By Phaedra Mintun
Elsie Monroe stretched in the afternoon light coming through the window of the small studio apartment she shared with three other dancers from the Linguine. It was her week to sleep on the floor and her muscles ached. Betsy and Dora were already up and chatting at the mirror as they put on their makeup, and Fanny was still snoring away on the couch. Elsie rubbed the crust from her eyes and sat up. Her head protested the quickness of the movement and she steadied it with her hands. Betsy turned and looked at her with one eye left to line and gave a sympathetic grimace. "Some night last night. Let me get you some water."
Elsie closed her eyes. "Can you put a little gin in it?"
Dora arched a dark eyebrow at her through the mirror. "Isn't saying that what got you here in the first place?" Dora puckered her red lips at her reflection. "You better hurry and get ready, Stan hates it when you're late." She gave herself an approving wink and turned away from the mirror. "I’m beautiful now, your turn."
Elsie sipped the water Betsy brought her and sat down in Dora's vacated seat. She pinched at her cheeks, frowned at the dark blue circles under her large brown eyes, and went to work correcting nature. Betsy's face appeared over her shoulder "Can I do your hair? I saw this new hair style in-"
Fanny pushed Betsy away from Elsie. "Don't let her do it, Elsie! Remember last week when she made me look like a basset hound!"
Dora nudged Fanny with her toe from the end of the bed. "I would say that was an improvement to when she made me look like I had a terrible accident involving a gonadal and a marionette puppet!"
After a flurry of powder and a successful search for Fanny's left shoe, the girls were on their way to rehearsal. Stan, the stage manager and choreographer at the Linguine, worked them hard, he didn't tolerate lateness, or anything short of perfection on stage. Elsie worked hard to focus on the new steps, but her grumbling stomach, sore muscles, and vicious hangover made her slow. The third time she stepped out with her left foot instead of her right Stan waved his hairy, ape like, arms in the air motioning for the music and girls to stop."Elsie! Do I need to replace you?"
She shook her head. He came up onto the stage "Do I need to write L and R on top of your feet so that you can learn the difference?"
Elsie looked at the floor ashamed of herself. All of the other girls were here last night after the performance, dancing with customers, keeping them happy and entertained and of course drinking and betting. None of them were struggling with the steps. Elsie couldn't afford to mess up. If she didn't keep this job then she wouldn't be able to afford her share of the rent. More importantly, if she couldn't prove she could do the steps there was never going to be a chance of her moving off the chorus line and into the spot light. "No. I promise I have it now."
Stan's stubbly jaw clenched and unclenched several times as his dark eyes bore into her. He ran his hands through his thick wavy hair. "Fine. Do it again." Rehearsals dragged on. Elsie ignored her empty stomach and pounding headache. Finally, Stan released. Elsie gave a sigh of relief knowing she had made it through them without Stan throwing her off the stage and out into the street. The bustle of backstage preparation began.
Fanny flopped down in the chair next to Elsie. "If I don't make some good tips tonight I am going to drop down dead from starvation tomorrow! I can see it now, me dead on the chorus line, all the girls dancing over me and Stan yelling at my dead body to get off his stage."
Elsie laughed and patted a little more powder under her eyes. "I was sure that very thing was going to happen to me today. All I got last night was a couple of quarters and a nasty pinch from Mr. Bambino! I had a dream I ate Stan's top hat last night. I nearly cried when I woke up and my stomach was still empty."
Fanny gave a knowing nod and reached out to help straighten and pin Elsie's feathered hat. "I walked past that bakery on Third last week and got shooed away by the owner after I left nose prints on the glass!"
The girls stood opposite each other and played mirror, each checking over the others identical costume. Elsie adjusted the black lace trim at the neckline of Fanny's low cut scarlet corset, and Fanny smoothed the top layer of Elsie's fluffy, black, thigh grazing skirt. They each gave an affirmative nod, snapped open their fan's, and found their places in the line of dancers waiting to preform.
Out on the stage Elsie forgot about her stomach and her rent. All she thought about was the music and the wonderful feeling of being on the stage. Everything was simple here, she only had to think about the next step, she was free of everything else, and she felt light. Step, step, lean, shimmy, wink, turn. The steps she had struggled with in rehearsal were easy now that there was an audience.
When the music ended it all came crashing back. Elsie fought to hold on to the magic that came from preforming and tried to take it with her as she minced out onto the floor to do the real work of the evening. She scoped the room, searching for a gentleman who might need a drink or some company. The haze of smoke swirled around the glittering chandeliers and the clinking of glasses and high, girlish laughter broke the underlying rumble of male voices. She spotted a middle aged man in a clean white shirt and a good hand of cards sitting at one of the tables. His well tailored jacket hung over the back of his chair, and an empty glass sat on the table cloth at his side. She slipped up next to him and put her hand daintily on his shoulder. "Can I get you another drink, sir?"
He eyed her carefully and gave her a appreciative look. "No, but I could use a good luck charm." He worked his fingers into the stays at the small of her back and pulled her closer. "What do you say? Would you like to help me get lucky?" Elsie wasn't accustomed to being given much more than a passing glance, or pinch. The customers usually picked the stars of the show to be their good luck charms, not a girl from the chorus line, but she had watched them often enough to know that at the end of the night they were rewarded with a portion of the winnings.
Elsie provided him with a brilliant smile and slid into his lap, with her right hand she ruffled his hair and with her left she subtly signaled to the dealer what was in his hand. "Anything I can do to help a man in need."
The dealer knew his business and between the two of them they kept him betting and happy. Fanny stealthfully did her part keeping his drink full. As they came up to the last hand of the night he was in fine spirits, "You have been a very lucky charm for me, I hate to let you go." He slurred, squeezing her tightly.
Elsie's heart beat faster and her empty stomach quivered. She was aware of the dealer's eyes on her. She knew what was expected of her now and that what she did next would be reported to the manager. Elsie lowered her lashes and gave him a seductive smile. "I don't want you to let me go." She let the words hang between them, holding his blurry gaze and tapped twice on the green felt of the table letting the dealer know to let him win, they would get their money back. She stroked his hair, glancing at the stairs that led to the rooms above them, and then back to him.
He made a soft growling sound deep in his throat, threw down his winning hand and scooped up his large pile of winnings and jammed them into his coat pocket. He lifted her into his arms and carried her through the packed room toward the stairs. Elsie had never been to the rooms above the bar before and she shook with nerves. He set her down and chased her up the stairs, she played her role as the coquette and giggled as he pulled her along the dimly lit hallway, drunkenly kissing her. He pushed her against a closed door, pulling at her laces with one hand while he unlocked the door with his other. The door swung open and she fell through it landing hard on the floor inside, her fluffy black skirt making a crackly whisper as she scootched backward.
His silhouette filled the doorway. Then another man loomed up behind him and shoved him forward. Elsie scrambled backward into the shadows of the room. There was a loud grunt and then a thud. The door slammed shut and everything went dark. Elsie's heart beat like a startled bird inside her chest. She felt around for something to defend herself with. Her hands came across a heavy glass gas lamp. She pulled it down to her lap and slowly got to her feet, pressing her back to a wall.
She listened as the person that had entered behind them shuffled around. She thought he must be looking for a lamp to light. He was breathing heavily, she tried to hold her breath and get some orientation of how the room was laid out and where the intruder was. Then she heard a soft male voice close by. "I saw you come in. I know you are here."
Elsie gripped the glass of the lamp tighter and pressed her back even more firmly to the wall. She could hear his rustling movements as he felt around in the darkness. "You picked the wrong man to go to bed with. He owed money to some bad men, bad men like me, and now I'm gonna get it back, you understand?" He was close enough that Elsie could smell his musky cologne. She lifted the lamp above her head and took a slow breath that she hoped was quiet. He took another step and she could smell his clove scented breath. She brought the lamp down as hard as she could right where she estimated his head was. She heard him grunt in surprise, the impact jarred her arms and glass and oil sprayed back at her. The man fell against her as he crumpled to the floor.
Elsie pushed him away and darted toward the door. She stumbled over something that she quickly recognized as her customer’s body. She fumbled around and found the door handle. The dim light from the hall showed her a grizzly scene. His dark jacket had a large hole in the back and was slick with blood. Elsie glanced into the shadows and could just barely make out the form of the man that she had attacked. Suddenly his words came back to her. He had come for the money, the money that was in the front pocket of the jacket. She looked both ways down the empty hallway and swallowed hard. Quickly she leaned down and pulled at his jacket. She reached into his pocket and pulled out the roll of winnings she had hoped to be rewarded a small portion of.
The man she had knocked over the head groaned. Elsie made a small squeak and tucked the roll into her tight corset top and ran toward the back staircase. She looked back as she reached the stairs and saw the face of the killer and he saw her. She pounded down the stairs. She could hear him chasing after her.
The bottom of the stairs came down behind the stage, in an area they used to store costumes and props. Elsie scrambled behind a rack of costumes hanging ready for the next day's performance. Elsie remembered just a few weeks ago when she had stood admiring the sea foam blue corsets with the seashell cups, seed pearl trim, and their stiff skirts that stood out in starched waves. She had never imagined then that she would be hiding behind them from a murderer.
Her pursuer came down the stairs and looked around. The normally bustling room was eerie now that the show was over and no one was here. Elsie could hear people on the other side of the stage, he friends working the floor, customers drinking and carousing, and the bouncers. She considered calling out for help for a brief moment. Then she thought of the dead man bleeding out upstairs, the roll of money nestled in her top, and how that might look to the management, or if they would even make it to her before she was dead. She remained silent. She crept to the next rack, moving toward the exit at the far end of the room. She hunkered down listening for the man as he searched for her. He was looking behind the racks closer to the stage. She tiptoed to the next rack and paused, the feathers tickled her nose and she suppressed a sneeze.
She heard heavy footsteps move across the room, he was pawing through the rack she had just left. Elsie couched low and scurried forward closer to the door, she was only a short dash from getting out. She stopped and listened, he was still a few racks behind her. She knew opening the door would get his attention and he wouldn't be far behind her. Elsie waited debating whether she should open the door or wait to be caught. He had moved forward and was roughly pushing aside the garments only a few racks away. The curtains on the stage rustled and the bright lights from the bar poured in. She saw his face turn away and she threw the door open and ran out into the night.
Elsie ran all the way to the door of her apartment. She thrust the key into the lock and pressed her back into the door when it was locked behind her. She stood panting. She looked down and saw that her shoes were stained with blood and mud. The other girls weren't home yet so she carefully hid the roll of money in the false bottom of her makeup box and made herself ready for bed. She lay there, jumping at every creak and footstep until well after the other girls were snoring into the dawn lit room.
Elsie managed a few hours of restless sleep before the afternoon sun shone in her eyes. She crawled out of the makeshift bed on the floor and checked to make sure that the other girls were still breathing slow sleeping breaths. She quietly pulled a few bills out of her makeup box and smiled to herself. She pulled on a modest dress and slipped out of the apartment. Her stomach gave a begging grumble and she sighed, today they would all eat their fill.
She came out the front door of their building and strolled down the busy sidewalk enjoying the bright sun of the afternoon. A shadow passed over her and goosebumps rose on her skin, the hairs on the back of her neck stood up and the man's face from last nigh popped into her mind. She looked up and saw that it was only a ship passing over head, and called herself silly for the fright she had given herself.
A hand clamped over her mouth from behind and Elsie was swept off her feet and pulled into an alley. She struggled but she was held tight, her arms pinned to her side. "Where is the money?"
She turned and looked over her shoulder, out of the very corner of her eye the face that had been haunting her swam into focus. She tried to scream out for help, but his hand stayed tight over her mouth. "What did you do with my money?"
She shook her head wildly. He crushed her ribs with his grip. "I am going to uncover your mouth and you are going to tell me the truth. If you scream or lie, I will break your neck and then I will go up to your apartment with your key and kill everyone there so I can look for my money. Do you understand?"
Elsie nodded. His hand peeled away from her mouth and returned close to her throat with a sharp knife. Elsie opened her mouth. "I hid it in the costume room."
His grip tightened. "Don't lie to-" There was a dull thunk and his knife bounced to the ground with a ringing twang and his body went limp. Elsie spun around. The man's body was crumpled on the ground with a heel of a woman's boot lodged in his head, it's mate sat unharmed on its side a few feet away. She stood staring in horror, then her head tilted to the side. She picked up the boot from the ground, they were exquisitely made and they were exactly her size! She gingerly plucked the other boot from where it had stuck, and wiped it clean. She smiled at her unexpected good fortune and went on with her errand.
Elsie returned to the tiny apartment, "Good morning girls!" She set the large box she was carrying on the foot of the only bed. "I brought breakfast!"
The girls all looked in at the variety of pastries and squealed with delight. Fanny sat nibbling a danish. "Oh, Elsie where did you get those adorable boots?!"
Elsie gave her a coy look. "They just fell into my lap."