The Disappearing Diva
I thought it might be a fun exercise to honor some famous authors (and their characters) by writing short stories inspired by their style. Here’s my first attempt, and who better to honor than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s inimitable Sherlock Holmes. I hope you enjoy!
The Disappearing Diva
By Lisa Karon Richardson
“You’re certain it was Miss Harrington’s voice you heard?” Aurelia asked in her penetrating way.
I, Ilene Stadler, Aurelia’s confidante and companion, watched her as she in turn regarded the stage manager, one Mr. Durczek. He considered the question, revolving his hat over and over in his hands. “Certain? Yes. Miss ‘Arrington, she is the diva. There is no voice like hers.”
Aurelia jerked her head once in acknowledgment and bent with her magnifying glass to examine the doorknob to the diva’s dressing room.
Next to uncomfortable Mr. Durczek, dapper Viscount Lashley lounged against a post. I don’t suppose he could help it, lounging seemed to have been bred into his bones, and even now he couldn’t quite put any starch into his spine. “All sorts of people have been in and out by now, what do you think you’re going to find.”
Aurelia turned to him with a look that could have scoured brass. “I won’t know until I look, will I.”
“No. No I suppose not.”
Viscount Lashley and the perspiring stage manager had appeared at our lodgings less than an hour ago with one of the strangest tales I’d ever heard. Miss Sarah Harrington had taken London by storm over the last three weeks. Everyone seemed to be talking of the previously unknown genius. During this evening’s performance she had retired to her dressing room for the intermission as usual. This room was under observation by various workers the entire time. The stage manager had made the rounds and knocked on her door with the three-minute warning. The diva had sung out that she’d be right there. The curtain had gone up on schedule, but when her cue came, she didn’t appear. After an awkward pause the curtain had been lowered and a frantic search instituted. Her door was locked from the inside and the producer had finally ordered it broken open. The room had no windows and only the one door. The ventilation shafts were too small for anything larger than a puppy to wriggle through. During the few minutes in question the door had been under continuous observation and no one had gone in or come out.
And yet the fact remained that the opera star had disappeared.
Aurelia pushed open the door to reveal a small, cluttered dressing room. A vanity stood directly opposite covered in jars of creams and lotions. A screen was covered over with discarded costumes. Behind the screen the singer’s street clothing still hung neatly on a hook in the wall. Almost immediately behind the door a table held a phonograph, its needle still resting on a record.
Aurelia surveyed the room with the air of one totting up a row of sums. At last she stepped out into the hallway. “I should like to speak to everyone who observed her door during the intermission.”
Mr. Durczek motioned toward a man repainting a tired looking bit of scenery. “This is Patrick O’Fallon.” The stagehand glanced up from his work.
Aurelia tucked her magnifying glass back into its pouch. “Mr. O’Fallon, please tell me what you witnessed.”
“Didn’t see a thing.”
“Have you been working on this scenery all evening?”
He sighed. “Mostly."
“Then you must have seen something. Was there anything odd?”
“Everyone around here is odd.”
“Then tell me everything you saw during the intermission.”
“No use. No one even came close to the door but Mr. Durczek.”
“Were you here when the door was broken in?”
“Who entered the room first?”
“I’m not sure.” He frowned. “Maybe Mr. Durczek or the producer. Does it matter? No one could have smuggled her out past me I’d have seen. I was right there.”
Aurelia sucked in her cheeks ever so slightly, a gesture she made before springing a trap on some unwary soul. “Pray tell me how you came to have your attention so fixed upon Miss Harrington’s door?”
A scarlet flush swept up his neck. “I was taking my break and happened to have a good view.”
“Balderdash. The intermission is timed for a change of scenery. No stagehand would take a break at such a time.”
His adam’s apple bobbed. “I—“
“Be very careful what you say, Mr. O’Fallon.”
His shoulders slumped. “Sarah and I were going to marry before he came along.” He cast a venomous glare at the Viscount.
From one of the myriad corridors came the crash of something falling and a howl of protest. An instant later a fashionable, white-haired lady rounded the corner. Here was the type of woman Carroll must have had in mind when he installed the Queen of Hearts in Alice’s Wonderland. She marched up to the viscount. “Harold it’s time to go.”
For once he straightened nearly all the way up. “No, Mother. My fiancée has been abducted. I’m not going anywhere.”
Any response she might have made was cut off by the arrival of a workman, all but hauling a red-faced, balding man behind him. “There she is. That’s the one.” The workman pointed at the viscount’s mother.
The red-faced gentleman waved the workman off and took the woman’s hand in his, lifting it to his lips. “Lady Marchmont, it’s so kind of you to visit. How may I be of assistance?”
Mr. Durczek jerked his thumb toward the little balding fellow and whispered an expanation. “The producer.”
“Hello, Mr. Grundy.” Lady Marchmont removed her hand from the vicinity of his lips with the expression of one who has inadvertently touched a slug. “I don’t imagine a producer can help me a jot unless you can convince my son to remember his duty rather than chasing after chorus girls.”
“She’s not a chorus girl, Mother.”
O’Fallon, the jilted lover, furrowed his brow and looked Lady Marchmont up and down. “You were here for the show.”
She sniffed and glanced over at him. “Of course I was here. I learned of this ridiculous engagement today and came to see this... this woman perform.”
The ugly red tide returned to O’Fallon’s features. “No, I mean you were here. Backstage.”
“Don’t be silly.” She looked at each of the people in the gathering crowd as if waiting for someone to vouchsafe her denial.
Aurelia stepped toward her. “Others will have seen you, Lady Marchmont. The police will prove it easily.”
“And who might you be?”
“Aurelia Peale. I’m investigating this matter.”
The woman shot her a glance designed to melt a person into a quivering jelly. “You would be better employed finding yourself a husband.”
Aurelia tilted her head. “Possibly. But at the moment I’m employed in finding a kidnapper. You must see that it’s easier to explain your presence here among friends, than down at Scotland Yard.”
Lady Marchmont nearly rolled her eyes in an uncouth manner, but caught herself in time. “I came to talk to the wretched girl.”
“I thought she could be reasoned with.”
Aurelia crossed her arms. “You meant to offer her money if she would break off her engagement with your son.”
Lady Marchmont glanced at the viscount. “Yes. But once I got down here, I became lost. I never even saw the girl, before I heard she’d gone missing.”
“Mr. Grundy I’ve been looking everywhere for you.” The fluting American voice made them all turn. A robust young woman with a glorious mane of tawny hair stood eyeing the producer. “I heard you’re thinking about canceling tomorrow’s show.”
“Yes, Miss Boxer. I’m afraid that without Sarah—”
“But what’s an understudy for if not to sing when the lead is… indisposed?”
He held his hands up. “Miss Boxer, until we find the reason for Miss Harrington’s disappearance, it could be dangerous for you to go on.”
The girl stepped closer and pushed a fleshy finger into his chest. “Sarah Harrington didn’t have a patch on my voice. I’ve told you that before. Well now’s my big chance and I’ve got a contract. So you just better rethink your idea of cancelling the show.” With a showy swirl of skirts Miss Boxer turned and marched away.
Aurelia turned to the viscount. “Miss Stadler and I will continue our investigations. Why don’t you go home? I know your mother will feel better for the companionship.”
“Are you sure? I—I could stay. I want to find Sarah.”
“That’s not necessary. I assure you that I’ll find Miss Harrington. And I don’t believe she’ll have been harmed.”
“Then she did run off, just as I supposed,” said Lady Marchmont.
“Pray, Madam do not put words in my mouth. I never suggested anything of the sort.” Aurelia turned her back to the woman and motioned for me to follow her.
She went all through the theatre, no detail too small to secure her attention. Every workman and chorus girl she found was interviewed. Most saw nothing of any interest whatsoever. A few confirmed that Miss Harrington had not been seen leaving her dressing room during the intermission.
At last, Aurelia declared our labors at an end. “Come along, Ilene. It’s past time we should be home and enjoying a cup of tea before bed. We’ll return tomorrow to unmask the culprit.”
The next morning Aurelia and I were breakfasting on kippers and toast when urgent banging sounded at the front door. I dropped my uneaten toast and we scrambled to stand at the top of the stairs. Our landlady opened the door and the stage manager, Mr. Durczek barreled into the hall.
He saw us and whipped off his hat. “Please. Miss Boxer has been hurt.”
It took but a moment to learn that the understudy had been practicing on the stage when one of the heavy sandbags had fallen and struck her. She was now in hospital.
“Let us get our things,” Aurelia said. A moment later we were clambering into the hackney Mr. Durczek had waiting.
When we arrived at the opera house we found Lady Marchmont, and her son the Viscount Lashley awaiting us, along with the stagehand, Patrick O’Fallon and Mr. Grundy, the producer.
“If you will all follow me, for purposes of demonstration I believe this meeting would best be conducted in Miss Harrington’s dressing room.”
It was a tight fit getting us all inside.
“Have you discovered how she was removed from here?” asked the viscount.
“No. And for a very simple reason. She wasn’t removed from here. She never entered.”
“Impossible,” sputtered Mr. Durczek. “I heard her.”
“You believed you heard her, but in fact, you heard this.” She gestured at the phonograph. With a twist of the handle she wound it and reset the arm.
Immediately a woman’s voice emerged. “I’ll be right there.”
A gasp went up from everyone, even me.
“But how did you know?” asked the viscount.
“Very simple. If it were impossible for Miss Harrington to have left the room, then she didn’t. Either she was still in the room, or she had never entered. A thorough search made it eminently clear that she was not in the room, therefore only the second option remained. At that point the question became how could someone make it sound as if she were in the room.”
Lady Marchmont leaned forward, interested in spite of herself. “How could that contraption have been started at the appropriate moment?”
Aurelia smiled. “I imagine the kidnapper put the arm in place beforehand then attached a weighted string to the handle. He left the key in the lock and balanced the weight on the end. When Mr. Durczek gave his usual hearty knock, the weight was dislodged and the crank given a sharp turn. It must have been someone with ample access to the entire theatre. Someone no one would question entering the diva’s room earlier in the performance.”
I shook my head. Once more she’d pulled an answer from the jaws of the impossible.
“But who’s responsible!” Patrick O’Fallon slapped his hat against his knee.
“Again it’s a matter of looking at the evidence as it is, and not as we should like it to be.”
So whodunnit? And why? Put your answer in a comment to try your powers of deduction against Miss Peale’s. I’ll post the solution to the mystery this evening at 9:00 PM EST.
The first person to get the answer (both who the kidnapper is and their motive) will receive a copy of Shadows of Sherlock Holmes, an anthology of stories inspired by the great detective. (Used because it is no longer in print.) Please make sure to leave your e-mail address so that I can contact you and get your snail addy. Don’t forget to put a space or brackets around the @ so that web spyders don’t phish your address.
And now for the conclusion of our mystery.
Smiling like the proverbial Cheshire cat, Aurelia paced before us, hands clasped behind her back. “Mr. O’Fallon was the first to rouse suspicion. Avowals of love can upon occasion mask a darker emotion, particularly when the object of affection has spurned that love.”
“I didn’t have a thing to do—”
“I soon concluded the same, Mr. O’Fallon. You were quite adamant about not seeing anyone go in or out, whereas if you had been behind the disappearance it would have been in your interests to say you saw her leaving of her own will.”
“Of course jealousy can affect more than the lower classes. There was the possibility that Viscount Lashley feared Sarah was experiencing a change of heart and determined to remove her from Mr. O’Fallon influence.”
“How dare you, Miss—”
Aurelia whirled to face Lady Marchmont. “I dare, because someone must. You were also seen backstage in suspicious circumstances. However, since you had just learned of the engagement there was little time to arrange elaborate schemes, nor were you familiar with the layout of the theatre. While it’s possible, the proposition is less likely. Besides it seems more keeping with your character that you’d try to buy cooperation before resorting to more desperate measures.
“The next most likely suspect was the understudy. She was intensely envious of Miss Harrington’s position and talent. And yet a simple accident or bout of food poisoning that prevented Miss Harrington from performing would have been easier to engineer, and much less likely to draw unwanted attention from the police. And now Miss Boxer herself has been injured.”
“But who does that leave?” I asked, unable to leash my curiosity longer.
Again that knowing smile. “Why the culprit of course, Miss Stadler. Someone who enjoys engineering complicated schemes.” She pinned the producer to the wall with her gaze. “Isn’t that correct, Mr. Grundy?”
“P-pardon me?” The little man’s eyes widened.
“I thought it odd you did not accompany Viscount Lashley to retain my services. A producer typically stands to lose a great deal if his show folds. And yet you made no move to secure your investment.”
“I have confidence in the fine officers of Scotland Yard,” he said stiffly.
“In addition, the kidnapper had to be familiar with the routines and practices backstage. And also required access. By all accounts you were there when this door was broken down, and most of the hands I talked to identified you as the first man in the room, giving you the opportunity to quickly remove the string and weight from your improvised device. A matter of only a second with your back to the wall, while everything around was confusion.”
“Absurd! Why should I want to ruin my own show?”
“An interesting question. Yesterday, Miss Boxer had to argue vehemently against closing down the show, even though doing so should mean a financial disaster for you. And now she is injured. I suspect it’s because you didn’t want the show to be a success. One of the oldest schemes in theatre is to raise more money than necessary to put on a show, and then ensure it fails, thus guaranteeing the investors won’t come clamoring for their money. But what’s a producer to do if he stages an unexpectedly popular show?”
The little man collapsed on to the couch, dropping his head into his hands. “If I had known it would be a success I could have made a mint.”
O’Fallon closed in on the hunched figure. “Where is she?”
“I didn’t hurt her, just kept her dosed with laudanum. She’s in the spare bedroom of my flat. I was going to release her without her ever knowing where she’d been kept. The show just had to close first.”
“Instead, the curtain is coming down on your plotting for good.” Aurelia adjusted her hat. “Come Ilene, I believe our work here is finished.”