14 December 1953
It was like being in a forest of frozen women. Max walked across the stage and the girls didn’t move, not even a twitch of a hand or an intake of breath. It was an odd feeling, walking fully dressed between naked women, none of whom paid him the slightest bit of attention. Their eyes were fixed on the back of the stalls, teeth bared in smiles, arms – variously – uplifted or on hips, feet poised in that curious position that is meant to be flattering to the leg, one toe forward, calf swivelled. There was a cold wind blowing from the wings but, apart from acres of gooseflesh, the only effect was to ruffle the feathers on the skimpy flesh-coloured pants that were the girls’ only clothing.
‘Didn’t I tell you?’ said Vic Cutler. ‘Didn’t I tell you that I had them well trained?’
Max had once shared the bill with a lion tamer called Bill Tilsley who used to boast about his total control over the frankly sad and moth-eaten creature. Max had been quietly pleased when the animal had turned on Bill at the Embassy Theatre Skegness, almost ripping the trainer’s arm off. He supposed it probably too much to hope that one of the frozen girls would maul Vic Cutler.
He looked back at the girls. They all kept their positions, staring straight ahead. This was not only good training; it was imperative under the law. The Lord Chamberlain allowed naked women on stage, as long as they didn’t move. The idea was that the performers created ‘tableaux vivants’, living re-creations of famous paintings or classical statuary. The reality was that it was a rather sleazy way to allow people to stare at half-naked women. If Max had known that the bill at the Brighton Hippodrome featured a tableaux act, he might not have accepted the gig, but his agent Joe Passolini had conveniently forgotten to mention this fact. And now Vic Cutler was actually suggesting that Max should use some of ‘his’ girls in his act.
As Max was thinking of a way to word his refusal, he noticed a slight movement in the serried ranks. The girl on the far right of the front row lowered her false eyelashes in a wink. This was unnoticed by Vic who was still boasting about his troupe: ‘At the Windmill I had them all in togas with nothing underneath, tasteful, you know . . .’ Max smiled at the girl who smiled quickly back. She had one of the best figures – he couldn’t help noticing that – and was tall, with dark hair piled up on top of her head. She also had a proud way of standing that transcended her surroundings, the cold stage, the empty auditorium. You could almost believe that she was a classical statue come to life.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Max, ‘it wouldn’t work. The girls would distract from the trick.’
‘I thought you wanted distraction,’ said Vic, his little eyes shrewd. ‘Misdirection and all that.’
‘There’s such a thing as too much misdirection,’ said Max.
‘I heard you were doing the vanishing box,’ said Cutler. ‘You need a good girl for that. One of my girls could do it.’
‘I’m performing that trick with my daughter,’ said Max. ‘She’s a magician too, you know.’
‘The lovely Ruby,’ said Cutler. ‘I’ve heard that the two of you are going to have your own television show.’
‘That’s right,’ said Max, though his heart sank whenever he thought of Magician and Daughter. Joe kept telling him that the show would make Max a star, not seeming to realise that he had been a star now for more than two decades.
‘I’ll let you get on with your rehearsal,’ said Max, preparing to take his leave. He didn’t want to stand around watching the girls form silent tableaux of the vestal virgins or Cleopatra’s handmaidens.
‘Stay,’ said Vic Cutler expansively. ‘You’re welcome.’
‘No, I must be going. Good day, ladies.’ If he had been wearing his hat, he would have raised it. As he passed the girl in the front row she gave him a quick smile, but back in his dressing room, Max put his hand in his pocket and found a piece of paper. ‘Florence Jones’ it said, with a telephone number. Max was impressed. With sleight of hand like that, perhaps it was Florence who should be a magician. He smoothed out the paper and stayed looking at it for some time.
Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens was looking at a dead body. He had seen death before, of course, in the war as well as in his police work but there was something about this corpse that made it especially disturbing.