The girl froze on the stage. Thousands of eyes were fixed on her. Music played but she was paralyzed. Mute. Even from the balcony I could sense her fear.
"I hope they don't make her stand there for too long," I whispered to Valli. He glanced at me with a pained smile. His expression was barely visible in the dim lights. A vibrant pink flower was pinned an inch above his ear and his bangs fell in layers around his face, much shorter than the rest of his hair.
I turned my attention back to the stage and cringed in sympathy.
"Control, have to stay in control..."
A fearless and familiar voice filled the theater. It wasn't the girl. Ellora strode out from behind the curtains with a microphone in hand. The girl whirled to face her. The song began softly and built up slowly.
Ellora stopped next to the girl on stage as she reached the chorus. The casual jacket and pants she wore showed she hadn't been planning on performing. With a wave of her hand, she prompted the girl to join her. A second voice weakly joined hers in the chorus. As they sang on the voice became stronger, clearer.
The chorus ended and the girl continued into the second verse. Her voice was powerful, smooth, and while she sang Ellora slunk back, disappearing behind the curtains.
After she belted out the last note everyone clapped. I put my hands together for her. It was the nicest thing I'd ever seen Ellora do.
With the last audition finished, people flooded out of the seats below us.
"Thanks for inviting me," I told Valli while we waited for the people to clear. "It's nice to get such good seats."
"It's nothing. I enjoy having someone else here with me," he answered.
It paid to know someone in the theater. Valli invited me to many auditions and occasionally gave me free tickets for a show.
Trotting a step behind him, we went downstairs to the lobby. Hundreds of people loitered there, chatting and wandering into the gift shops. The entire theater was maroon, from the lobby to the living quarters. Woven posters from previous plays covered the walls. The massive area was littered with cushy seats and decorative plants.
"That was quite the ending," I said.
"You don't see that happen every day," Valli agreed.
Around us heads started turning. I looked to see what was grabbing their attention. Ellora had entered the lobby. Her hair was parted in a way that favored her right side and hung to her mid-back. Her skin had always been a few shades darker than mine, but I had always been a bit lighter brown than average. She had a dark blue jacket on despite the fine weather, and some dark pants to go with them.
People migrated her way but she barreled through them straight over to us and stopped, folding her arms with eyes on Valli.
"Are you heading back inside?" she asked.
"Sure, in a minute," he answered.
"I'm surprised you went out on stage like that. I've never seen you do that before," I said.
"I saw her practicing in the back so I knew she had talent," she stated, huffing. "Not like that third guy. That was painful to watch. I couldn't wait for them to get him off the stage."
"Think she'll be accepted?" I asked.
Her response was so sharp it startled me.
"We can't have people freezing up on stage. Maybe if she gets some experience and tries again next year," she explained. More people took notice of Ellora and she pointed towards the door that led to the back. A large guard in pink stood next to it.
"I'm going to head back in before things get chaotic."
Valli nodded and she left.
"Shall we head in, too?" he asked me.
After knowing Valli for a few months I didn't feel awkward at the theater anymore. I followed him into the back area, already knowing that he was heading to the living quarters. A hallway attached the two areas together in the back.
The living quarters was same the length as the theater but wasn't nearly as wide. It was a hallway with rooms and recreational areas. Valli's room was the second one from the end, on the right. The same carpeting that cover the theater floor extended all the way through the halls, but they decorated their rooms however they wanted.
"Actually, I had a favor I wanted to ask of you," he began hesitantly.
"Oh?" I perked up my ears.
"You find things, right? I was wondering if you could help me find my hair stick?" He fidgeted with his fingers.
I looked for relics or historical artifacts, but looking at his shining eyes and tentative expression, I couldn't help but smile. "Sure, I'll help. Where did you last leave it?"
He clasped his hands together and brightened. "I took it off before the show last night and left it on my desk, but it was gone when I came back."
The carpet in front of his room squished under my feet with a wet sound. I stumbled back.
"Sorry, someone spilled some juice there last night and I had to use one of those cleaners to get it out."
"Ah, I see," I answered. We walked around the wet spot and into the bedroom.
His room was tidy with light blue décor. The furniture was all made of a matching light wood, and his bed was plush and oversized for one man. Doors led to his personal washroom and bathroom on the same side. The room was large. Even with a desk, dressers and the bed there was plenty of space left.
I glanced down at the desk sitting next to the entrance. "So you left it here?"
"Yes, right before the show."
"What did it look like?"
He held up his hands to show its size. "The pin was about seven inches long and had an orange and yellow flower on the end, with a couple tiny rubies inside."
I knelt down by the desk and checked behind it. Nothing. I pulled myself back up.
"Did you check your washroom? Maybe you moved it at some point and forgot."
"I looked all over but I haven't found it anywhere."
Flipping up the skirt of the bed, I peeked under. Clear. Valli kept his hands folded while he watched.
"Could someone have borrowed it?"
"I don't think anyone would have taken it without asking first."
Slumping down on the edge of the bed, I held my chin and mulled it over.
"How much was it worth?"
"About fifty shills, I suppose."
"And nothing else is missing?"
"I haven't noticed anything."
It was a decent amount for a hair stick but not enough to risk a criminal record, especially if they didn't take anything else.
"I guess the best thing to do would be to ask if anyone else knows anything, then. I'll go see what I can find out."
First, Ellora. It was possible she... no, she actually liked Valli. She wouldn't steal from him. Me, maybe, but not him.
I went to the next room and knocked on her door. She opened it, a look of irritation plastered on her face. Papers were scattered all over the floor. Some had been piled together but the pages weren't lined up with each other.
"What?" she spat.
"Did something happen in here?" I asked, looking past her.
"A pile of my scripts fell off my desk." She sighed, exasperated.
"That's a lot of papers."
"I have a lot of scripts. What do you want?"
"Valli can't find one of his hair sticks. Have you seen it anywhere?"
"Which one is it?"
"He said it was orange and yellow."
"I think he was wearing that the other day."
"Yeah, he took it off before the show and it was gone from his desk after the show. Was there anyone back here during the show?"
She folded her arms and leaned on the door frame, looking to the side with furrowed brows.
"No one should have been..."
"If he left his door open maybe someone took it because they had the opportunity."
Unlike Valli, I could depend on Ellora to be suspicious of other people.
"Is there anyone living here who might have done it?"
"Hmm... I doubt anyone here would take it. Everyone knows Valli wears flowers. It would be obvious they stole it if anyone saw it."
"If it was taken during the show would anyone else have been able to come back here?"
"Sure. They wouldn't have a reason to, but it's pretty chaotic during a performance. Someone could have snuck over here."
I paused to think it over. "But then, Valli's room is pretty far from the hallway connecting it to the theater. That's a pretty long way to walk just to take a hair stick."
"We make pretty good money, but there's also a lot of staff here who don't earn that much. Maybe one of them thought they'd find expensive stuff to steal."
She had the mind of a thief.
"You're right. I'll see if anyone else is missing anything. Speaking of which, are you?"
"I haven't noticed anything."
"All right. I'll check with everyone else, then."
It was better than asking everyone if they'd stolen the hair stick. I turned to the room on the opposite side of the hallway and knocked. Another one of the dancers opened the door.
"Hi, something of Valli's was taken off his desk and I'm checking to see if anyone else is missing anything..."
I went down the hall asking everyone if anything was missing or they knew anything. There were nine rooms on each side of the hall, making eighteen total. No one else had anything taken or knew about his hair stick.
When I went back to Valli's room I held onto his door frame, leaning slightly inside of his room. "No one else seems to know anything. Is it possible you left it in one of the dressing rooms and forgot?"
"I remember leaving it on my desk like I always do, but I guess it's possible."
"It makes the most sense to me. Let's check to make sure."
The theater had two large dressing rooms. We went into the closer – and larger – one first. Mirrors with lights over them covered the walls on both sides. It had sinks built in and accessories sitting all over the counters. Dozens of seats were scattered about. A pair of racks full of costumes still sat in the middle of the room.
We searched the counters for his hair piece. Thin layers of powder dusted the countertops randomly. Red and black powder rubbed off onto my hand when I touched them. I peeked under the counters and in the sinks, and while I found many knick-knacks that had been left behind I didn't see his stick. With no sign of it, we moved on to the second dressing room. It wasn't as gargantuan as the first but I could still imagine dozens of people running around in it.
When I reached the last section of counter we still hadn't found it.
"Doesn't look like it's in here." I faced him as he finished searching the other side of the room.
He folded his hands and his gaze dropped to the ground. My ears sagged. I hated to disappoint him.
I forced a smile. "I guess we could check around the theater. It's possible someone dropped it?"
We began scouring the rest of the theater and I got a closer look at everything that existed behind the scenes. There were lots of little rooms I'd never been in, even showers.
After looking through numerous rooms I opened one of the doors to the stage and pushed through the curtains. The stage was massive, with layers upon layers of drapes drawn to the sides. A ladder was set up on the other side of the stage but no one was on it. The audience seating seemed to flow forever. A section of the stage divided the seats and stretched all the way to the back.
The lights flashed on and flooded the room. Between each sheet a stream of light poured through. I jumped behind the curtains and stood still. Soft footsteps came through the door.
When I saw Valli's feet on the other side of the curtain I grabbed him. He jumped, crying out and tensing up.
I roared and shook him. He planted his feet apart to keep his balance and struggled to free his arms.
After a moment I let go and peeked around the curtain. He laughed, steadying himself. I snapped the curtain back in place and fled. Shielding my head with an arm, I shoved the thick drapes aside. Valli's soft steps followed behind me.
Hopping out of them onto the stage, I checked behind me. He was working his way out of drapery. I dove back in and raced through. When I reached the wall he popped out from behind the other side of the curtain. Laughing, I leaned on the wall, pausing to catch my breath. He panted, a hand covering his mouth.
A puffball on the ground caught my eye. It was wedged against the wall. I inched closer passed Valli and bent over to get a better look. The ball was made of yellow and golden petals, forming a fluffy circular flower. The stick attached to it was resting in a crevice in the wooden floor.
I squatted down in front of it. "Hey, I think I found your stick."
The stick part was a golden brown at the top, but a dingy brown glop covered the bottom. Some sort of crusty gunk. As Valli bent over next to me I held a hand up to stop him.
"There's something on it. Do you have something to pick it up with?"
"I can get something."
He scuttled out the door and came back a couple minutes later with a plastic bag. Covering my hand with it, I lifted it up for a better look.
"Yeah, there's definitely something all over the stick. It looks like a bit is on the edge of the flower, too."
I straightened up and held it so he could see. His figure drooped and he pouted. Too bad I didn't find it in better condition.
"Maybe it can be washed off?" I suggested, though I doubted he would want to put something dirty like this in his hair again.
"It's all right. I guess we should just throw it out."
We took it back to his room, where I tossed it in his trash bin and went about the day. The mystery of where his hair stick had gone was solved.
Still, how did it get there and why was it dirty?
I browsed the selection of hair sticks at the senior consignment shop. All of the goods in the store were produced by retirees who took up a craft as a hobby. Buying the goods helped the elderly, and Dad taught me that it was good to help them supplement their savings now that people lived a long time.
At some point the senior consignment shops built a reputation for being high-end stores. The products varied in quality, but because they were hobbyists they were mostly handmade with a lot of time and care spent on them.
That meant prices were high, too. More than I'd normally pay for a hair stick.
I bit my lip and inspected them, trying to decide if I should go with one that was the same color or the same style. One was a puff of a flower, round and fluffy, but it was purple. Another had the same vibrant yellows and oranges but had longer, pointier petals.
I settled on getting yellow with tiny rubies in the middle of the flower. I questioned my choice as soon as I picked it up, but I had to pick something or I'd be there all day.
So I bought it and made my way to the theater.
A guard waved me in at the front and I strolled through the empty lobby. I heard chatter from the stage so I went through the door that led to the seats. Ellora and Seolian took center stage with a director on the floor in front of them. I only knew Seolian as a popular comedian. Other actors and dancers were hanging out in the curtains.
"You wouldn't understand. Love is painful." Ellora turned away from Seolian and wrapped her arms around herself, her expression pained.
"I wouldn't have a clue." Seolian held a hand to her chest and tilted her head towards the seats, giving the invisible audience a knowing look.
"Stop!" the director yelled. "Do it again but bigger, Seolian. Your heart hurts."
"Bigger?" she repeated, cocking an eyebrow, hands on her hips. The director gestured widely with her hands, encouraging her.
Ellora stretched and repeated her actions.
"I wouldn't have a clue." Seolian grabbed her chest and fell over.
Ellora paused in shock before cracking up.
"Not that big," the director said.
Seolian rolled her head to the side and opened one eye. "Too much?"
I spotted Valli in the curtains and jogged up to the stage, climbing up the side. I received some glances before being recognized.
"Leander, what are you doing here?" Valli asked. Today a pair of small blue flowers were clipped to either side of his head.
I hesitated. A lot of people were around and I wasn't sure if I had picked well. Digging the hair stick out of my jacket, I held it out. "I got this for you."
"Oh!" He threw his hands up over his mouth before gently plucking the stick from my hands. "Thank you! That's so sweet."
At least it had been worth the money. We waded through the curtains and sat down. I held the stick for him when he went to practice with the other dancers. After they were done the performers wandered backstage. I joined Valli on the side of the stage. Ellora stayed back with us, rubbing her shoulder.
"I don't usually get to see the rehearsals," I said.
"It gets old doing the same scenes over and over," Ellora said, "but at least we don't have to rehearse that much right now. This play is pretty straightforward. Not that many tricks."
"The dance routines are more traditional, too," Valli added.
"What's the hardest thing you guys have to do?"
"I think it's when we have to hold an unusual position for a long time. Like when we played ghosts and walked in a crouched position with our legs far apart," Valli said.
"I'd say it's when I have to run to the back while the conveyor belt is going. Having something move under you while you're running can throw you off balance."
From the middle of the stage there was a straight section that shot all the way to the back of the room, through the audience seating.
"You mean down that?"
"Yeah. And crawling through the tunnel back to the stage can be irritating, too. It doesn't get cleaned down there too often."
"I never need to go down there," Valli said.
"Consider yourself lucky. It's cramped."
"How big is it?" I asked, starting down the walkway in the middle.
"There's an opening to it right here." Ellora stopped me. Like the conveyor belt, the trap door blended perfectly with the ground. I'd have never known if she didn't tell me.
She knelt down by it while I started to walk back. She pried it open with her fingers, revealing an opening about two feet wide. Before I made it back to her she screamed and tumbled backwards. I froze. Valli jumped in place. I'd never heard her react like that before.
When Valli stepped forward she threw up an arm to keep him away. What did she see? Curiosity compelled me to go forward while unease held me back. Ellora was not one to scream lightly.
"What is it?" I asked.
"Call the police," she stammered. "There's a body in there!"
Chaos struck. Valli ran out the door. Ellora stayed near the opening, still on her butt. I hesitated to approach. There was a draw to see what she was talking about, but I didn't want to see something that would haunt me. style='mso-spacerun:yes'> She had to be wrong. How could there be a body?
The next few hours blurred together. The theater was overrun with police interrogating people. I ended up in the back of the theater with everyone else. My interrogation was short since I didn't even know the victim. People were separated and questioned alone, but it didn't look like they found a suspect.
Listening to what was going on, I determined that the victim had been one of the guards.
They recorded the lobby and the back areas to make a virtual model of the scene. Everyone was asked to leave all items as they were until they finished. The only areas they didn't bother with were the basement, tech room and living quarters.
It felt like a dream.
It was late afternoon by the time people were allowed to leave. Some of the guards went with the police for further questioning. The stage was roped off. They were going to be allowed to continue using the stage but they couldn't use the trap door.
I rejoined Valli after the police left. The people who stayed formed little groups and spoke in hushed voices amongst themselves. Ellora wasn't anywhere to be seen.
"Did you hear anything about what happened?" I asked him.
"Not much. I don't think they want to let the details out yet."
"It looks like they didn't make a recording of every place in here."
"Well, the guards never go in the tech room or the basement, and she didn't live on location, so there wasn't any reason for her to be in any of those places. It looked like they were spending a lot of time on the left side of the stage, too. Maybe they found something there."
Stage left was close to the kitchen area.
"Did you know her?"
"I can't say I knew her well... The guards are almost always in the front or in the lobby. They only patrol through the back once in awhile, so I don't see most of them much besides Aliseam."
"Aliseam? Wasn't she..." I trailed off. The name sounded familiar.
"She lives on site, so you probably met her yesterday."
That placed her. When I knocked on the doors I had a brief introduction to everyone who lived there.
I looked around the room. "Hey, where did Ellora go, anyway?"
"Maybe she went back to her room?"
"During all this?"
He glanced away, ears lowered. "Maybe we should check on her. To make sure she's okay."
I nodded. We headed to her room.
The pile of papers was messily stacked on the desk. It was about a foot high. No wonder it had fallen. She was sorting through them with a look of irritation etched on her face.
"Are you all right over here?" Valli asked when he walked inside.
Her expression softened for him. She nudged a metal rod leaning on the desk next to her. "If anyone tries to take me by surprise I'll be ready for them."
I knew well from experience that she wouldn't hesitate to swing.
"Okay. I'm going to be in my room with Leander."
The afternoon was surreal. We talked about the murder, and when we switched subjects it came with a sensation of guilt. How could we chat away when someone had just been killed? But I didn't want to scare Valli or obsess over something we didn't have any answers for.
I finished a piece of bread he'd given me and tossed the wrapper in his trash bin. When my eyes locked on it a shudder ran down my back. The filthy hair stick was in there. Yesterday I wasn't sure what it was covered in but now I had a guess.
"Valli." I nearly reached in the bin but stopped myself. "We should call the police. We found your hair stick on the stage yesterday."
He seemed to shrink when I mentioned it. "You think it's connected?"
"It was covered in something, remember?"
Silence fell on us. I didn't want to say what I thought it was covered in.
We called the police and explained what happened. They came to Valli's room and took pictures of the trash bin before collecting it. We took them over to where we found it on the stage and told them everything we could. After another strenuous hour they were leaving with the evidence.
On the way back to Valli's room he stopped in front of his door. His face paled. I knitted my brows as he clenched his hand and brought it in front of his mouth.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"I can't believe a murderer was lurking in our hallway," he answered. His eyes widened and he placed his hands on his cheeks. His pitch rose, "And they broke into my room."
Swiveling to face him, I placed my hands on his shoulders. "It's okay; I'm here. You're safe. The police have... they have the murder weapon now. They can get fingerprints off of it."
"What if they're still around tonight?" He stared at me, his body stiff.
"Don't worry." I paused. Not wanting to sound pushy, I offered awkwardly, "I could stay here tonight."
He turned his eyes up at me. Even though he was still a hair taller than I was, he was curling up, holding himself. "You don't have to do that. I don't want to put you out."
style='mso-spacerun:yes'> "It's not putting me out. I'd feel better if I knew you were okay."
He smiled softly at me. I was glad I could give him some comfort.
"I'll just have to get some stuff from home and let Dad know I'm staying the night here."
He took in a deep breath and straightened up, calming.
"All right. When do you want to do that?"
"I can go right now." I took his hand and led him to the back of the theater. "I'll be back in awhile. Make sure you stay with everyone." He nodded. As long as he was with a group of people I wasn't worried about anything happening to him.
I went home and grabbed some clothes, then plopped down in front of the v-phone. I had a newer one that Dad got me for my birthday but I didn't need to hold our home v-phone.
Dad popped up on the video.
"Leander," he greeted me with a smile.
"Hi, Dad. I just wanted to let you know I was going to spend the night at the theater."
"Oh?" he hummed curiously.
"Yeah." My expression fell. "One of the guards was found dead today."
"Oh?" His tone dropped. He placed an arm on the desk in front of him and leaned forward. "What happened?"
"We're not sure yet, but I'm going to go stay with Valli so he's not alone."
He stayed serious, but there was a brief hint of a smile before it vanished. "Make sure you lock the door. And don't walk around alone."
I nodded. "I will."
"If anything happens call the police."
"And, if something is wrong, you know how to get a hold of Ryki. Keep your phone on you."
I nodded again. I didn't want to bother Rykiel if I didn't have to. "I will." I placed a hand on the table, ready to get up.
"And don't forget to take your toothbrush."
I let out an exasperated sigh. "I won't."
"I love you. Stay safe."
"I love you, too."
I shoved everything in my bag – adding a toothbrush and some toothpaste – and went back to the theater.
Valli was still in the back with a small group of people. The crowd had dwindled down to about two dozen. I walked over to him with my bag slung over my shoulder. He spotted me before I reached him and broke away from his group to join me.
"Do you want to head back to my room?" he asked.
"Sure, I could set my stuff down there."
Valli and I ate with a couple of the other residents then took turns using the shower and getting ready for bed. He had a lengthy nightgown that was mostly white with hints of blue. I threw on a long shirt and pants.
When I came out of the shower his hair was loose and hanging over his shoulders without anything in it. I sat on the edge of the bed behind him.
"You don't have any flowers in your hair. I've practically seen you naked," I teased.
He giggled, dismissively waving at me with a hand.
We played cards until nature turned the lights off. I checked to make sure his door was locked before we curled up in bed. I'd only slept in the same bed as my dad before, and it had been a long time, so this was different. Valli slept on the left side, farther from the door, nestled under the covers. He was curled up facing me.
I lied on my side facing the door. I melted into the soft, warm sheets. Soon my consciousness faded.
When I opened my eyes I was in the same spot. No light was coming in from the window. I mentally groaned, shoving my face into the pillow and hoping I could fall back asleep quickly.
Something creaked in the hallway. My body tensed. My ear snapped to attention.
The door knob jiggled but it was locked. Time stood still while I focused on the door. Moments later the footsteps continued down the hallway – slow and quiet. I crawled out of the bed and crept over to the door, pressing my ear to it. They stopped next door. I heard the rattle of another door knob. It didn't open. They continued to the other side of the hall, testing the doors over there. My racing heart was grateful when all of them were locked.
I strained my ears. They walked back up the hall, eventually fading into silence.
I glanced at the bed. Valli was still curled up, sleeping peacefully. He was my friend, but he wasn't the person I'd turn to in a situation like this.
Nudging the door open, I half expected someone to be waiting on the other side even though I heard them leave. A veil of darkness covered the hallway. I stepped out and closed the door behind me, going next door to Ellora's room.
My entire body was shaking when I knocked. I waited, and knocked again. I didn't want to knock too loud and draw attention.
After a bit Ellora's voice demanded, "Who is it?"
"Shh," I hushed her, whispering through the door, "It's me. I just heard someone walking through the hallway."
The door clicked and she opened it. "Are you sure you weren't dreaming?"
"I'm positive. Someone came down here and tried to open all of the doors, but they were locked," I told her. "They went back down the hall."
She disappeared in her room momentarily before coming back with a metal rod.
"Good, you can cover me," I said.
"And who will cover me?" she asked.
I scowled at her.
"I figured I could run away while you took care of them," I answered.
We slinked through the hallway. I could barely see anything but I kept my ears alert. We made it down the living quarters without spotting anyone. None of the doors were open. We turned to the theater.
Every step I took I worried about making too much noise. The carpet squished under my feet and muffled the sound of the wood creaking underneath.
Light shone from the other side of the theater, somewhere back where the kitchen was. It flicked off while we were inching towards it. Ellora stood ready with her rod up. A creak on the other side of the theater sent a chill through me.
Ellora stayed near the wall and I kept near her right side. I listened for anymore creaking but heard nothing. We got a couple feet away from the end of the wall.
Someone swiveled around the corner with arms held straight, "Freeze!"
I jumped back. Ellora raised the rod. All three of us stayed in position. We didn't even take a breath. The stranger reached to the side with one hand while holding the gun in the other and flicked the lights on. It was Aliseam. Her gun was fixed on us.
"What are you doing out here?" she demanded.
Ellora nodded her head towards me. "He heard someone walking down the hallway and trying to open doors."
She lowered her gun. Ellora exhaled.
"That was me," she admitted. "I couldn't sleep. So I thought I'd make sure everyone locked their doors and check the theater."
She slid the gun back in its holster. Ellora let the rod hang by her side.
"Couldn't sleep because of the murder?" I asked.
She put her fingers to her forehead, plunking down in a nearby seat.
"I talked to her parents yesterday. I promised them we'd find out who did it."
That's right. Aliseam was a guard, so she worked with the victim.
"I don't really like the idea of a murderer walking around, either. Do you have any idea what happened?" Ellora asked.
"Not yet, but talking through it might help."
"Did it sound like the police have any idea?" I asked.
"Not yet. They aren't sure where she died and it sounds like she was stabbed in the heart with something long and sharp."
"One of Valli's hair sticks," I stated.
Her eyes flicked up at me. "They found the weapon?"
"Someone took it from Valli's room. We found it yesterday covered in something, but we didn't realize it was blood until later," I explained. A pained look crossed her face. "We already turned it over to the police," I added.
"So there's a robbery attached to the murder?" She put a hand to her chin.
"Yeah, he left it on his desk before the show and it was gone after the show."
"Hmm." Aliseam leaned forward, resting her chin on her hands. "Maybe it was a robbery gone bad, then. Valli's hair pins are pretty recognizable. If Visrial saw someone with one of them she might have confronted them."
"Did anyone see her after the show?" Ellora asked.
"No. I thought she went home, but no one actually saw her leave. Chances are she was killed around here somewhere."
"I wonder when it happened then. There would have been a lot of people around during the show..."
"She was on duty in the lobby during the show, so she would have spent most of the time in the front and occasionally walked through the back to make sure no one was trying to sneak in."
"Does that happen often?" I asked.
Ellora gave me a pointed look. "No. Not a lot of people are stupid enough to try and break into the theater." I narrowed my eyes at her.
Aliseam mused aloud, "I guess it could have happened in the lobby while everyone was inside watching, but there would have still been gift shop workers around."
"It's hard to imagine getting away with murder with so many people around," I said.
She let out a hefty sigh, slumping forward. "I just don't get it. No one had any reason to kill her, and she was doing so good. She had her own place and she just met someone."
I perked my ears up. "She just met someone?"
"One of the cooks here," she said, then laughed softly. "She said it was perfect because she couldn't cook at all."
I furrowed my brows, wanting to press further but not wanting to offend her, "Do you think they...?"
She sighed. "I considered it, but I can't see him doing anything like that. Besides, he's one of the cooks. They'd notice him missing pretty fast if he wasn't in the kitchen."
Keeping him in mind, I nodded. A silence fell over us until Ellora broke it.
"I don't know about you two but I'm exhausted and there's a show tomorrow. I'm going back to bed."
My eyes felt like weights were attached to them.
"I'm tired, too," I admitted. "At least I know no one is trying to break into the rooms."
"I doubt I'll be able to get to sleep. I'm going to keep an eye out for a bit," she said. I nodded.
Ellora went back before me. I didn't wait long to shamble back to Valli's room and lock the door behind me. He was still curled up. I tiptoed back to the bed and nestled under the blankets.
Aliseam. Base drawn by Abe70280.
The bed shaking stirred me awake. I opened one eye to see Valli going to the washroom with some clothes.
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.
Leander and Valli, drawn by Junsu.
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.
A bowl of dapple seeds taunted me from the counter. Each crunchy seed floated inside of a little sac of sweet juice. Digging them out of dapples was difficult, making them expensive. They were a rare treat when I was a kid.
Seeing my dilemma, Valii came to my rescue. "You can have as many as you want. We usually keep a bowl around."
I snatched up a pile of seeds and shoved them in my mouth, relishing the juicy explosion. One of the dancers, a young woman, prepared a rice dish for us with meat and vegetables while Valli cut up some fruit. The table in the recreational area was larger than the others in order to accommodate six instead of four. Besides Valli and Ellora, three women and a man were sitting with us. Two actors and two dancers.
"If you keep feeding me so well I may never leave," I joked, wanting to compliment the cook. They were an amiable group, flashing smiles and exchanging idle chatter.
My mind drifted back to the murder. Now that we knew the actual target was Ellora I needed to find new suspects. I hadn't heard of Asean having a grudge against Ellora. Then again, Valli and Ellora were friends, and I had no doubt Ellora would confront him if he was picking on Valli.
I had one advantage. Most people didn't know about the letter.
"Is there another show today?" I asked.
"Yes. We'll have two this afternoon," Valli answered.
My gaze wandered down the hall. The other tables each had four people around them, except for one which only had three.
After breakfast Valli and I played cards in his bedroom. I closed the door to block our view. If I didn't I knew our gazes would continuously wander to the spot marked off right outside.
He flipped a card from the top of the deck onto the carpet. A card in my hand matched it. I slapped my hand down but Valli was a split second quicker.
I tried to cheat, batting at his hand to move it away so I could put my card down.
"No, I put mine down first!" he laughed, holding his firmly in place.
Giving up my cheating ways, I checked what else I could put down.
We had time before the staff would begin coming to the theater. I wanted to find new suspects, but the only people around were the people who lived there. Still, they could know something and not even realize it, just like Valli had. I took the opportunity to start gathering information.
"Hey, has Ellora gotten into an argument with anyone lately?"
"Ellora?" He placed a hand to his cheek, eyes on the ceiling. "I guess she and Seolian had a fight the other day."
"Really? What about?"
"Well, we were rehearsing and Ellora was telling her what to do, and Seolian said she's been here longer than her and doesn't need her to give her orders."
"And that was recent?"
"Yes, but, why?"
"I'm just trying to figure out who might have a quarrel to pick with Ellora."
"Oh." At first he answered dryly, but then he pepped up. "Oh! But I'm sure she'd never hurt anyone."
I forced a smile. He'd say that about everyone.
"You're probably right, but I have to start somewhere."
I made a mental note to talk to Seolian. We put the cards away and he decided to show me around the dressing rooms.
On the way we walked by the table that had only sat three diners instead of four. One of the bedroom doors was ajar, and I peeked in to see who the missing person was.
The room had a desk like the others, along with a table. Both were covered with metal, glass and plastic parts. Tenore was sitting at the table, bent over what looked like the parts for a large light. A tiny screwdriver sat next to her, and she was using a pair of pliers to replace a small bulb in a line of bulbs.
style='mso-spacerun:yes'> "Shouldn't you get breakfast?" I asked.
"I'll be out in a minute," she called back, not turning her head.
I snickered. Seemed like this was normal for her.
I went to the dressing room and took a seat in order to be Valli's test subject. He had an assortment of powders and cream-like substances that were dyed all shades of the rainbow, and a set of brushes. It reminded me of painting again.
The soft bristles swept against my skin. I squinted my right eye when the brush got too close to it. It felt like mud sticking to my face, but being fussed over was nice.
My eyes darted towards the mirror while Valli worked. He was drawing a vine of blue flowers on the side of my face.
"There!" He lifted the brush. The blue buds of the flowers shimmered.
I smirked. "I'll have to see what my dad makes of this later." Valli held in a chuckle.
The door squealed behind me. I slung an arm over the back of the chair and twisted around.
Ellora stood in the doorway with a bundle of papers in her hand. "Valli, can you go over these lines with me?"
"Oh." His eyes moved from her to me. "Do you mind?"
I smiled to ease his concern. "It's fine. There's something I wanted to do, anyway."
When I vacated the room I barely glimpsed Ellora stealing my seat. As long as Valli was with her he'd be safe.
The sound of knifes clicking against wood filled the air from the kitchen. The back was oddly empty compared to the night before. With how big the theater was, it made it seem all that more empty when it wasn't filled with people.
I hunted around for Seolian. She wasn't in the living quarters anymore. Several of the people had already strayed to the theater side, so I checked the other dressing room, but she wasn't there.
Finally I pushed through the door to the stage. Fast, zealous words echoed through the empty room. style='mso-spacerun:yes'> "...to do our duty to the kingdom and the king we must be ever vigilant, always press forward, take the thrust of the spear if we must, a hundred spears, no, a thousand! We cannot rest if the king's shoes are cold or if a draft threatens his health..."
It was a speech from one of their previous plays. She continued with undying enthusiasm, each sentence gaining in energy as the soldier proclaimed her loyalty to the king. It was meant to be a commentary about blind devotion, but she had such vigor and charm that I was ready to lay my life down for the king myself.
Without pausing for a breath, she yelled, "...to bring glory to Nagdecht and the king!" Seolian threw her arm towards the sky.
I clapped. She spun to face the side of the stage.
"I'm surprised you can say that whole thing. I was waiting for you to faint from lack of air." I emerged from the curtains.
"I had to practice it about a million times." She placed a hand on her hip and relaxed. "What are you doing here?"
"I was looking for you. I heard you were, ah, mad at Ellora."
"Mad at Ellora?" she repeated, her voice high and an eyebrow raised. "Why would I be mad at her?"
"I heard you two had a fight."
"That?" She waved a hand dismissively. "I'm over that."
"But wasn't she trying to tell you what to do or something?"
"I can speak up for myself if I need to." She shrugged. "I'm not worried about something stupid like that."
I looked down, mulling it over.
"Has anyone else been mad at Ellora?"
"Has she talked to anyone yet today?" She sniggered with a smirk.
"Does she get in a lot of fights?"
"Not really. But she certainly doesn't back down from one."
"Did she have any recently?"
"I can't think of much. About a week ago one of the caterers got in her way during a show. Sometimes she gets into arguments with people from auditions. You know the type. The one's who insist they're the best. She's more than willing to correct them."
style='mso-spacerun:yes'> "It sounds like things get pretty volatile around her."
"It's a high stress business with a lot of big egos. If you can't handle the heat," she pointed with her thumb over her shoulder, "get out. We have little tiffs all the time. Nothing major, though."
"So do you have any idea who would want to kill someone?"
"None. I doubt it had anything to do with any of the arguments around here, but Tenore might know more about that. She gets a good overhead view of a lot of the action on stage."
"Tenore? I could ask her. Thanks."
I headed back to Tenore's room. She was still at the table. The light was almost back together.
I sighed and browsed their kitchen for a knife and a fruit, cutting it into slices. Loading up a plate, I carried it to Tenore's room and set it down on the table beside her.
She looked at it. Her eyebrows went up before she responded, "Now that I think of it, I am kind of hungry." She shoved a piece in her mouth.
"I was wondering if I could talk to you." I insisted on having her attention.
She turned to look back at me.
"What do you need?"
"You're around everyone a lot, right? Do you know if anyone is mad at Ellora?"
"You mean if she's been in any fights or something?"
"Anyone who's mad at her for any reason."
"Hmm." She scratched the back of her head, turning fully around in her chair and taking the bulb with her. Her eyes fixated on it while she screwed the outer pieces back together. "Seolian and her had an argument, but I don't think they're mad at each other."
"Yeah, I heard about that."
"About a week or so ago she berated one of the newer actors. Tanikaye."
I winced. I could imagine it.
"She and Asean have exchanged words a few times."
I pursed my lips. This confirmed my belief that he should still be a suspect.
Tenore continued, "She got into a scuffle when she and one of the dancers bumped shoulders. Luleeno."
My ears sagged.
"Hmm, and about a month ago she got into a fight with one of the actors. Erona."
My expression sunk. "Thanks..." With all of them in mind I turned to go.
"Oh , and..."
"There was a dancer who was missing her cues the other day that she gave an earful to. Tiamy."
Stop picking fights with people, I screamed at Ellora in my head. It had been rough finding any suspects with Valli. With Ellora I was finding too many.
"You sure know a lot about what's going on."
She smirked, eyes down as she screwed the final piece back on and finished her light. She finally turned her gaze to me. "People tend to forget I'm there."
I smiled back at her. I could see people gossiping around her while she quietly worked.
With all the names engraved in my mind I set off. I still wanted to speak to the cook, too. It was possible he knew what Visrial was doing that day.
I plodded through the back, ignoring everyone else and focusing on my next target.
How to bring the subject up? I didn't want to traumatize an innocent lover. Maybe it wasn't a good idea for me to even talk to him... But it was important to see if he knew anything. I could stay vague.
Cooks were engrossed in their work, chopping vegetables and washing food. No walls separated the kitchen from the rest of the back area. It had its own nook where the carpeting switched to tile floor and a lengthy counter acted as a barrier. Tons of carts were lined up by the wall.
"Is it all right if I get a glass of water?" I asked.
"Sure. Just over there." One pointed with the knife. She had a long and stern looking face. "Donsaye, clean up those dishes over there."
There was one caterer in the kitchen. His uniform's deep fuchsia color stuck out among a sea of white uniforms as he moved passed the others to pick up the dishes. I slipped in, grabbing a glass and lingering after I filled it up.
"I heard," I started softly, "someone in here was close to Visrial. My condolences."
"Derian? He's not here yet. I wonder if he'll even come in today," one of the cooks answered. Her hair was pulled back so tight that it looked painful.
"I think they held him for questioning yesterday."
"They can't still be holding him now. Not if they haven't found anything."
I knew he was probably held because he was close to Visrial, but it was an opportunity to pry more. "Why was he held so long? Did he see her around the time it happened or something?"
"I'm not sure. He wasn't here the other day, so we won't know unless he comes in."
"You guys were here, right? Was he in the kitchen during the whole show?"
"Besides a bathroom break? Yeah."
"We can vouch for him," the one with the tight hair said. Her firm declaration warmed my heart. He had people here willing to defend him.
I made mental notes and considered how to approach my next questions. The target was Ellora, but they wouldn't know about the letter. They'd probably only know about the robbery. It would be better to lead in with a question about that.
"Do you guys know why someone would rob Valli? Is anyone mad at him?"
style='mso-spacerun:yes'> "At Valli?" one responded with shock. "Not likely. He doesn't attract much attention."
"Some of the other performers, maybe, but probably not him."
I perked an ear. "Did anything happen recently?"
"Two of them got into it just last week."
It was a perfect segue to what I wanted to get to. "Really? Who?"
"Ellora and Seolian, I believe. Had a fight on stage. At least that's what I heard."
"Do they get into fights often?"
"Once in awhile. I'd say Ellora gets into more than Seolian."
Perfect. "Why? Do people hate her?"
"I wouldn't say that. A lot of the new people look up to her, but when she starts getting bossy it tends to ruffle the pros."
The caterer spoke up. His hair was tied in a bun at the base of his neck. "It's not surprising. She's an incompetent know-it-all."
The harsh words surprised me. Though I had my quibbles with Ellora, I had to admit she had talent.
"Is there anyone in particular she has problems with?"
They threw some glances around the room, brows knit. Finally, one spoke up, "I think she's had some issues with that one dancer."
"Asean?" I asked.
"Maybe. I don't know all of their names."
"Oh, here comes Derian now."
A jolt shot through me. I whipped around. A young cook with a somber face jogged in. He was slender and his hair was slicked back with two strands of bangs hanging down on each side of his head. He had the same floppy hat as the other cooks, and a sturdy white jacket.
I tensed. How would I approach him?
"Derian?" I asked when he neared.
He narrowed his eyes at me.
"...I'm sorry about what happened," I said.
He walked by the pass into the kitchen, murmuring a "Thank you".
My stomach knotted. Any thoughts of questioning him were quickly being buried under thoughts of how to speak to him at all. I didn't want to cause any distress.
"Is there anything I can do?" I asked. I knew there wasn't. We didn't even know each other.
"I just want to get to work right now," he answered. He took up his station, his movements mechanical. A hand gripped my arm.
"You should go." The caterer pulled me away.
I didn't fight.
When we were a few feet from the kitchen he leaned in and whispered, "If you ask me, Luleeno seems pretty suspicious."
My ears were at full alert. "Really? Why?"
"She had one of those flower hair pieces the other day, like the ones Valli wears."
His grip on my arm loosened. I nodded before taking my leave. Robbery hadn't been the motive and Valli hadn't mentioned any hair sticks missing besides the one. I needed to clear my head until the performers showed up.
I sat on the floor and pulled out my v-phone, calling up my dad.
He answered with a smile, "Hello." He stopped, his expression blank. "You have something on your face."
I grinned. "Valli put some make-up on me."
"Ah, I see. That's certainly different." He left it at that. Seemed he didn't have a lot to say about it. "How have things been?"
"It's been okay. We're still looking for the killer," I answered.
"We?" he repeated.
I gulped. "Yeah, we've just been trying to figure out who did it..."
"You're not a police officer, Leander. I don't want you getting involved with that. Just stay with your friend and keep safe."
I lowered my ears. "I'm not getting into any danger..."
"Leander," he chastised.
"I'm staying safe!" I surrendered. "I promise!"
He paused, raising an eyebrow, before giving in. "You best be," he warned.
We talked for a bit and the crowd flourished. Show time was nearing.
We ended our conversation with some parting words.
"I love you."
"I love you, too," I said.
I put the v-phone away and fumbled to my feet.
What better way to stay safe than have the killer in jail? Tenore had given me a list of suspects to go through and I intended to look into each of them.
On the way to the dressing room I bumped into someone. He shoved back and I stumbled sideways.
When I turned Asean was standing there. He wrinkled his nose before his lip twitched up at the corner.
I glared at him, but he touched his cheek lightly.
"You have some dirt on your face," he said.
I wiped my cheek with the side of my hand only to tense up a second after I'd done it. My eyes widened when I saw the green and blue make-up smear. I gaped at him.
He smirked and walked away. I narrowed my eyes at his retreating back before running into one of the dressing rooms to evaluate the damage. The middle of the vine was smudged across my cheek. I sighed and picked up a nearby hand towel, scrubbing it off. Hopefully Valli wouldn't be upset.
When I looked up from the mirror a myriad of people were in the room getting ready. People streamed by me, hardly noticing my presence.
"What happened?" I heard a familiar soft voice.
I spun around to face Valli. Cracking a nervous smile, I explained, "Oh. Umm... I forgot about the make-up and accidentally smeared it."
"Oh," he answered. I waited anxiously. He smiled. "That happens all the time."
I finally exhaled. "So you're getting ready?"
He nodded. "Did you need anything?"
"No, I was just wiping up the mess I made."
"Are you sure? I hate to feel like a poor host."
My smile softened. "Don't worry about me. I can entertain myself. Go ahead and get ready for your show."
"If you're sure," he still sounded reluctant, but he sat in front of a mirror to continue applying his make-up. Ellora was stationed near the door again with another person working on her.
I leaned close to her. She glanced up at me from the corner of her eye without moving her head.
"Hey, can you point out who Tanikaye is?"
"Tanikaye?" She held up a hand and her make-up artist paused while she turned her head. "He's the one over there, with the braids."
She gestured towards a group of actors. One had a braid wrapped around his head like a crown.
Tanikaye's group ran around, flustered and skittish. I made my way over.
"Is everything ready?"
"I can't find the clip for my costume."
"Did you leave it on the counter?"
"There's a tear on my belt! What should I do?"
I listened to their prattling for a moment before butting in, "Are you guys new?"
Eyes focused on me.
"Having some issues?" I asked.
"We're just trying to get ready."
"It must be pretty nerve-racking being new here. Does anyone give you a hard time?"
"The seniors are rough on us but that's common in a lot of theaters. But it's exciting, too." He was a larger man – the type who could play the part of an officer or soldier. His demeanor, though, showed a mixture of excitement and anxiety just like the others.
A second nodded in agreement. She was medium-sized, just an inch taller than I was. "Especially at this theater. It doesn't get any bigger than this. I'd saw off my right leg to work here!"
So the novices got picked on but it was expected. Like a trial.
The group fiddled about in the back corner in a constant state of panic. style='mso-spacerun:yes'> They checked their costumes, looked at the scripts and rifled through their make-up as if they were certain they'd overlook something.
"Is my make-up on fine?" Tanikaye asked after staring in the mirror. He held his hands up like he wanted to touch it but kept them off of his face.
"Look at me."
His fellow actor inspected his make-up, looking at it from all angles. "It looks okay. How about mine?"
Tanikaye leaned both ways, his face inches from the other man's before giving him a nod.
"Do we have all the props?"
Tanikaye picked up a piece of paper and they went through a list. Even then they seemed uncertain, but they gave up and began reciting their lines. They had short parts – one or two lines each – and yet they seemed terrified that they'd mess them up.
Another actor shouted at them, "Hey, clean this up over here!"
The group of jittery actors got to work, picking up and wiping counters off after other actors.
If newcomers expected some harsh treatment perhaps a scolding wouldn't be a good enough motive for murder. They had plenty of people giving them a hard time. Why go after Ellora?
It was still a possibility but I decided to work on my next lead. I sorted through the notes in my head. She got into a fight with a dancer. L...Luleeno.
Ellora pointed her out for me.
Her hair pin snatched my attention. It was a small purple flower – similar to the kind Valli wore. I had to erase it from my mind. Robbery hadn't been the motive.
Right? I thought it over again. We could be missing a detail. Maybe brushing aside the possibility wasn't a good idea.
She was a dancer, so she was near Valli. I blended in easily, moving to Valli's other side and sitting closer to her. She was finishing her make-up so she was focused on the mirror, leaning in so close she was almost nose to nose with herself.
My eyes kept wandering to the flower in her hair until she took it off and set it on the counter. I glanced to Valli and decided to make a comment to see what he would say.
"That looks like the flowers you wear."
He glanced over at it and gave a small affirmative sound.
If it was his he'd have said something about it. That confirmed it wasn't stolen.
I waited for her to chat with someone but she stayed quiet until people were heading for the stage. She said one line to another to another dancer, "The show starts in five?" and got a confirmation. There wasn't an opening to get information about her.
Time was running low. I quickly had Ellora point out both Erona and Tiamy for me. Erona was a tall woman with an oval face and a short nose. She had full eyebrows and thick lips.
Tiamy was a short woman with a bob haircut. She had large eyes and a round face, giving her a youthful look.
That gave a face to all of my suspects. I just needed to keep an eye out for them and see if anyone stuck out.
Unfortunately, everyone was leaving to start the show, so I didn't have time start any conversations. I placed myself against the wall again. The view of the back area was good there. The kitchen was to my left and the living quarters were to my right, and most of the doors were in view.
Before he needed to go, Valli stopped by my spot with some juice. I shot him a grin. I hadn't been thinking about food or drinks but it really did hit the spot. Even if I couldn't spend the entire visit with him, he was still being considerate.
I kept my eyes peeled during the show. Every time people rushed by I looked for anything that seemed out of place.
Flurries of people whooshed by to the dressing room. I didn't pay them any mind at first. It was normal for them to go there. But I recognized Erona, and she hung back from her group before breaking off and going into a different door. There were so many doors in the back that I had to rack my mind to remember where that one led – and it hit me like a brick. The basement
They didn't need anything from the basement for the show, so why was she going down there?
Pushing off the wall to follow Erona, I glanced around. No one was paying attention. Everyone was preoccupied with their own work.
I slipped through the door. The dim lighting barely reached the stairs. Creeping down them, I peeked into the room. The basement was stacked with rows of equipment and props, same as it had been my first time down there. Some were no longer used and others were brought up for certain shows.
I narrowed my eyes. They kept the trolleys to move heavy objects around in here. If someone sneaked one out it was possible to move a body with it, even if I wasn't sure how they would cover it up.
Somewhere out of sight I heard her murmuring under her breath and rustling around.
Should I look? There was the remote possibility that she was the murderer, but she was probably doing something innocent and I'd hate to make a big deal out of nothing. I could already hear Asean complaining about me causing trouble during a show.
I tiptoed in. I'd just see what she was doing and leave. Her clattering covered up my footsteps as I went around. When I rounded the corner I spotted her halfway down the row. I couldn't tell what she was looking for, but she had some sort of small object in her hand.
Just when I was going to step forward and ask what she was doing I identified the object. A dagger. I froze. The blade had been removed from its sheath and looked real.
She let out a frustrated sigh and climbed to her feet. I stumbled back. If she was the killer I was in a dangerous spot.
I spun back around the corner before she looked my way but I would have to run across the room to get back to the stairs. She'd hear me for sure if I did that. Her footsteps were coming my way and I needed to hide quick.
Someone could have picked me up by my toe and my entire body would have stayed in the same position I was so tense. I ducked behind the next row. Maybe she'd walk by and go back up the stairs.
She didn't. She meandered around the area, scrounging through objects. Whatever she was looking for she didn't seem to be finding. When I peeked around the dagger was still in her hand.
What to do. I had my v-phone but I was fighting myself on who to call. If I called the police it would cause a huge ruckus and probably stop the entire show. I didn't know how to reach Aliseam, and neither Valli nor Ellora would be in their rooms so it was no use calling them.
I'd feel awful messing up the show if nothing was happening. Every time I was about to call a pang of guilt shot through me. I didn't want to embarrass Valli or cause more problems. I finally reached a decision and sent a message to Rykiel. I didn't dare talk, so I typed it out. Typing was awkward since I wasn't used to it.
Rykiel, this is Leander. I can't talk, but please come to the basement in Queen Lambrian's Theater. It's an emergency.
I sent it. The fact that I even typed a message would make it clear that something was wrong. People rarely wrote instead of using video.
Tucking my v-phone back in my pocket, I listened to her movements. She was slowly making her way closer to me. I needed to keep hidden until Rykiel could do something or she left.
Whenever she made noise I crept farther away. I found myself crawling along the ground and ducking behind stacks of props. She kept working her way closer and closer, slowly cornering me as we moved through the room.
Eventually I hit the wall. End of the line. It felt like hours had passed but I knew it couldn't have been that long. I tucked myself behind a cabinet, ears flicking in response to every sound. If she got much closer I'd be spotted and I'd have to make a run for it.
The door squealed on the other side of the basement. It echoed through the room, drawn out as if the hinges had never been oiled and someone was opening it as slowly as possible.
Two pairs of feet thudded down the steps. Erona jumped, startled. It was her turn to panic as her eyes darted around the room. She held the dagger flat against her chest and walked around the rows towards the door.
My heart skipped. Was she going to attack someone? I started stumbling to my feet when I heard a voice call out from the other side.
"Erona? What are you doing?"
It was Aliseam. Why was she down here? I faltered in my steps, debating what to do. Aliseam was a guard. She was better equipped than me. I stepped forward robotically, moving closer to see what was happening without thought.
"I was... just looking..." Erona's voice wavered.
There was an awkward silence, and then a familiar voice yelled out.
My ears perked up. Rykiel! An invisible veil of safety slipped over me and I peered around the corner. There he was in his white and red uniform. He had puffy locks of hair and, even though he was a little older than Dad, the only wrinkles on his face were laugh lines.
Aliseam stood by him. Both were large and Erona looked small in comparison.
All the anxiety plaguing my heart faded away. It felt like it left my body when I exhaled, and I stepped fully into view.
"I'm right here," I said. Erona glanced back at me in shock.
"What's going on here?" Aliseam asked.
A new wave of anxiety washed over me. Now I had to explain what I was doing.
I stared at the floor. "Umm... I saw her come down into the basement and I was wondering what she was doing, so I came down to look, but..."
Aliseam's eyes shot to her. Erona jumped when they landed on her.
She reached down to her side and lifted up a small sheath. It was sized for the dagger with a small chain attached to the top and hanging down.
"The chain on my sheath broke. I was hoping I could find something down here," she explained in a weak voice.
I looked at the sheath again. The small chain was meant to attach to the top and the bottom, but there was a tiny indent at the bottom where it had broken off.
I sighed. It was nothing. At least I was safe now.
"Come on. You're not supposed to be wandering away from everyone," Aliseam scolded her, gesturing for her to head out. Erona walked towards the door with her. "You can ask Tenore if she can fix it."
My gaze turned to Rykiel. I was grateful for his presence but felt bad for disturbing him over nothing.
"I'm glad you came," I said.
"When you sent a message I figured it had to be something serious." He moved towards me. "What were you doing coming down here alone?"
It was strange to hear him take on a serious tone. Rykiel was laidback and didn't do a lot in the scolding department. In a way he sounded like Dad.
"I saw her and wanted to check. I didn't think it would be something dangerous. I just thought I'd look and leave..." I tried to explain. In retrospect I wished I'd told someone else.
He held up an arm to put around me as we headed for the stairs. It fell lazily over my shoulder.
"Next time make sure you stay with everyone else. You don't need to be wandering off alone." His tone lightened. He was concerned but trying not to chastise me. I appreciated it.
I nodded. "I will." That was a mistake I didn't plan on repeating. Next time I would get Aliseam. He walked me back upstairs.
"I have to get back to work," he told me.
"Yeah. Sorry for bothering you," I answered timidly. I really did feel foolish.
"It's fine. I'm glad you called." He patted my arm and smiled. When he pulled his hand back he swept it under my chin quickly, pushing it up. "Don't get yourself in trouble. I can't keep leaving work like that."
He was back to his mellow self. I nodded as he turned to leave, promising, "I won't."
My eyes lingered on him as he worked his way back towards the lobby.
"Rykiel!" I called out. He stopped and glanced back. My eyes turned to the ground and my face felt hot. "Don't tell Dad?" I requested meekly.
He smiled. "As long as there's no repeat incident," he assured me.
I'd have to do something to make it up to him later.
Erona scurried back into the dressing room. She wouldn't be alone with someone in there. I'd just have to make sure she didn't sneak anywhere else. I could talk to Ellora about it later. She hadn't been doing anything bad but I needed to keep in mind that it was still possible she was the killer and someone was wandering around the basement and unnoticed. Maybe it wasn't the first time.
I waited by the wall, grateful for the people that were around. With my heart slowly calming I kept an eye on my surroundings again.
A group of novice actors had finished their short parts in the play and scurried to the dressing room. On the way, Tanikaye stopped.
He paused in front of the fence blocking the living quarters and stared down the hallway. I furrowed my brows. What was he looking for? I swooped in to start a conversation.
"What's wrong?" I asked in a friendly tone.
He jumped, facing me.
"I was just wondering what it looks like. I've never been back there," he answered.
He scuttled away. I pressed my lips together. It wasn't an insane excuse but I couldn't help but wonder if there was more to it.
There was still one I hadn't seen much of. Tiamy. She had been with the other dancers but I hadn't seen her do anything of note.
I decided to take my mind off the dagger issue by looking for her. I'd seen her go on with the other dancers and assumed she went back to the dressing rooms with them, but she wasn't there. I checked the second dressing room to make sure and found myself at a loss. Where else would she go? Could she be hanging out backstage still? No one was in the showers yet.
Peeking out at the stage during a show could get me in trouble but I decided to risk it. When I turned the corner, though, I spotted her down the hallway. The door to a large storage space was open and she was halfway inside, doing something.
After watching a bit she to be wiping something off her leg. Trying to get a stain off her clothes? What kind of stain?
She hadn't noticed me so I backed around the corner again. Perhaps it was jumping to conclusions to think she'd be wiping blood off. But if she was the murderer, she could have gotten a speck on her clothes during the attack. It was during a show, after all, so she would have been in her costume at the time. It was possible she didn't notice or have a chance to clean it until now...
I let out a heavy sigh. There were far too many suspects. I needed to figure out some way to narrow them down.
The victim had been killed outside of Valli's door, but somehow the body was transported to the trap door on the stage. If I could figure out how the body was moved maybe it would narrow down who the killer was.
During the break between the shows I pulled Valli to the side. We had a couple hours before the next play started.
style='mso-spacerun:yes'> "Valli, I think we should try to find out how they moved the body. It could be a good clue to who the killer is."
"How they took the guard from the hallway to the stage?"
He knitted his brows. "I don't think anyone has found something like that yet. But there's all sorts of things in the theater. I have no idea what they used."
"Think about what we know. She was killed outside your room, probably during the show. So someone had to move and hide the body during the show. We can probably narrow down what they could have used to do that."
Valli hummed thoughtfully, placing a hand on his cheek. "Where should we start?"
"Well, we won't find anything here. Come on."
We started wandering around the back, investigating anything with wheels. Clothing racks were sitting around. We shifted them around but couldn't figure out a way to balance or hide a body on one.
"We have some equipment to move heavier props," Valli suggested.
I hesitantly went down to the basement with him. Floor dollies were down there, which were basically rectangles on wheels. I grabbed the corner of one and shifted it back and forth to test it. The wheels moved smoothly.
"This could move her, but... It would have been pretty conspicuous. How would they hide the body?"
"If they covered it..." Valli placed a hand on his chin as he mulled it over. "Well, I suppose that would still be obvious. Maybe if they had a box on top of it, and put her in the box?"
"That's possible, I guess. But where were these dollies during the show?"
"Oh, we didn't need them. They would have been in the basement."
"So if someone used one, they would have had to drag it up from the basement, put something large on it, and wheel it down the hallway and back. Wouldn't someone have noticed that?"
He sighed. "I guess you're right. This probably isn't it, either."
"What else is there?"
"I'm not sure... I need to start getting ready for the next show soon."
We were puzzled. Nothing seemed plausible. Somehow someone had to move and hide the body at the same time when the place was packed. How? There had to be some way!
"That's fine. Let's go back upstairs and see if we can find anything else."
We wandered through the dressing rooms and the back of the theater with our eyes peeled. Many of the staff had left during the break between shows, but a few stayed, so extra people were loitering around. The cooks were in the kitchen prepping for the next service.
"Leander." Valli grabbed my attention.
He walked over to the kitchen, standing near the wall where the carts were lined up. I quirked a brow before piecing it together, then trotted over to join him. The carts had white cloths hanging over the sides that almost touched the ground.
Kneeling down, I lifted the cloth up. Underneath there was a second shelf just a few inches above the floor. A body could have been placed on there and covered up with the cloth.
I stood back up. "I think you have something here. And I think I have an idea who it might be."
"There's not a lot of time left before the next show, though."
"Stick with Ellora. I'll take care of this."
He went back to the dressing room and I went to the entrance to get Aliseam. She was standing with another guard again.
"Aliseam!" I grabbed her attention as soon as I pushed through the large entrance doors. "I think I know who did it!"
Her attention was on me. She folded her arms.
"Valli and I were trying to figure out how they moved the body without being noticed and there's dining carts in the kitchen."
Her arms dropped to her side. "That's a possibility."
"The other day, when I was talking to people in the kitchen, one of the caterers seemed to have a problem with Ellora."
She held a hand up and stopped me. "Let's not get ahead of ourselves. We haven't even verified if the carts were used yet."
My racing heart fumbled. It felt right but she was correct. We didn't have the evidence to back it up.
"Hold down the front," she told the other guard. "Keep staff from coming in the back until I give the go ahead."
I followed her inside. There was a large storage space on the right side of the theater in the back. Tiamy had used it before. Aliseam pulled out a bottle and thin, see-through gloves.
Then she went to the kitchen. The staff was vigorously cutting and cleaning.
"All right, everyone needs to go to the lobby for around fifteen minutes!" she announced.
Cooks looked up with panicked eyes.
"But the next show it going to start soon!"
"We need to get ready for service!"
She hushed them. "You can get ready in fifteen minutes, but for right now I need the kitchen and back empty. Everyone get in the lobby."
It took some more shooing to get them away from their posts but Aliseam drove them out. I hung back awkwardly, wondering if I had to leave, too, but she didn't say anything to me. With the back evacuated save for people in the dressing rooms, she turned off all the lights. There weren't any windows in the back so only the lights through cracks in the doors and from way down the hall could be seen.
She set down a v-phone she had and knelt down by the carts, taking her bottle and squirting the bottom parts. Concentrating on her work, she sprayed them bit by bit. I stayed back and watched. On the fourth cart a light blue splotch glowed on the right side of the shelf. She grabbed her v-phone and took some pictures.
She turned to me with a serious expression.
"Can you tell me which caterer it was that you suspect?"
"I can, but..." I lowered my ears. "We still don't really have proof it was him, do we?"
"Leave that to me."
I told her and she wheeled the cart to her room, turning the lights back on as she did. When she came back she headed out to the lobby. More people had gathered in there as show-time drew near, fidgeting and pacing.
"All right, people can go in!" Aliseam shouted.
People rushed through at a moment's notice. I got out of their way, looking at Aliseam.
I followed her back inside to the front of the kitchen area. The cooks had sprinted back in and were frantically catching up on their work.
Other staff walked briskly to the dressing rooms and soon the back of the theater was bustling.
The caterers began grabbing carts and getting them ready in front of the kitchen pass.
"Donsaye!" Aliseam yelled out. He turned his head, hands on the handles of a cart. "I need to talk to you."
"What is it? We're trying to catch up on work here."
"I'd be interested in knowing why your fingerprints were found on Visrial's uniform."
He froze in place. I blinked in surprise, and the staff around us halted their work.
"That's impossible," he answered, eyes wide.
"And yet it's true. We have clear prints on both sides of her jacket."
"No, that's not possible! I was wearing gloves!"
There was a pause as he, and everyone else, realized what he said.
Aliseam grabbed his arm and yanked him away while everyone stared in stunned silence. She held his arms behind his back and brought him to the front to one of the other guards. The other guard took him, and in a matter of seconds he was gone.
I approached Aliseam afterward.
"I didn't know they found fingerprints."
"They didn't," she answered. "I'm going to the station for awhile."
"Will there be enough guards here?"
"I'll call for someone to replace me. You can go back in."
The next few hours went by in a blur while I waited behind the scenes. Now that they had the murderer I wasn't sure what to do. I talked to my dad for awhile and sat with Valli during his downtime. The show ended and people evacuated the theater, leaving it empty. Valli, Ellora and I sat around a table, all impatient for Aliseam to come back.
Our eyes turned to her immediately when she returned that evening. The sudden gazes stopped her in her tracks temporarily, before she walked over to the table and stood next to it.
"What happened?" I asked.
"They've interrogated him and confirmed he was the one who did it."
"So he used one of the food carts? How did they both end up over by Valli's room?"
"Based on his confession, he snuck over to the living quarters to leave Ellora the letter. He wore gloves so he wouldn't leave prints, but when he put it down he accidentally knocked her papers over. He panicked and rushed back to the hallway to leave when he saw Visrial." Aliseam shook her head. "She must have noticed him heading into the living quarters and gone to check it out."
I grimaced. An unfortunate coincidence.
"When he saw her he ran into the closest room, which was Valli's. He grabbed the stick there, and right when she got to the room he rushed out and stabbed her." She imitated the motions, gripping the air as if she was holding something and jabbing. Her expression fell and her tone lowered to a whisper. "Right in the heart." I winced. I could only imagine how difficult it was to talk about someone she knew like that. There was a moment before she spoke again but none of us rushed her.
"Some blood fell on the floor before she fell backwards. He dropped the stick and started trying to shove her into the bottom of the cart. He tossed the stick under there with her and tried to clean up the blood, but it just smeared, and he didn't have time to keep trying, so he left. He stayed late to clean up tables and dumped her then, after the show was finished. I guess the stick had fallen off the cart at some point. He couldn't find it."
Glancing to the side, I recalled seeing him walking around with his eyes on the floor. Is that what he had been looking for?
"But why would he do any of that? I've never even talked to him!" Ellora asked.
"Apparently a few months ago there was a woman who auditioned and you were... less than kind about her performance."
"So he did all that because I insulted his girlfriend?" she spat.
"That's the weird part, actually." She wrinkled her nose, but maintained her composure. "We interviewed the woman and she doesn't know him. Apparently she had a stalker."
A sense of alarm ran through me. It sounded like we were fortunate enough to catch him before something happened to someone else.
Aliseam rubbed the palm of her hand over her eye. She looked like she was tired or had a headache or something, and I didn't want to trouble her anymore.
"Well, thanks for letting us know," I said. "I'm glad you caught him. Everyone will be able to sleep better tonight."
She answered with a light nod. Looking around, I could see we were all exhausted. It had been a long day, emotionally and physically. Surprisingly, Ellora let her hand drop to the table with a smack, before pushing herself up and quietly walking away. Even she wasn't immune.
"I guess I'm going to get back to Valli's room," I said, adding softly, "Take care." I forced my gaze away and focused on Valli, escorting him to his room one last time.
He plopped down on the edge of the bed with his eyes on the floor. I grabbed the strap of my bag. Outside his window the evening sky had taken over, casting a purplish glow.
"I guess I could go home today," I said with the bag hanging limply in my hand.
"Yes," he answered. A sense of hesitation lingered in his voice. It was weaker than normal, "Everything should be fine now."
His hands were folded on his lap. I could practically see his mind running a marathon. Mine had been racing so much the past few days that I was afraid it was dead on the track now.
I cast a hesitant smile at him. style='mso-spacerun:yes'> "Would you like me to stay one more night?" I asked.
He held his hands together, eyes turned away from me. There was a slight flush on his cheeks.
"That would be nice."
I let the strap of my bag slip from my fingers.
"That's fine with me."