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«Places for Act Two!»

«Places for Act Two!»

«Places for Act Two!» by Bradley H. Sinor

    "Blimy, mate! You're out of your bloody mind!"
    Liam Gideon stared down the length of his sword at the pale face that moments before had been a blustering menacing figure.
    "Crazy or sane, it doesn't matter," he said. "Because I am the one who has a sword at your throat. So I wouldn't be advising that you move too quickly or count on any help from either of your friends."
    The pale faced man's eyes darted to the far side of the ally where another man, dressed as shabbily as him, lay. This one was still breathing, but with two teeth dangling over edge of his lip it was obvious he was coming to no one's aid. A second man lay on the ground, conscious, but not moving. A heavy black boot was planted across the man's chest. The boot belonged to a tall dark man, dressed in elegantly cut clothes, who the three had been attempting to rob.
    "Now, sir," Liam said to the stranger. "I think it only right and proper that you make the decision about what to do with our friend, here. Should I run him through, perhaps cut him just a bit, say, remove certain portions of his anatomy; or should we just hold him and the others for the arrival of the police."
    "My first inclination would be to give them a long, very slow, very painful death. A public impalement might be a beneficial lesson to others." The man's dark eyes glittered with a strange redness to them. He spoke with the slightest hint of an accent, each word clearly, crisply and evenly pronounced. It occurred to Liam that perhaps English was not his native language.
    "It would be an interesting sight, but consume far more time than I am willing to give to it."
    With those words the man lifted his boot from the thief's chest and half turned away from him. Liam had the impression of someone who had done with a matter; though he did notice that the stranger never fully took his eyes off the three thieves.
    Liam drew his sword away from the first man's neck. The other one scrambled to his feet, watching Liam and the stranger with the look of a trapped animal. A moment or two passed as both men stood frozen, rain washing across their terror-striped faces. Then they grabbed their unconscious companion, dragging him down the alley.
    "I imagine they will have quite a tale to tell once they hit the pub," said Liam.
    "It is always wise to spread news of your prowess among an enemy. The story will grow with each retelling," said the stranger. "You never know how it might help you in the future."
    "Hopefully, neither of us will have to deal with them again," said Liam.
    "True, but with that kind of ilk it never hurts to have a reputation."
    The stranger turned toward Liam. This was the first time he had had a chance to get a good look at the man. He was tall, with dark, somewhat disheveled hair, combed across the tops of his ears, giving him an almost feral look. There was something intense and controlling in the man's manner.
    "Now, if I may inquire, who is it who stood to battle at my side?"
    "Gideon. Liam Gideon, late of Dublin, Edinburgh and parts beyond."
    "Liam Gideon. I thank you for your assistance. It came at a most propitious time."
    Liam had been minding his own business, hurrying to get back to The Strand Theatre on the west side of London. Passing an alley, hearing the sounds of a fight, he turned and saw three men attack a lone figure. He had hardly thought about it before he was plunging into the middle of the melee, sword in hand.
    "You were holding your own pretty well against these fellows. I suspect that you didn't need that much assistance from me."
    "None the less, you chose to ally yourself with me in battle. That is something that among my people means much. So do not doubt that you have the gratitude of Vlad Tepes, Count Dracula," he said.
    "Thank you, Count. It wasn't that much of a decision for me. It was simply something that seemed needed doing. Something that I didn't think about, just did, my duty, and I am but a slave to duty." he said with a smile.
    "A slave to duty?" Dracula looked at Liam oddly.
    "Your pardon, Count. I was quoting a line from a play that I am in. It seemed fitting, somehow," said Liam.
    "A play? You are an actor, then?"
    "At times," he said.
    "And what is this play?"
    "'The Pirates of Penzance' by Gilbert & Sullivan."
    "Gilbert & Sullivan? I am new to London, recently arrived from my native Transylvania, so I'm afraid that I am unfamiliar with either of these gentlemen. I must admit that they sound more like a law firm than playwrights."
    "A law firm? That's novel," laughed Liam. "They are the creators of the most popular operettas in the last dozen years."
    "Indeed? I may have to seek them out," he said. "That may, perhaps, explain your sword. Seeing a young man carrying one is a common thing in my homeland. But here in England, except for military ceremonies, I have seen none."
    Liam held up the sword for his friend's inspection. Its surface was shiny as a teapot, the grip emblazoned with a dozen brightly colored stones amid Celtic knotwork.
    "At first glance, it does appear to be a formidable weapon," said Dracula.
    Liam could see that the Count had discerned the blade's true nature.
    Liam cupped his left hand and sharply slid the edge of the blade along it. Then he turned his palm where Dracula could see it. Both men were smiling and not surprised that the flesh was uncut. "I'm afraid I couldn't have done much real damage to those three. It's a prop intended for the character of The Pirate King."
    "The thing is, our enemies didn't know that. Their imaginations were a very potent weapon against themselves," said Dracula.
    "Thank you, Count. Our company manager asked me to pick up a replacement for one of our principals, who broke his this morning. Since it was only a slight detour from where I was going, I was glad to do it." Liam pulled out his watch and flipped the cover open.
    "Damm! I was due at the theater a full ten minutes ago. I'm sure that Mr. Bunberry will be snarling like a banshee!"
    "Fear not, friend Liam. I am in your debt. You have stood to combat at my side. So I shall not abandon you. I will accompany you and explain about the delay to this Mr. Bunberry," he said.
    "Thank you, Count, but that isn't necessary."
    "I feel it is," said Dracula. "Besides, along the way you can tell me more about this Gilbert & Sullivan."

    By the time Liam and his companion reached the theater, what had begun as a light rain had turned into a torrential downpour. As they rushed up to the stage entrance, Liam noticed that the new advertising poster had been put in place.
    A theater in the midst of rehearsal a few days from opening night could resemble chaos personified. That evening The Strand was no exception. Yet to Liam's experienced eye there was an almost musical order to the whole scene, though he imagined Count Dracula found it quite confusing.
    An entirely new operetta, Utopia (Limited), the first by Gilbert & Sullivan in some years, was scheduled to open in October. Yet at the last minute the decision had been made to reprise Pirates, using the group of actors who had been touring with it for well over a year and only recently returned to London.
    "It is a matter of publicity, Liam," said Alexander Bunberry, the company manager. "We will still open with Utopia in October, but a brief reprise of Pirates can only help to generate interest."
    "Liam! Liam Gideon! Where the hell have you been! I expected you back by half past four!"
    The voice belonged to a tall skinny man, with muttonchop sideburns that seemed to cover half or more of his face. He came charging toward Liam from behind a huge Greek column that was part of the Pirates set. He seemed to be on the edge of pure fright. Hands were constantly in motion, pointing this way and that or flipping through the pages of a libretto that had seen better days.
    "I'm sorry I was delayed, Mr. Bunberry. It couldn't be helped," said Liam.
    "Couldn't be helped! You know that Everett is screaming that he can't rehearse unless he has his new sword," said Bunberry.
    "I well know all his complaints, sir," said Liam.
    "Then why were you dawdling about! I'm still expecting him to fall in the pit deliberately, just to spite me!"
    "I doubt that," said Liam.
    "Sir, Mr. Gideon was not as you say it, dawdling about," said Dracula.
    "And who would you be?"
    "I am... Count Dracula." Dracula's eyes fastened on Bunberry's. Neither man blinked "Had it not been for the timely intervention of Mr. Gideon when three thugs were attacking me, I would have found self in a grave situation. He did the only thing that a man of honor and duty could do."
    Bunberry stood there for a moment, his eyes glassed over, a thin sheen of sweet on his forehead.
    "Well, if it was something like that I can understand the delay," he said. "Just get that sword to Everett. The old hen will be fretting his life away, sure that his performance will be ruined and his career over, until he gets it. Then get down to the costume shop. They need to measure you for your new Frederic costume."
    At that, Bunberry whirled on his heels and headed off in the direction of the pirate ship set that filled much of stage left. Just before he got there, a large fat man that Liam didn't recognize, dressed in a tailored waist coat with a top hat and cane in hand, stopped him. The two men began to speak in whispers.
    "I expected him to be quite a bit more vehement about the whole thing," said Liam.
    "Perhaps it was something I said," mused Dracula.
* * *
    "Look, you blinking Irishman. If you don't stand still, Effie is going skewer that pretty little bum of yours with a very long needle!"
    With those words ringing in his ears, Liam made a conscious effort not to move. If Effie Ferguson made a threat, she meant it. Looking somewhere between 30 and 60, she was the absolute mistress of The Strand Theatre costume shop. She had the reputation of being able to make a gunny sack, four buttons, a flower, a skein of thread and some glass beads into the fanciest ball gown.
    Facing the mirror Liam could see the woman's hands moving swiftly, marking with a long piece of chalk on his pants leg. Then she produced a rather formidable-looking shaving razor and slid it along the cloth from the back of his knee to his ankle. He could feel the cloth parting, but never once felt the touch of the metal.
    "You just tell me what I need to do, Effie, and I will do it."
    "Now, that's a good lad," she said. "We want you looking only your best, now, to go on for their Highnesses."
    "Highnesses? What are you talking about?"
    Effie chuckled but did not look up. "Now tell me, Mr. Liam Gideon, are you trying to say that you don't know about our 'guests' for opening night?"
    Liam drew a breath and forced a smile. He had played this little game with Effie before. "No Effie, I don't. So would you please share that information with me?"
    "Well," she said. "I suppose if they had wanted you to know someone would have mentioned it to you."
    "Perhaps. Or perhaps everyone thought that every one else had told me. So why don't you tell me."
    "Maybe I should. After all, it isn't often that poor little common actors get the chance to perform for the high and mighty likes of 'themselves,' now do they?"
    "It seems that opening night we will have some people in the audience that will bring all of the 'right' sort of society as well as the commoners in."
    "Who in hell are you talking about, woman? Is St. Patrick himself coming to see the show?"
    A sharp pain drove its way into Liam's calf. He could barely keep from moving, knowing that Effie would do much worse if he did.
    "No, you Irish gobashit, it isn't St. Patrick, nor is it Grace O'Mally or even Finn MacCool! Trust an uncivilized Irishman to think of those insignificants in a case like this," she said.
    "Insignificants! Geez, woman, there are moments I wonder about your sense of who is or isn't important," Liam said. "So, now, who would it be, if it isn't those noteworthies?"
    "Simple; it is himself, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales and heir to the throne of England who will be gracing these premises on opening night. Seems that he and his wife think that seeing a performance of "Pirates" would make a grand way to spend her birthday," Effie said.
    "I suppose they're renting out the entire Theatre? Just an intimate little gathering of 1,500 of their closest friends," said Liam.
    "No, they aren't renting out the entire Theatre, you Irish idiot. But don't you think that Bertie has that many friends?"
    Another pain shot through Liam's calf to punctuate Effie's words. There was a muted chuckle from the costume mistress.
    "Woman, you enjoyed that!"
    "Me? Of course I did. Now, stand still!"
* * *
     "I wanted to stop in and wish you good luck, Liam," said Dracula.
    "I appreciate the sentiment, Count. But I really wish you hadn't said it," said Liam.
    Liam smiled. Explaining theatrical traditions to non- theater people was something that every actor had to do now and then. He led Dracula into the Strand Green Room.
    The Green Room, which was painted a mottled brown, was a large lounge in the back of the theater where actors and stagehands could take a few minutes and relax in. Why it was called The Green Room Liam didn't know. As a matter of fact he had never been in one that was green; it was just another theatrical tradition.
    "It's an old theatrical custom. If you wish a performer good luck before they go on, you don't say those words; they'll bring him bad luck. Instead, actors say "break a leg." Every actor knows what you really mean" said Liam.
    Dracula raised an eyebrow at Liam's explanation.
    "I suppose each profession has its own customs. Very well, let me bid you to 'Break a leg.'" Figuratively, of course, not in reality."
    "Thank you," said Liam.
    "Are you nervous?" asked the count.
    "A bit," Liam said "A very wise actor once told me that if I weren't at least a little bit nervous before each performance, then that was the time to worry."
    "Your friend had the right attitude."
    Just then the door to the Green Room flew open, as if a storm was behind it. Bunberry came barreling in, followed by Effie and several stage hands.
    "Liam, there you are. I've been looking all over the theater for you!" said Bunberry.
    "Is there a problem? Everett has his sword and knows the new choreography backwards and forwards."
    "I don't know what he does or doesn't know, and it doesn't matter. Everett is incapacitated and won't be going on tonight," said Bunberry.
    "Incapacitated? Is that a fancy way of saying he's drunk again?" said one of the other actors.
    Effie answered them with a humph, and a look of disgust. There were tales that Everett had, over his twenty-five year career, given some of his best performances drunk.
    "He's passed out and no one can rouse him. He's breathing, so I assume he is alive. I spoke to the gobashit earlier, not an hour ago," said Effie. "He seemed fine then. I certainly didn't smell any alcohol on him then."
    "Could he be sick?" asked Liam.
    "There's a doctor in the audience. I had him come back and look Everett over. He says nothing appears to be wrong with him; he is just asleep and no one can wake him up.
    "The thing is, we are going to need a Pirate King and neither of the usual understudies is available," said Bunberry.
    "Are you saying what I think you're saying?" said Liam.
    "We can use Gene Yearson as Frederic, but not for the Pirate King. I want you to take the role," he said.
    The words hung in the air. Liam felt the bottom fall out from his stomach. He glanced toward the big clock that hung near the door. It said 7 o'clock.
    "And curtain is at half eight," he muttered. "The things is, I don't know half the songs or the dialogue. I'll try, but I'm afraid that I will end up making a fool out of myself and disgracing us in front of the Prince of Wales."
    "That's a chance that we are just going to have to take. Effie, can you alter his costumes and fit him out as the Pirate King in time to go on?"
    "A moment, Mr. Bunberry. Liam will do what he has to do; that is all any man can do. Understand that I do not doubt Liam's abilities, but I may have an alternate possibility that you should consider."
    "Count, right now I can see no other answers, besides Liam, short of sending a man on with script in hand," said Bunberry. "But, I'm willing to entertain any ideas. Just make it quick."
    "Very well, then I suggest you leave Liam in the role for which he is prepared and put me in the role of the Pirate King."
    There was utter silence in the Green Room. Everyone of the actors had heard Dracula's words, none were more surprised than Liam.
    "You, Count?" said Liam.
    "You're an actor?" said Bunberry, a tone of disbelief in his voice. "In university, I suppose."
    "There and in other places. I was in fact considered very good," said Dracula.
    "You never mentioned that you were an actor," said Liam.
    "It was a long time ago. Besides, you never asked," said the Count. His eyes locked with Bunberry's, as they had the previous night. The company manager didn't appear to breathe for several minutes.
    "You know the libretto? The songs, the dialogue?" said Liam.
    "Every word."
    "Only two days ago you hadn't even heard of Gilbert & Sullivan, let alone the 'Pirates of Penzance'," said Liam.
    "Meeting you and seeing this company made me curious. Shall we say I borrowed a copy of the libretto someone had left on a chair, read it over, and was amused by it. I even slipped in last night and watched the rehearsal."
    "That would help with you knowing the blocking. But you say you read the libretto just once?" asked Liam.
    "That's right. Anything I read I remember, every word of it."
    "Your voice, sir?"
    Liam, Burberry and the others looked toward the door. A man, dressed in evening clothes, with a neatly waxed mustache stood there.
    "Mr. Gilbert!" said Effie.
    "Your voice, sir? What do you sing?" said William Schwenchk Gilbert. The fifty-seven year old lyricist spoke with the manner of a Sergeant-Major demanding something from one of his troops.
    "And you say you know my words?"
    "Indeed, " Dracula began to sing, "'Oh , better to live and die, under the brave black flag I fly. Then play a sanctimonious part, with a pirate head and a pirate heart.'"
    Gilbert stood silent, his face unmoving and emotionless.
    "Effie!" said Gilbert. "Can you alter Everett's costume quick enough to fit the Count? I can have them hold the curtain an extra ten minutes, but not a second longer."
    "I'll have him looking like those clothes were made for him."
    "Do it."

    "Still nervous, Liam?" asked Dracula.
    The two men stood in the wings, looking out at the back of the great gold curtain that covered the front of the stage. Effie was standing just behind them, tying off several threads in the Count's costume.
    "A bit. But I should be asking you if you're nervous. After all, you came to see the play, now you're a part of it."
    "I am a bit nervous," said Dracula.
    "Then break a leg, Count."
    "Thank you, Liam."
* * *
    No one heard a shot. With the orchestra well into the act's final number it would have been impossible to hear anything short of a cannon going off. Liam would have never known that anything happened if he had not been looking straight toward the Royal Box.
    Something struck the plaster wall edging just above the Prince and Princess of Wales, sending a shower of powder down across the duo. Their Royal Highnesses looked around as puzzled as everyone else. A moment later they began laughing as the elaborate dance on stage ended and the curtain rolled down.
    As Dracula exited behind the waterfall curtain, Liam grabbed the Count and explained what he had seen.
    "It was not your imagination, Liam, nor was it the manifestation of this ancient theater, exhibiting its aches and pains. I saw it as well. I suspect a rifle shot," he said.
    "A rifle? In the Theatre? Why, and who would be using it?"
    "I'm not sure," said Dracula. "I suspect that it came from somewhere above us."
    Liam's eyes traced the edge of the curtain up into the darkness high above the backstage area. It was a landscape of catwalks, curtains and ropes, all helping to add to the illusion that was projected on stage. There were a few figures moving around on the catwalk, ten feet in the air, where they could raise and lower the curtains. But it was higher that Liam looked, nearly a hundred feet, near the top of the building itself. He saw nothing, but apparently Dracula did.
    "Follow me," said the Count.
    Liam was only a moment behind him. Attached to the back wall of the theater was a ladder that ran all the way to the roof. Dracula was thirty feet onto it when Liam began climbing, moving upwards into the darkness.
    More than a dozen heavy black curtains, along with an equal number of smaller, lighter ones, hung from railings that were in turn suspended from beams embedded in walls of the theater itself. Below and all around them Liam could hear the sounds of the stage crew busily changing the set to get it ready for act two.
    Once they reached the highest level there was little light. The catwalks were nothing but long boards, a foot or so wide at best, had been placed along the girders to provide a path for workman. A single misstep could send someone hurtling down.
    That fact did not bother Dracula. He moved quickly, with a confidence that seemed inhuman. Liam tried to keep up, but it was not easy. When Liam finally caught up with the Count they had made their way back across the stage area and stood next to the top of the huge waterfall curtain.
    "Observe," said Dracula. His long slim fingers pointed downwards. From this perch they had a clear view of the royal box. "I would say this is where the assassin shot from."
    "Thank God he missed," said Liam. "But where is he now?"
    "I think close by," said Dracula. He motioned for Liam to be silent, his eyes blazing redder than ever. Dracula was a hunter seeking his prey.
    Liam heard the soft sound of a board creaking. He turned and found himself confronting a figure, dressed in the same pirate costume that the actors wore. In the semi-darkness it seemed a fearful apparition that was trying to slip by the two men.
    "I think not," Liam said.
    He moved to intercept the assassin but missed his footing and stumbled, ramming his head hard against a metal strut that supported the curtain. It was only the purest luck that he was able to keep from falling from the girder. Around him the world whirled for a moment, transforming the stage light below into a rainbow of colors.
    That was when he noticed the fog. It came from nowhere, it was just there, flowing around the upper part of the theater. Liam tried to focus on Dracula, dressed as the Pirate King, who stood now facing the assassin in the crewman's costume.
    The words that Dracula had sung earlier in the Green Room ran through Liam's mind, echoing in the Count's strong baritone. "Oh , better to live and die, under the brave black flag I fly. Then play a sanctimonious part, with a pirate head and a pirate heart." Then Dracula was gone, replaced by a huge silver wolf, the fog blending into the beast's coat. The animal's growl was an otherworldly sound that seemed to Liam something out of a nightmare. The assassin screamed and tried to back away.
    Liam's eyesight began to clear and he could see Dracula again. The fog was gone and so was the wolf. The Count was grappling with the assassin. In a single motion he managed to hurl him against the curtain. The impact made a dull thud that sent the figure collapsing into an unconscious heap.
    Liam got to his feet and made his way over to their prisoner. There was enough light coming through the top of the curtain that he could see the figure's face.
    With the help of a couple of stage hands, Effie had been taken down from the theater aerie. She now lay stretched out, unconscious, on a pallet of curtains and sacks, a thin trail of drying blood running from a cut on her scalp.
    A crowd of actors and stage hands surround them. Gilbert, Bunberry and the large fat man that Liam had seen earlier had appeared out of nowhere.
    "It looks as if we have what we were hoping for." said the fat man.
    "Is there a doctor in the house?" said Gilbert. That it was one of the oldest theatrical clichés ever didn't seem to matter when William Gilbert said it.
    "I think having a doctor look over both Effie and Liam would be a good idea," said Dracula.
    "Arguably," said the fat man. "Send one of the stage hands to box A17. There is a doctor named Watson with the A.J. Raffles party."
    "Are we going to be able to finish this show?" asked Gilbert.
    "Oh, yes," said the fat man, "if Mr. Gideon and the Count are able to carry on, and I think there should be no doubt of that. By the way, Count, I thoroughly enjoyed your performance. You have a wonderful voice and a real talent for comedy."
    "Look here, Holmes." said Bunberry.
    "Holmes?" said Liam. He knew that name, as any regular reader of The Strand magazine did. "Are you?"
    "That was my late brother. But it doesn't matter who I am, young man, because you never heard that name mentioned in this theater, and I was never here." said the fat man. "Consider that an order from Her Majesty's Government."
    "Yes, sir," said Liam. He had other questions he wanted to ask, but discretion seemed the better part of valor right now.
    "Perhaps you could explain things to me, sir," said Dracula. "Would I be correct in assuming that this whole matter of the reprise of Pirates was part of an elaborate plan? Who is Effie?"
    The fat man, who wasn't there, removed a cigar case from his inside jacket, opened it and offered one to Dracula. The Count declined.
    "As to your first question, you may be right or you may wrong, that is all I can say. As for Effie, my dear Count, besides being the costume mistress for this theater, is an expert with a one-shot air rifle. I know of only one better, a former Indian army colonel. Those skills earned her a position as an assassin for hire, working this evening for a Scottish anarchist group," he said.
    "And you want her to tell you all about her employers," said Dracula.
    "It would be very nice to hear about her current and past employers... She can choose to cooperate with us, or face a hangman's noose. Her Majesty's government had long suspected her, but we never had any proof. Tonight, we have the proof we needed. Thanks to the cooperation of Mr. Gilbert & Mr. Sullivan, Their Highnesses, and a pair of very good actors who portrayed them this evening, not mention Effie's hatred of the royals and anything non- Scottish... Now, I have matters that require my attention. May I wish you, Count, and the rest of the cast the best of lu..."
    "The proper phrase is 'Break a Leg,' I believe," said Dracula.
    "Ah, yes, quite right. Very well then, break a leg."
    Others came crowding around Effie, Gilbert and the fat man, so Liam and Dracula withdrew to the far corner of the stage.
    "Count, I have to ask you something," said Liam.
    "What is that, Liam?"
    "Up there, when were fighting Effie, did I see what I thought I saw?"
    "And what was that?"
    "I would swear that I saw one of Finn McCool's wolves. But then it was gone," he said.
    "Are you sure of what you saw? Any more sure than Everett is that he did not have a visitor earlier this evening. One that told him to take a long nap," Dracula said.
    "Perhaps not. But why, Count? Why did you do it?"
    "Partially curiosity. When you are as old as I am you embrace the unknown. By the time we encountered Effie, I had no choice. I was a 'slave to duty'," he said with a grin.
    Before Liam could speak the assistant stage manager came up behind the men.
    "Places for Act Two, gentlemen," he said.