Ice cream and incidents, p.5

Ice Cream and Incidents, page 5

 part  #13 of  Peridale Cafe Cozy Mystery Series

 

Ice Cream and Incidents
 


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  Instead of singing live, Honey displayed her acrobatic skills by balancing on the chair in various positions while music pounded through the bar. Julia caught Jessie and Alfie giving each other sceptical looks as they watched Honey’s performance. When she was finished, she stormed off stage without taking a bow.

  “As I said, ladies and gents,” Lulu said, obvious frustration in her voice. “Proving all those stereotypes to be correct. You can find Honey’s next performance in the back alley behind the job centre next week. Remind me to loosen the screws on that chair for tomorrow night’s performance. That might make for a more interesting piece. We’re going to have a short, unscheduled interval, but we’ll be back with more cabaret after the break.”

  Lulu turned the music up loud and stormed across the stage, vanishing behind the curtain. Julia craned her neck to see what was happening, but Lulu had turned off the spotlight and plunged the stage into darkness.

  “I’m having more fun than I expected,” Barker called over the music. “Who knew a drag show could be fun?”

  “They’re a riot,” Alfie said, slurping up the last of his cocktail. “I’ve seen them all over the world. It’s always the best night out. Nobody will make you laugh like a British drag queen though. That Lulu knows her way around a microphone.”

  “It’s like dad jokes, but they’re funny,” Jessie said, her eyes a little woozy as she peered into her empty glass. “Where did my drink go?”

  “You drank it,” Julia said, pulling it away from her. “You’ve had enough for tonight. Pop next!”

  Jessie huffed and crossed her arms before pulling out her phone. The brightness of the screen almost made her fall out of her chair.

  “We’re on holiday,” Barker reminded Julia. “But you’re probably right about the pop. Those cocktails are deceptive.”

  Julia heard something crash backstage and jolted her attention back to the curtain. It fluttered enough to show Honey and Simone face to face, as though they were about to start fighting. A minute later, Lulu reappeared, looking a little dishevelled and red-faced. She announced that Tuna Turner would be up next without the comedic introduction she had given the first two performers.

  Tuna walked onto the stage, and for a moment, Julia thought a real woman had jumped up to have a go. Her beauty was breath-taking, her rich dark skin and striking features reminding Julia of Naomi Campbell. Tuna performed an energetic dance routine to a Britney Spears mix of songs before Lulu passed her a microphone. She announced that she needed a volunteer, her eyes landing straight on Barker. Even though he protested, Jessie and Alfie pushed him up, and Tuna dragged him onto the stage and sat him in a chair. Julia found herself cheering, even though Barker looked like a deer in the headlights.

  Throughout a lip-synced performance of Shania Twain’s Man! I feel Like A Woman, Tuna quickly dressed Barker in drag. By the end of the song, he was wearing poorly applied lipstick, a wonky wig, a loose dress over his shirt and jeans, all complete with an embarrassed and humiliated expression.

  “Smile for the camera!” Jessie cried, pointing her phone in his face when he wandered back to their table. “I can’t wait to post this!”

  Before Barker could say anything, Lulu picked up the microphone, laughing at Barker, just as she had been throughout the number.

  “Wasn’t he brilliant, folks?” Lulu announced before clapping in Barker’s direction. “Once again proving that anyone can do drag, but not everyone should. If you go with Honey, dear, she’ll get you cleaned up and give you a drink on the house for being a good sport.”

  Honey appeared and led Barker out of the bar by his hand. He followed like a lost puppy, glancing back at Julia as though asking for help. She gave him two thumbs up, her spirits too high to take his wounded look seriously.

  “Isn’t this great?” Julia called over the music to Jessie and Alfie. “I’m having the best time!”

  “So am I after that,” Jessie said, chuckling at her phone. “And, it’s uploaded! I’m never letting Barker live that down.”

  “Poor fella,” Alfie tittered with a shake of his head. “He’s definitely going to need that free drink.”

  Lulu announced that the star attraction for the summer, Simone Phoenix, would be up very soon. The mere mention of her name caused the loudest applause yet, with some people whooping and whistling. Julia looked back at the bar, which was twice as busy as it had been for Feather Duster’s opening act. As Julia looked out for Barker’s return, the lights cut off, making Julia wonder if there had been a technical glitch. Seconds later, lasers and smoke suddenly filled the stage, and Simone, dressed as Dolly Parton, strutted into the spotlight. The noise coming from the bar behind Julia was crushingly loud, making her wonder what was so unique about the celebrity illusionist. She remembered what she had overheard Simone say to Russell earlier, and her new-found friendship with Russell made her dislike Simone. As she started her Dolly lip-syncing routine accompanied with fake guitar playing, Julia looked to the DJ booth, but Lulu had vanished; she had been there throughout all the other performances.

  The first song, Islands in the Stream, drifted by without Julia paying much attention. Simone ran off stage while the music still played, and ran back on less than thirty seconds later, magically transformed from Dolly into Cher. After a spot-on performance of Believe, Julia found her interest levels rising. She assumed the alcohol was helping blur the lines, but the illusion had sucked her in. Another quick costume change turned her into Madonna during her cone bra era for a performance of Express Yourself with eerily accurate dance moves. Another quick change transformed her into Freddie Mercury from the I Want to Break Free music video, complete with a comical vacuum cleaner and moustache. After running off the stage again, Simone returned after the longest break dressed as an 80s Cyndi Lauper, this time with a live microphone.

  “I wonder where Barker is,” Julia whispered to Jessie and Alfie as Simone sipped a drink before putting it on the edge of the stage. “He’s been gone for ages.”

  “He’s probably being held hostage by the drag queens,” Jessie said, her thumbs tapping away on her phone. “Two hundred views already! Everyone is commenting.”

  “Do you want me to go and look for him?” Alfie offered.

  “No,” Julia replied quickly. “He’s probably just gone back to the room.”

  She turned back to the stage as Simone held the microphone up to her mouth. The backing track had ended with the last song, and something told Julia it was supposed to be the end of her set.

  “Thank you, everyone,” Simone cooed into the microphone, clearly out of breath from all the running around. “I’d be nothing without my fans.”

  The applause started up again. It seemed Simone’s claim about her name filling the bar had been correct. Julia looked around for Lulu, but she was nowhere to be seen, nor were any of the other performers.

  “For the first time in my career, I’m going to be singing live for you,” Simone announced with a nervous grin. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, and tonight is the night I realise that dream. If you know the words, help me out and sing along.”

  Without a backing track, Simone started singing True Colours with the assistance of the audience. Even though Julia’s mind was foggy from the rum in the cocktails, her ears were functioning. She winced as Simone struggled to hit any notes in the song. She looked around, but no one seemed to notice as they sung along at the top of their lungs, likely too drunk to care either way.

  “Who killed the cat?” Jessie called out. “Bring back the old woman! She could sing!”

  Simone grew louder and louder, and by the final chorus, she was practically shouting down the microphone. At that moment, Barker walked back in, the dress, wig, and lipstick gone.

  “It stained my face,” he explained as he sat down. “I had to go up to the room to scrub it off.”

  He pulled his chair back in, thankfully not too scarred from his public performance. He sipped his drink, wincing as he looked at the
stage as Simone repeated the final chorus.

  “She’s murdering this!” Barker cried, his face scrunched up. “Some people just can’t –”

  Before Barker could finish his sentence, there was a metallic groan from somewhere above the stage. It was loud enough to silence Simone, but not to stop the rest of the bar from singing aloud. As the crowd sang ‘I see your true colours, and that's why I love you’ at the top of their lungs, Julia watched in horror as the triangular lighting rig above Simone’s head swung down. As though in slow motion, Julia watched Simone stare at the rig as it flew towards her. Before she had a chance to move, it hit the performer with the force of a bus. She flew backwards and landed with a crash in the smoke. A confused silence fell over the bar before the ceiling lights were turned on, blinding Julia. When her eyes adjusted, she stared at the metallic scaffolding hanging down, its sizzling and crackling lights dangling in the silence.

  Julia jumped out of her seat, realising what had happened. With her hand over her mouth, she stepped forward as the smoke cleared. First, she saw Cyndi Lauper’s orange spiky wig hanging off the edge of the stage, and then she saw the wide, vacant eyes of Simone Phoenix staring back at her, the microphone still clutched in her hand. Julia was about to exclaim that the drag queen was dead, but her heart stopped when Simone blinked, her eyes locked with Julia’s.

  “Call an ambulance!” Julia cried into the crowd. “Now!”

  5

  The mood in the diner was sombre the following morning. Julia finished her entire full English breakfast without even realising she was eating. Her mind was too absorbed by what had happened to focus on food. Simone, who went by Simon Blair out of drag, was in hospital and had somehow survived the blow from the collapsed rig. The look on Russell’s face when he delivered a vague update to the packed restaurant at the start of breakfast told Julia that Simon’s condition was as yet far from stable.

  Before the guests fled the diner, Russell sent Honey around with a box to collect donations to ‘buy Simon the biggest bunch of flowers money can buy for when he wakes up’. When Honey reached their table, Julia pulled out a crisp ten-pound note, as did Barker. Out of drag, Honey was a strikingly beautiful boy with unusual grey eyes and bright red short curly hair. He was wearing a slightly cropped top to show off his slender, toned midriff, along with tight jeans with more holes than denim.

  “Do you have a real name?” Jessie asked as she tossed a couple of coins into the box. “For when you’re in boy mode, I mean.”

  “Honey,” he replied as he rattled the box at Alfie, prompting him to dig for his wallet in his jeans. “My mum’s a weirdo.”

  Alfie dropped a five-pound note into the box before Honey moved onto the next table. Julia observed him as he shook the donations box, the distance in his strangely pale eyes showing that his mind was somewhere else. She wondered if he was thinking about how he had announced that he was going to ‘kill Simone’ for moving his chair performance down in the billing just hours before the rig fell.

  “I feel bad for saying Simone was murdering that song last night,” Barker muttered as he pushed leftover beans around his plate. “I could have chosen better words.”

  “She was awful,” Jessie said with a roll of her eyes. “Let’s not pretend the queen could sing because she couldn’t.” Jessie paused and looked across the table at Julia, her dark eyes pinning her into the chair. “What do you think, Julia?”

  “About Simone’s singing?”

  “About this whole thing,” Jessie said, lowering her voice as she leaned in. “Don’t you think it’s all a little – weird?”

  Julia had been able to think of nothing else. ‘Tragic accident’ and ‘wrong place, wrong time’ had been batted around more times than a ball at a tennis match all morning. She knew it was possible, and it sounded like the most plausible explanation for what had happened, but Jessie was right, there was something weird about how it had happened.

  “It felt theatrical,” Barker mused, almost to himself as he rattled his knife between his fingers. “Like a grand finale to the show.”

  “That’s exactly what was weird about it,” Jessie said, snapping her fingers together. “It felt too perfect. If it was just an accident, it could have fallen at any point during the show.”

  “Coincidence?” Alfie offered.

  “No such thing,” Jessie said, dismissing him with a wave of her hand. “Julia probably has it all figured out already, don’t you? Or do we need to split up and start questioning people?”

  Julia admired Jessie’s spirit. Despite being curious as to what had happened, she was not sure there was much to look into. A ‘weird’ feeling was hardly the basis for an investigation, and it was probably the most expected reaction after witnessing something so strange. Simon was alive and in hospital, and the obvious answer seemed to fit. For once, Julia did not feel the need to dive head first into the investigation. Maybe she was getting rusty or just desperate to enjoy what she could from the week ahead, but the call to explore did not come.

  “You’re cooking up a plan, aren’t you?” Jessie urged, shuffling to the edge of her seat with a grin. “Do you want me to take Honey? I can put the pressure on and get him to confess. He’s only a twig. I could snap him with one hand.”

  Barker laughed, but Jessie shot him a look to let him know she was being serious. Barker disguised it as a cough and sat up straight, turning to Julia.

  “A plan?” Barker asked, his voice wobbling. “I’m not used to being on this side of the fence, but it might be good material for the book.”

  Julia checked her watch and looked back at Honey and Russell as they counted through the money at one of the few empty tables. They appeared to be consoling each other, even if their movements felt a little acted. She assumed it was for the benefit of the room full of guests closely watching their every move as though waiting for the cracks to show or for the shock and hysteria to set in.

  “A plan,” Julia said with a nod as she pulled the napkin from her lap. “Do you have your phone handy, Alfie? See what time the first circus performance is at Blackpool Tower.”

  “The circus?” Jessie echoed, her face scrunching up. “What does that have to do with the drag queen getting bashed with the metal thing?”

  “Absolutely nothing,” Julia said as she stood up. “For once, we’re going to keep our noses out and enjoy the holiday. What happened last night was none of our business, and it’s going to stay that way.”

  “B-b-but-”

  “You heard the woman,” Barker said, clapping and joining Julia in standing. “The tower awaits!”

  Proving that being almost eighteen did not necessarily mean constant maturity, Jessie regressed to her child-state and marched away from the table, her face twisted into a sulk.

  “Teenagers, eh?” Alfie chuckled as he stood up to go after her. “We’ll meet you outside after I’ve had a word with her.”

  Julia waited until Alfie was out of earshot to turn to Barker. Without him needing to say anything, she could tell he was sceptical of her reluctance to at least poke her nose in a little bit.

  “Hanging up the investigator hat?” he asked, cocking his head as he folded his arms.

  “I never said that,” Julia replied, concealing her smile as she pushed her arm through his. “For now, at least, nothing is piquing my interest. We’ll see.”

  “I can’t say I agree,” he whispered into her ear as they passed Russell and Honey. “I think you might have been onto something when you told me to write about killer drag queens.”

  It took less than a minute for Alfie to coax Jessie out of the B&B, and even less time for Jessie to apologise for storming off. Julia gladly accepted it and put it down to the excitement of the cabaret and the lack of sleep they had all got thanks to the police interviews lasting until the early hours.

  As they walked along the promenade towards the tower, the sun beat down on them, promising to be another fine day. When they reached the base of the tower, Julia looked u
p to the top, glad of the cloudless sky.

  “We’ll be able to see for miles,” Alfie said, pulling his wallet out of his jeans before hopping up the steps to the entrance of the red-brick building that wrapped around the base of the tower. “This one’s on me. The new builder’s yard has been treating me well.”

  After looking at the price list for entry to the tower and the attractions within it, Julia was glad she had not argued. It was triple what she had expected, not that she had visited anywhere like it before. Blackpool Tower may have been identical to the Eiffel Tower, but the closest Julia had got to that was spotting it in the distance during a dull coach trip to France during her school years.

  With their wristbands applied, they were allowed into the bustle of the building. Packed with people hurrying in every direction, the entrance hall was much grander than Julia had expected. The Victorian influence was evident in the intricate red brick designs and the sweeping staircases on either side. A glance at the map on the wall informed her there was much more to do than a visit to the circus.

  With the first show starting at one, they took a cramped lift up to the seventh floor where a new indoor ‘Dino Mini Golf’ course had been built. The thought of playing dinosaur-themed mini golf sounded unappealing to Julia, but after drawing in joint first place with Alfie, Julia found that she was quite taken with the prehistoric themed sport. With another two hours to spend before the circus, Alfie insisted they visit the Tower Ballroom, if only to look at it.

  Julia had seen the famous ballroom on television many times before, but she had not anticipated its sheer scale. As they walked into the crowded ballroom, the vast expanse of the space took her breath away.

 
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