The crowd were getting restless. It was well past midnight, and my star turn should have been on stage at eleven thirty.
She’s a Diva; I said to myself as I climbed the stairs, this is what they do: They keep their audience waiting till the rooms at fever pitch.
From below me, I could hear the chant beginning again. “Ly-ra! Ly-ra!” Coupled with a tuneless version of: “Why are we waiting?”
She’s a has-been, I answered myself. She should be happy to be working. I was angry. But I was a little frightened too: everything I had in the world, plus everything I was likely to have for the next ten years was invested in tonight, and I couldn’t afford for this to screw up. I needed a big opening act, and getting Lyra Day had been a godsend.
But that was before I’d met her. The woman, put simply, was a monster. She hadn’t said anything since her arrival this afternoon that hadn’t been steeped in vitriol.
More than once, I’d wanted to tell her to take her collection of ratty looking wigs and her rack of too-tight sequinned mini dresses, and fuck right back to obscurity; I’d hire a drag queen instead.
But each time I’d stomped back down to the bar, where Ali and the ASBO twins were filling the shelves and fridges with the stock I’d used my old man’s credit card to purchase, the sound system was blasting Ms Lyra Day’s greatest Hits; classic tunes like ‘Love in the dark,’ and ‘Highway Lover.’ Then, from her inadvertently camp Country album Lyra in Nashville, the hilariously overblown ‘I hope you’re happy (But I wish that you were dead’), and I knew that there wasn’t a drag queen around that would draw the crowds the way that Lyra Day would. So I’d bitten my tongue, kept my peace, and taken it like a man.
And now the bitch was just taking the piss.
“Ly-Ra! Ly-Ra!” The crowd were getting louder, and I could feel a trickle of sweat running down my back as I stood at the top of the stairs, looking down the landing to the door of the dressing room.
The landing stretched out before me, the threadbare carpet like some grimy trail to doom. Follow the crappy brown road, I heard my inner munchkin voice, and realised that I was close to becoming hysterical.
The newly painted walls already looked grimy in the dull yellow light from the single unshaded bulb, which hung halfway down the landing, and under which I stopped and listened.
Apart from the crowd downstairs, and the thumping of my own heart, I couldn’t hear a sound. Foster should be doing this, I thought, cursing her husband/manager as a useless turd: The sort of manager who didn’t so much manage as acquiesce.
And that’s when I heard the sound of smashing glass. In most bars on a Saturday night, you’ll hear, at one time or another, the sound of breaking glass. But this wasn’t any bar, and this wasn’t any Saturday night. This was the Marquess of Queensberry Public House, and this was the opening Night under my management, and this was my bar, and it was about to be demolished by a crazed bunch of pissed-up homos because this raddled old tart couldn’t get her act together, get her arse downstairs on time, mime to her twenty minute set, smile at the queens and collect her money.
And now, I was furious. I stalked towards the dressing room door.
“Lyra,” I said, loud enough for her to hear me, “If you don’t get your arse on stage and sing those fucking songs now, I’ll murder you!”
But, of course, she couldn’t hear me, she couldn’t get her arse on stage, and she would never be singing any of those songs again. Because someone had beaten me to it.
The door swung open at my touch, and I stepped into the room; there were several lamps dotted around the space, and each light was on. The curtains were drawn, and the rack of tacky looking dresses stood in one corner, the sequins shimmering inside the plastic cocoons. Beside the door, and reflected in the mirror of a dressing table positioned directly across the room, a small portable T.V. was turned on and playing, with the sound turned down, some mid 80’s action movie: Jean Claude van Damme flexed his muscles, and, when he opened his mouth, no sound came out. I’d had some boyfriends who might have been longer on the scene if they, too, had had that skill.
And at the dressing table, wearing a towering, curl infested wig and a tight fitting, mother of pearl coloured silk gown, with her head laying on the table surrounded by what I at first thought was powdered foundation, was Lyra Day.
Or, more correctly, the late Lyra Day.
I guess my world, really, changed when I found Robert shagging the window cleaner.
The day hadn’t started too well, to be honest. We’d been together, Robert and I, for about seven years, and I’d been working at Glamrag for twelve.
Robert was a lawyer at Fitzgerald-Parker, the city law firm. They’d been brought in when the magazine was going through one of its periodic takeover battles. We’d met, got on, dated, and the next thing I know, he’s asking me to move in with him.
Robert was from money – his parents had had it, and his grandparents had had it. His great grandparents probably employed some of my Irish relatives on my mother’s side as parlour maids and gamekeepers on their estates. I was from debt – my great grandparents had had it, my grandparents had had it, and my mother had borrowed the money for the ticket on the mail boat that brought her, eventually, to South London.
So I moved in to the house in Windsor and tried to cover the fact that I felt alien, lost, like I was always waiting for Robert to realise I’d put out the wrong fish knives, and, with a look of horror on his face, announce “Good Gad, man! You’re a prole! Leave my house this instant!”
But he didn’t, and I eventually settled into my life, and into my love – and it was love.
And I got used to the fact that he earned much more than I ever would, and that he paid for the first class flights to Sydney for Mardi Gras, that he owned the apartment in Miami where we spent most Christmases, that it was his money that paid for the rented cottage in Provence in September each year.
But I wasn’t a leech; I’ve always lived by my grandfather’s motto “From each according to their ability to each according to their need.” Okay, so maybe my granddad stole that one from Marx, but that Karl was a very wise man, though I always thought it a shame he never went into the family act. He’d have been a lot funnier than the one with the horn.
I paid for the groceries, I paid for the cleaning woman, and I paid, once a week, for the window cleaner.
And I did this from my meagre earnings as a senior Correspondence co-ordinator (A.K.A. Mailroom boy) at a magazine that seemed always to be on the edge of bankruptcy, which meant, frankly, that I was always in debt.
But I was happy, and I was in love.
So all was well with the world.
And then, on the morning in question, I rose from my bed, stepped into the wet room, showered, dressed, and went off to work.
And, at 10:15, was informed that, due to “Budget restrictions,” and “The reduction in physical mail generated by our move onto the information superhighway,” I was being made redundant.
But I shouldn’t feel too bad about it, I was told, because “Lots of departments are getting chopped. They’re getting the bullet left right and centre, Dan. I swear, it’s a bloody massacre.”
I fixed the biddy from HR with my best impersonation of Robert’s patrician stare, wondered what made her think that joking about the pain of others would reduce my pain at that point, debated asking her why she had that ever-so-slightly triumphant smirk on her face, searched for something cutting and clever with which to express my contempt, came up with “Go fuck yourself, you dried up old bitch,” and was dragged, ranting, from the building by two rather butch security guards, who had obviously been hired on a day rate for just such an eventuality.
Picking myself up from the pavement, I dusted myself down, and made my way back to Windsor, where I was surprised to see Robert’s Audi still in the driveway. Must be working from home, I thought, little realising just what sort of work he was undertaking.
Having peeped into his study, and found it empty, I stood miserably in the hallway, and that was when I heard the noises from upstairs.
This, of course, led me to mounting the stairs and discovering something horrible at the end of the hallway (not the last time that would happen to me).
There they were – Robert and Andy, he of the emerald green eyes and button nose – on the Ralph Lauren sheets, the duvet thrown to one side.
There was a moment – one of those split seconds of silence that seems to stretch into infinity, then:
“You’re home early,” Robert said.
And I stood there, my mouth moving, but no sounds coming out, looking, for all the world, like Posh Spice doing mental arithmetic, and the silence stretched.
While Robert continued to do to Andy what he’d been doing when I first opened the bedroom door.
“Jesus, Danny,” he finally said, “either get your kit off and join in, or make us a cup of tea.”
And that’s when the mist descended, your honour. I swear, until I came to covered in blood with the two bodies in the back of Robert’s Audi, I had no idea what was happening.
Well, that’s how it could have gone. But it didn’t. I stood staring down on the two of them, still entangled in each other’s arms, thinking I wondered why those conservatory windows hadn’t been done in weeks: Filthy they were, whilst trying to remember whether Andy took sugar or not.
And then he grinned at me. Andy – he of the emerald green eyes and button nose – grinned at me, and he actually fucking winked.
Which was how I found myself – as if in a trance – turning my back on them, walking down the stairs, along the hallway, out the door, and back up the drive – as Robert hung out of the cleanest bedroom windows in Windsor and called after me to come back; that we could talk about it; that I shouldn’t be such a stupid boy.
And I realised that all I had left in the whole wide world was my travel card, twelve pounds fifty in change, an overdrawn bank account.
And my pride.
I kept on walking.
“Well this doesn’t look too good.”
I jumped – literally jumped – like a scalded cat, my hand flying to my neck as though I were a duchess clutching her pearls.
Before me lay the strangled figure of Lyra Day, her stupid bloody wig surrounded by what, on closer inspection, turned out to be sparkly white powder. Powder I was willing to bet would numb the gums and have the heart racing in no time at all. If her heart hadn’t been stopped permanently.
Powder that had been the cause of an argument the last time I’d spoken to her. An argument caused by her refusal to perform unless I provided cocaine, and my absolute refusal to provide the said substance.
“You’ll get your arse on that stage, woman, and you’ll perform, or I’ll personally wring your bloody neck,” had been the last words I’d spoken to her.
And behind me, stood Caz – or, to give her full name, Lady Caroline Victoria Genevieve Jane De Montfort, only daughter of the thirteenth Earl of Holloway.
“Lord, how much has she had?” Caz stepped past me and inspected the prone figure on the dressing table. “Calm down, tiger; we’ll bring her round, slip a couple of brandies down her throat – bugger Rehab, this is an emergency – and shove her out on stage.”
I glanced at the table, at the sparkling powder, the disturbed perfumes and potions, at the little clear baggies scattered haphazardly amongst the chaos of the dressing table, each one printed with a picture of a snowflake, and knew that the only way Lyra Day was going anywhere was on a stretcher.
Still, Caz kept on going: “Nobody will be any the wiser. What?”
She’d caught sight of something – the look of sheer horror on my face, perhaps – and frowned, glancing back down at the dressing table.
“What’s up,” she asked, stepping closer to Lyra, and reaching a hand out to her.
“Stop!” I called, but it was too late; she’d touched my star turn.
Caz frowned, reached another hand forward, felt for a pulse on the neck, glanced at me, raised an immaculately waxed eyebrow in what I suppose was a show of surprise and concern, and reached out to raise the head by pulling on the hair.
This, since it was a wig, allowed traction only so far, before separating from the scalp, whereupon the Late Ms Day’s head flopped forward, and she head-butted the table.
“Jesus, Danny,” Caz now had both eyebrows raised, “What have you done?”
“Me?” I grabbed, once again, at the theoretical pearls. “I just found her. She was like that already.”
“Well it’s going to take more than a few Redbulls and Brandies to get her on stage.”
“Is she…” I asked.
“Afraid so. Bald as a billiard ball. Oh, and dead too. And more than likely, based on that smack she just got, the victim of a post-mortem broken nose.”
“They’ll burn the place to the ground,” she said, nodding a head towards the sound of the increasingly restive crowd.
“Do me a favour,” I answered, “Leave me in it. I’m dead anyways. Might as well save on the crematorium fees.”
“How’d this happen,” Caz asked, her eyes roving around the room.
“Well I’m no expert,” I said, pointing at the dark bruises on the ex-Diva’s neck, “But I’d guess someone put their hands around her throat and squeezed till she stopped breathing. Question is: Who could have wanted to kill her?”
“Oh, Daniel,” Caz fixed me with the sort of pitying glance she usually reserves for those people who try to pair a Top Shop bag with a pair of Prada pumps. “Who wouldn’t have wanted to: The woman was a black belt bitch.”
I was raised by a mother who was very strong on the whole never speak ill of the dead thing. Still, even I had to admit that Caz might have had a point; since her arrival at the bar that morning, Lyra Day had managed to sow unrest, ill-feeling, upset and downright hatred faster than a fourteen year old sweatshop worker on piece rates could sew sequins on a couture dress.
And now she was lying, face down, dead and bald in the dressing room of the pub I managed, whilst underneath me a mini riot looked likely. There was only one thing for it.
From the Vuitton bag she never let leave her side, Caz produced a bottle of Tanqueray ten, unscrewed the lid, took a deep and slow swig, and handed the bottle to me.
“Brazil’s nice at this time of year,” she said as I felt the sting of the gin hit the back of my throat. “You know; in case you need to make a run for it.”
“Not funny, Caz,” I gasped, taking another swig. “What am I gonna do?”
“Well, the first thing you’re not going to do,” she said, wrestling the bottle back from me, recapping it and stowing it in the deep recesses of the Gladstone, “Is panic. You’re an innocent man. There’s no need to panic.”
“Right; cos innocent men never end up in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.”
“Oh grow up, Danny: You’ve been downstairs all night. I can vouch for you. No: We need to be calm and controlled about this.”
Caz – as a child of the gentry – was never required to attend the state-funded comprehensive school system. Not for her a curriculum of text-speak English, lessons on how to safely reheat a Tesco ready meal, how to make your own crack pipe from a discarded Stella can, and ways to avoid unwanted teen pregnancies. Instead, in several highly respected and hugely expensive private establishments, Lady Caroline learned the skills that the upper class female has required since Gladstone was in bloomers: Poise in the face of peril; detachment in the face of disaster; an ability to remain fragrant when your husband’s been caught in flagrante, and, above all, the ability to avoid disaster with deceit.
“We could roll her up in that thing,” she said, gesturing at a muted rag rug, “Dump her in a skip a few streets over, and say that, when you came to collect her, she’d done a runner.”
“Gimme the gin,” I demanded, reaching a hand out for the bottle, uncapping it, swigging deeply, and handing it back to her.
Only then did I speak: “Are you seriously suggesting we disturb a crime scene, tip a corpse in a dumpster, and throw away the most expensive piece of furnishing in this room?”
“Did you say dumpster so you’d sound like you were in a CSI?” she asked.
“Possibly,” I answered, realising, as the first lot of gin made my cheeks go numb, that I hadn’t eaten all day.
“Well done. But back to the point: Yes, that’s exactly what I’m suggesting. Do you have any better ideas?”
“Call the law,” I said. “It’s what usually happens when someone gets murdered.
“Even though half the pub heard you threaten to do to her what – you claim – some mysterious third party has subsequently done?”
“But I’m innocent; you said you’d give me an alibi.”
“Oh sweetie, that was just to calm you down. I’ve been on the sauce since lunchtime. Ray Charles could see through any alibi I’d give you. And as you so rightly pointed out, the prisons are filled with innocent men. Haven’t you ever seen Les miserables?”
“Years ago, but I don’t recall it centred on the disposal of the corpse of a bitchy disco chanteuse.”
Caz snorted. The sound was almost identical to the noise a pedigreed pony might make when presented with inferior oats. “Chanteuse? Belter, more like. Talking of which: There’s more than one or two people downstairs who’d quite happily have belted – let alone throttled – her. You might get away with it, you know.”
“There’s nothing to get away with!” I almost shrieked. “I didn’t kill her!”
“Of course you didn’t,” she said, the look on her face expressing horror that I could even have suggested such a thing. “You’re the most honest man I know. You’ve never been in trouble. Apart from that day you tried to strangle poor old Brenda.”
“I did not try to strangle Brenda. I was merely very upset at being fired from the mag.”
“As was I, dear; but I didn’t try squeezing the life out of the directress of HR. Yes, I’m afraid only one of us was forcibly dragged from the building that day. Was it true you were foaming at the mouth? Only I heard you were, and, of course, I denied it. He’d never foam, I said. Froth, possibly, but that’s a far more luxe type of insanity. “
“Caz, really, what am I gonna do? I’m fucked.”
“No you’re not. As I said, this doesn’t look good. But you’re not fucked. You have me, and where there’s Caz, there’s hope.” She pulled her mobile from the bag, along with two miniatures of Jack Daniels, passed one to me, unscrewed the other with her teeth, whilst dialling, and, having swigged the bottle dry in one go, lifted the phone to her ear her tone becoming perceptibly more cut glass. “Hello? Police, please. I’d like to report a murder…”
And that’s when we heard the sirens.
Copyright Derek Farrell