Cassie looked Sid up and down. He had wrapped himself in a navy blue curtain that hooded his face and made him look like a child tripped up in his mother’s curtains. He was so sensitive, though, that it didn’t seem wise to say anything, so Cassie pulled her black cloak tight, hooking and tying it according to the alterations the Thespian costume girl had made for her. “Stick close,” she said. “If we get separated, meow like a cat, three times.”

“That’s a dumb signal.”

“You got a better one? Come on.”

By now Cassie was used to navigating the damp and reeking streets by night. She kept to the shadows, moving around known hazards with ease, her ears alert to familiar noises so that she might pick out the unfamiliar. This was Sid’s first night trip to the theater, and he stumbled after her, whispering the occasional curse as he tripped over trash and turned his ankles in potholes.

Tonight the stage door was guarded by a girl who looked like the Swiss Miss mascot, had the cocoa icon been inclined to sport leather bandoliers across her chest and a tattoo of the number eight between her eyebrows. Cassie gave the night’s password and added, “We’re here to talk to Griffin about the Fresnels.”

The girl let them in and bolted the door behind them. She tugged a drooping knee sock, then settled herself on a high stool and smoothed her dirndl. “He’s been playing with those damn things all week. I heard they’re powerful enough to set the whole place on fire.” She fixed Sid with a look. “Is that true?”

Sid pulled off his curtain cloak and attempted to fold it. “They’re dangerous, yeah. But that’s the whole point.”

“Well, you better not burn this place. This is the best home I’ve had since the Telo.”

“We know what we’re doing. And we can’t test them properly without sunlight, anyway.”

The Swiss Miss nodded in satisfaction and Cassie led Sid down the claustrophobic hallway to the stage, which had been set to resemble a beach. A few Thespians lounged on towels and beach chairs by lantern light, fanning themselves and drinking something green and murky out of tall glasses. Off to one side, two spotlights had been disassembled, their parts arranged in orderly fashion in front of a giant foam clamshell. Griffin quit polishing a lens and came to greet them. “Glad you could make it tonight.” He shook Sid’s hand with more enthusiasm than seemed necessary. “Let me show you what I’m doing. I think this latest adjustment will increase our range by at least two hundred feet.”

While Sid went to discuss the light refraction capacity of the Fresnel lenses, Cassie looked for something to do. She had no desire to join the phony sunbathers, who were now lazily tossing a beach ball back and forth. Normally she would’ve hung out with whatever Thespian guards were around, but she saw no one in the vicinity and didn’t want to go back to the stage door and chat with the Swiss Miss.

She sat down on the lumpy backstage sofa and picked up a script from a stack lying on the floor. She didn’t find it interesting, though—just two people talking and waiting for something to happen. It was so much like her own life that she tossed it aside in annoyance. She was fumbling for a different one and hoping it wasn’t another Samuel Beckett, when a sturdy girl, all muscle and attitude, walked past carrying a box. She spotted Cassie and stopped.

“It’s okay,” Cassie said. “I’m Cassie Thompson, Regents. I brought our engineer to talk Fresnels with Griffin.”

The girl set down her box and it made a jingling sound. “I’ve heard of you. You’re Jay Gallard’s girl.”

Cassie shifted position and got poked by a broken spring. “No.”

“Really? I can think of a few girls who’d be glad to hear that.” She came forward and stuck out her hand. “I’m Marsha, by the way. I’m new around here.”

Cassie shook her hand and murmured appropriate greetings. “Where do you know Jay from?”

“Kevorks.” She motioned to a spot on the sofa. “Mind if I join you? I’ve been moving scenery all day and my back is killing me.”

Cassie edged over and Marsha sat down, rubbing a bruise on her arm. “That foam clamshell is heavier than it looks. The way the weight is distributed is all wrong.”

“I see,” Cassie said, but she really wanted to know about Galahad. “So how’d you end up here after being with the Kevorks?”

“Me and some of the other KDS gals had our own group for awhile, but they’ve mostly all Teloed now. We called ourselves the Blue Ladies. East side. Ever hear of us?”

Cassie shook her head. “I lived on the other side of Callahan until I joined the Regents. West side.”

“What made you move central? At least in the ‘burbs you can grow a garden and dig a hole so your shit won’t stink.”

“The Regents were foraging in my area. Me and my friend were looking for food and Galahad—er, Jay—said if we joined the Regents, we’d get to eat.”

Marsha nodded wisely. “That’s Gallows for you. Always trying to do someone a favor.”

“I don’t know how big a favor it was. I mean, yeah, I haven’t starved, but his cousin killed my friend, and Jay…well, he talks a good game.” Cassie sighed and looked away.

“It’s all right.” Marsha patted Cassie’s arm. “I doubt he really went turncoat. Banquo dropped a few hints that make me think there’s more to it, and besides, it’s not Gallows’ way. They’re either holding him prisoner or he’s got something up his sleeve. No one is more loyal than he is.”

Cassie fixed her with a withering look. “Did anyone tell that to Trina?”

“Oh.” Marsha sat up straight. “So someone told you that old rumor.”

“It’s no rumor. He admitted it.”

“Admitted what? That he killed her?”

“That he might have, but he doesn’t remember.”

“That sounds about right.” At the look on Cassie’s face, she added, “I’ve never believed he did it. He was always helping girls out. It’s why they were all in love with him, those that liked guys, of course. Not me.”

“He says he was on drugs that night.”

Marsha looked at her askance. “Don’t tell me you believe that Reefer Madness bullshit. I’m telling you, Gallows would never hurt a girl, not even if she did something to him first.”

“Then how’d Trina end up dead, with him holding the knife?”

Marsha shrugged. “I have my theories, based on who was around that night. But I could be wrong. It could’ve been a random attack and he was too fucked up to defend her. God knows there was enough killing going on at the time. Or maybe they separated and he found her that way later.”

Cassie hadn’t considered these possibilities, but why should she believe anything a Kevork said? “I know what I need to know.”

“That he’s willing to take responsibility for a murder none of his friends think he committed?”

“David believes it.”

Marsha raised an eyebrow. “Are you sure about that? And are you sure he’s really a friend?”

Cassie fell silent and Marsha stood and stretched her arms overhead. “Time to get back to work. I’m still on probation and don’t want anyone to think I spend all my time gabbing.”

“I see Thespians talking all the time.”

“Those are the ones who can act.” Marsha grinned. “It’s all work when you’re crew instead of cast.” She picked up her box, which jingled again as she shifted its weight in her arms. “It was nice talking to you. Say hi next time you’re around. I don’t have a lot of friends here yet, and since you’re Jay’s girl, you’re practically family.”

Cassie returned Marsha’s little wave and watched her disappear into the shadows, the sound of her footsteps and the jingling box dying into the darkness. In the distance something fell to the stage floor with a crash, and Sid cursed amid giggles from the group pretending to sunbathe on the phony beach with its fabric and spangle waves.

Was Marsha right and she had driven Jay away for something he didn’t do? Cassie drew her knees to her chest and hugged herself. What an idiot she was! She said she loved him, but what kind of love had no faith?

Out of the darkness, a flicker of candle flame bobbed toward her. A pale face appeared, dusted with powder, and big eyes searched Cassie’s own. “Hi,” the girl said. She was short and thin, her lace-trimmed taffeta gown dragging the floor. She fumbled in a pocket and took out a deck of cards. “Want to play?”



Donna (Bites) said...

I'm surprised Cassie didn't think of all of that before but I guess when you're set one way, you're not about to sway another.

Alice Audrey said...

Well. About time.

It's nice that she got some validation for her hopes.