The foyers and salons and corridors were thronged with the foremost members of local society, attentively waited upon by the theatre staff and their own attendants. Most were not in obvious alarm but engaged in what must have been the most engaging conversation and gossip, the gentlemen speculating and pontificating in the most obvious fashion, and the ladies adding their own special twist to the events of the evening. I ignored or avoided several attempts to engage me in conversation, hoping that my apparent impoliteness would be overlooked on this occasion, and made my directly to the theatre manager's office.

Instead, the room was deathly calm; even the sounds of alarmed chatter from the foyer subsided to a whisper after George closed the door behind us. Wallace the impresario was alone, sitting at the desk with his head in his hands, presenting a tableau of misery and dispair obvious to all.

As we entered, he stood and bowed formally.

"Madam, refunds can be had from the Box Office," he said, indicating the door behind us.

"That is not my purpose here, Mister Wallace," I said carefully, "Rather, I wish for you to tell me exactly what is going on here. You know more, I believe, than the public statements you made on the stage. And I think there are those out there who share this knowledge, although I suspect you do not know who they are at present."

Wallace's eyes opened wide with shock.

"Besides," I pressed, "It is just possible I may be able to put you contact with somebody who can help you. I urge you to place a modicum of trust in me."

Mister Wallace seemed to collapse into himself in front of my very eyes. He sat heavily in the buttoned leather of the chair behind the desk and stared at me in obvious disbelief. Belatedly, he indicated a seat opposite with a wave of his hand, into which I subsided gracefully. I waited in silence; Wallace turned his stare to the wall, took a few deep breaths and seemed to compose himself.

"Very well, Madame," he said eventually, "Let me explain."

His narrative was disjointed, stumbling, displaying all the characteristics of a man with a lot on his mind, but he appeared to regain a certain amount of composure as he spoke. It seemed he had received not one, not even two, but three separate letters quite anonymously, the missives turning up inexplicably on his desk or in the mound of correspondence he would have received daily. Each of these letters politely but firmly spelled out the terms of blackmail: demands for financial remuneration in exchange for the continued operation of the Clockwork Cabaret.

He had refused them all, out of necessity.

"Frankly, paying the sum that even one of the ransoms demanded would have been quite impossible," he said, looking at me directly, "I would never have been able to borrow the money at any realistic rate of interest. I would be bankrupted within the year by the repayments alone."

This would have been the objective, I surmised. If the perpetrators were merely interested in financial gain, they would have done the minimal research required to determine the amount of money that Wallace could afford to pay. The sums actually commanded were intended to force the show off the stage, one way or the other.

"Show me these letters," I demanded with what was almost certainly an unladylike degree of forcefulness. My momentary indiscretion was overlooked; it seemed that Mister Wallace was not in the mood to quibble over matters of etiquette.

He slid open one of the drawers of the desk and withdrew three envelopes, which he offered to me. I took the papers and studied them closely for a few long moments, deploying all of those tricks of close observation with which nature, augmented by some very intensive training, had blessed me.


(more to follow)

Part 3 Part 5