Never trust an actor’s agent. Drake still put too much faith in his. A simple request: find me a part that gets me out from behind this sowing machine. Podge, his agent, blamed Drake’s title: Costume Designer. No more than a glorified dressmaker. An uppity backstage seamster with greasepaint ambitions.
“You’re typecast,” Podge had said. “Sadly, not as an actor.”
Drake had stood in the wings too often to be overawed by those chosen for the spotlight. He had the talent, now he needed that acting trope: A Big Break.
One sigh and one phone call later, Podge had found this opportunity: the stage lights hanging on a high batten snapped on, focusing on each actor, the hard golden glare revealing their every flaw.
Off to one side of Drake, he could see other men sitting on high stools, perhaps four of them – he didn’t have time to count. The director’s voice came out of the gloom of the stalls. “Throw those scripts away.”
Bundles of paper fluttered to the floor. Drake held his script tightly. It gave him a sense of security.
“I said throw the bloody thing away.” Pause. “If you want the role.”
Drake did. The script slid onto the stage.
More barked instructions. Starting from the left, the actors delivered their lines. As each finished, a spotlight switched off, leaving darkness where they’d sat. Did a vaudevillian crook come from the wings, hauling them away? Drake knew he was about to find out.
A switch was flicked, a light died and the actor nearest to Drake disappeared.
It was his turn.
Drake had never liked Samuel Beckett and, as the dead Irish playwright’s words tumbled towards the stage apron, it became obvious Beckett didn’t like him either.
Rehearsing in his flat that morning, the accent Drake adopted held the sing song charm of Kerry. Alone in the spotlight, the brogue spluttered and died. No repertory audience would be waiting for Drake. His agent would get 12% of sod all.
“We’ll call you,” came the voice. “If you’ve made the cut.”
A callback? Unlikely. His spotlight was switched off and Drake exited Stage Right.
As he weaved between ladders and scenery, he sensed someone was close behind: low breathing, the smell of mint. Turning, he saw two stagehands hefting furniture, moving away. Not them.
In the laneway alongside the theatre, a voice near his shoulder said: “I thought you were quite good.”
The man was neat, too neat. A brocade waistcoat, careful hair and a peppermint pastille being worked behind moist lips. “No, really,” the stranger added.
Drake repeated the “really” as a query. He could picture the man at a bathroom mirror, swiftly working his hair with two silver-backed brushes.
A business card with a font size so discrete that Drake needed to squint stated that Gerry Hopkins ran a talent agency with an office in Foubert’s Place. Trying to hand back the card, Drake said he already had an agent.
“Obviously not one that knows anything about the right casting,” said Hopkins, waving away the card.
At least, thought Drake, we agree on one thing. A tug on his sleeve made him stop walking away.
“Think about it, John.” The name was given an edge, a decibel or two higher than the rest. Five foot five of impeccable grooming drifted back to the stage door.
Dropping Drake’s name was a signal: this wasn’t the end of it.
The Tube carriage was filling with office workers leaving early to join the evening rush of others also attempting to beat that same stampede: the corporate walking dead with lifeless eyes but healthy bank accounts. Drake forced himself to accept he was envious.
The Tube map he was staring at came back into focus.
“John.” He said his name aloud, mimicking Hopkins’ tone. Two men to his right pretended not to react, but he could see them edging into the crush of other passengers, pressing against less manic strangers.
Hopkins couldn’t have been sitting in the theatre’s dark stalls. The way he’d immediately followed Drake through the back stage clutter and out into the laneway meant he’d been literally behind the scenes. Why had he tucked himself discreetly out of view? Had he been studying what passed for talent under the spotlights or had he been waiting just for Drake? Every actor has a dose of paranoia. Always ready to distrust a rival’s smile, to believe compliments mask critiques, to see competition from everyone – whether the director’s boyfriend or the night cleaner at the stage door.
Reaching into his jacket pocket, he drew out Hopkins’ card. The fading scent of something posh floated up. Drake had one cologne bottle with a single splash remaining. He was saving it for the right date. Hope is the last thing that dies in man, he recited to himself, smiling at nearby passengers. More shuffling away, then a collective relief as the doors opened with a hiss and a squeak and Drake stepped out.
He needed a drink. Instead, he forced himself to search out an Americano. The coffee was as bitter as the barista serving it.
Taking out his mobile phone, Drake toyed with it before tucking it away. No, he’d surprise Podge. Don’t telegraph your punches, Podge was fond of saying. Catch people off guard. Tonight would be Podge’s turn.
The iridescent blue lights of emergency vehicles always transform the familiar. One moment, an unprepossessing strip of Gloucester Road terraced houses calmly awaited nightfall. The next, blue lights flashed and compact police cars in DayGlo colours parked at angles near the kerb. An ambulance jutted into traffic, slowing down curious drivers. Barrier tape strung between plastic bollards warned: “Police Line Do Not Cross”. The Plod – three plainclothes detectives, Drake guessed – ignored the tape’s command, instead lifting the plastic strip to stoop under it.
From the far side of the road, he watched, waiting to see which door the two men and the woman entered. Perhaps it wouldn’t be Podge’s.
At a trot, three abreast, they went up the front steps of Podge’s house, pausing long enough to allow the female detective to enter first. Chivalry or acknowledging who was boss?
The door stayed open, the hard light of the naked bulb dangling from the hallway ceiling revealing silhouettes of darkened faces talking. Everyone was talking.
Pushed back curtains allowed the audience in the street a chance to guess aloud what the players inside were staring at, their heads bowed towards the out-of-sight floor. The consensus: a body. Podge’s body.
Centre stage amongst the players, the female detective looked up as a man in a hooded white crime scene suit came into view. He handed her a plastic bag. As she held it towards the ceiling light, something metallic in the bag gleamed.
Podge had been difficult and mercenary – hardly unique traits in show business. But he was loyal, up to a point. Drake felt obliged to find his killer.
Drake smelt mint, then heard low breathing. Asthmatic or threatening, he couldn’t tell. The neat little man who’d ambushed him outside the theatre was at Drake’s elbow, whispering: “Appears you need a new agent, John.”
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Copyright 2016 GREG FLYNN