“Miss Lilac Arugg” By: Robert Boucheron

Louisa walked the few blocks down Main Street. The day was turning out to be fine. As she reached the café at noon, a man unlocked the door. Wearing a black vest, bowtie and a handlebar mustache, he was either an actor in a movie about the Wild West or a bartender. From behind the bar, he set a paper napkin before her.

“A little early in the day for a cocktail, ma’am, but you may have a reason. Charles is the name. What will it be?”

“Nothing to drink, thank you. Unless you happen to have a fresh pot of coffee?”

“Coming right up.” Charles assembled a cup and spoon. “We don’t get much of a lunch crowd here. We do get folks with a thirst for something other than whisky. So we offer a little bit of everything. Come for the booze or come for the atmosphere. There’s plenty of both.”

“I came on another errand,” Louisa said. “I want to talk to someone who performs here and goes by the name of Lilac Arugg.”

“Hapsburg’s reigning queen of camp. I wouldn’t have pegged you as a fan.”

“Do you know where I might find her?”

“Sure thing. She lives upstairs, over the café. Mr. Small owns the building. He likes to rent to tenants in the arts. Go back to the street and ring at the apartment entrance. Or you can use the back stair.” He gestured behind the bar. “It’s more convenient if you’re in a ball gown and high heels, with an ostrich plume on your head.”

“I’ll use the street entrance. Thank you, Charles.”

Louisa gulped her coffee and exited. She rang, climbed two steep flights of stairs, and arrived winded at the top. An overweight man in a lavender robe and sparkling slippers opened the door. The same height as Louisa, he took her in from head to toe and frowned.

“I don’t know what you’re selling, lady, but it better not be cosmetics. You look like a girl who doesn’t know which end of a lipstick to suck.”

Louisa had not expected a challenge. “I am Louisa Abernethy Jones, from the Vindicator.”

“And I am the Queen of England, just in from Buckingham Palace.”

Louisa’s face fell.

“Just kidding, honey. You look as forlorn as a nun in a brothel. What can I do for you?”

“I’m looking for Lilac Arugg.”

“Then you came to the right place. It’s much too early in the morning to receive visitors, but slide on in and make yourself at home.”

Louisa entered a spacious, sunny room furnished with a few tattered pieces that resembled theatrical props—a sofa upholstered in crimson plush, a clawfoot armchair, and a vast painting of a carnival scene in an ornate, gilded frame. Water stains marked the ceiling, and the carpet was frayed.

“Take a throne, any throne.”

Louisa sat in the armchair, which creaked.

“Don’t worry, it won’t break. Heavier hitters than you have taken a load off in that chair. I’m a big-boned gal myself.” The man sat on the sofa and leaned back with one arm raised, as though a servant might appear with a cocktail or a cigarette.

“The maid is off today. She’s a wicked little bitch, but what can you do? Here I am with my hair undone, no makeup, and barely a stitch on. And with the worst craving for a smoke. But I quit that nasty habit. Now I’m looking for a new one. So where were we?”

“The newspaper editor asked me to write about Ralph Willis, the musician who was shot. In the course of my wanderings, some people mentioned you and your show, so I thought I should ask. Did you know him by any chance?”

“In passing. We danced together. We talked. We’re about the same age with similar tastes, as you may discern. You look like the discerning type. Are you sure I can’t get you something, Miss . . .”

“Louisa. Charles gave me a cup of coffee downstairs.”

“I’ll bet it was hot. Now, that’s what I call a full-service bartender.”

“He added a good word for you.”

“Don’t you believe it, honey. I’m as mean as the next girl and twice her size.”

“If you don’t mind, do you have a day job?”

“In civilian life, I’m Stan Maupin, a youth counselor for social services. Youth as in troubled teens, boys with problems, emotional and otherwise. It takes one to know one, as I tell them on our first date. Make that our first counseling session.”

“And by night . . .”

“A performing artist. I picked the name for its entertainment value. Lilac is my signature color, as you see.” He flounced the hem of the robe.

“Who are the Ladies of Illusion?”

“Oh, honey, you make it sound like a cult! We’re a collection of misfits and has-beens, street tramps and trollops. The only qualifications are a smart mouth and an overwhelming disregard for standards. The current roster includes Miss Kitty Litter, Miss Helen Highwater, and Miss Ivana Getsome, all local talent.”

“Did Ralph Willis come to the show?”

“Now and then. There’s not much of a bar scene in the Shenandoah Valley. Where else can an eligible gay bachelor go to see and be seen?”

“So he was visible?”

“In a small town like this, everyone gets to know everyone. There’s no place to hide.”

“Did he ever mention a romantic interest?”

“In a veiled way. He claimed to have a hot boyfriend, an active-duty cop in uniform who rode a motorcycle and arrested crooks—the whole police department scene. It sounded more like a fantasy than anything that could happen here in little old Hapsburg. Then, as the entire world was shocked to learn, the fantasy turned out to be real, our very own chief of police.”

“Did Ralph give any hint of dissatisfaction?”

“Toward the end of last year,” he grumbled. “I put it down to the seven-year itch. Carrying on with a married man is dicey in any case. E. M. Forster got away with it, with Policeman Bob, no less. That’s England for you. In America, bisexual is a fancy word for confused.”

“Did Ralph say anything about that?”

“He said he was going to break off the affair. It had dragged on too long, he saw no future, he wanted to settle down, and so on. A soap opera has better dialog. Now if you ask me, this is when things get messy.”

“How so?”

“Consider the cast in this drama, none of whom is getting younger. How will the valiant officer react to being dumped? And how will the valiant officer’s wife react?”

“Mrs. Ryder didn’t know.”

“Oh, Louisa, get a grip. The wife always knows. She puts a good face on it, hikes up her hose, and gets on with life. At a moment like this, however, as power shifts and lead weights start to drop, she may get just a smidgeon bent out of shape.”

“Alice Ryder made a spirited defense of her husband.”

“To which I say brava diva!”

“What about Gary Nash, the missing young man? Did you ever meet him?”

“Far too young for Miss Lilac. My social service clients are his age. Willis introduced him to me, said he sang like an angel. He came to the last show, a week ago Sunday.”

“Was Willis there too?”

“No, I didn’t see him. But I saw something else. Our musical friend Nurse Nash engaged in a tête a tête with a suspicious character.”

“Do you know who the other man was?”

“Never saw him before. Heavyset, fair, wearing a ballcap and sunglasses in a dimly lit bar. The hearty, he-man type, what we in the business call acting straight.”

“Your description matches J. D. Ryder.”

“Ooooh!” Miss Arugg squealed. “The Captain does drag.”

“I wonder what he wanted with Nash.”

“From my vantage point, it could have been a pickup or a body block. The stage lights made it hard to tell.”

“Did they leave together?”

“Miss Louisa, what an improper suggestion! No, come to think of it, Nash did not look at all pleased by the encounter. Up to that point he was gay as a lark. He must have left the café soon after.”

“Whatever Ryder said to him spoiled the mood.”

“So it would seem.”

“When did Ryder leave?”

“At the end of the evening, about eleven. I remember, because he loitered, as if he had nowhere to go.”

“So Ryder didn’t casually drop in for a few minutes.”

“If that’s what he told you, honey, he was fibbing.”

“You say he was reluctant to go?”

“There’s always one or two. We have to sweep them out with the trash. It’s no reflection on the entertainment. The malingerers are sad or drunk or both.”

“Was Ryder?”

“Sad, maybe, but sober.”

Louisa stood. “Thank you so much for your insight.”

“The pleasure was mutual, I’m sure. Love the hair and the outfit. Come see the show. You might get some tips on makeup.”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *