Ice cream and incidents, p.9

Ice Cream and Incidents, page 9

 part  #13 of  Peridale Cafe Cozy Mystery Series

 

Ice Cream and Incidents
 


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  Jessie snatched the money from Alfie’s hand, peeled off her black hoodie, and sprinted towards the water in her T-shirt and jeans. She ran into the waves, the water splashing up onto her face. She let out a small shriek, her voice going higher than usual. When she made her way back, dripping from head to toe, it was obvious she was trying to hide her shivering.

  “Don’t call me a chicken,” Jessie said through chattering teeth as she sat back on her beach towel. “Your turn.”

  “Not for a million quid,” Alfie replied with a smirk as he leaned back to sunbathe. “You’re too easily influenced, sis. You shouldn’t let yourself be so easily coaxed.”

  Julia chuckled as she watched Jessie decide whether she was going to pounce on her brother or drag him into the sea. She did neither, instead choosing to expertly slide another twenty-pound note out of his wallet while his eyes were closed behind his sunglasses. The normalcy was almost enough to make Julia forget the events of the morning, which felt like a distant dream she had let slip away. When she remembered that Simon had woken up, she suddenly shot up.

  “How’s Simon?” Julia asked, craning her neck to look back at the pink B&B. “Can he talk? Has he said anything?”

  “I don’t know,” Barker admitted with a shrug before leaning back into his towel. “I haven’t seen anyone around all day, apart from Honey, and he’s not really the chatty type.”

  Julia leaned back onto her towel, but her mind was buzzing too hard to relax. She was desperate to hear the sequence of events from Simon’s perspective, even though she knew she had no right to march into the hospital to question him. She looked back at the B&B again and wondered if Russell had managed to extract anything from him during his visit.

  Just as Julia was concocting a plan to sneak back to the B&B to find Russell, dark clouds rolled across the bright sun. The sea breeze took on a bitter chill, making Jessie and Alfie both open their eyes. When Julia felt the first raindrop hit her on the nose, she sprang up and grabbed her towel.

  “Typical!” Jessie cried as she scrambled to her feet, covering her wet clothes in sand. “Just typical!”

  “British weather for you,” Alfie exclaimed as he rolled up his towel. “You wouldn’t get this on Bondi Beach.”

  They ran back to the B&B, diving into the vestibule a fraction of a second before the heavens fully opened. Julia thanked Mother Nature’s glorious timing as she unlocked the front door.

  “I’m going to change,” Jessie said, stomping down the hallway in her damp clothes.

  “Did you take another twenty from my wallet?” Alfie cried as he flicked through the notes in his wallet. “Oi!”

  Leaving Alfie to chase after Jessie, Julia set off towards Russell’s drag den, but he emerged from the cabaret bar with a plastic bag at the same moment.

  “How’s Simon doing?” Julia asked quickly, the words tumbling out at breakneck speed. “Has he said anything yet?”

  “He’s said a lot,” Russell said with a sigh. “He’s making wild accusations too. I’m just on my way back there to drop off a change of clothes.”

  “Wild accusations?” Barker asked.

  “Seems to think it was a conspiracy to sabotage his career.” Russell rolled his eyes before looking down into the bag. “Part of me is wondering why I’m being decent enough to take him some of his stuff. Maybe I’m holding out hope that the bang to the head will knock out his nasty streak, not that it seems to have yet. The thought of facing him alone is putting me on edge. My nerves are shot, dear. I can’t take another day of this!”

  “I’ll come with you,” Julia cried, louder than she had intended. “I mean, if you don’t want to go alone, I don’t mind keeping you company.”

  As it turned out, Russell did not mind. He even seemed grateful for the company as they rode in the taxi to Blackpool Victoria Hospital, which was only ten minutes away from the seafront.

  Simon was in a bed at the end of a busy row, his bed the only one separated by a curtain while the rest of the ward watched a property program about a couple who were desperate to leave the city and escape to the country. Simon being on a general ward looked like a sign of his recovery.

  “Knock knock,” Russell said airily with a wobbly smile as he peeled back the blue curtain. “Just little old me again.”

  The man in the bed looked up at Russell with very little interest. For a moment, Julia wondered if they were visiting someone else first. She stared at the bald man who had no distinguishable features and missing eyebrows. Was this the famous Simone Phoenix? Julia tried to conjure an image of the drag queen, but she could only see the celebrities he portrayed.

  “I’m not talking to you until my lawyer is here,” Simon croaked, the first hint of familiarity ringing a bell in Julia’s memory.

  “Oh, come on, dear,” Russell said as he walked around the bed to pull up a chair. “I brought you fresh underwear and your shaving stuff. I know you don’t like to let it grow. I would have brought grapes if you weren’t nil by mouth.”

  Simon pouted and cocked his head in Julia’s direction. He stared at her as though waiting for her to perform a magic trick. She offered a smile, to which he rolled his head to look out of the window. He exhaled heavily as though having guests was exhausting him. Julia wanted to tell him how lucky he was to be alive considering what had happened, but she held her tongue.

  “I was in the front row at the show,” she explained, walking to the bottom of the bed and into his peripheral vision. “I’ve been worrying about you. Everyone has.”

  “They have?” Simon asked, his voice lightening. “Well, it’s to be expected. Most of the people were there to see me.”

  Russell shifted in his seat and shot Julia a look she knew meant ‘can you believe him?’.

  “Those flowers are beautiful,” she said, nodding to the biggest bouquet of red roses she had ever seen. “Are those the ones from the B&B fundraiser?”

  “Everyone donated,” Russell explained to Simon, who seemed to be looking at the flowers for the first time. “I know how you love red roses.”

  Simon pursed his lips again and looked at the window. Julia racked her brain for the best tactic, a plan forming quickly.

  “It was such a tragic accident,” she said, repeating what she had heard countless times over the weekend. “Wrong place, wrong time.”

  “Accident?” Simon croaked, his voice cracking on its highest point. “This was sabotage, woman! Someone wanted me dead, but you can’t kill Simone Phoenix that easily.”

  “Attempted murder?” Julia asked, edging closer to his bed, glad Simon had given her the reaction she had hoped for. “Who do you think would want to do that?”

  “All of them!” Simon cried, nodding at Russell. “And I’m not excluding you from that list. Drag queens can be vicious. I should know. I’ve worked with some horrors in my time, and those Sparkles Girls were the worst of the worst. I should never have agreed to this gig. Look what they’ve done to me!”

  Russell shifted in his seat again. In the silence, Julia heard a woman on the television exclaim that ‘the cottage was exactly what she had dreamed about’. Sensing she had found her way in, she edged closer.

  “I don’t think it was an accident either,” she whispered as she leaned her hands on the bottom of the bed. “How could it be?”

  “That’s what I’ve been saying!” he cried, his eyes engaging fully with Julia for the first time. “Did you see anything? You must have! You were front row.”

  “I didn’t, but I thought maybe you had? You were looking in the direction of the side of the stage when it fell on you. Did you not see anyone there?”

  Simon thought for a moment, seeming to slip back into the memory of being Cyndi Lauper. After an extended pause, he sighed and shook his head.

  “The stage lights are so bright,” he explained. “You can’t see anything. They blind you. It was just shadow.”

  “What about when you were backstage?” Julia probed. “Did you see any of the queens lingeri
ng between your changes?”

  Simon thought again, his forehead scrunching, which was a peculiar sight without eyebrows. Julia suddenly realised he perhaps shaved them to draw them higher for drag.

  “Honey was being a little brat as usual,” Simon said, his eyes squinting. “He was going slow getting me dressed on purpose. I almost missed my Madonna cue, and I never miss my cues. The Freddie Mercury was supposed to be the last number, but I was debuting the live segment for the first time. After getting into the Freddie costume, I told Honey to go away. He was annoying me with that face. Always sulking! When I ran off stage to change into Cyndi, I don’t think I saw anyone. In fact, I know nobody was there, or else they would have come when I tripped over that damn stepladder.”

  “Stepladder?” Julia asked.

  “It was right in my path,” Simon explained, his brow bone tensing hard over his eyes. “I tumbled over the thing.”

  “Was the stepladder there for the whole routine?” Julia asked.

  Simon thought again, shaking his head more certainly than he had to any other question.

  “I know it wasn’t because it was exactly where Honey was supposed to be standing. That’s why I ran into it. You get used to your marks.”

  Julia turned to Russell, who had been silent throughout their exchange. He looked uncomfortable and as though he regretted letting Julia tag along.

  “Do you have a stepladder?” Julia asked him.

  “Well, of course,” he said with a forced laugh. “We use it for all sorts of stuff. It doesn’t mean anything.”

  As though twigging onto what Julia was thinking, Simon’s eyes widened.

  “That’s what they used!” Simon cried. “They put it there so they could send that thing crashing down on me at the exact moment it did.”

  “How many people knew about your new live segment?” Julia asked him.

  “Everyone.”

  “He revealed it in the morning meeting,” Russell explained as he rubbed between his brows. “We have a drag family breakfast every Friday morning and talk about new ideas for the show.”

  “Family?” Simon echoed with a bitter laugh. “Those girls are not my family! One of them, or maybe you, did it.” Simon lifted a shaky finger to point at Russell. “It’s not like you weren’t going to gain something from me not being able to perform.”

  Simon’s bitter words made Russell jump up. Julia wondered if he was going to launch onto the bed to strangle the last bit of life out of the celebrity illusionist. Russell stepped forward and leaned over, his face level with Simon’s.

  “I had more to lose from all of this than I would have ever gained,” Russell muttered through tight lips. “What happened to you, Simon? It’s me. I would never hurt a hair on your head, but do you know what? Part of me feels like this is exactly what you deserved.”

  Russell slapped back the curtain and marched across the ward. Julia went to follow him, but Simon grabbed her hand, his skin cold and clammy.

  “Don’t trust him,” Simon said, his gaze penetrating. “He’s a good liar. He’s trying to con me out of money. I don’t know who you are, but you seem to be the only person speaking any sense since I woke up. Find out who did this to me.”

  Julia tried to pull her hand away, but Simon’s grip was relentless. When he realised that he was hurting her, he let go, but not without squeezing tighter for a split second. Without saying a word, Julia chased after Russell, who was waiting at the top of the ward.

  “Who are you, Julia?” Russell asked, his eyes searching hers. “What did you say you did for a job?”

  “I didn’t,” she replied. “I just run a little café.”

  Russell did not look convinced, but he did not ask more questions. They walked in silence to the exit and waited for their taxi. As they drove back to the B&B in the rain, Julia felt like she was stuck between a rock and a hard place. She wanted so desperately to believe that Russell was innocent, but Simon’s warning circled her brain.

  “Don’t trust him,” he had said. “He’s a good liar.”

  10

  The rain continued for the rest of Sunday and most of Monday, so Julia was surprised to see bright sunshine when she pulled back the curtains on Tuesday morning. Barker rolled over in bed, wincing at the light, despite them both getting their first early night since arriving in Blackpool.

  Determined not to spend another day trapped in the B&B, Julia woke Jessie and Alfie for an early breakfast. After eating, they spent the morning with wax versions of celebrities at the Madame Tussauds museum before enjoying another lunch of fish and chips. With full bellies, they caught the tram down to North Pier on Alfie’s recommendation.

  “It was built in 1863,” Alfie informed them as they jumped off the tram. “It was the first of the three piers. Started as just a promenade for the upper class to enjoy the views of the sea, but they got sick of ordinary tourists using it, so that’s why the other two were built.”

  They walked around the arcade pavilion fronting the pier to the long stretch of wooden promenade that extended out into the sea. Unlike Central Pier’s fairground, this was completely empty with nothing more than green lampposts and white iron benches running down the sides. Julia spotted a theatre and some other shops and cafes at the bottom.

  “Where’re the rides?” Jessie exclaimed. “There’s nothing to do.”

  “It’s relaxing,” Barker said, inhaling the fresh sea air. “It’s good to stretch your legs. Your knees will be creaking with the rest of us one day, so take advantage of your springy joints while you can.”

  They set off down the promenade, the views of the sea around them truly stunning. It reminded Julia of the sprawling fields surrounding her cottage, the grass replaced with water.

  They reached the end of the pier and decided to stop for a drink in one of the small cafés. Once inside, a familiar face caught Julia’s eye.

  “Fancy seeing you this far out,” Arthur called from a table near a window looking over the sea. “I come here when I can to get away from the hustle and bustle of it all.”

  He closed the book he was reading and patted the cover. Julia was amused to see that it was a copy of Barker’s book, which appeared to have been purchased from a charity shop.

  “I’ve read that one,” Julia said, concealing her smile. “Enjoying it?”

  “I’m not sure,” Arthur said, turning the book over in his hands. “What did you think? It’s a little far-fetched for my tastes.”

  “I heard it’s based on a true story.”

  “They always say that, poppet,” Arthur said, tapping his nose. “It’s how they suck us in. But, it’s passing the afternoon while I drink my tea.”

  Arthur topped up his cup from a metal teapot with shaky hands. He motioned for Julia to join him. She looked across the café as Barker, Jessie, and Alfie looked through the menu. Deciding it would not hurt to sit for a moment, she accepted the offer.

  “I heard you went to see Simon,” Arthur started as he set the pot down before adding milk to his cup. “I hope he was in better spirits than when I visited.”

  “I’m afraid not.”

  “A leopard doesn’t change its spots, I suppose.” Arthur blew on the surface of his tea before taking a sip. “Did he have anything interesting to say?”

  Julia thought about the stepladder as well as Simon’s warning of not trusting Russell. She knew if anyone knew the truth about the Sparkle Girls, it would be Arthur.

  “Simon told me that Russell owed him a lot of money,” she whispered as she leaned in across the table. “He also told me that I shouldn’t trust Russell. His exact words were ‘he’s a good liar’.”

  Arthur nodded his understanding as he took another sip. He set the cup down on the saucer and looped his fingers together on top of the book, his hands resting on the black and white photograph of Barker on the back cover.

  “All the best accusations have an element of truth in them,” Arthur started. “It’s what makes us believe them. He must have pla
nted something in your head for you to bring it up now. Simon is good at that. He plants seeds under solid houses and cracks the foundations with the tree that grows.”

  “So, Russell is a liar?”

  “He’s a drag queen, poppet,” Arthur said with a hearty chuckle. “It’s his job to lie. He spends half his time playing a character, and when he’s not playing dress up, he’s playing another character, which takes even more skill. The Russell the world sees isn’t the Russell I know. He lies to keep the peace, not to hurt.”

  Julia wondered what Russell could have been lying about. She thought back to having witnessed Simon and Russell’s altercation before her makeover. It had only taken him seconds to apply an unfaltering smile after Simon stormed out of his drag den. She remembered thinking he was a good actor, which she supposed was the same thing as lying in that context.

  “So, Russell does owe Simon money?”

  Arthur picked up his cup and sipped his tea. He swirled the liquid around as he considered his reply. Julia looked over at the other table where they were all watching her. She nodded that she would be over in a second before turning back to Arthur.

  “Simon brought Simone Phoenix to Sparkles under the condition that he would be paid at the end of the season,” Arthur said, each word sounding thought out. “Running a B&B in Blackpool isn’t an easy job these days, especially one with such a particular niche. Twenty years ago, we had no trouble filling those rooms, but more and more chain hotels are popping up and suffocating us. Simone brought people back to Sparkles. I don’t like him, but his name means something in drag circles. His act is a cheap party trick for the masses, but they lap it up. The truth is, Simone Phoenix doesn’t exist because he’s too busy being other people. Take away the celebrities, and I’m afraid you’d be left with very little. It’s much harder to be yourself, don’t you think?”

  Julia nodded and recalled how blank and unrecognisable Simon had been during her visit. She imagined the blank canvas was a good foundation for creating so many spot-on illusions.

 
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