Stretching out, I waited for my turn. He came out, sat in front of his dresser and I went in. When I came back out he had a bright yellow flower… Oh, it was the one I got him.
I grinned and flopped back on the bed, explaining what happened that night to him.
“I’ve been thinking. I could hang around for the show tonight. Until they get the killer’s prints,” I suggested.
“But what if you run into the killer?”
“I’ll hang around people. It should be okay.”
“Oh, but people know you don’t work here.”
“It’s fine. Just let people know I’m staying with you until they find the killer.”
He thought about it and nodded. “Okay, as long as you’re careful. We have rehearsal this morning before the show, so I’m afraid it’ll be a little boring.”
“I don’t mind.”
Rehearsals dragged on, especially when they stopped in the middle of a parts I enjoyed. As more performers arrived I scrutinized them. The murderer had to be one of the staff. Some actors stood near me behind the curtains while the dancers were on stage.
“It was pretty crazy last night, wasn’t it?” I asked.
One of the minor actors glanced back at me. “Yeah, it was. I never thought something like that would happen around here.”
Others clustered around.
“You’re not part of the staff. What are you doing here?” one asked.
“I’m sticking around Valli. He was shaken up about the murder. Someone did break into his room, after all,” I explained.
“They broke into Valli’s room?”
Hearing us gossiping, Seolian stepped up. “Ah, he was asking everyone the other day if anyone else’ room had anything stolen from it. I double checked but I didn’t see anything missing.”
“Have the police figured out anything yet?” I asked.
Getting them to talk was easy.
“They spent a long time in the dressing room. I wonder if they found something in there…”
“They talked to the guards for a long time. Maybe they think one of them did it…”
“Guards don’t go back into the living quarters, though, and someone broke into Valli’s room…”
“Is anyone mad at Valli?” I asked.
“At Valli? I don’t see why anyone would be mad at him.”
“He never gets involved in drama.”
“He does hang out with Ellora, but I can hardly see anyone holding that against him.”
I took notes in my head before piping in, “I heard the guard was dating one of the kitchen staff. Is that true?”
“Yeah, she was dating that cook, Derian. Kitchen staff don’t come for rehearsals… I wonder if he’s even heard about this yet.”
“Someone must have told him by now. I don’t really talk to the kitchen staff, though…”
So the theater was loaded with employees but they seemed to be broken up into different groups. Guards saw each other but didn’t spend a lot of time with other staff. The kitchen staff was also its own group. Both spent most of their time separated from the performers.
Dancers poured through the curtains and broke up the conversation.
The director’s voice boomed over us, “We’re going to go over the scene with the guards! The rest of you can take a break.”
Some of the novice actors walked by in old-style guard costumes. They still had the dull pink jacket and pants, but instead of guns they had daggers hanging at their belts. Even though I wasn’t much of a costumer, I noticed how nice the costumes and props were. The jackets looked thick and sturdy, and the sheaths for the daggers even had nice chains attached to them.
I mixed in with the rest of the cast and followed Valli into the back. His face was flushed. He was still panting when he wiped off with a hand towel before heading to the kitchen for a cold drink.
“Tired?” I asked.
“Doing the routines over and over again can be exhausting.”
I sat with him while more staff slowly streamed into the theater. People filled the kitchen. On the other side of the pass, a familiar woman climbed down the stairs that led to the tech room.
I leaned close to Valli. “She lives here, right?”
“Tenore? Yes, she’s part of the tech crew.”
The tech room was one of the least likely places anything could have happened, and chances that she could leave in the middle of a show were low. That was one person off my suspect list. Well, I couldn’t suspect Valli, either. Ellora, on the other hand… No, she wouldn’t do something like that.
“Do you mind if I rest for a bit? I don’t mean to leave you alone so much.”
“Don’t worry about me. I’m fine.” I escorted Valli back to his room. I didn’t turn to go back until I heard the lock click.
Aliseam was in the hallway ahead of me.
I smiled and called to her, “Did they get the prints yet?”
She twitched an ear and looked back. Dark circles were drawn under her eyes. My smile faded.
“No fingerprints,” she muttered.
“What? They didn’t find any on Valli’s stick?”
“There weren’t any prints on it, except for some old partial prints.”
“But there has to be something!”
She turned her weary eyes to me momentarily. “Not if the killer was wearing gloves.”
Watching her leave, I lowered my ears. I hadn’t considered that. They didn’t have the evidence they needed.
Someone went and robbed Valli in the middle of a show and I hadn’t found anyone who was even bitter towards Valli or the victim. I clenched my jaw. They’d be on notice to keep a low profile right now. I’d have to look harder.
I slowed, mulling things over. The robber probably stole something of Valli’s and the guard got in the way, meaning the main target was Valli. But who hated Valli?
As I walked I studied everyone with suspicious eyes. Where to start? It was already a chaotic mess in the back. I fled from the chatter to give the stage a second look.
A ladder sat in the middle of the stage with a woman nearly at the top. She wore thick gloves and had her hands on a row of lights. A circular bulb sat on the top of the ladder while she screwed in a new one. Her other hand had a grip on the side of the ladder. A scarf was pulled over her mouth and she had goggles over her eyes.
I ambled farther onto the stage, waiting for her to notice me. I didn’t want to call out and surprise her while she was up there. Her gaze flicked down when I walked on the other side of the ladder.
“Tenore, right?” I asked.
“So you’re the one who works in the tech room?”
“I’m one of the people who run it, yeah.”
She climbed down the ladder with the old bulb in hand, hopping to the bottom and pausing to wipe her forehead with a lean but muscular arm. A thin sheen of sweat covered her. Her cap was strange, like a limp piece of leather covering her forehead to the back of her neck, with her ears poking out. Her vest was umber and thick, matching the pants and boots she wore.
She pulled the goggles up on top of her hat and pulled the scarf down.
“So you see a lot of the stuff that goes on around here?”
“Well, I live here and get a bird’s eye view of a lot of it, so yeah.”
“Did you see anything suspicious on the day of the murder?”
“I was watching the stage during the whole show. I didn’t see anything that didn’t belong.”
“What about after the show? Were you still up there?”
“Only for a few minutes while we shut everything down.” She brushed the glove under her nose. “We may be sitting down for the shows, but trust me, after a few hours in those seats you’re ready for a break.”
“I noticed a ladder on the stage the other day, too. What about after the show? Did you repair anything then?”
“Yeah. This whole string of lights has been going out, so I’ve been replacing them.”
“Was anything out of place?”
“Nah, didn’t notice anything. It was just me out here.” She gestured towards the audience seats. “And some caterers cleaning up. I’m not the one to ask those sort of questions. I tend to get a little preoccupied with my work.”
Even if she wasn’t paying attention I had no doubt she’d notice someone dragging a body around on stage.
“How long after the show did you change out lights?”
“Right after most of the audience had left.”
I put a finger to my chin. That wouldn’t give the murderer time to hide the body. “And how long were you on the stage?”
“Not long. Maybe fifteen minutes.”
“What about the other tech person?”
“She wouldn’t have seen anything. I do all the repairs out here.” She held up her gloves. “She hates wearing stuff like this.”
“Wait, so you do all the repairs? That doesn’t bother you?”
“I’m used to it. I do the repairs; she pays for lunch on Errday.” She let out a soft chuckle, scratching her nose with the side of her glove again. A thin layer of dust was on her face where she had left it uncovered. When she ran her thumb across the skin it left a faint line. “I’m the hardware person. She’s more of the software person.”
“And you live here too but you didn’t get robbed?”
She cracked up. “I doubt anyone would rob me. My room is mostly full of junk I’m fixing. What’s with all the questions?”
“It doesn’t look like the police are going to have the evidence they need to find the killer, and all we really seem to know right now is that they robbed Valli and killed the guard. I can’t even find anyone who has anything against Valli.”
“Ah.” Her eyes scanned the stage, pressing her lips into a line. “He doesn’t have a lot of enemies. Oh,” she interrupted her own train of thought, “I have heard one of the other dancers talking about him before, though.”
My eyebrows shot up. It was what I’d been looking for but now that she said it I felt offended for Valli. What did he ever do?
“Why? What’s their problem?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. Some people just don’t like the meek types. He was one of the newer dancers, too, so there could be some jealousy there.”
“What did he say, exactly?”
“Just stuff about him getting everything handed to him and such. I didn’t think much about it.”
I frowned. Valli wore expensive things, but he earned those things.
“What’s his name? Maybe I should keep an eye on him.”
“It was…” She folded her arms, glancing up. “Hmm… Asean, I think.”
“Thanks.” I turned to head for the door but paused, glancing back at her. “Considering both of us are pretty much guaranteed innocent, let’s keep in touch, okay?”
She snorted. “That’s fine with me. I don’t want to worry about locking the doors.”
“Did you notice Aliseam checking the doors last night, too?”
“I sure did. She came in my room and reminded me that I need to lock it.”
I snickered. Perhaps she did need to check them after all.
When I left the stage the theater had filled up with staff. It wouldn’t be long before the show. I went to Valli’s room and knocked.
“It looks like it’s getting close to show time. Are you awake?”
He opened the door. “Yes, I’m up.” He pulled his hair stick out and set it down on his desk before closing the door.
I escorted him back but he stopped before we reached the dressing room.
“I’m going to do some stretches for a bit.” He whispered to me, “Some positions are still a little hard since the surgery.”
I nodded. His secret was safe with me.
“I’ll be in the dressing room.”
Going ahead of him, I strolled into the larger dressing room where Asean would probably be.
People were lined up in front of the mirrors. Some, like Ellora, had another person putting make-up on them. Others were doing their own make-up. I vaguely recognized some dancers but didn’t know their names.
I pulled a chair out, listening in on the chatter. A mention of Valli caught my ears.
“Is Valli here yet?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Just like him. He lives here and he still can’t get here on time.”
My glare shot to the antagonistic voice. He had a bob hair cut with his bangs braided to one side of his thin angular face. His dark green shirt had slits on either side. It was loose, but I could tell he had lean body underneath.
People quieted around him.
I lowered my ears, muttering, “Don’t talk about Valli.”
He turned towards me, a frown on his face. “You don’t work here. Who are you supposed to be, his servant?”
“I’m his friend.” I scowled at him. “I’m here to help keep him safe until they’ve made an arrest.”
“You’re not a guard. If everyone started inviting friends over we wouldn’t have any room left.”
I glared at him but someone pushed passed my shoulder. Ellora stepped in front of me and yelled at him, “Is there a problem over here?”
“Friends shouldn’t be back here. The rest of us don’t get to invite friends,” he complained, throwing his hand up in frustration.
She snapped back, “Of course you don’t get to. You don’t live here. When you live here you can invite people to your home.”
He opened his mouth but was interrupted when a voice boomed over everyone, “Attention!”
I whirled around to see Aliseam with a megaphone, shouting over the crowd, “The living quarters will be blocked off during the show. We ask that everyone stay in groups and not wander off alone. If you see any suspicious behavior, please report it immediately. Is everyone clear?”
While people muttered their acknowledgements Valli entered the room. Aliseam marched out. A brief, awkward silence fell over us before I broke away to go to Valli.
“Is something going on?” he asked.
“It’s fine. You’re going to get ready for the show?”
“Yes, I need to get my make-up on.”
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
“I can handle it, don’t worry.”
He began applying his own make-up in front of a mirror. I sat next to him, watching him transform. It was like he was using his face as a canvas.
“That looks really weird,” I said.
He smiled at me. His lips had a thick outline and were painted an exaggerated reddish brown. A black outline surrounded his eyes.
“It’s to help the audience see us. You get used to it.”
When he finished and people filtered out of the room for the start of the show, I paused by Ellora, whispering, “What was the name of that guy?”
I’d suspected as much. Thus far he was the only one who had an issue with Valli, which made him the prime suspect.
Outside of the dressing room, a five foot fence blocked the hallway to the living quarters. It was metal with heavy posts on either side. Two or three people could probably carry it, but one ambitious person could probably push one side forward and sneak through – it would just be obvious and suspicious if they did.
While Valli went to perform on stage I sat on the ground with my back to the wall. The stairs leading up to the tech room were on the other side of it. I kept an eye out, especially to see if Asean did anything.
Boredom crept up on me when nothing happened. After awhile I dropped my guard and pulled out my v-phone to call up my dad, but he couldn’t talk for long. People ran by in every direction. Caterers wheeled their carts along. Performers rushed in and out of the dressing rooms and to the stage entrances.
A few slowed by the fence and glanced at it. I brushed it off as idle curiosity, but wondered if I should keep track of them. Killers often went back to the scene of the crime, right? But the fence was brand new, and dozens of people took a passing glance at it before moving on.
Plenty of caterers walked by wheeling carts covered in a lengthy white cloth. They had entrances to both sides of the stage to take food to people, so they wandered around just as much as the performers did.
While I was waiting one of the caterers walked by slowly, scanning the ground. I watched him for a moment before speaking up.
His eyes snapped to me. “I just dropped a fork,” he mumbled and continued on.
After awhile Valli came back and collapsed next to me. He panted heavily. A sheen of sweat covered his neck and his hair was damp where it touched his skin.
“I should be going on again in about half an hour,” he said. “It’s a little weird not being able to go back to my room.”
He tilted his head back against the wall, eyes closed. I imagined pictures of his bed dancing through his mind.
“You can lean on me if you want,” I offered. He perked up an ear with a look of surprise before smiling. He started to lean towards me, paused, then dug out a small cloth and placed it on my shoulder.
I quirked an eyebrow at him.
“I don’t want to smear anything on you,” he explained.
His arm pressed against mine and his head rested on my shoulder. I wrapped an arm around him to keep him steady.
Nothing happened that afternoon. The show ended without a hitch and staff went home. Guards carried the fence away from the living quarters. Valli washed off and we went to the second building.
On the way to his room we saw Ellora at the end of the hall. He passed by his room and went to her open door. She was sitting at her desk, holding up a letter with a quizzical expression. An envelope sat on her desk, opened without any tearing.
“Did you manage to get your papers sorted?” he asked.
“What’s that?” I asked, indicating the letter.
“I found this mixed in with the papers.” She wrinkled her nose at it before holding it out. I grabbed it and looked it over.
What right do you have to destroy people’s dreams? I bet you don’t even notice anyone besides yourself. You don’t know who I am, but I know who you are and where you sleep. Maybe you’ll notice me soon.
I furrowed my eyebrows. “This letter is pretty threatening.” I handed it back.
She held it over her trash bin. “I don’t have time for nonsense.”
“Wait, stop!” I shouted before she dropped it. She raised a brow at me.
“It could be related to the murder. We should give it to the police,” I said.
“You think this has something to do with it?”
“The murderer came back here and took Valli’s stick, right? You’re only one door down from him and your papers were knocked over the same day. Maybe the same person did that and left the letter.”
She quieted, before letting out a soft huff. “Do whatever you want with it.” She flipped it up between her fingers, holding it out for me.
“Hold on, we probably shouldn’t touch it anymore. I’ll get something to put it in.”
I rushed over to their kitchen with Valli close behind. He pulled out some baggies for me and I went back, putting the letter and envelope into a bag, careful not to touch them. I jogged to the theater’s entrance with it.
When I pushed through the doors Aliseam and another guard were outside. She had a distant look in her eyes. She squeezed them shut and forced them open again.
I paused. Technically, the guards were part of the police force, too. They were just contracted out. They even wore the grayish pink uniform. My eyes turned to the bag. She would want to be part of the investigation.
“Aliseam.” I grabbed her attention. She wearily dropped her gaze on me. “We found something.”
The words brought a shimmer of life to her eyes.
“Someone left a threatening letter on Ellora’s desk.” I held the bag up for her.
“Did anyone touch it?”
“We both did before I wrapped it up, but I think we’re the only ones. She just found it.”
“What did it say?”
I repeated it the best I could.
“Cover for me,” she told the other guard. I had a hard time keeping up with her stride on the way back to Ellora’s room. She wasn’t just taller than me; she also moved with urgency.
Ellora was still sifting through her papers with Valli.
“Someone knocked over her papers the same day Valli’s hair stick was stolen,” I explained.
Aliseam held up a hand and brushed us to the side.
“If the killer left the letter there we can assume Ellora was the target. They had to write this in advance, so they planned on coming here and leaving it. They must have accidentally knocked stuff over while they were in here.”
She turned, pointing down the hallway. “The perp walked back down the hallway…” She followed the path, stopping at Valli’s room. “Maybe they spotted the hair stick while they were going down the hall. An opportunist.”
Valli and I shuffled over to the front of his room.
Aliseam folded her arms. “That still leaves finding out where the murder occurred.”
Just then an idea flashed through my mind. I spun towards Valli, grabbing his arm.
“Valli, you said someone spilled juice here the other day, right?”
“What color was it?”
“I’m… not sure. The carpet is red, and it just looked darker.”
“Did you see someone spill it?”
“No, it was already here. It looked like someone tried to clean it up but it was still there.”
“Is it possible it was a blood stain?”
“Blood?” He stared at me, arm stiffening. “I… I suppose so.”
“Tell us exactly what you saw!”
“Umm…” He knelt down by his door. “It was about here. There were two circular splats next to each other with a little trail connecting them. And there was a napkin next to it that was a bit wet.”
Aliseam leaned down, pushing him back and pointing at the carpet. “Here?”
Valli straightened, folding his hands together. “Yes, about there.”
He turned to me, eyes downcast and ears lowered. “You don’t think I ruined the investigation by cleaning it up, do you?”
I rested a hand on his shoulder. “It’s not your fault. You didn’t even know something had happened.”
“We can still test if there was a bloodstain here,” Aliseam responded, one knee on the ground. “Can you draw a picture of it?”
“I’ll do my best.”
Valli went into his room and came back with a piece of paper. The drawing on it was much like he described. There were two somewhat circular shapes that he completely colored in. Between them were a pair a lines connecting the two. Both lines were straight, and were shaded lightly rather than filled in.
Aliseam took the paper and set it down where the stain had been.
I pointed at the lines. “Those are really straight. I wonder what made it.”
She stared at it silently a moment before asking, “Valli, can you bring another one of your hair sticks?”
He nodded and complied, getting her one from his room. When she placed it on the paper it became clear.
“The killer dropped the hair stick.” She placed the stick in the first line, then lifted it into the second. “It bounced and made a second line.”
My gaze turned to Valli. Our eyes met. We were locked in an awkward silence, knowing that the scene Aliseam was describing was the immediate aftermath of the murder.
“What happened to the napkin?” Her voice broke the quiet.
“The napkin.” Valli put a hand over his mouth, averting his eyes. “It… I… I don’t remember where I put it. I suppose it must have ended up in the wash? I didn’t pay much attention to it.”
“I’ll check the laundry once I mark off this area. If you can remember where you put it tell me immediately.”
Aliseam left and we were left standing in the hallway together. His eyes were fixed on the ground and his usual smile was gone.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“I should have reported it.”
I smiled weakly. “No one reports carpet stains to the police. You didn’t know what it was. We still don’t even know what it was for sure.”
He nodded his head but the look of guilt remained. I squeezed his shoulder.
“She said that they can still check for blood there. And if they can find the napkin, that’ll be even better. It’s fine. Why don’t we just relax in your room for awhile?”
We spent the evening in his room. He let me wash my clothes with his laundry and I decided to stay another night. As much as I tried to help take his mind away from it, he stayed preoccupied. I didn’t blame him. It was hard not to think about the murder.
When we lied down that night he was on his back, looking up. I followed suit. My mind lingered on the day’s events while I stared into the darkness.
“Leander?” Valli whispered hesitantly.
“Do you think that’s really where the murder happened?”
“I’m not sure. It could be.”
“It kind of… it feels weird, knowing someone came in here, and that someone might have been murdered right over there…”
I imagined what it would be like to go home and see signs that someone had broken in. Even worse, that someone had been killed right outside my bedroom door. It was unnerving.
“It’s okay. I’m here. I won’t let anything happen,” I assured him. I wasn’t big or strong but as long as we were together we would be safer.
The mattress shook and his hand slipped into my hand.
“Thanks.” He paused. “For coming over.”
My heart bounced around in my chest. I hadn’t expected anything, but it felt good to be appreciated.
“It’s no problem,” I brushed it off awkwardly. I wasn’t sure what else to say.
A snigger came from his side of the bed. “And just a few months ago I was worried about you being a criminal.”
I let out a forced, nervous laugh. I wasn’t a criminal. I mean, not really. I never tried to hurt people so it didn’t count. …Right?
“You should be careful, hanging around with dangerous people like me,” I joked.
Our laughter started softly and ended quickly. Silence settled over the room. I shifted my hand, entwining my fingers with his and squeezing his hand. My other hand rested on my stomach and I relaxed in the quiet of the night.