MacTavish Theatre smelled, looked, and felt like home. I’d spent more hours within its walls and treading the boards of its stage than I could count. The revues were a blinding riot of light and colour, of sound and texture. I loved it all.
I remember the grand opening when the air was rich with the smell of fresh paint, cloth upholstery, and new-cut wood. There was no saying when that smell had been lost to a miasma of stale smoke and cheap gin, but even that was glorious. It warmed something within me every time I stepped over the threshold and saw the glow of the footlights marching along the front of the stage.
As I entered, I felt the deep, expectant hush that can only exist in an empty theatre. The cavernous darkness was broken only by a single bulb placed on a tall stand centre stage, kept lit so the blackness of the theatre would never be complete. I moved to the wall and snapped on the house lights. The door opened behind me and Cora walked in, haloed and backlit in a bright wash of daylight.
I greeted her with a smile and laid a kiss on her cheek.
She returned my greeting with a smile and linked her arm through mine as we started toward the stage. The natural lightness of our steps became a brisk, jostling race as we bounded downward, creating a breeze that billowed the fabric of our scarves and blouses as we went.
Slightly breathless, I sailed up the steps of the stage a moment behind her and met her grin with a mocking pout.
“Taller always wins!” she taunted, dropping into a chair left out from the previous set up.
I plucked up another chair and settled opposite her. The deeper portion of the stage and set sat in mottled darkness and shadow while we huddled in the glow of the ghost light’s single bulb.
“Yes it does,” I retorted. I adjusted tangles of my scarf and necklace and tugged down the sides of my bucket hat. “Always has, always will.”
I was cheeky enough to wrinkle my nose at her, which set us both laughing a bit before I wondered absently where our manager was. Half of my mind, at least, was moving over the rhythms and notes of songs I’d have to coax or bully out of our sadly dilapidated piano. There was no point in hoping for better though, it was the best anyone had managed to find for our rehearsals.
A side door backstage was kicked open with a vicious slam. We both jumped, badly startled.
Robert MacTavish stormed through and across the stage, his nephew Andrew close on his heels.
“Just tell me where it is! You must have it still and - ” He stopped short, seeing that he had an audience of two.
“Trust me Uncle, I’m doing only what you’ve been paying me and trusting me to do.” He was adamant, pleading. “Trust me now and let us have the box, yeah?” Robert chewed the inside of his cheek, flicking a glance our way and back to his nephew.
“No Andrew.” He shook his greying head, continuing in his high Scottish burr. “No one’s saying you haven’t done a fine job for us, boy. But the money in that box is private. It’s family property, not to be touched by the likes of you, not yet. So hear that.” Andrew brought both hands up to his face, shutting out the denial.
Cora and I exchanged confused looks. We'd heard recent bickering growing more and more heated. We hadn’t known that there was any real trouble. Not this kind of trouble. The theatre had seemed always flush, charmed from the very beginning with full houses and an eager public.
Robert waved him off in disgust and turned to attend other business. Andrew was unready to relent and grabbed his uncle’s elbow.
“Will you not see reason, Uncle?” He was whey faced and shaking, the gaunt lines of his face cast into harsh shadows by the uncertain light on the stage. He spoke in a forced calm.
“If you don’t give us the loan of that cache box…” He swallowed hard, letting the thought die.
“What, son?” Robert asked, removing Andrew’s hand. “What is it you’re fearing? What have you done?”
Andrew bowed his head, unable to speak. He stood like a grim specter with his arms limp at his sides, shoulders drooping in defeat. Cora stood to go to him. Her grace was echoed by the dreamlike way Andrew turned to her, wide-eyed and dazed. He blinked hard as she neared him.
I saw the instant his mind cleared and his focus grew sharp. I saw without understanding as he dipped one hand into the pocket of his jacket and brought it drifting upward. I saw and only began to understand as his other hand jerked upward, gripping Cora cruelly by her hair.
As a brutal kick connected with the back of her knees.
I saw, and finally understood, as she landed hard in front of Andrew with the harsh glint of the flick knife’s blade at her throat.
Cora cried out in pain.
Time sped and horror rocked me, leaving me numb. Stupefied. The chilling steel of the blade touched her throat but didn’t pierce it. Didn’t part the delicate flesh. Hope surged in me.
“What are you doing?” Robert roared. “Have you lost your damned senses?!"
“NO!” Andrew cried. “I haven’t. I haven’t, Uncle! If you don’t give me that money we’re all of us finished! Sure as if I finish her now!” Weeping, shaking, and desperate, he tightened his grip on Cora’s hair, squeezing a small cry from her as she fought to stay calm.
Andrew’s grey stare bore into Robert’s, who could only gaze back in disbelief.
“Andrew, sweet lad. There’s no need for this. Just tell me, why?”
His shoulders heaved as Andrew struggled for breath, struggled for control. He began to speak and a fresh glare of daylight washed through the theatre as the door opened.
With a happy squeal, Darla came pattering down the aisle and up onto the stage. She launched herself at her grown cousin and Andrew caught her gently. The flick knife had disappeared.
Darla blinked curious round eyes as Cora rose from the floor. “Cousin Andrew, were you playing?”
“Yes pet, we're playing.” He dashed the heel of his palm across his eyes, his voice rough.
“We were playing but it’s back to business for us now. He bounced Darla on his hip gently. "Where’s Emmy to take you for some ice cream, hey?”
I looked to where Darla had come from and saw Emma making her way down to the stage. She was young for the post of a governess, barely sixteen, but Darla’s father Jasper earned well at the bank and had chosen to let her stay since his wife had passed.
Jasper himself had arrived with Emma. He was studying the nervous tableau on the stage, and Andrew’s tears. He approached and gave his daughter a bright smile, tickling her cheek.
“Do you hear your cousin Andrew, darlin'? It looks like they have to practice for their show! We'll have to go play on our own.”
An emphatic pout clouded her small face and she reached for her daddy to gather her in his arms. Andrew released her reluctantly.
“But I want to see Grandfather!”
Jasper soothed her.
“Hush child, I know you do. It will just have to wait a bit until later, yeah?”
Darla sighed and slid down to the floor, plodding over to Emma and lifting a small, chubby arm to take her hand. She turned back to us all, ready to wait patiently.
On the stage, still in the mild glow of the ghost light, Jasper took us all in at a glance. He strode over to his father and Robert bowed his head to his son’s while they whispered quietly.
As they parted, Cora marched forward, toward Andrew. Her hand flew up to land a casual but fiercely ungentle slap across his face.
Darla let out a shrill cry of dismay and several voices rose in protest. I began to advance on Andrew myself, my fingers curling to a fist until I felt Jasper’s hand clamp onto my shoulder.
“Easy there, love. Easy.“ He called over his shoulder. “Emma! I have to stay to help these folk with their show today. Why not take miss Darla for that ice cream on your own and I’ll meet you back home?”
With admirable alacrity, Emma called back a cheerful agreement and lifted Darla to bounce her on her hip. “Won’t that be fun, hey? Just us girls.” Darla gave a small nod, but left casting a doubtful look our way over Emma’s shoulder.
Another blast of daylight pierced the theatre and was banished the instant the doors closed behind them. Four sets of eyes targeted Andrew as he stood, isolated. Robert's voice was a low growl when he spoke.
“Alright then, let’s have it.”
Andrew blinked, looking at each face in turn and finding no friend. “I…I’m sorry. I’m sorry for scaring the women. Only it’s that desperate, you see?” Four heads nodded. We did see. Jasper spoke next. “Why?”
Defeated, shamed, Andrew sat. Tucked close to the stand of the ghost light with its glow over his head and his knees pulled to his chest.
“It started in the beginning, soon thereabouts after we opened…” He began to relate the story. A story of being approached by an anonymous investor in the theatre whom he had never found and who had never been named.
Of an obscenely large amount of cash handed over and a beaten, nameless urchin walking the city to plaster up stacks upon stacks of posters until every corner beamed about our shows. Our theatre.
He spoke of expensive meals brought to him in restaurants that he never ordered and was never charged for. When making deposits on behalf of the theatre, clerks refused to take the money and insisted he be served by management instead. Never an explanation, never did his questions fall on any but deaf ears.
He spoke of once, only once, venturing out to the streets after dark. Looking for someone, anyone, who could connect him with his benefactor. That escapade earned him several bruised ribs and a blackened eye. It was the barrel of the gun forced into his mouth that convinced him not to return. And he didn’t. Not in all the years since while his inexplicable good service in the city continued. Not in all the years while modest, anonymous deposits showed up at the theatre marked for him.
The pattern was broken as recently as two days ago. Something remarkable happened in the form of a telephone call, a small novelty in itself. The call was for Andrew, which was unusual in that he was the youngest member of our group, barely twenty, and little known to have any real influence in the business, only in keeping the accounts.
The voice he spoke to was smooth and mellow. Immovably confident in demanding funds of an amount Andrew knew he could never lay claim to. It was simple, he was assured. The money or the women die first. Then the child. Then the men. The amount being asked for was everything. No fixed price, every pound the theatre possessed, down to the last ha’penny. They would be checking.
Unsavvy and terrified, Andrew hadn’t asked for assurances on how the threat would be made good on. He simply hung up. He withdrew everything from the bank, from personal accounts, from safes. He bundled all that he could together and made ready to deliver it. Only this morning, he’d received a second phone call, warning him. They knew about the cache box. The separate, secret stash that kept the family's private store of emergency funds and heirlooms.
Andrew’s plan had been simple. Show up with real money and feign being ready to deliver it. The police half a block away would do the rest. He just needed the family’s cache box and the rest we knew.
When his voice at last ran dry, we were all of us amazed and stupefied. The first to laugh was Robert. He let out a mighty guffaw, wiping tears from his eyes.
Jasper looked down, shaking his head in disbelief and mirth. Cora and I allowed ourselves polite chuckles.
Andrew could only stare.
“Don’t you understand, lad?” Robert asked, still grinning. “It’s us.”
Andrew was still uncomprehending. "What is?"
“It’s always been us.” Robert assured him.
“It’s true, cousin.” Jasper added. “The money, the influence. WE are what this city fears.” His face became cold, his eyes like dead, dark stone. The hard shape of a revolver was visible in the pocket of his jacket as he shifted a hand to his hip. “But if someone’s attempting to squeeze us… that wants some looking into.”
“Aye,” said Robert. “It does. Ladies?”
Cora didn’t hesitate.
I was barely a beat behind her. “Yes, sir.”
“What?” Andrew yelped. “Them, too?”
“Certainly,” laughed Robert. "They know what they’re about, sure enough.” Andrew gaped. He rose to his feet and gave a shaky grin.
“Well, and why not let me in on the real family business, then? It’s sure not that you think I can’t be trusted.”
Robert nodded. “Well now, we know that you can be trusted, boy, perhaps with a bit of teaching along the way as to how things are. But it seemed best to us to have someone honest among our number. At least as things stood with you being still young and -.” Robert stopped; movement of the curtains backstage caught his eye.
It was fast. Brutally, cruelly fast. Hardly a detail or feature could be seen of the figures that emerged, bearing down with revolvers in each hand.
One, two, three. Six barrels. Countless shots. One side door, thoughtlessly left unbolted during Andrew’s mania about the cache box. Shot after shot rang, boomed, and cracked in the theatre. It’s the first sound I hear even now when I lay down by Cora and close my eyes in the dark.
Robert, Cora, Jasper, and myself knew to scatter, throwing ourselves down in that too-important first second. Andrew didn’t.
He alone was standing for the bullets to find him, jerking him in all directions like a helplessly twitching puppet, only to collapse when his strings were cut. Jasper rose first, followed by Robert, roaring fury and sending bullets of their own at the backs retreating into the dark.
It was too quiet, too soon. Four of us knelt around Andrew as his blood and his life sped away, spreading across the boards of the stage. Shivering violently, he clutched Robert’s hand and laid his other hand on Jasper’s cheek. He met my eyes and Cora’s in turn to say farewell and then he was gone. The boy who was so ready to laugh and be loved, who was still so young and so foolish, was simply gone.
With all the Celtic fire and passion in my blood, I stood and screamed my outrage to the rafters. I felt Cora’s arms come fast and hard around me. Mercifully alive and whole. I moved in a daze as the signal was given to clear out of the theatre. Others would come for him. Discussions would happen.
At the top of the steps Cora and I had run down so lightly, I turned back to look at the forlorn figure of a youth cut down, crumpled and so bitterly alone in the dark. It would be dark, when the doors closed out the daylight behind us.
At the very least, I thought dimly, he would have the ghost light.
In theatre lingo, a "turn" can be used in reference to a person's performance, a time when that person stands out on stage, independent and celebrated during that person's moment under the lights.
While this story is offered under the prompt of writing an ending where a truth comes to light, my hope is that I've honoured the theme of Chiaroscuro by contrasting light and innocence with darkness in a variety of ways.
Also! A special thank you to the YouTube personality Mark Daniel Patrick for introducing me to the eerie and wonderful knowledge of what a ghost light is.