AS QUICK AS CAN BE based on
I CAN FIND MY WAY OUT
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"Third Avenue and Battery," called the driver. Like some conscientious zombie secretary, Samantha Hill walked off the Metro bus and downhill to Second Avenue. To her very own production, to her very own flop. It was 6:31 PM now with doom one hour and twenty-nine minutes away. Never mind, she told herself but she minded a lot!

The Morris Theatre was made up of dirty green marble and granite from the 50s. White neon howled The Long & Short of It | music and lyrics by Samantha Hill. Glassed photographs of the real stars dependent on her pathetic vehicle lined the entranceway. Samantha shivered at the idea of her responsibility for the careers of Bill Brown, Carol Knight, Alicia Russell, Koa Youngblood.

Suddenly the baling wires holding her up snapped. Her knees knocked. Her head filled with funky cotton, coarse like asbestos. Just how much damage could Koa Youngblood do if completely and totally smashed? Could she kill the show? More often than not, Koa moved a good piece of work up and off and got herself on to New York with powder up the nose and sauce in the gut. But this required extraordinary cooperation from everyone else in any way connected with the production. Still, what to do with a stoned genius occasionally better than good?

Samantha knew what she would like to do. Give up the entire thing and go hide.

Potential problems with Koa or anyone else were moot because this was not a good production piece. Not even for Seattle. It was awful. The only thing that kept her from, say, jumping off the Aurora Bridge or under the Monorail, was the story line with two numbers suggested by Bill Brown himself. "Sammy, I really like your stuff. It strikes the kind of post-millennial note we want to put over during this shaky second decade particularly in Seattle where people prefer to believe civilization sustains. I do have an idea or two for sequence changes." She couldn't just ignore Bill Brown, could she?

His suggestions had been more than an idea or two. They'd been sweeping but great. She'd rewritten the score and most of the dance numbers right away and before she knew it, was thinking of the material as her own although she'd said to him more than once: "Your name should be next to mine."

He'd emphatically refused. "Just ideas. Ideas are nothing. Think of the ideas swimming in Hair, Grease , Cats, Evita, The Lion King and Porgy & Bess and Footloose," he added, "or, for that matter, the Cajun musical extravaganza that made yours truly famous."

"Please do not bring it up again, little Sammy" he'd finished with lush Bayou finality. "And please do not talk about it to others. There are those who would make bad use of the knowledge, who would dramatize my small contribution for all the wrong reasons. Promise me." So she'd promised him, figuring it had been colossally dumb to think world class Bill Brown would want his name next to some unknown bozo girlie. And, boy, was he on the mark about that, she thought. Soon he'd no doubt be glad to move on to absolutely anything else -- the farther away from this bomb, the better.

Inhaling the old building odors that seemed to reek of her own low self-esteem, she stood in front of the Morris and reconsidered the night to come. What do Seattle ticket buying audiences do when they've paid good money for entertainment and get royally shafted? Do they cruise through the presentation and clap a little like civilized people might, enough to let the entertainers off the hook? How about her own first night appearance? How minimal must applause be for the creator to vacate the premises? After the performance, they were off to the annual Gatesian Charity Ball. God. She would give anything to stop the clock. Instead she slunk past the doors, loitering like some street bum. There were lights in the box office. You don't always want to be seen. She snuck over to a windowcase of posters for coming attractions, more promotional photos. Next to the ambitious advance notice for her production of I Can Find My Way In was a small photo of Jules Gray. Love or lose, girl, so choose. I'm nuts about him, she thought. A woman emerged from the box office. "Aren't you Sammy Hill? We have messages for you."

Sammy took the slips of paper, ducking away into the light rain which had been going on for more than a week. The woman said, "break a leg tonight" and giggled. Why did Samantha feel like a such a fool?

Long lines were forming on Battery; Seattle theater goers were gathering to pass judgment.
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At 6:30 PM, Bill Brown telephoned Koa Youngblood as he'd promised.

"It's Bill," he said when she answered. Then he waited.

"Indeed it is, my dear. You sound a long way from happy but I'm glad you called. Did you got my note? We must meet and soon."

"Koa, you are talking too loud and too fast."

"I'm excited, dear. I have been worrying about you, over what Brandy would do if she found out what you have pulled with this production. You shouldn't have done it, you know; you shouldn't have given Brandy's material to that young wanna-be-a-star. I don't care what it is that she's giving you."

"Koa, stop that. What you're saying is slanderous and untrue. And why not use the material? We've been over this before. It's art, for god's sake. And Brandy will never know." He paused and then said, his voice shaking, "do you hear me? We are not going to see Brandy again."

"In a community property state, don't you have at least a twinge about legalities, Billy, dear? Do you have a good lawyer you can turn to?"

"Leave it alone, Koa."

"What in the world will you do if she shows up? It would be just her sort of thing."

"She will not show up. Not tonight. And not ever."

He winced when he heard the fake sigh. I am sick of this, he realized. This has grown old and ugly, and I cannot bear it much longer. "Koa," he said into the receiver after Koa had hung up.
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At 6:40 pm, Carol Knight stood in front of her bedroom mirror for a personal appraisal. She examined her profile and was satisfied. I have 10 times more presence, she thought to herself. My eyes are clear and lucid. My whole look is more upfront. I never blow performances. I don't drink or drug. I'm a better musician. In the best number, I am central and Youngblood is in the wings. That's what's been staged and what little Ms. Sammy Hill wants. Good things are coming my way.

In spite of her determination rude quoted material from the past, Broadway and roadway reviews, articles and media clips surfaced in her mind to mar the mood. Millions of words devoted to Koa or one sentence codas: Miss Youngblood prevailed while Miss Knight hoofed acceptably, or harsher. Youngblood is sufficient unto herself; this fan marvels at curtain frills like Knight. The latest insult: Carol Knight appeared which is all that can be said about Carol Knight. "Bastards and bitches!" She applauded the angry sparkle and strong stance in her mirror. Alcohol and drugs do different ugly things. She lifted her index and third fingers. Proud of her hands, she extended an arm forward. Alcohol kills abilities. Drugs instill cunning. Koa Youngblood could tear a play apart, ruin the equilibrium and look glorious in a way wrongly interpreted by critics and public as unintended. "But I," Carol said solemnly, "with my usual integrity, will do my usual excellent best."

She finished dressing, plaited her hair and looked one last time in the mirror. "Listen," she reminded herself, "she's done it too often. This could be a night to settle old scores."

Personal scenes call for action, she thought as she got out her umbrella and the travel case with her costume for the Ball, the most important social event of the year. Very purposefully, she left her Magnolia condo for live entertainment at the Morris.
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At 6:50 pm, Alicia Russell threaded her way through a cluster of men fans of advanced ages. "Bless you, babies," she said in her bluesiest voice. She heard whispers as she continued, light as air on her three-inch heels, past the stage doorkeeper (or paid security or whomever the man was) onto the stage itself. She paused in the shadows. With only the working lights props were up and read and the backdrop for the opening number was in place. Joan Miller, the hassled stage manager, spotted her. "Hi, there, Alicia. We've changed the dressing rooms. Got you third on the left and your stuff moved in. Okay by you?"

"Beats nothing, honey, and I've had plenty of that. Naturally, the second billing room is taken by the magnificent Youngblood (poor pun unintended)?"

"True."

"And who's in the only other room that is not under chronic remodel, honey?"

"Well, to be honest, we put Carol Knight in there to avoid problems. You know what a fuss she can make and we figured you'd be understanding."

"Well, yes, I am that, honey, and, fortunately, so is an audience." She turned her back on Joan who went back on stage and began to busy herself assembling fake fiddlehead ferns with a stagehand. "What's got her so up tight?" asked the hand. "She wanted one of the new dressing rooms." "Figures," the hand commented; "the older they get, the more they want new." "Keep your voice down," muttered Joan.

Alicia Russell entered the passage to the dressing rooms. On the doors of the two dressing rooms nearest the stage black stars were painted. These two rooms faced each other, and the door on the right was open. She could smell Mennens and Bay Rum. Bill Brown's helper Harry was brushing a velvet plum jacket. "So where is he, honey?" she asked; "you can tell me."

"He'll be here," Harry answered tersely.

Shrugging, Alicia hummed and jigged a competent two-step back into the passage. The other star room door was shut although Koa's dresser was making noises behind it. On the next starless door was pasted a formal "Ms. Carol Knight" sign. Alicia made a face and shook her curly head. Then she opened the third door and flipped the ancient switch.

Truly the pits, she thought. No comfort. Charred dusty smells from the boxy gas heater. Stacked in one corner, pressboard and open paint cans. There were, however, two floor length mirrors and telegrams, letters, cards and phone messages on the scarred dressing table. Still humming, she picked up the posted mail, exposing some obvious duns and one envelope addressed in a bold and unwelcome handwriting.

She grabbed at her throat and tore open the envelope. Breathing like she was drowning, she read the letter.
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At 9 PM, the house land line phone rang. Lee let it go to voice mail screening. After Tory's message that clearly identified the residence of Lee Ward and Tory Mann, the angry caller, a man, began a diatribe. "Speedy Movers, you people absolutely stink! What does it take to get your attention? Do I have to call the cops?" Lee picked up the receiver. "This is not Speedy Movers;" she explained. "This is a private residence. You have misdialed. This is not 206-789-4300. No, I will not take a message for Speedy Movers." She hung up and turned back to Tory and Princess Artemisia. "What to do?"

"Dump the land line or get a new number?" suggested Tory. "We can't turn off the sound," she explained to the Princess, "and ignore the ring because Lee's on call and her cell phone's on the blink so she left the house number. What complicated lives we lead with our precious mobility," she said to Lee.

"I'm way too Neanderthal to give up the land line at home, but a new number sounds good. The sooner the better. Will you arrange it? And I'll use your cell to tackle the problems with mine." Lee examined the sleek, recently purchased, useless Android and wondered for not the first time about Apple.

The house phone rang again. Lee put her charcoal grey head in her hands. "Let's move to the kitchen, angels" she said; "I can listen with one ear from there."

"They're 4300 and we're 4309," Tory told the Princess who had been observing all of this and listening to the exchange with great interest. "It's a matter of misdialing and their error but you can't imagine how mad people get. It's as though they suspect us of lying, of trying to cover up something sinister. Now, tell us why in the world you want to become a police inspector, especially in Seattle, Washington."

"It's not that exciting, you know," put in Lee, rounding up cups, batteries, laptop, cellphone and notes.

The Princess stretched her shapely arms., jingled her silver bracelets and examined her manicured fingertips. "I don't expect to play games and I am willing to work hard. I am healthy and strong for a beautiful woman. And very street smart for a rich one."

"This pick up and delivery message is for Speedy Movers," the voice began.

"Why do they completely ignore your excellent voice mail explanation?" asked the Princess; "Allow me." She started to speak to the caller and then stopped. "Please, could you repeat that slowly?" she asked and listened intently. "1242 Eastlake, Suite AB, and one suitcase for immediate delivery to Ms. Samantha Hall at the downtown Morris Theater. Collect?" The Princess listened with bright eyes and bobbed her head up and down. "Surely, surely. Thank you for your order!"

She hung up, evidently pleased with herself.

"You better square that away immediately," said Lee, frowning.

"Oh, you know the staccato voice -- ratatatatat -- will not give you time to speak."

"But little Sammy Hill may be counting on the delivery," said Tory. "Isn't this her opening night?"

"I believe you are correct," said the Princess, beaming.

"So?" Tory said. "Come on, Princess, what are you plotting?

"You recall that Sammy and I attended school together, Career University in Washington DC. Now she is already putting on her shows, playing the organ herself, quite amazing."

"Put the order through, Princess," said Lee; "789-4300 will get you there."

"No, I will deliver as promised. I did try to purchase tickets but they were sold out."

"Best hurry then," Lee said.

"But this is an opportunity to learn, it is not? To delve deeply into the observational person's role? Do you think that you could loan me the, how you call it -- the proper duds?"

"Are you implying I have the kind of shirts and pants that belong in a Speedy Movers wardrobe?" Lee asked.

"Golly, you guys," Tory admonished, "the main item on the agenda is to hurry up and get Sammy Hill's suitcase and the contents to her."

"I will return everything," said the Princess sincerely as they assembled her unisex and strictly utilitarian costume. She looked quite unstoppable dressed in khaki pants, loafers, denim shirt, Mariners baseball cap, hazard vest and tool belt.

"And there she goes," said Lee as they watched the Princess drive off in her lime green Acura.

"Do you think this is going to be okay?" asked Tory. "I'm uneasy."

"From what I know of the Princess, she will enjoy the production and herself thoroughly. Afterwards she'll schmooze with the leading man as she seems in the mood for men. It's Bill Brown, you know, twice her age and straight as a rail so he's likely to go for it." Lee watched Tory take down her guitar. "Remember his wife, Brandy Alexander? She claimed that was her real name and maybe it was. A wildly dangerous woman. But she wrote good stuff for Brown. She also tried to kill him. More than once. Took off for St. Louis or Kansas City or Omaha. Divorce was the obvious answer, but Brown had settlement issues. She wouldn't agree or something. Wonder what became of her."
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"Speedy Movers," the Princess said, pulling on the bill of her cap.

"Here," said the woman who overfilled the doorway. "Take it easy; it doesn't lock and the clasp is screwed up."

"You can rest assured these goods will be gently treated and arrive safely and according to instructions in the careful hands of Speedy Movers."

The woman snorted rather like a pig, thought the Princess as she carried the small case to the car in an atmospheric whirl. It was a typical night in Seattle -- the cool rain velvety, the streetlights gauzy, Capitol Hill flush with the skyline. On Magnolia Hill, Beacon Hill, Broadway, and downtown along the waterfront, sirens and whistles started and stopped without explanation.

The Princess pitched the shabby case onto the backseat. Alas, she was not gentle and yet. "Bien, bien, bien," she said, shining the borrowed flashlight on the floor.

Bushy red wig, gloshine red spike heels, padded red body suit, red mesh hose. The Princess carefully laid these items on the seat. Still on the floor, red velvet mini. Still in the case, Merry Widow corset from Maidenform and Bachelor's Carnation tube lipstick from Revlon.

She thrust her hands into the pockets of Lee's vest where she found an official embossed card that read: Lee Ward, Special Inspector, Seattle Metropolitan Police. All of this has been put into my hands for a reason. Well, here I come, ready or not. Adventure is mine. The Princess believed in seizing the day.

Ten minutes later she parked on Third Avenue three blocks south of the Morris. She emerged from the car and, carrying a sizable box in both arms, hustled down the Avenue to the stage door entrance, heels clicking. There, under moth clad light, only the bright red heels showed. The doorkeeper, grabbing a smoke and scratching an armpit, asked the question, "yes?"

"I need to deliver this item to Ms. Samantha Hill."

"I'll take it in for you; she's already here."

"I am under an obligation to deliver it to her personally; I am so sorry."

"So am I; you're not going in without proper ID."

"I have the proper ID as you can see."

She held out Lee's card. The suspicious doorkeeper backed over under the light to read.

"Well, shoot, why didn't you say so? What's up, Inspector?"

"Nothing for you to know. Do not concern yourself. And this is most important. Do not tell anyone you have seen me."

"You got it."

"Keep your eyes open;" said the doorkeeper to a stagehand; "the law's here, a real dingbat and foreign and wearing some crazy costume."

"For this little thing," marveled the hand, "you got to be kidding!"

"Really weird disguise," said the doorkeeper; "wouldn't fool anyone."

"In your face pile of phony, red hair," agreed the hand, watching the strange inspector hurry off.

Dominating the scene and from the stage proper came some far from melodious tones: "People, I cannot stand the yellow look but if that's what you expect the audience to appreciate, I'm the one to give it to you. Dim the lights, please. Do you see what I mean, people? Are you listening?"

"Careful, careful." The voice seemed right next to her and the Princess yipped out loud. "Closer and closer and in you go," said someone overhead. The lights on the stage glowed blue. "Start the strobe; can the working light." "Strobe on; working light gone."

The curtains closed and the yellow light beamed dead center on the stage. The famous Koa Youngblood appeared and, leaning towards the Princess, seemed to be saying directly to her: "I cannot stand it, people!" From beyond the stage, the noise was deafening. "House lights!" sounded over the din. Withdrawing, the Princess made for a passageway where the only light came from an open door. She tried to sneak into this sanctuary just as famous Bill Brown swept through the door. He was beautifully attired and made up. For a moment, he stood like a stone. Then, faintly waving with his fine right hand, he moaned and fell over. The Princess tried to break his fall and they both hit the floor hard.
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Sammy Hill stood nervously shredding a hardcopy program onto the floor of the camouflaged, soundproofed room where the monitor displayed and recorded the crowd, sometimes noisy, sometimes quiet, sometimes launching out as though mission driven, rising and clapping as one, like now, as Koa, mean as a viper, pirouetted in the corn light and said, "people, it's history."

"No, no, no!" Sammy wanted to scream. How she despised Koa for taking over and twisting the scene and Carol letting her do it and the crowd for eating it up! They were about to move into a love ballad; the segue was important. The curtain came down and battering rainfall filled the theater, growing louder as sidelights came on.

"Well, looks like we have ourselves a hit." Jill Pollard who owned the Morris and was Sammy's prime underwriter, sponsor, backer.

"She's ruining it, Jill. This is Carol's scene; it precedes the love ballad."

"Hey, whatever, the audience is in love. Just listen to them."

"I think Koa is downright dangerous and we shouldn't stand still for it."

Jill took her hand. "She's giving money's worth. Chin up, bunky. Folks are watching. This is a big, big night and going really, really well. Come have a wine with some fans. Talk about the August production and your future."

"Forgive me, I can't; I've got to go try and reason with her before it's too late."

"I wouldn't," and Jill gripped her hand harder. "You know," Jill began but Sammy pulled away and was off through the door, headed for the stage.

Except she had to stop for Jules Gray who was leaning against the post, smiling like a rainbow. "There you are," he said.

"Oh, Jules; Koa is stoned out of her mind and blowing the whole thing."

"No, no; she'll be finished early in the second half. It's going great, just as it should."

"But, can't you appreciate --"

"I appreciate everything you've done and will do. Most of all, I appreciate you. Listen. Feel it. Understand it. It's in the air. This is a smash. You're a success."

"Jules," she murmured.

Then others were congratulating her as the graffiti boards were clipped and tied to the backdrop. In front were strategically placed hibachi pots, spaced like chessman. "Fires," ordered the stage manager. Fake flames popped up. "Second half, take your places."

"Is Bill okay?" yelled Joan Miller.

"He's fine. He's got another ten," said Bill Brown's dresser Harry. Harry was nearby.

What's wrong with Bill, Harry?" Sammy asked and was ignored. Oh, no, she thought; what next?

"Sammy, I'm late, got to get back and so should you. It's great. Keep saying that to yourself because it's true."

"Jules," she began too late. He was gone.

Synthesized music swelled from behind the curtain, raw xylophone and zither.

"Clear for the second half." The stagehands cleared.

"Strobe lights set."

"Sidelights."

"Sidelights gone."

"Stand by."

Samatha was no closer to the action when the curtain rose on the second act than she had been when it fell on the first. Koa and Alicia softshoed and tapped and warbled. The second act was short.
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The Princess sorted herself out from the prostrate Bill Brown. She was unhurt, but he looked awful. She sensed another observer. Someone else wasn't watching the stage and the four famous legs waltzing around a silicon globe prop. When she got to her hands and knees the silhouette flattened against the wall.

A redfaced man pushed his way through the door. The Princess was on her feet. "We need your assistance," she said to the redfaced man, and "Stop," she called helplessly after the shadowy actress, actor, worker, doctor, lawyer, merchant or thief who vanished through a door on the right.

The redfaced man glared at her until she wanted to slap his face, but at least he raised poor Bill Brown to a sitting position. He put a flask to the famous mouth and fanned the famous brow. "What in hell did you have to come back for?" he snarled at the Princess.

The lights came on in the passageway and she pulled herself together. Get real. That is what she was supposed to do. "Excuse me. This misunderstanding must cease." She removed the wig. The man stared, and for a moment she thought he was going to attack her. Bill Brown made a clearing noise in his throat and bolted upright. "Harry?" he said.

"Nothing to worry about, boss. It ain't her. And you're gonna be fine." Harry advanced towards her. "Take it all off," he ordered.

"Certainly," said the Princess; "and I am sorry for any misunderstanding." Slinking off, she heard a voice say, "three minutes to curtain." "Tell them to wait," Harry said, "Bill's in trouble."

"No, Harry. You were right the first time. I'm fine. Don't say anything to anyone about trouble, love." he continued, putting his arm around the girl. Desperately the Princess sought concealment to change out of the offending costume. "Harry," the Princess heard the silken voice crack before they went into the room on the left, "who was that and what does she want?"

She wound up behind a stack of fake palm trees out of the passageway but near the entry. She could see Sammy Hill who looked terribly unhappy. Oh, what did it all mean? In the bustle on stage, the girl called to the stage manager who shouted, "Bill okay?" Harry came back into the passage and responded. "He's fine. He's got another ten." The girl called, "clear for the second half." The manager was in a directorial furor. The Princess had heard of such a state. Tiny, ancient but sprightly, Alicia Russell stood just offstage, smoothing her silks and chiffons. Odd music whipped up the air. The Princess was halfway out of the dress when Koa Youngblood stopped next to her, stared and gasped. Then she lunged past the Princess, wildly flapping her arMs. and disappearing into a room on the right. The air smelled of booze and charred apple skins. Up went the curtain.

Hidden behind the palm trees, the Princess ripped off the dress and put on pants, glad she'd had the sense to bring in the case with the borrowed Speedy Movers clothing. She made the switch from vamp to valet while listening to running commentary about Koa Youngblood from two stagehands: "She's flying." "Great." "And how come she's great?" "Because she's flying."

Maybe ten minutes passed. Convinced of a new spanner in the works or however the British describe it, the Princess could feel the growing tension. A set door opened on stage. Koa Youngblood could be heard but the voice was smudged, then harsh and jangly. "People, you cannot find soul without a ten foot pole. Sooner, consumers, as well as later, gators." The set door shut. The weaving actress came close. A big bang came closer. The palm trees and the Princess shivered. Koa Youngblood went into her dressing room. Off stage, a hand put a pistol on a side table. Booze, apple skins and gunpowder. Alicia Russell exited, conversed with the manager whose name was Joan Miller. The Princess told herself to remember this name. It might be important. Alicia Russell tripped off to her dressing room.

Music, dialogue and noise were overcome for the Princess by a new distracting smell. Trappings and cardboard. Phew. Suppressing what was in her ears, she categorized what was in her nose: Elmers glue, old velvet, pancake makeup, Cold Cream, warm rouge and something else. When the girl tapped on dressing room doors the Princess snapped to attention. "Miss Knight, please. Mr. Brown, please." Bill Brown came out first with Harry brushing him. A door handle rattled and men talked. A voice she could barely make out sounded angry. Bill Brown passed right by her shaking his shoulders as Harry kept brushing and others conversed simultaneously. Bill Brown drew himself up and strode to the set door, stiff armed it and danced on stage, meekly followed by Carol Knight. The Princess had never cared much for Carol Knight.

Back to smells: sandpaper, paint remover, old upholstery, gas. Definitely gas. Yes, yes. Gas!

Stagehands shifted from side to side as the Princess crept from cover. She could see the prompt corner with Joan Miller whose eyes were glued to the stage. Players and musicians who were waiting ranged behind the manager. Harry and another dresser, apart from the rest, swayed as the overheads lit caught faces. Bill Brown drove his hot and cold fevers through audience and the cast.

She looked down around her feet. Had she stupidly kicked over a gas receptacle? The girl was calling five minutes in the passageway, rapping harder. Alicia Russell, what they call a fall chicken, appeared, complaining about gas leaks. "Really a problem, huh?" said the girl cheerfully. Both stared at the Princess and then joined Joan Miller. They said something to the manager who sniffed and shrugged and turned back to the prompt box which was silently clapping. She made a frantic gesture, and a stagehand ran up. Everyone was jumpy. Everyone stared back towards the passageway as the stagehand scuttled to the first door on the right and wrestled with the doorknob. "Ms. Youngblood, you're on; you're on. Ms. Youngblood!" The Princess raced into action.

"Gas!" she said as the stagehand gagged. She pointed at the door.

"Break it in, please."

"Can't. I'll get Joan."

There wasn't much room but the Princess tried her best, running at the door, bruising her shoulder. She moved the door a little and got a larger dose of the smell. She was reeling. There was an enormous din somewhere. It must be hailing outside. Global warming was a theme the Princess had trouble with. Feeling very sick, she got set for another try.

"Hold it!"

Joan Miller hammered a screwdriver head between the lock and doorpost without much wasted effort. They pulled the door open and the smell rolled over them like oil. "No windows," said the manager, backing away.

The room spun but the Princess could see a woman in the chair, head hanging forward. Covering her face with the borrowed scarf she charged across the floor.

Banging into furniture and boxes, the Princess lugged the woman's dead weight from the room. She knew nothing about emergency medical procedures for gas victiMs., and a high keening noise filled her head before and after she woke up. From the floor, she could see many pairs of legs. She heard someone in the distance. "You are good to put up with our timing screw ups and clumsy attempt at something different." More hail. Delicious gasless air. She sat up and put her head between her knees.
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When the phone rang Tory suggested Lee blow up all their phones for all of eternity.

"Someday, love," Lee said, waiting for the message. It could be the office; she was supposed to be available 24/7 for twelve times five days, if they called these days.

"Is this the residence of Special Inspector Ward, SMPD?" Lee picked up the phone. "Yes."

"I'm calling from the Morris Theatre to tell you your SI's had a little accident. She seems okay but maybe somebody should come pick her up. She can't manage on her own yet."

"What kind of an accident?"

"Well, gas, actually. But she's okay."

"Gas! I'm on my way. Thanks."

"What in the world?" asked Tory. "Some attempted suicide that can't wait?"

"No, but the Princess is in trouble at the Morris. Not to worry. Nothing I can't handle. You go to bed and I'll tell you about it tomorrow if it proves interesting."

Having temporarily centered her most important relationship by far, Lee drove to the theater. The marquee was dark. She went around to the back where she was stopped.

"SMPD," she said and showed her badge and identification.

"Hell," said the woman watching the door. "How many of you are going to show up tonight?"

"The woman inside is working for me," Lee said, hiding her fear and trepidation as she went through the entrance. Mumbling under her breath, the doorkeeper came after her.

The double doors had been rolled back and the Princess was holding court on a maroon velvet sofa. She looked pale, especially in contrast to those around her. She was being attended by three women and two men, all five sparkling and glistening in skin paints. Behind the sofa stood the stage manager, Lee guessed, and stagehands. To the side hovered two expensively dressed women with their heads together. Everyone appeared shocked and upset and in a play-watching not a play-performing mode.

"I am very, very sorry," said the Princess. "I have been trying to explain. Please, please, everyone," she said, "this person of authority is Special Inspector Lee Ward."

"What's going on here?" barked an older well-dressed woman. "You told us --"

"Yes," said the doorkeeper, "because she showed me ID."

"Yes, but --" began the Princess.

"This is Princess Artemisia of the Spanish Lowlands," Lee said forcefully, " a recruit to the Seattle Metropolitan Police Department and under my supervision. Now tell me what's happened here. I understand one of you is a doctor?"

A second well-dressed woman came forward. "Dr. Barbara Reason."

"Thank you. Would you fill me in?"

"Certainly, Inspector," Dr. Reason performed introductions. The first older woman turned out to be Jill Pollard who owned the theater. "Listen, it's very good you're here," they all seemed to agree with this statement, as though Lee had a choice.

"If you'll just come this way," said the doctor.
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Lee climbed onto the stage. At stage center, a long table had been put to use. The lights were low and the gas smell heavy. The body, while covered with old army blankets, remained very much a body.

"And this is?"asked Lee.

"Koa Youngblood, the actress. The door of her dressing room was locked and although your brave little recruit dragged her out, there was no chance. I was sitting in the front, here because Jill's a friend of mine and had asked me to the Gatesian Ball afterwards. In my opinion, this was unquestionably suicide, done in exactly the flamboyant way you would expect of this sad misguided creature. I was her treating physician, you know."

"I'll be interested in her medical history later. Right now I need to look at the room. Has it been disturbed in any way?"

"No. We were careful. Still nasty to breathe. No windows. Even though the gas is off at the main and the double doors are open. Unbearable."

They entered the passageway. "Life threatening," said the doctor. "I'll wait here, and you'd better keep close to the floor if you go in. First room on the right. Can't miss it. They had to break the lock."

The 150 watt lights over the mirror were burning. Lee knelt against the left wall by the gas jet which was still turned on, the handle parallel with the floor. The heater, nozzle and handle, and the rug were covered with tawny-colored silt or powder. The powder appeared to come from a box on the end of the dated dressing table. Behind the box were tubes and pots of makeup and a mirror, then a sink. The chair in front of the sink had been overturned and thrown aside. Marks on the rug indicated something or someone had been dragged to the door. By the sink was a half-empty fifth of Old Mr. Boston Spot Bottle Gin. Next to it, an envelope with a different, yellower powder. Unconsciously marking exhibits, Lee got out of the room none too soon.

"Pretty self-evident, right?" asked the doctor, unprofessionally.

"Can you show me around to the other dressing rooms?"

The next room was similar to the murder room but of a reverse design and smaller. Dressing tables and heaters were identical and back to back. The heater in this room was also turned on, brass nozzle parallel to the floor. Lee took the time to look it over carefully. Nothing unusual. Lead-in pipe, flexible metal tube and rubber connection, all in what looked to be good working order. There was another tap in the pipe, and Lee removed the tube and studied the fittings. Everything seemed okay. She baggied and pocketed a tube fitting, careful of a whitish stain with a tiny grayish blue thread attached -- possibly packing material. No powder spilled on the carpet. She looked once more around the room and read the card on the door as she left: "Ms. Carol Knight".

Dr. Reason escorted her across the passageway to the star Bill Brown's room where a full table was devoted to well wishing gifts: champagne, books, shirts, cigars, yellow roses, and many cards which Lee shamelessly read. "From Sammy who can't say thanks" tucked inside the front of Richard Russo's latest novel. "Here's to you and cheers to you, honey" with a bottle of Dom Perignon. Lee spent a moment on Richard Russo. She'd been a fan since Nobody's Fool.

The doctor led her next door to a smaller room. The card on the door read Jules Gray. In the front pocket of a beautiful white silk shirt Lee found a card that read simply, "from Sammy with love".

Lee examined the gas heaters in both these rooMs., especially the connections.

"Nothing wrong with the heaters, is there?" asked earnest Dr. Reason.

"No. Seem fine. Sound material, tight connections."

"Okay, well --"

Lee said nothing. The tour continued down the passage to an empty room on the left. Miss Alicia Russell was handwritten on a 3x5 card tacked to the door of the room opposite. These rooms were without heaters and dank. Russell's dressing table, more of a cardtable, was covered with the necessary makeup, one blue, one red and two black wigs; lots of paper: cards, congratulatory notes, mostly bills.

"About what to do with the body?" asked Dr. Reason. He looked hopeful.

"We'll call the morgue wagon, doctor; nothing for you to concern yourself with."

"Isn't that a bit dramatic for suicide?"

"This was no suicide."

"What! But what kind of hideous accident could --"

"This was no accident. Shall we join the others?"
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At midnight the Morris premises were brightly lit, and Seattle's finest went about doing what they do best in the west. A uniformed officer stood at the stage door, and the SMPD mortuary van was parked in the alley. Lights were dimmest in the audience area of the theater as the distance from the stage increased. Close to the foyer doors and huddled together in aisle seats were Bill Brown, Jill Pollard, Carol Knight, Alicia Russell, Jules Gray, Samantha Hill, stage manager Joan Miller, dresser Harry and the call girl. UniforMs. were beside and behind them. Programs littered the empty seats and floor. Someone smoked, the smoke rising thinly like it knew it shouldn't be there.

Lee and the Princess were talking in the Morris management office while Bailey took notes. "Are you sure you've told me absolutely everything and you've exaggerated absolutely nothing?"

"Oh, yes, everything. I was there the whole time and saw them when they came on and went off, but not one of them could see me. It was too dark."

"We'll have something for you to sign."

"I am pleased to sign, certainly."

"Miss Pollard and Mr. Gray can leave," Lee told Bailey. "I'll see Mr. Brown."

After Bailey left the Princess began to lament. "Please accept my apologies for the mistaken identity confusion and the terrible trouble I have caused you. I never thought about the implications of my modeling and my little impersonation trick."

"Comic masquerading won't cut any ice for you on the force. What made you wear that costume?"

"Those were the telephone directions for Speedy Motors, that the costume was supposed to be modeled. God, I am so stupid," the Princess moaned.

Lee held out the wig. "Here. Put it on."

"Why? How cruel! So he can faint again?"

"I don't think that will happen. Good. Now add the glasses and let's see. You can come in," Lee said. Bailey disappeared into the woodwork with his laptop.

Bill Brown looked as though his face would like to take a break. His skin was patched with color and his pupils were opaque. He seemed exhausted as he stood, staring at the Princess. "Is she back in Seattle?" he asked. "Why are you doing this? For god's sake,  take that wig off. It's not even a good wig, nothing like the real thing." He shivered. "Is she paying you?" he demanded.

"No, no, sir; I am not paid but I am solely to blame. I was supposed to model the costume for Sammy Hill --"

"Sammy! I can't believe she would be party to such a sad parody. Of course --"

"Yes?" encouraged Lee.

"Well," Brown responded; "it's no secret Sammy was upset with Koa's interpretation of the role. And with a certain amount of justification," he added.

"It was to be her costume for the Gatesian Ball," the Princess said. "The one that I brought here and, like a fool, put on. I did not intend to offend."

"Ask Miss Hill to come in," Lee said and Bailey came back with Sammy. "I've explained to the Princess. The costume was all my fault. I got busy and bored with trying to figure out what to wear tonight so I ordered it over the web with local delivery. Established website. Invoice. Looked legit. Jules reminded me and called to have them bring it to the theater. He was trying to make it easy on me."

"And what was your reason for the choice of costume?" asked Lee.

"I didn't choose it. That was one of the selling factors. They said they were sending a bunch our way as specified, and if I gave them the size, they'd fix something up for me. They said we'd all resemble flower children, 60s characters."

"Who said this? You had an email exchange or phone conversation?"

"No, actually it was Carol Knight who placed the order."

"Oh, come on!" said Brown. "Not Carol."

"Please explain why everyone is so upset about red mesh stockings and the miniskirt and red wig," begged the Princess.

"Because," Lee said, "redheaded Brandy Alexander often wore minis and mesh. Aren't I right, Mr. Brown? I once saw your wife --"

"My wife is well known to the police on several continents," Brown interrupted. Grabbing the arms of the chair, he began to rock back and forth. Bailey and the Princess kept their heads down. Little Sammy Hill took hold of Brown's shoulder, gently kneading it. "Come on, general," she said; "I'm sure the truth can't hurt."

Focusing his powerful eloquence directly on Lee, Brown told his story. "It's important you understand the background. I can see that. For years, my wife had me in a kind of economic prison. When I finally worked up the courage to sue for divorce irrespective of the fiscal ramifications, she produced some compromising videos taken of me and Koa. The three of us had it out -- ugly scene. Brandy said she was leaving for her birth country -- the Netherlands as you probably know. She threatened to return if I pursued the divorce. She left behind her the first draft of a musical drama she'd been writing with some especially wonderful pieces in it for Koa and me. 'But you won't have the chance,' is what she warned us; 'nobody but Brandy could finish writing this for you.' My wife was vindictive, abandoned the work and returned to Amsterdam," he told them while Bailey tap-tapped. And that was the last he heard of Brandy Alexander if they were to believe Bill Brown. In a short time, notice publication and the statute of limitations might have made him a free man. Meanwhile, the relationship with Koa Youngblood had soured. "Always a substance abuser," he claimed she got out of control. "She became obsessed with Brandy's return. Dreamed Brandy was in town. Would call me at all hours and go on and on about what Brandy would do to me."

Sammy Hill interrupted, "and so my production was --"

"Oh, definitely. It was uncanny. I could see immediately where to work in Brandy's material, which scenes would beef up your central message. Koa didn't want me to give you the suggestions. Carol was all for it. Of course, Carol was hoping for Koa's part and was furious when she didn't get it. Naturally, if she arranged for Sammy to masquerade as Brandy -- well, you can see how this looks." Bill Brown focused evenly on all of them.

"When she saw you, what exactly did Miss Youngblood do?" Lee asked the Princess.

"She whipped her hands about herself as though she required protection and dashed into her room. She appeared frightened. She must have thought Brandy Alexander was back."

Bill Brown nodded somberly.

"Do you know if you were alone after you passed out?" Lee asked him.

"I'm sure I wasn't. Harry was taking care of me like he has been for the last 25 years. He stayed with me in my dressing room until it was time for me to go on again."

"One more question, Mr. Brown. Any recollection at all of something unusual about the heater or temperature in your room?"

"Yes," Brown replied; "I distinctly remember the heater crackling and popping. It bothered me."

"And you went straight from your room to the stage?"

"Yes, with Harry. I wanted to reassure Koa and tried her door, but it was locked. She yelled, 'go away' and I told her, 'it's okay; the woman isn't Brandy.' She didn't answer and I went on."

"I heard him," volunteered the Princess.

"She must have planned it while dosing herself; she was completely zonked when she did her last number." Brown shook his head. "I'd like to go now if you're done with me," he said.

"I've got a car to take you home. Princess, please see if it's ready. Mr. Brown, you can wait in the foyer if you like."

"Okay to take Harry with me?"

"Sure. We'll have the sergeant locate him. Anything else we can do for you?"

"No, thanks, but I'm grateful for the considerate treatment."

Lee opened the door and walked with Brown to the foyer. "Find Harry the dresser for Mr. Brown," she told Bailey; "then I want to talk to Miss Russell."

She watched as Brown leaned against the wall and rubbed the back of his neck. Not far away on an easel awash in a poor but sizable oil painting Koa Youngblood smiled at the proceedings.
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Alicia Russell's mascara had run. Her bristly black wig had slipped, exposing a patch of skin over her left ear. Waving her cigarette holder, she resembled an aggressive concentration camp escapee. "Listen, sugar," she said, "this lady wants to go home!"

"I won't keep you much longer, I promise;" said Lee, thinking how often you risk breaking a promise since she would keep this witness as long as necessary. But Russell's information jived with what the Princess had told them. Lee asked Russell if she had visited other dressing rooms. "Mercy, no! I stay where I'm put. Rain, sleet and snow. Stars mingle. I support."

"And is this what Miss Youngblood did? Do you know if she stayed in her room?"

"Well, she didn't come in mine."

"That's not quite an answer, Miss Russell."

"I don't know the answer, sugar, and it's Alicia."

"What about ideas or theories? Do you have any?"

"Are you asking why she did it? It's obvious? She was drunk and/or doped up on something lethal. Ask anyone, especially Carol. Koa ruined Carol's last number, made her look a bigger amateur than she is. Poor theater but that was Koa and the more stoned, the more so. I assume she simply overdosed." Russell's eyes were black, bloodshot slits. "Ms. Knight must be feeling pretty punk at this juncture," she said and laughed in a nasty way. "Suicide is hard to upstage."

"I assure you it was not suicide," said Lee.

Alicia Russell made a sharp noise. "Oh, no," she said; "not like Carol warned us, not like she warned the management. She told us this whole city block should be condemned."

"Are you talking about the gas heaters?"

"What else? Wearing one of her peculiar hats, Carol did some radio for Seattle City Gas years ago. Got chummy with the plant manager who told her more than you would ever want to hear about gas feeders and lines. Said she had a real head for the business." Russell looked at Lee as though she expected Lee to laugh.

When Lee didn't, she stood up.

"Alicia," Lee said, hoping familiarity worked," maybe you can help us. There's one more person we have to see and then something I'd like to try. Could you wait and give us a hand?

"Sleep was more what I had in mind. But if you really --"

"You have my word this shouldn't take more than an hour," Lee said, thinking there I go.

"Praise the lord and pass the congregation," said Alicia Russell fervently.
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Carol Knight wore the doll makeup from her last number. She looked as though she'd never seen the sun, feathers under her pinched eyes and mouth designed for a surviving, brokenhearted lover. In the harsh light of the office, she launched into how sorry and upset she was, how Koa had certainly been a trial more than once but wasn't it awful what could happen to people, especially theater people? As for her, well, she wasn't sure if she would recover from tonight. What could have possessed Koa? What had she taken to make her do such a thing?

"Mr. Brown has a theory."

"Really! That's entertainment. Do tell."

"He thinks Miss Youngblood saw a woman masquerading as the missing Brandy Alexander and, terrified, altered her mind and body with everything she could get her hands on and simply went too far. The costume which had such startling success was ordered by you, was it not?"

The trapped witness got excited. She rattled away. Any imitation of Brandy who was probably dead was inadvertent. What would have been the point? They were all supposed to dress like hippies. Nothing more complicated than that. She shook her head several times. Began to rub her hands. "Just what do you mean?" she yelled. "Just what are you implying?"

"Murder is not an implication; Koa Youngblood was murdered."

"That's ridiculous. If she didn't kill herself, it was the faulty gas system. I've been warning them."

"Yes, Ms. Russell told us you had expressed concerns."

Carol Knight nodded vigorously. "I mean, look at this place. Alicia and I took a tour. She's an old high school physics teacher and I know a bit about gasworks. Outrageous. As for murder, the room was locked. They had to break down the door to get to Koa. No other way to get in, no windows."

"Please," said Lee; "let's concentrate on what you know, Ms. Knight. You knew Brandy Alexander as well as anyone and you know the entire cast. Are you saying that when you lined up this costume for Ms. Hill you had no idea it would upset Mr. Brown or Ms. Youngblood?"

"Now, wait a minute," snapped Carol Knight; "Alicia knew about it and if it had scared Koa into behaving herself, where's the harm. This would have meant the end of the road for Bill. He'd had it so where's the problem there? The silly masquerade has nothing to do with murder."

"I'm sure we'll find that to be the case." Lee got up from her chair.
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In Carol Knight's dressing room, Assistant Inspector Thompson and other uniformed or evidentiary experts grouped either by the heater or the door. Carol Knight stumped about and complained.

"Why am I being put through this? Can someone please answer me? Where is that official woman anyway? Where are official women when needed?"

Lee was bivouacked in the deceased's room with Alicia Russell, the Princess, and Bailey who was sleeping in the armchair nearest the dresser, his head down and eyes closed. The air had cleared; the hvac was fine if a little noisy.

"Now, this is the background, Alicia," Lee said, waking Bailey. "You and Ms. Youngblood have made your final exits; Ms. Knight, Mr. Brown and Mr. Gray are on the stage. The Princess is just outside the passageway entrance. The dressers and crew are watching from the side. Ms. Youngblood has locked her door. There she sits, in a stupor from a combination of drugs and, of course, the autopsy may show she died before the gas could kill her, but indulge me. There she sits with the gas heat turned on, the thermostat at 70. She had applied her makeup earlier and on the gas tap, there is a thick layer of face powder. Now watch."

Lee gently rapped the wall.

The gas fire went out with a crack and gas began hissing through the pipe until Lee turned it off. "Observe,"she said; "a good print in the powder. Now, come next door with me, please."

Carol Knight started in immediately: "I don't know anything about this and I demand an explanation."

"Impossible to get an official gas expert at this time of night, Ms. Knight, and your opinion could be valuable. Are you willing? Just show us, Thompson."

The lead in was disconnected from the tap on the heater. Thompson bent down and turned on the tap in the pipe and blew down the tube.

"It's old fashioned physics; an airlock. Works like a charm."

Alicia Russell stared at Carol Knight who was staring at Lee and looked genuinely horrified. "But I don't know the slightest thing about pipes and locks or physics. All I know is gas marketing. For god's sake, speak up for me, Alicia --"

"There's more," said Lee. She lifted the cloth that had covered the corner of the dresser. The rubber connection piece lay underneath on a sheet of paper.

"Would you look at this stain through the magnifier, Alicia? Notice it's bright red. Greasepaint, don't you think? And see the wiry bluish hair above? Spiraled, almost like thread. Distinctive." Alicia Russell lowered the lens.

"Here, let me help," said Lee. She reached out and up. Holding the guilty woman's head, she plucked 3 or 4 black hairs to drop on the paper. "Perfect match except for color and the one found was stuck to the connection with Select hair spray. Common enough but your brand, I believe."

The lens hit the floor. Alicia Russell attacked Lee, scratching and spitting. Small as she was, it took both Bailey and Thompson to subdue her.

Thompson administered temporary first aid to Lee's face. "A fight sure makes it easier, boss. None of this rights reading and call your lawyer biz. So long as you're okay, of course," she added, grinning.

"Thank you, Thompson," said Lee, touching the gauze on her lacerated cheek.

"She must have gone into the dressing room right after Bill Brown and Carol Knight were called, before they went on."

"Yes, fast as lightning in order to get back for her own call. Surprisingly quick for her age, thanks to working out two nights a week, something I learned inadvertently. Knight's revelation of her earlier stint as a high school physics teacher sure helped. Personal bio tips are invaluable."

The Princess nodded impatiently. "Yes, but what were her reasons? Why did she do it?"

"Oh, you mean motive. Well, Princess, you're now seeing the boring side of homicide and the reason we're still in this depressing place at 2 AM. Are you up to it? Want to go home?"

"No, no. Give me my assignment."

"Okay. See that trash over there by the prompting entrance."

"It was almost 3 AM when they'd been through all the dressing rooms. Lee called a timeout. The Princess beckoned from the door of Carol Knight's room. "Si, si, si," she said, pointing her dirty thumbs up. "I hope," she added.

They gathered around the dressing table. Lee laid out the paper fragments the Princess had found pushed to the bottom of Knight's trash.

"Like I said, very quick and slick in covering her tracks." Lee arranged and rearranged the tiny pieces, this way and that. Bailey and Thompson withdrew and chatted together. The Princess put on ear phones and listened to KZOK.

"Finally," Lee said and there it was: the letter Alicia Russell had opened in a different room six hours and forty-five minutes earlier.

Dear Alicia, I discovered through a friend in Brussels that Brandy died six years ago and that you took care of the funeral arrangements. I'm telling Bill tonight. How could you do this? I'm furious and will make you pay!

"No signature," remarked Ms. Bailey.

"Take a look at the handwritten message delivered with the roses to Brown. Still think you want to be a copper?" Lee asked the Princess.

"I am even more certain."

"I may regret this but come see me downtown. You know where the office is."

"Thank you! You will see. You will not be sorry. You will be proud of me."

They trooped out into the rain. Pausing by the uniform left on duty, the Princess looked up. She had to lean back to see the neon letters of the Pollard marquee. The Long & Short of It jittered. To the right of the box office was a glassed display for coming Morris attractions including I Can Find My Way In by Samantha Hill. "I am wondering," said the Princess strictly to herself.
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