The heel of the stiletto caught on the strap of the black lace bra she had dropped a few moments earlier. She kicked it out of the way without looking. The underwear skittered across the stage.
She held the bottle next to her breasts, so the audience could see that the pasties covering her nipples matched the skull-and-crossbones on the label. Then she lifted it to her face, and licked the large yellow letters on the label that spelled out the word POISON. She tilted her hand. Bright green liquid flowed out of the bottle and down across her chest. Green dripped down between her breasts, over her ribcage, around her navel, and soaked into the cloth of her panties.
She threw her head back, and lifted the bottle to her mouth. A strange look crossed her face as the green flowed past her lips. A trickle of green dripped out of the corner of her mouth, down her cheek, and along the sinews of her neck.
Cherries whispered something.
The woman on stage seemed to swallow, then suddenly stopped moving. Her eyes widened. She grabbed her throat, and spit the liquid all over the front row of the audience. The bottle fell from her hand, hit the stage with a dull thunk, and rolled in a lazy circle around her feet, liquid pooling in its wake.
Great. Forget paper towels, I was going to need a mop to clean up after this act.
She made a strangling sound, as if trying to scream, but instead started gagging.
I looked at Cherries Jubilee, who was standing next to me as I watched the act from the wings. She shook her head. "Not this part," she said. "At least, not exactly. She drinks from the bottle, but..." She let the sentence trail off.
The woman on stage stuck out her tongue and scraped at it with her fingernails, her mouth stretched in a convincing grimace of terror. Judging it purely on the basis of the performance—and I can’t tell you how much I hated to admit it, even to myself—this bit was actually quite good.
The music ended, but the number didn’t end with it. She kept going, flailing about the stage, pounding her chest, reaching out to the audience with a pleading look in her eyes. She jammed a finger into her mouth, two fingers, three fingers, and gagged again. She smeared the green across her face. Then her body went stiff and she fell to the stage, landing with her face in the cup of the brassiere she had just removed for our entertainment.
The audience thought so too. They clapped, cheered, whistled, hooted and hollered. A couple of people were actually standing up.
But she wasn’t done. Throughout the ovation, she stayed where she had fallen on the stage.
Not completely immobile; every few seconds, she would toss in a death spasm, which would set the audience clapping again, even louder.
Finally, having milked the bit for all it was worth, she lay still. The applause died down. She stayed where she was.
It took us all a minute to realize that it wasn’t part of the act.
By the time we did, she was dead.
Half an hour earlier, I was completely surrounded by naked women, wearing only my boxers and porkpie hat.
It’s not as exciting as it sounds.
In the first place, I was at work—we’ll get back to that in a minute—and second, there was a distinctly chilly atmosphere in the room. An atmosphere that had nothing to do with the air conditioning, mostly because the air conditioning (as usual) wasn’t working. This was the sort of chill that comes from a cold shoulder, and even though I wasn’t personally on the receiving end—
Oh, right. Me. I should probably introduce myself. I’m Jonny Porkpie, known to audiences as the Burlesque Mayor of New York City. It’s not an elected position—I’m self-appointed—but I do take my duties very seriously. I try to spend as much time as possible pressing the flesh and polling the electorate—
Sorry about that. Habit. That sort of gag usually gets a laugh when I’m onstage, hosting a show. But you’re probably hoping for a more literate tone in your lurid paperback novel, so I’ll do my best to keep the double entendre to a minimum.
But I’m not making any promises.
See, I’m a burlesque performer. And when I say "burlesque performer," I’m not talking baggy-pants comedian. Some have called me a no-pants comedian, but that’s not entirely accurate either. My acts tend toward the humorous, sure, but when push comes to shove and bump comes to grind, I’m the same sort of burlesque performer that Sally Rand was, or Gypsy Rose Lee—though they had certain assets that I lack. And that particular pair of assets might, to an audience, be the ones more likely to inspire lust than laughter.
Still, bottom line, I get paid to take off my clothes.
And so do all the women who were in that room with me.
The room, if you want to get technical about it, was a dressing room—although since we were in the back of an East Village bar perhaps "dressing room" is a bit of an exaggeration. "Oversized supply closet with mirrors" might be closer to the mark. The reason we were all in the aforementioned state of undress is that we were getting ready for a show. A burlesque show. Dreamland Burlesque, to be specific, which—though not the show I usually front for—is one of my favorite places to perform. It’s been running for years and so manages to be both professional and relaxed at the same time, which makes it an enjoyable night for performers and audiences alike. In general, burlesque in New York City is a pretty friendly enterprise—most everybody gets along with everybody else, most of the time. It’s nothing like you hear about in the old days, with one dancer putting ground glass in another’s face powder—but like anything else, there are better and worse shows, and Dreamland was one of the better ones. Which made the current chill all the more unusual.
But not exactly unexpected. Because I knew the reason for it. And that reason was, much to my chagrin, talking at me as I attempted to get dressed.
"I know the setlist is already done," said the reason, as she emptied half a can of spray-tan over her ass. "It’s just that I have another gig after this, honey. So if you can move me earlier in the lineup?" The inflection made it resemble a question, but her tone of voice made it clear that she wasn’t expecting any answer that wasn’t in the affirmative.
I told her I would check with the other performers to see if anyone was willing to switch. Given the rancorous looks being thrown her way by the five other women in that dressing room, I wasn’t optimistic, but I figured it was worth a try; anything to get her spray-tanned ass out of that venue quicker.
The reason’s stage name was Victoria Vice, and she was the rare performer that absolutely nobody liked, including me. And for good reason. But unlike everyone else in the room, I was obligated to talk to her. Because I was running the show. It wasn’t my usual gig, as I’ve mentioned (that one’s called Pinchbottom, you can look it up online, and that’s the last shameless plug for it I’ll throw in), but Dreamland’s producer and regular host, LuLu LaRue, was out of town and had asked me to handle things for her.
And when a beautiful woman asks you to handle her things—
Right, right, sorry.
At any rate, this Wednesday’s performance of the Dreamland Burlesque had been entrusted to my tender care, which meant I couldn’t join the rest of the dressing room in giving this woman the silent treatment she deserved.
I pulled up my pants and, in my most innocent of innocent voices, asked her what number she was planning to do tonight. I used the innocent tone because the question was more loaded than the maid-of-honor in hour six of a bachelorette party. Because Victoria Vice was a thief.
I’m not talking about the exciting, sexy type of thief, the kind who dresses up in skin-tight black outfits and goes running around on rooftops, sliding into bedrooms while people are sleeping, reaching into their nightstands and... But I should stop before I write an entirely different book. No, Victoria was a plagiarist, which in our line of work is the worst kind of thief you can be. Maybe it doesn’t sound as bad as stealing, say, a pair of Swarovski crystal-encrusted pasties, but to a burlesque performer it’s much worse. "She who steals my purse steals trash," the performer getting dressed next to us had said, paraphrasing Shakespeare, after she had fallen victim to Victoria’s creative larceny, "but steal my burlesque numbers and I’m gonna cut a bitch." Now, Cherries Jubilee was attempting to appear as if she were focused on avoiding a run in the nylon as she put on her stockings, but I could tell she had an ear cocked in our direction. No foot covering requires quite the level of attention Cherries was giving it.
Victoria replied: "It’s a brand new act, actually. Everyone will love it." Which didn’t tell me anything about it, of course. A nice dodge. I would have pressed further, but she didn’t give me a chance. "Which way is the little girl’s room, honey?" she asked.
Little girl’s room. What was she, eight? But I gave her the directions: out the door into the main room, follow the curtain that hides the backstage area from the audience (more or less), when you hit a door, that’s the bathroom.
"Oh, no! Really? Out there? That’s kind of unprofessional, isn’t it? The audience will see me if I go out there."
I plastered an unconvincing smile on my face, bit my tongue, and explained through clenched teeth that since the house wasn’t open yet, there would be no audience to see her.
"Hmph. Well, just in case," she said, and reached into her gig bag. It was a standard black suitcase, a "drag bag"—you know, the kind with wheels on one end and a telescoping handle at the other, the sort that stewardesses use to drag around their street clothes and burlesque performers use to drag around their stewardess costumes. Since walking into the dressing room Victoria had been clutching it between her knees like a reluctant lover. She pulled out a cape of the most obnoxious purple—that’s not fair, the purple was fine, it was the woman who was obnoxious—and threw it over her shoulders.
"Thanks oodles," she said and, dragging the suitcase behind her, headed for the door, where she ran into the show’s tech guy, an 80s-throwback named DJ Casey, on his way in. Casey stepped aside to let her pass. Instead, she blocked the doorway and pointed a finger at him.
"You. What was your name again? Charlie?"
"Casey," said Casey.
"You handle the music for this show?" Victoria said.
"Um, yeah...I’m the DJ, yeah," Casey replied.
"Right," she said. "Look, play my music loud, okay? No matter how many times I tell you guys, you always play it too soft. Got that? Loud."
"Sorry, what?" Victoria said. "I didn’t hear you. How did I just ask you to play my music?"
Casey looked puzzled, his standard defense mechanism when dealing with difficult people. He wasn’t dumb, but he played dumb for special occasions.
"Um, loud?" he said.
"Louuuuud," Victoria repeated, making it a three syllable word. Then she pushed past him and out the door. Some of the tension left the dressing room with Victoria, but not much. After all, we all knew she was coming back.
"Wow," Casey said as he walked in. She must really have pissed him off—from Casey, that one word was the equivalent of an obscenity-filled diatribe by anyone else. He announced that he was opening the doors to let the audience in, which meant the show would start in fifteen minutes. Then he pulled me aside and reminded me that I needed to gather the performers’ music for him before that could happen. As he left the dressing room, he glanced toward the lavatory. His brow furrowed, briefly. Then he pushed the backstage curtain aside and walked down the aisle to open the house. As I swung the dressing room door shut, the first few audience members were making their way in and handing him their money.
I finished getting dressed (ruffled shirt, rigged with snaps for quick removal; bow tie; tuxedo jacket), grabbed the clipboard with the setlist on it, and took a deep breath. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t looking forward to talking to a room full of naked women.
Cherries Jubilee is, in normal circumstances, a close friend of mine.
But when I walked up to her, she practically threw her CD in my face.
"What the hell is that one doing here?"
"I’m just running the show, Cherries, I didn’t book it."
"Why the hell would you book her?"
"I didn’t book her."
"I don’t mean you you, Porkpie. I mean the royal ‘you’. Why the hell would LuLu book her? Why the hell would anyone book her? Did you know she was going to be in the show? You would have told me if you knew she was going to be in the show, right?"
"I found out exactly three seconds before you did," I said, "when Casey stopped me on the way backstage and handed me the setlist. Speaking of which, do you want Casey to play your music right after I introduce you, or when you’re in position on stage?"
"In position. If she the hell does my football number again tonight, I’ll kill her. Hell, I’ll kill her if she does your—"
"Didn’t she tell you she wasn’t going to do that number anymore?"
"Yeah. And I’m blonde, so I believe everything she the hell says."
I shook my head. "I don’t think that even she would be stupid enough to do a number she stole in the same show as the person she stole it from."
"The hell you don’t," Cherries said, and turned back to the mirror, checking her teeth for lipstick.
I didn’t bother asking if she’d be willing to switch places with Victoria in the lineup.
The next performer was putting on a corset, angrily. Which is no way to put on a corset. As I approached, she shoved the laces into my hand.
"Tighten," she said. I slipped the clipboard under my arm and pulled.
Jillian Knockers is a legend in the annals of bump and grind. First of all, she’s not called "Knockers" for nothing. On the contrary, she’s called "Knockers" for two things. But it’s not just the obvious talents that make her a star; the woman has been in the burlesque business longer than almost anyone, and it shows. Not physically—if you saw her onstage and tried to guess her age, I guarantee you’d be wrong by a decade or two, on the young side. Where it’s obvious is in the quality of her performance. She mostly does variations on classic stuff like fan dances, glove peels, feather boas, chair work. When she’s on stage, she doesn’t make a single move that isn’t calculated to get a rise out of the audience, and she gets it, in every sense of the word.
"Tighter," she said, as I pulled. "Hey, Jonny, I have your opening line (tighter): Ladies and Gentlemen, tonight Dreamland Burlesque is proud to present (tighter) plagiarist Victoria Vice and a (TIGHTER!) veritable Who’s Who of performers (Jesus, Porkpie, don’t be a wimp, pull harder, I’ll tell you if it’s too tight) the bitch has screwed over."
That was a terrible opening line. I wasn’t going to use that.
But I sympathized with the sentiment. Jillian, too, had once had a run-in with Victoria. I’d never heard all the gory details, but it had something to do with the Gotham Academy of Ecdysiasts, the school of burlesque that Jillian had founded a few years back. (She calls herself the "headmistress," a title that goes hand in hand with her side job as a dominatrix. Headmistress, I’ve been bad. Take me to detention, Headmistress. Oh, Headmistress.)
Jillian didn’t like to talk about it, but from what I’d gathered through the grapevine, she had a problem with a competing burlesque school Victoria had opened in Philly. That was all I knew, except that Jillian wasn’t any fonder of Victoria than Cherries was.
"I can see why LuLu would want to get out of town for a show like this," Jillian said. "What I don’t understand is why she would book it in the first place." She took the corset laces out of my hand and shoved her CD at me. I took it and moved on. Once again, I didn’t ask about the switch, but this time I had a good practical reason: Jillian was down as the final number in the show.
Angelina Blood just looked at me. Didn’t say a word when I asked her for her music, just paused in the middle of applying a thick halo of black eyeliner. Her eyes had been fully surrounded by black when she arrived, and now she was adding more. She pushed a raven-black lock of her raven-black hair to the side, and her raven-black eyes (I didn’t know if they were contacts, but if they were I’d never seen her without them) flicked over to the banquette next to her, where a CD lay next to a pair of skull-and-crossbones-shaped pasties on top of her raven-black suitcase. She didn’t say a word when I asked when she wanted her music to start, but those black eyes flicked to the CD again, and I saw that she had written the instructions on it. She also didn’t say a word when I asked her if she wanted to switch places in the lineup with Victoria, because I didn’t bother asking. I didn’t feel like wasting my breath.
The last two performers had been talking together, softly, as I gathered the music from the other three. They shut up before I got close enough to hear anything. I decided I needed to make my culpability—or, rather, lack thereof—clear right off the bat.
"Just for the record," I said, "I don’t know what beef you have with Victoria, but I’m sure I agree with you. And I didn’t book this show. I’m just running it."
"I blame you entirely, Porky," said Eva Desire, an alabaster beauty with pink streaks in her hair. Eva had shimmied into town a few months ago. She and I weren’t exactly friends yet, but we had done a few gigs together and got along pretty well—at least, until now. "But I’ll let you make it up to me," she continued. She put on a breathy stage voice. "Peel me."
She handed me a pair of pasties, the small circles of adhesive-backed decoration that keep burlesque performers away from the long arm of the law. Due to an archaic cabaret restriction, although a woman can legally appear topless in the streets of New York City, if she wants to do so on a stage in the back room of an East Village drinking establishment, she is required to cover her nipples. Pasties come in all shapes, sizes and styles. This particular pair had tassels dangling from the center, tassels that would no doubt be twirled at some point during Eva’s performance. I peeled the backing off one and handed it to her, careful not to get the fringe caught in the exposed tape. Eva took out a lighter and held the flame under the tape. (Professional secret—heat the tape, it sticks better.) She centered the pastie over her nipple and pressed it down, hard. I peeled the other pastie and handed it over.
"Okay, Porky, I forgive you," Eva said, bouncing to make sure the tassels would twirl and the pasties were securely attached. They were. She grabbed my ass to let me know there were no hard feelings.
I returned the favor. I didn’t want to be impolite. Eva squealed and I laughed and suddenly, for a moment, there was a bit of the usual good atmosphere in that dressing room.
It didn’t last long.
Victoria chose that moment to sweep back in, purple cape wrapped tightly around her, still dragging her gig bag. She parked herself in front of a mirror, straddled the bag again, and got to work finishing up her face.
In addition to snapping the rest of us right back into our bad mood, Victoria’s entrance also reminded me that I still hadn’t dealt with changing the setlist. Eva was the opening act, so she wasn’t an option; I’d be damned if I was going to start the show with a plagiarist. Which meant there was really only one possibility left: Brioche à Tête, the woman with whom Eva had been talking. I wasn’t entirely comfortable asking her, because Brioche...well, Brioche is weird, even by burlesque standards. And I’m saying this in an industry where people regularly glue inanimate objects to their naughty bits and make it sexy. Broiche’s acts are unlike anything else in the business—they’re more along the lines of performance art, though that’s not exactly the right description either. Because when I say "performance art," you’re probably thinking about that excruciating thing you had to sit through for five hours when your college roommate decided to "explore the world of live theatrical creation." This is as different from that as you can possibly imagine. Brioche’s acts are compulsively watchable. Just don’t expect to know exactly what you’re watching.
And in person she tends to make me a little nervous. Don’t get me wrong, I like her, but she has a way of looking at you that can be disconcerting. I can’t quite describe it. It was a cocking of her head similar to the way a dog might look at you when confused, if that dog were significantly more intelligent than you.
"Listen, Brioche," I said. "Would you be willing to switch spots in the lineup?"
"Excuse me?" she said. There was that look, damn it. I did my best not to stammer the response.
"She says she has another gig, wants to do her number earlier in the show." I dropped my voice, not out of concern for Victoria’s feelings so much as to keep the backstage atmosphere from going from chilly to explosive. "Look, you wouldn’t be doing her a favor, you’d be doing the rest of us a favor. The sooner she performs, the sooner she leaves, the sooner everybody starts having a good time."
"Perhaps she could leave right now." Brioche didn’t lower her voice nearly as much as I had. I’m guessing she wanted to be overheard—she doesn’t have a very strong internal censor, nor much patience for dealing with people she doesn’t like. If Victoria caught the comment, she showed no sign of it. She appeared to be busy adjusting something underneath her cape.
"What are the chances of that?" I whispered.
Brioche stared at me a while longer.
"Fine," she said, following the word with a sigh that would make a dead man punch a duck. "I’ll make the exchange."
"Beautiful," I said. I took Brioche’s music, and Eva’s, and headed back over to Victoria.
"You’ll be on second, after Eva," I told her. She thanked me "so so so much" and handed me her own CD.
Just for the hell of it, I glanced at the disc to see if there was any clue on it about what number she was doing, but no such luck. A self-burned job, nothing written on it but her name.
I made the changes to the setlist and headed out into the main room. Casey intercepted me halfway to the DJ booth. I handed him the paperwork and the pile of CDs.
"Thanks," he said. "I’ll introduce you as soon as I’m all set back in the booth, okay?"
I nodded. Casey headed up the aisle, and I went back to the dressing room, where I intended to down the remainder of my pre-show whiskey in one gulp. But before I could, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned to find it was Victoria’s. "Thanks again for your help, honey," she said.
Honey, my ass. I’d bet gold against g-strings that she only calling me ‘honey’ because she couldn’t be bothered to remember my name. I shook the hand off my shoulder, drank my drink, and headed toward the stage.
"Oh, there’s one other little thing," she said, following in my footsteps. "I’ll need you to hand me a prop during my act."
"Fine," I said. I held out my hand. I’d do just about anything to get this damn show started and her act out of the way.
Victoria pouted, which she clearly thought was cute. It wasn’t. It looked like her lower lip was trying to escape her face.
"It’s at the bottom of my bag," she said. "I’ll give it to you right before I go on, honey."
Well, that wasn’t fishy at all, was it? This, in conjunction with the death grip she retained on her suitcase all night, added up to a sneaking suspicion that our little thief was up to something. But I didn’t have time to figure out what. Because on the other side of the curtain, Casey was announcing me.
And then the applause began.
I walked onto the stage, doing a Standard Politician Wave. A wink. A non-threatening thumbs-up. I took the microphone from its stand. Pause. A far-too-sincere smile.
"Thank you. Thank you. I’d like to thank you all, voters, for your support, and welcome you to Dreamland Burlesque!" (Hold for applause. The name of the show always gets applause.) "Me? I’m Jonny Porkpie, the burlesque mayor of New York City. It’s not an elected position..."
I scanned the crowd as I did my bit. It was a nice-sized audience, almost a full house. Front row filled with Dreamland regulars; folks who came to see the show every week, rain or shine, and could be counted on for a vociferous response if they liked what they saw. Good. Performers feed off the energy of the audience, and this row would provide plenty of—
Somehow, I knew he’d end up in the front row. Near the corner of the stage, putting him unpleasantly close to touching distance, was a creepy-looking guy in a shabby overcoat who had tried to push his way in with the performers before audience seating had officially begun.
There’s always one.
Look, I don’t want to discourage anyone from buying a ticket, but if you’re going to be one of those men who sits alone, refuses to take off his outerwear even when the air conditioning is broken, wears dark glasses and leather gloves, doesn’t brush his hair or beard, and keeps trying to catch a glimpse of the girls getting dressed backstage...if you’re going to be one of those guys, maybe a downmarket West Side Highway strip club would be more to your tastes than a night of burlesque. Burlesque is a different monster altogether. It’s more about wit than anything that rhymes with wit; more about cleverness than any other c-word. Burlesque is a matter of brains over boobs...which, I suppose, is the standard arrangement, but you get my point. One creep in the audience working a Show World 1977 vibe could potentially sour the room.
This particular creep was sitting calmly enough and had his hands where I could see them, so maybe he was one of the harmless ones. Still and all, I’d have to keep an eye on him. And while I was at it, I’d keep the other one on that group of gigglers in the back. Probably the bachelorette party I’d seen gathering in the bar before the show—ah, yes. The white veil and penis-nose glasses on the blonde with the fresh-from-the-salon curls by the door were a dead giveaway. That bunch could go one of two ways: either they’d have a lot of fun and bring a great energy to the audience, or (especially if this was a late stop on their drinking tour) they might forget that they were supposed to be spectators and not the stars of the show. At least they were in the back row.
No worries about the rest of the audience, though. Looked like it was mostly groups of friends having a night on the town, couples out for a romantic evening—the bread and butter of any successful night of burlesque. They were here to have fun, to laugh at the half-assed double-entendre, to cheer and whistle. Perfect. With a good crowd like this, when the lights hit the glitter, the underwear hit the floor, and the hooting and hollering filled the room, backstage would be a distant memory. It was already working for me.
I glanced into the wings, and a thumbs-up from Eva told me she was ready to go. So I wrapped up my opening bit. "My erstwhile predecessor, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, called burlesque, just before he banned it from New York, ‘entertainment for morons and perverts.’ So, my dear morons, gentle perverts...welcome to the show." That line always gets cheers, both from the morons and the perverts. The applause kept coming as I introduced Eva, and got louder when they saw her as she walked out onto the stage to start her number.
What can I say about Eva Desire’s performance? Let me put it this way: When she moves, you follow every step. When she doesn’t move, you hold your breath and wait. And when she looks out at the audience and smiles, every person watching is convinced that he or she is the one that Eva wants to go home with. Usually, the burlesque acts I love best are built around humor, plot, or character, and Eva doesn’t go in for any of that, but in her case I don’t give a damn.
Four minutes and a whole lot of sexy later, Eva’s costume lay scattered across the stage, leaving only pasties and a g-string to keep her legal. She spun in place so every bit of glitter on her nearly naked body—and there was a lot of it —- caught the lights, a sparkly whirlwind of va-va-voom, and then she fell into a split that would have broken a less flexible person in half. With her long legs splayed from one side of the stage to the other, she bounced, which made the tassels (the ones on those pasties I had peeled for her) twirl.
Her song ended.
The applause began.
And that, ladies and gents, is how you open a show. The textbook definition of "a hard act to follow."
I wasn’t at all unhappy that Victoria Vice was the one who had to do it.
Eva rolled out of her split, took a coy little bow, and headed offstage as I made my way on. As we passed each other, she grabbed my ass again. "Knock ’em dead, Porky," she whispered. "Especially her." She winked and inclined her head toward Victoria, who was waiting in the wings.
I winked back, grabbed the microphone, and said to the audience: "Miss Eva Desire, ladies and gentlemen! That’s one to write home about...if you’re into that sort of thing." I made a few more lascivious comments—several more, actually, than I usually would, trying to delay the moment when I had to announce Victoria. Introducing a performer you don’t like is a highwire act. On the one hand, you owe it to your paying customers to give them a polished, professional show. So you can’t really say anything bad. But it was difficult to work up any enthusiasm for our little plagiarist, and audiences can tell when you’re lying. Fortunately, equivocation is far less detectible, and it always gets a chuckle from those in the know. So in these situations I’ll usually say something like, "I’m sure you’ll enjoy her performances as much as I do."
But this time, I felt I had to take it further, for Cherries’ sake. And, hell, for my own. Just get one little dig in. So what I said was this: "Our next performer comes to us all the way from Philadelphia, where she’s well known for doing some of the best acts in burlesque."
I heard a "Ha!" from the dressing room that sounded like Cherries. Yeah, she’s known for doing some of the best acts in burlesque. None of them her own.
"And now..." I said.
There was scattered applause from the people who didn’t know any better. Too bad. If they were expecting another act of Eva’s caliber, they were about to be sorely disappointed.
I stepped off the stage and passed Victoria in the wings. "Thanks for the intro," she said. I couldn’t tell if she was being sarcastic. She pulled something out of her suitcase and pressed it into my hand.
Right. Her damn prop.
"Just give it to me when I reach for it," she said, and scampered past me. The way she’d been guarding it, I half expected her to drag that suitcase on stage with her, but no. She left it sitting in the wings next to me. Whatever she had been trying to protect was probably on stage with her right now.
Or in my hand.
I looked down.
The prop I was holding was, according to the yellow letters (and skull and crossbones) on the label, a bottle of poison.
On the bright side, it wasn’t Cherries’ football number.
But was she stealing from another performer? Did I know anyone who did a number with a bottle of poison in it? Off the top of my head, I couldn’t think of any. Maybe, just maybe, that meant this was an original creation. Which probably wasn’t great news for the people who had to watch the act, but at least it would make the show run more smoothly.
Victoria walked out to center stage and threw off the purple cape to reveal a gothic black ballgown. Her music began playing—louuuuud (actually, a bit too loud, Casey was exacting a minor revenge for her behavior)—and she began to dance.
She wasn’t the complete embarrassment I thought she might be, but...meh. Even if she hadn’t been a plagiarist, Victoria just wasn’t a great performer. I hoped she would take the prop off my hands soon, so I could stop wasting time watching her and get back to my whiskey.
As the music reached a crescendo, she reached under her dress, gasped (unconvincingly) as if with pleasure, and pulled a black rose from the folds of the fabric. She smelled the flower, caressed her cheek with it, licked it, growled at it, and bit all the petals off.
She was getting a pretty vocal reaction. Not from the audience, though. From behind me, in the dressing room, came a perturbed mumbling. Well, that was to be expected. As long as they kept the volume low enough so the audience couldn’t hear, the other performers could make whatever comments they wanted.
Victoria spit out the rose petals all over the first row of the audience, then unzipped her gown and let it drop to the floor. She kicked it to the side of the stage, danced towards me, and extended her arm.
She wanted her prop. Fine. I shoved the bottle into her hand, glad to be rid of it, glad her act was almost over. I turned away, planning to spend the rest of Victoria’s number talking to people who didn’t turn my stomach. But what was happening in the dressing room stopped me in my tracks.
Through the open door I saw Angelina Blood standing, frozen, in the middle of the room, wearing a gothic ballgown, clutching a bottle of poison in one hand and a black rose in the other. Her raven-black eyes stared past me, and from where she was standing she had a clear view of the stage. A clear view of what I now realized was another performer ripping off her act. The very act she was planning to do later in the show.
I’d been wrong earlier, and Cherries had been right. Victoria was stupid enough, or maybe just plain crazy enough, to do a stolen number in the same show as the person she stole it from.
I glanced back at the stage. Victoria was displaying the bottle to the audience—Pest-Aside Liquid Rat Poison, same as the one currently gripped in Angelina’s shaking fist. You’d think she would at least change the brand. But no. Not Victoria. When she steals an act, she goes whole hog.
And, damn her, that was the reason she had asked to be moved earlier in the lineup—not because she had another gig, but because in the original order, she was scheduled to perform after Angelina. Victoria must have seen Angelina unpack her bag, seen her props, and known that Angelina was planning to do the same number she was planning to steal.
And Victoria wanted to do her stolen version first.
I was at a loss for what to do, so I just stood there, looking back and forth from the stage to the dressing room. Around Angelina, the room was a flurry of activity. Eva, naked except for her shoes, was trying to comfort her, with no success. Brioche was elbows-deep in her gig bag, pulling costume pieces out one by one and offering them to Angelina along with suggestions about how she might improvise a replacement number. Jillian was holding the setlist. "You don’t have to go on," she said. "There’s enough people in the show tonight, we can just skip your number."
Cherries, top half a football player, bottom half wearing only a thong, was pacing back and forth. When she saw me looking in at the door, she came over.
"Why in the hell would you hand her that bottle?" she said, poking me in the chest.
"Because I didn’t know," I whispered. "Damn it, I’ve never seen Angelina do that number."
We looked at the stage. I considered walking out and stopping the act...but no. I couldn’t, because of the audience. It wasn’t their fault they’d paid to see a show with a thief in it. And whatever happens—if the lights go out, or your music doesn’t play, or your props don’t work, or your pants get stuck on your hat—you find a way keep it going. You find a way to make it seem like everything was part of the act. The show must go on. The clothes must come off.
Cherries knew it as well as I did. Everyone in that dressing room did. So we did the only thing we could do. We stood and watched.
"I don’t believe it," Cherries whispered. "It’s exactly the same. Everything that bitch is doing, exactly the same as Angelina’s act."
Victoria would need to be dealt with. If I knew anything about the women in that dressing room, she would be, the moment she stepped offstage. But I couldn’t just let the audience sit there thinking they had seen an original creation. So I decided that when Victoria finished I would give her the outro of a lifetime. Performing an act created by Angelina Blood, I would say, the consummate mimic, Victoria Vice! Thanks for the sneak preview, but don’t worry, folks—you’ll get to see the original and best version of that act a little later in the show. That is, if Angelina decided to go on.
On stage, Victoria turned her back to the audience and took off her bra, tossing it to the side. From where we stood, Cherries and I could see that her pasties were in the shape of a skull and crossbones.
"Even the pasties," Cherries said.
Victoria pressed an arm pressed across her chest, concealing the pertinent bits. She turned to face the audience.
Cherries was muttering murderously. And hey, I would add, if you want to see Victoria do more of other people’s acts, she’s also ripped off Cherries Jubilee!
She took her arm away slowly, holding the skull-and-bones on the label next to the skull-and-bones on her nipples. He held up the bottle, licked it, and let a deadly looking green liquid flow from it over her collarbone. It ran down her breasts, covering one pastie at a time, turning the white skulls bright green.
Victoria tipped the bottle to increase the flow. The green dripped down across her ribs, over her belly, to her black lace panties. Still pouring, she brought the bottle up to her mouth, where it filled and overflowed those red lips, ran down her chin, and dripped onto the stage.
"And then she dies," Cherries whispered.
And then she did.
Copyright © 2009 by Jonny Porkpie.