembered the woman who had come in late, even after Verity and I. She wasn’t here now. Had she left just before the discovery of the body? I racked my memory, trying to see if I could recall her, but it was hopeless. I had no recollection of her movements whatsoever.

I left my little group of indignant and weeping theatre-goers and walked towards the body. I didn’t get too close – I knew I shouldn’t touch anything. But shouldn’t I at least check to make sure he was dead? What if he wasn’t, despite the wounds in his chest? It was hard to see his face, due to the flat cap pulled down over his brow, but he looked fairly young. He was clean-shaven but for a thin moustache. I looked at what he was wearing – nondescript men’s clothing, fairly worn looking. I tried to keep my eyes from the bloody mess that was the front of his chest. It looked as though he’d been stabbed. Quickly, before I could think twice, I pressed my fingers to his neck.

The coolness of the skin beneath my fingertips told me the truth. No pulse, however weak and faint, beat beneath my hand. Nodding to myself, I moved backwards. Well, at least I knew now that the poor man was beyond help. My eyes dropped again to the stab wounds and the bloom of blood that surrounded each one.

I moved back a row, so I could see the back of his chair. I drew in my breath. There were two slits in the fabric of the chair, both stained with blood. Someone had obviously sat behind him and thrust a knife through the back of the seat. I stared at the holes in the velvet and repressed a shiver. There was something so dreadfully cold-hearted about the thought. Someone had quite literally stabbed him in the back.

At that moment, Verity came through the doorway, panting and scarlet-faced. She hurried over to me. “The police will be here very shortly. David is on his way up.”

“David?” I asked.

“The theatre manager. Be warned, he’s in quite a taking.”

“I’m not surprised.” I drew Verity away from the body, back towards the little group of people in the far aisle. “All we can do is wait, I suppose.”

We stood there together. After a moment, Tophat came over to us. His manner had changed and he was looking almost respectful. I wondered if he now believed we really were the police because of our manner. Had he expected us, two young girls, to behave as his wife and her friend were behaving? Collapsing and weeping? Probably he had, I thought. He wasn’t to know it wasn’t the first time Verity and I had encountered violent death.

“Um… Miss? Officer?” Tophat was hovering a few feet away. Verity looked at me with a startled look and I frowned at her, hoping she wouldn’t give me away.

“Yes, sir?”

“What – what will happen now?”

I cleared my throat, still keeping the same firm tone as I’d used before. “The other officers will be here very shortly, sir. I would imagine they would take statements from you, but you’ll be able to leave after that.”

Tophat nodded fervently, as if I’d just told him something incredibly profound. I smiled at him and then drew Verity away from him. Despite my outwardly calm demeanour, I was beginning to have a nasty little feeling of self-doubt. The chances were, as soon as the
real
police arrived, I’d be exposed as a fraud. My heart began to thump. Why had I done such a stupid and reckless thing? Another thought occurred to me which did nothing to calm my fears. Wasn’t it actually a criminal offence to impersonate an officer of the law?

Oh God, oh God
. I could feel cold sweat breaking out all over me. Why had I been so recklessly impulsive? Who on Earth did I think I was? I must have been mad.

“What’s wrong?” Verity whispered. She must have noticed my increasingly green and clammy look. Then she snorted. “Apart from there being a dead body ten feet away from us?”

I dragged her even further away from Tophat and his group and told her what I’d said. She looked at me as though I’d just sprouted another head. “Are you quite mad, Joanie? What did you go and say a silly thing like that for?”

I groaned. “I don’t
know
. I just wanted to make sure they didn’t disturb the scene any more than they already had.” Verity rolled her eyes. “Oh God, what am I going to do?”

Verity bit her lip. “Listen, if there’s  a problem, we’ll just say he misheard you. I mean, it’s not your fault that he mistook your meaning, is it?” She looked right into my eyes. “That’s awfully dramatic behaviour from you, Joanie. Are you sure you don’t actually have a secret longing to tread the boards yourself?”

Despite my panic, I couldn’t help but smile. Verity could always make me laugh. “I blame
you
. You’re a bad influence.”

“Well, perhaps.” The sound of heavy boots on the stairs preceeded what seemed like a veritable flood of policemen pouring into the Gods. Verity squeezed my arm. “Hold hard, Joan. It’s showtime.”

 

At first it seemed like a ridiculous scrimmage, as the police surrounded the body. Verity and I drew back towards Tophat and his little group. Someone who I assumed was David the theatre manager, was standing by the doorway, talking to someone in plainclothes who looked quite senior. David was pulling at his hair and waving his arms about, and he looked in imminent danger of having some kind of fit. The senior-looking man was holding his hands out towards him, making soothing motions.

A uniformed officer detached himself from the crowd around the body and came over towards Verity and me. I could see another one making their way towards Tophat and tried to edge away a little so there would be more distance between us.

“Now, young ladies. Can you tell me what’s been going on here?” The police officer was very tall and thin, with a bony jaw and an Adam’s apple that bobbed up and down as he spoke. Verity and I exchanged glances.

“Would it be possible to talk somewhere a little quieter?” I asked. I
had
to get out of the room before Tophat pointed me out as ‘another officer’.

Verity put a fluttering hand to her throat. “We’ve been trapped here with that – that
corpse
for what seems like hours, officer.” She sounded weak and feeble, as if she was on the verge of collapse.

The policeman looked flustered. “Of course, of course. Follow me and we’ll try and find somewhere for you ladies to sit down.”

“Oh, thank you, officer,” Verity said breathily. Despite my anguish at being unmasked as a fraud, I had to bite the inside of my cheek to keep from giggling. Talk about
me
going on the stage – with Verity,  theatre’s loss was domestic service’s gain.

The policeman ushered us out of the Gods and towards the stairs. We were just coming to the top step of the flight when both Verity and I simultaneously saw who was walking up the stairs towards us. He looked just as he had when I’d last seen him, over a year ago now, dressed in his customary black suit with his beard and moustache neatly trimmed.

Inspector Marks caught sight of us both a second later and actually stopped dead, causing a minor pile-up in the group of people behind him. He took no notice. I could tell he recognised us straight away.

Verity and I stood on the landing like spare parts, waiting for the inspector to reach our level, which he did in just a few steps.

“Well, well, well.” Inspector Marks’ gaze went from my face to Verity’s. For some reason, I found myself blushing. “Miss Hart and Miss Hunter. What in Heaven’s name are you two ladies doing here?”

The police officer who’d escorted us from the room was looking from us to the inspector as if watching a tennis match. Inspector Marks noted this and smiled at the man pleasantly. “Thank you, officer—“

He raised his eyebrows and the policeman stammered out, “Constable Watkins, sir.”

“Constable Watkins, of course. Thank you for bringing these ladies this far, but I can take them from here.”

“Yes, sir. Of course, sir.” Constable Watkins almost bobbed a curtsey as he turned and scurried back into the Gods. I didn’t dare look at Verity for laughing.

Inspector Marks waited until he was out of earshot and then turned back to us, the smile dying on his face. “Please tell me you girls aren’t mixed up in this?”

“We were only watching a play,” Verity said indignantly. “That’s all. It wasn’t our fault somebody got stabbed to death virtually in front of us.”

Inspector Marks looked at both of us in turn. “Is that what happened?”

He turned to me, then and gave me the look I remembered well. It’s hard to describe but it was as if he really
saw
me – as if he was the only person ever to really see me, as I was and without judgement or criticism, or finding me wanting. It had warmed me before and it warmed me now.

“Yes,” I said. “That’s what it looked like to me. I think someone sat behind him, in the row behind him, and stabbed him through the back of the chair.”

Inspector Marks’s eyebrows rose. “Indeed, Miss Hart. Well, I’ll see for myself in a minute.” He stood back a little. “I’ll talk to you ladies later. No, indeed, tomorrow.” He glanced at the gold watch he wore on one wrist. “It’s getting late and I’ll wager you girls have work to do.” Verity and I exchanged a rueful glance. Inspector Marks went on. “I’ll let that young constable take a brief statement from both of you and you can be on your way. But—“ His voice became emphatic. “I will have to speak to you both again.”

“Of course, sir,” I said. “We understand.”

The inspector smiled. “You always do, Miss Hart.” He shook his head for a moment. “You’re wasted in your job, you know. Both of you.”

And with that startling statement, he inclined his head to us courteously and was gone.

BOOK: Death at the Theatre: Miss Hart and Miss Hunter Investigate: Book 2
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