Curtains

By Irene Winters All Rights Reserved ©

Mystery / Thriller

Chapter 1

“Places!” Alexander called from his chair in the front row of the theater.

Today was the biggest day of rehearsal for his new show called Curtains. It was the day everything would come together. Lights, sound, costumes, and acting should all start to flow together from this rehearsal on into one amazing show. The six foot even director knew better than to expect anywhere near a perfect rehearsal today. Adding all the new elements needed for a successful show never was smooth. However, his deep blue eyes crinkled at the corners as he smiled to see Sarah, one of the lead actors in this show, on stage. She finally remembered exactly what she needed to be doing in her first scene and set the proper tone for the rest of the show. Yet, as the lights faded on Sarah and rose on the next scene, Alexander’s smile faded. Bella, the younger lead actress, had failed to make her entrance.

“Bella! Bella! Where are you, Bella? You should be onstage by now!” The short dark haired girl with deep brown eyes was an eleven-year-old nightmare to work with. Bella had produced an amazing audition causing him to want to cast her in all his future shows, but since then, she had been nothing but trouble. She was often found talking to someone causing one of them to miss their entrance. At other times, she was playing with Laura, the ten-year-old pain in his side who also seemed to never be where she belonged. Bella rarely remembered her lines, but always corrected other people on theirs. Why couldn’t she remember her lines as well as she remembered the lines for everyone else? Bella rarely made her entrances on time, and Alexander had long since lost his patience with her. Between the time left before the show opened and the audition he remembered with fondness, he knew he couldn’t recast her, though. He just had to hope that little piece of brilliance he had seen at the audition would blossom into the actor that he knew Bella could be. Could it happen by opening night?

“Where is Bella? Someone get Bella on stage now!” Alexander shouted as he brushed his long deep auburn hair out of his eyes and reminded himself to call his barber for a haircut before opening night. He hated to have to yell at his cast. These were his friends and fellow artists, most of whom wanted to put on their best show possible. However, he could feel his face flush with anger. He expected a few hiccups on tech rehearsal day with all these new additions. However, he didn’t expect actors that not only missed their cue but were also unresponsive to his calls. If this was going to be what was typical of the day, it was going to be a grueling, long day. As if an eight-hour rehearsal isn’t already long enough!

Alexander heard running throughout the theater. Usually, he would complain about the noise backstage. It was crucial that all actors and crew stay silent backstage during a show. Yet, the number of feet running and yelling for Bella, this time, was music to his ears. It seemed the rest of his cast was taking her being missing with absolute seriousness. He was certain someone would soon discover wherever she had decided to hide herself to daydream or whatever. Then, they could continue on with rehearsal.

“She’s not backstage anywhere!” Nora popped her head through the backstage curtain to tell him. Nora was one of his favorites because she was dependable. Nora was short at only five foot even, and her petite frame might make people underestimate her. However, her big personality demanded attention on the stage. Her smoky violet eyes could always find the light in any situation. They sparkled in even the slightest light. In short, she was a natural. Her ebony hair was a bit too wild for conventional beauty. Yet, her natural stage presence and her ability to handle his rather rare rages made her rather dear to him. Even now, he was certain that it was her ability to deal with him no matter what that caused the others to volunteer her for this unpleasant task. Passing on the news that Bella was actually missing and not just off daydreaming was a dangerous job. It was still possible, of course, that Bella had managed to wander off into another part of the building they hadn’t checked. However, there was no reason for her to have done so and that worried Alexander.

“I need her found immediately. She can’t have left the theater. Check the ladies’ rooms upstairs and downstairs and check the dressing rooms and the green room upstairs. If there’s a room, no matter how small, that’s not locked, check it! Find her and send her to me immediately. If she isn’t found in five minutes, she is out of the show and I’ll recast her part immediately! One week before opening night is too late to be pulling this kind of stunt!” Nora nodded then disappeared behind the curtain again to give orders to everyone else. Alexander looked back to the stage and saw that Sarah was still there in the dark exactly where she should have been. If Bella was there, the second scene would have happened as planned. At least, she had finally started remembering direction so that he had one less worry. “They’ll find her. Stay right there. We’ll continue as soon as she’s found and I lecture her on the importance of being where she belongs.” Alexander heard the mumbling and running around backstage that signified the entire rest of the cast looking for Bella. He wanted to be out there helping to look. Yet, if they found her and he was in a different part of the building there would be even more delays. He couldn’t afford any more delays today.


It annoyed Nora that Bella wasn’t where she belonged. How hard was it to follow directions and be where you belonged when you belonged there? She just didn’t understand how people could decide to involve themselves in theater, and yet not put their all into it. However, she throttled down the anger she was feeling and took charge. There would be time for anger later, but the sooner they found Bella and shoved her onstage, the better off everyone would be. Plus, Alexander was angry, and it would not do any good for both of them to be angry while time wasted away.

“Okay, everyone, split up. Go in groups, but scour every corner of every room you search. I’ll stay backstage in case she decides to wander here on her own. Make sure you check back often so I know which rooms you already checked. It’s also the only way you’ll know if someone else found her, so we don’t waste any more time searching than necessary.”

Nora felt pleased when everyone grouped up on their own and started heading off to wherever they decided to check first. Sitting down in the first chair she found, she waited. There were pangs of guilt as she sat there doing nothing, but someone needed to stay here, and she was one of the few that could give Bella a tongue-lashing when she showed up and still manage to push her onstage to do her part.

People started returning with their groups after awhile, but their only news was just several variations of “we didn’t find her” and a report of which locations they had checked. Each time, Nora would nod, and send them off to check another spot. As more groups checked in from more locations, she could send them to more specific spots in the theater. The first time, they checked the most obvious spots: the green room and dressing rooms, the kitchen, the office, etc. The second time, they went off to check less likely, but just as large places such as the board room.

However, the more groups reported, the more Nora’s annoyance turned to worry. With everyone shouting Bella’s name, and all the major locations checked at this point, if Bella were okay, someone would have her by now. Wouldn’t they? Running out of options, Nora was sending them to check closets and such. Yet, she was feeling seriously worried at this point. Shouldn’t someone have found Bella by now?

Finally, Nora realized that other than the spots that groups were already sent off to, the only place left was the supply closet right by where she was sitting. With a sudden premonition, she waited until the groups were returning. Yet, Nora acted before the first group actually reached her. Nora walked over and flung the door open to the supply closet herself. What she saw there was definitely nothing she prepared herself to deal with. Nora screamed.


After hours of searching noises and yet no results, or rather, what felt like hours but according to the clock had only been about three minutes, Alexander heard a blood-curdling scream from his beloved, Nora. It would take something extreme for Nora to scream like that. Something was definitely wrong. Alexander screamed for Nora as he jumped out of his chair and ran at top speed towards where the scream had come from. If anything happened to her, he would never forgive Bella. It had to be Bella’s fault because she had made people search for her.

Despite his breakneck speed, Alexander was one of the last to arrive; it seemed that everyone else had been closer. Considering the fact that earlier they had seemed to be everywhere at once, this marked a change in their tactics. He would have wondered why they had changed tactics if there were time to worry about it. Alexander made his way around the crowd standing by the supply closet. As he did so, he noticed that everyone’s face was in various states of panic worry and sadness. Whatever had made Nora scream must be desperate, so he needed to find a way to her immediately. He started pushing his way through, no longer caring to go around them. If something that bad had happened to Nora, he would be sure to make someone pay for it. As he pushed, those who were in the way just crumbled at his touch. Alexander felt relief that at least they moved away as they did so.

At last, Alexander made it to the front of the crowd blocking the small closet. Nora stood there whiter than the whitest curtains in that closet. Her fair complexion lost all little flecks of color. Nora was a rather strong woman. At the moment, however, she appeared to be keeping herself together only by sheer force. As Alexander looked her over, he realized that she wasn’t hurt. Yet, Nora appeared emotionally shaken. Relieved that she wasn’t hurt, he started to breathe again. He didn’t know when he had stopped remembering to breathe. Yet, the trouble wasn’t over. He didn’t understand what could put this woman who was full of such life into this state. His first instinct was to take her in his arms. Yet, he had to deal with whatever was affecting her so much before he could be of any real comfort to her. He whipped his head around looking for anyone strong enough still to deal with Nora. Most of the people he had pushed aside wouldn’t be strong enough to deal with a fly right now, yet there had to be someone.

Finally, Alexander’s eyes fell on Mike and Ferdinand standing side by side. They were the only two who were still in good enough shape that he could count on them. What was in the close affected them, but they were stronger than the others. His first instinct was to send her to Mike, his lifelong friend who was like a brother to him. However, he might need Mike when he started to investigate what had everyone so upset. He caught Ferdinand’s eye with reluctance and motioned with just the faintest of head jerks for him to join them. Ferdinand seemed to enjoy flirting with Nora. He never seemed to take Alexander’s subtle hints to back away from her. Yet, he didn’t have much of a choice. Her other friends were just as affected by the event as her, and he needed her calm and back to herself as soon as possible.

As Ferdinand approached, Alexander realized he had made the best choice in the situation. Ferdinand was still strong. However, his focus was on Nora, not Ferdinand, in this situation. He stepped in front of Nora, and daring just the smallest of touch, lifted her head to look at his face. He felt a shudder there, both his and hers as her vacant eyes attempted to pull away from him. Yet, he held his grip for just as long as he needed to make his point. “Go with Ferdinand back to your friends. They’ll take care of you. I’ll deal with whatever it is that has upset you.” Nora only nodded and turned to Ferdinand and crumpled into his arms. Alexander’s heart fell, but now was not the time to think about it.

As Nora and Ferdinand walked away, Alexander took a look into the closet that everyone huddled around. He hadn’t yet looked at what was so wrong as he dealt with Nora. As he turned to face the closet, he could feel his veins turn cold. Bella was there alright, but she was no longer in a position to make her entrance. Someone had murdered poor Bella. It wasn’t possible that she had killed herself or died of natural causes for sure. Someone had handcuffed Bella to a chair, covered her mouth with a tie so that she couldn’t scream, and cut her throat.

It didn’t make sense to Alexander. He knew that she annoyed the other actors by her behaviors, but he couldn’t imagine that she annoyed any of them enough to want her dead. He definitely couldn’t think of anyone she annoyed enough to actually kill her. While he couldn’t say for sure that there was no one in the building that he couldn’t unaccounted for, he hadn’t seen anyone. He hadn’t heard from anyone else that there was anyone strange in the building, either. His actors, though, were good people, and he had trouble believing that any of them had killed Bella. Alexander could barely handle the scene in front of him. He now understood why it had affected Nora and the others so much. He wanted to run away from this himself, to close the closet door on what was before his eyes and forget it existed. However, he had no choice. He mentally prepared himself and forced his feet forward another two steps so that he could shut the door. The least he could do was to protect anyone else from this scene while he examined the body closer. He wanted to protect those more sensitive to this if it was anywhere within his power.

Alexander looked closer. First, the tie that had covered Bella’s mouth. It was a man’s tie for sure. The striped pattern of the tie in many shades of brown tickled his memory. It reminded him of the tie that Spencer wore with his costume. Spencer was one of his older actors and one that had to deal with the majority of Bella’s issues as they played out on stage during every rehearsal. Bella corrected him anytime he made the slightest switch in wording. She also and rarely looked at him when their characters conversed. But, Spencer loved children, as a rule; Alexander didn’t think Spencer could have done this heinous act. Was Spencer wearing his tie right now? Alexander hadn’t yet noticed. It bothered him that a little detail like that had slipped his mind when it now played such a big part in the scene before him. It was possible that someone else could have a similar tie or have grabbed Spencer’s from the shared men’s dressing room. Of course, there wasn’t a person that Alexander suspected capable of killing anyone, much less a mere child. Thus, it was still possible that Spencer could be the guilty party.

As much as it was the last thing he wanted to look at, Alexander moved to the cut on her throat next. It was a mutilated mess. To him, it looked like someone had a hard time cutting her throat. Yet, they must have been angry enough or had reason enough to want her dead to keep trying just the same. It appeared that they had used a dull knife. The many ragged shallow cuts around the larger cut that had finally killed her proved they hadn’t made it through the skin with any ease at all. Who carried a dull knife with them and where was it now? Alexander couldn’t think of anyone who usually carried a knife with them. Surely, anyone who had carried one with them just to kill Bella would have chosen a sharp knife or sharpened their knife beforehand. From the look of the cuts, it didn’t look premeditated. Yet, if it wasn’t Spencer, then the person had to plan to get the tie. He would just have to be more observant of everyone’s behavior.

Finally, Alexander examined the handcuffs that the killer used to keep her in the chair. While it was obvious it was the first thing the murderer had done, it was the thing he was least concerned with, at least until he spent time examining them. The handcuffs looked familiar. Most handcuffs look alike to the untrained eye. Yet, this one was different. These were trick handcuffs, but not just any trick handcuffs. The hidden switch had a heart shape to them. As Alexander knelt beside the chair to take a closer look at the handcuffs, a scent of brown sugar and cherry blossoms caught his attention. It was a unique scent that Nora usually mixed up for herself on the rare occasions that she used perfume. Alexander knew, as most didn’t, that Nora kept trick handcuffs in her purse as a souvenir of a special time they shared.

It had been a special time for them. Alexander participated in a poker tournament in Vegas. It was a one-day tournament. Yet, a group of friends, including Nora, and himself decided to turn it into a weekend of fun for them all. After they all saw a show together, Nora wanted to shop, but their other friends wanted to take a nap before their evening plans. He didn’t want to disappoint Nora, and yet didn’t want her to be alone in Vegas. So, Alexander went along with her. During the afternoon, they found themselves in a quaint little magic shop. They shared a few laughs and inside jokes over some trick handcuffs. After almost an hour of laughter, they both agreed to buy an almost matching set to commemorate their time together. His had a diamond-shaped switch since his lucky card was the nine of diamonds. Most considered that card unlucky, but not Alexander. Nora’s had a heart-shaped switch, which was perfect for her.

Most would read that the wrong way. Yet, he knew their time together had so far been innocent, despite their love for each other. The unique heart-shaped design to the trick switch was exactly like the one Nora carried with her. He had thought she stopped carrying the handcuffs by now. Yet, with them right before his eyes, he realized that the fact that she still carried it meant she loved him deeper than she ever let on. But how did the handcuffs wind up around Bella’s wrists? That was the question at hand, not what the handcuffs being still carried meant. Could Nora, the protector of all children, really have killed Bella? He doubted it. But he also didn’t think anyone else knew about the handcuffs. Could someone be framing Nora? How had they found out about the cuffs if so? It seemed a bit odd to him that someone would choose to frame two different people in such an obvious manner in one murder. Maybe several people collaborated together. Maybe Spencer and Nora were both in on this killing. He’d have to talk to Nora and see what she had to say for herself.

“Mike!” Alexander called as he opened the door just a crack. He didn’t want anyone to see any more of what was behind the door than they already had. But, he needed his oldest friend’s help. Mike’s five foot six, bulky stature would scare no one. That was unless he chose to use the power of his personality that a public relations specialist generally had available to make them work for the good of the group. He definitely knew how to command respect, though. Reliable old Mike was, of course, right by the door, waiting for Alexander to come back out. It was likely that he was keeping others from going in, and prepared to respond at a moment’s notice.

“What do you need, boss?” Mike always called him boss, when he was directing and gave respect, much like one would give to his boss. It was a change of pace from their usual relationship in which they were total equals. This was just one of the things that endeared Mike to Alexander and made him want to work with him on a regular basis.

“I need you to take a headcount. Make sure you can account for everyone, and report back if anyone is missing. Then, don’t let anyone leave the area. I need to talk to Nora about poor Bella.”

“Poor Bella? What’s wrong with poor Be..” Mike trailed off as Alexander opened the closet door just far enough for Mike to get a glimpse of the matter. Alexander could tell that the sight alone made Mike feel sick as all the color drained out of him. However, he kept his composure. “I see. We should call the police.”

“We will, but my phone is the only one downstairs, and it’s in the theater. I don’t want anyone separated until we all go back to the theater, so we’ll call then.” Alexander didn’t want Mike to know, but he was stalling at the moment until he could eliminate Nora as a suspect.

“Good idea.”

Mike’s reaction was exactly why Alexander was attempting to protect everyone from seeing what was in that closet up close. However, he knew Mike needed to know the grave seriousness of the situation if he was going to keep everyone in line. Right now, he needed to make sure he could remove Nora from the potential suspect list. Besides, her observational skills were impeccable. He could definitely use them right now if they were going to find the real killer.

“Nora, come here, please!” Alexander called to her. Remembering the look on her face when he’d arrived at the scene, he felt bad about what he was going to do to her. There was no choice in the matter, though. He needed answers. Between her renown observation skills and the item that concerned her, this was likely to be the only way. He was almost certain that it wasn’t her. Yet, he needed to be completely sure before he looked at other suspects. He was glad she appeared to be a good deal calmer than when she had found Bella dead. Maybe too calm. Was she flirting with Ferdinand now, or was this all a facade?

Nora approached him with caution and an almost robotic walk. She was rarely cautious and never robotic, which made him realize that the calm was a facade. This awakened new worries in him. Was he going to push her too far with this? He hoped not, but he’d have to push her to some extent if he was going to find out the truth.

“What do you need, Alexander?” Her tone didn’t sound lively, which was how he’d usually describe her voice. Rather, she sounded apprehensive. Alexander assumed that she knew that she would have to confront her fears and take a closer look at the body. She seemed even less sure than he was that she could handle it. He could feel bad about it later, and comfort her when they knew who the murderer was. For now, he’d have to push her.

“I need your observational skills. Can you help me out in here?”

Nora gulped, but nodded and together they stepped back into the supply closet. He left the door open a crack, but no more. He hoped that Mike would guard that crack from the view of the rest of the cast and crew. He knew they’d all find out eventually how gruesome things were behind that door. However, he preferred if the most sensitive among them weren’t faced with an up close view. He’d give them the fewest details possible later.

“Do I have to do this,” Nora asked in such a quiet voice, it was a miracle that he heard her. Alexander remembered that Nora had been one of the few protective over Bella. She was protective in a way that would make little sense to those who only knew Bella from their work with her on the show. Bella’s antics that she usually pulled would have usually annoyed Nora before anyone else. Nora was always serious when it came to a show. Alexander had no doubt Nora was currently annoyed with Bella, but it still was a lot to ask of her to deal with this. Yet, he still needed her. She was the only one whom he could trust that also possessed her level of observational skills.

“I’m afraid so. Yes, it has to be you. Just tell me everything you see, even if it seems obvious. If it helps, act like you’re observing a scene from a play and it isn’t anyone you know.” He watched her intently and saw the signs of her disengaging from the situation as if she was doing just that. This was good. He had a feeling it was the only way he’d get all the answers he needed.

“Someone tied a man’s tie around her mouth. I guess they used it to keep her from screaming, but I’m not sure how well that would work. We’re actors and are notorious for our big mouths. This would have done nothing. How did they actually keep her from screaming? Well... maybe if they tied it tight enough.” She was babbling, and Alexander knew it, but he allowed her to continue. If she gave him any details he didn’t already have, it was better than for her to give just the details she thought he wanted to hear. “It is a striped tie in many shades of brown. Wait, isn’t that Spencer’s tie for his costume?”

“It would appear so. It’s not usually a tie you see these days. Yet, it’s quite appropriate for the time period of Curtains, wouldn’t you agree?”

“True. You don’t think Spencer did this, do you? He is far too nice to kill someone.” Nora paused, but Alexander could tell there was something more she wanted to say, so he just waited. “I don’t think he’d kill Bella, even as much as she pushed his buttons. She annoyed everyone, not just him.”

“I don’t know if Spencer did this or not, that’s what we’re trying to determine with all the details. It definitely leaves something to think about, though, that the killer used his tie. However, I agree that it’s unlikely. Then again, as you said, she pushed his buttons most of all. Who is to say he couldn’t have snapped and done this in a moment of sheer frustration?”

“This doesn’t look like sheer frustration to me. This looks like it took some work, more work than a murder done by someone who just snapped would have done. There would have been time to regain his composure before she died.”

“Perhaps you’re right. But, we can’t eliminate someone based on our speculations; at least not yet. What else do you see?”

“Someone cut her neck with a rather dull knife. It took a lot of work to actually cut through.” Nora looked away suddenly and Alexander watched as she ran to a corner of the closet to get sick. It was a good thing that the closets in the theater are much bigger than they are in typical houses. He wanted to comfort her, but if he comforted her now, he’d never have the answers he so desperately needed. So far, she had only repeated his own observations, but there might be something he had missed. As she was composing herself to come back over, he noticed her hesitate. It seemed like her eyes caught something out of place. “Wait a minute. I just saw a glint of silver here where there should only be black curtains.” As she attempted to grab them, he noticed her struggling like the item was under several heavy curtains. He didn’t go to her, though, because she hadn’t asked for help. He was certain that if she couldn’t handle it, she’d ask for help. Finally, with a grunt, she freed something. “Well, I guess we have our murder weapon.”

“Are you sure?”

With a look of disgust, Nora brought them to Alexander. “Oh, I’m quite sure. You don’t get that much blood on a pair of scissors from a slip that cuts your own finger.” As he looked them over, he had to agree.

“But are they dull enough to have left all those marks and taken that long?”

“I don’t know, but I don’t think I want to check how dull they are. I think the killer thought no one would find them for quite awhile there. I don’t think I’d have seen them if I hadn’t had to be sick. Should we take these out there and confront them?”

“No, I don’t think so unless we can identify exactly who the killer is. Let’s put them back where they were.” As Alexander watched Nora take the care to make sure the scissors were exactly where she found them, he had to wonder, As much as he hated to think bad thoughts about Nora, if she had known where they were because she had been the one to stash them. Of course, that didn’t make sense either. She had been sick from seeing the neck cut and she was too smart to have pointed out the murder weapon if she was the killer. However, as much as he wanted to trust her, it was time to stop playing nice if he was going to have any answers. “Go on. Tell me what else you see.”

“They handcuffed her to the chair,” Nora’s reply was bland as if she thought that should be obvious. That was hardly news to him.

“Yes, but is there anything special about the handcuffs?”

Nora knelt down to look closer at the handcuffs. He hoped she would find that his first observation of the handcuffs was wrong. However, before she could comment, Mike opened the door.

“I counted three times to be sure. Yet, all three times I came up with exactly one person missing.”

“Who is missing?” Alexander’s face was turning red. He already had a murder on his hands and now another person was missing. Was the killer missing, or was this just some random person? Or worse, was this another murder they were about to discover?

“Sarah. I asked, and no one remembers seeing her since she was last on stage.”

“She’s probably still on stage then. After all, her last order was to stay there while people found Bella. She may have stayed even after hearing Nora’s scream. Even seeing me run may not have been enough for her to move without another direct order from me. It seems odd, but it’s about time people start actually obeying my orders in this show.”

“Should I go look there?”

“No, just go back out there with the others, and don’t let anyone else leave the area.”

Mike left the closet to go back out and watch over the rest of the cast and crew. He left the door open a bit wider than Alexander would have preferred, but he was thankful that he would know quicker if people disobeyed his orders. Alexander returned his attention to Nora. “Well?”

“These are trick handcuffs. It’s clear the user and Bella both thought they were real, though. The killer did nothing to keep the trick switch from Bella’s reach. Yet, it doesn’t look like she tried to take advantage of the trick switch to get herself out.” That information surprised Alexander. He hadn’t noticed the positioning of the switch that Nora was pointing out. This was one reason he chose to have her examine the murder as well, other than pushing her to determine her innocence. This was basically the first observation that she had pointed out that he had missed. Yet, it might be instrumental in the solving of this murder.

“Anything else?”

Nora touched the handcuffs and gave them a close examination. Suddenly, her face went pure white as she turned and looked up at him. “These... these are my handcuffs that I carry with me! No one knew I carry them with me!”

“Either someone did in fact know, or you did this,” Alexander replied with steel in his voice. He hated himself for saying it, but he had to know; it was clear to him that if she was willing to confess her guilt to him, she would have done so already. She was either innocent or guilty and refused to confess. He would have to push to have his answer, one way or another. He would deal with the consequences later.

“I didn’t do this, you have to know that!” Nora was shouting and the tears in her eyes showed her hurt over the fact that he’d accused her. He still didn’t believe she was capable of such a heinous act, but he couldn’t let his feelings get in the way.

“If it wasn’t you, then who?”

“I don’t have a clue! Only a couple people knew that I had those handcuffs, but none of them would have done this!”

“Only a couple people? You just told me that no one should have known you had them! You’ve already lied to me.”

“I forgot, okay. I was in shock. No one who knew could even consider doing this, though. They’re just not that type of people.”

“You don’t know that. Anyone is capable if pushed enough. Now, tell me who knew.”

“I won’t incriminate my friends!” Nora seemed shocked that he would even ask her to do such a thing.

“Then I have to assume you killed Bella,” Alexander stated with a sigh, trying to keep all emotion out of his voice. “I don’t honestly want to believe that, but without names, you’ve given me no choice.”

“If you suspect me, then you don’t know me at all, and you definitely don’t care!” Nora suddenly lost control and burst into tears. He had pushed her too far. Alexander finally took her into his arms and held her, letting her cry it out. Her reaction was all he needed to see to know for a fact that she was innocent.

“I know. I had to push you so that I would know that my feelings weren’t coloring my judgment. I needed to know I was right about your innocence. I know now that there was no way you could have done this.” He held her until she finished crying, continuing to whisper to her that he knew. When she finished crying, he ducked down and planted a small kiss on her cheek. Seeing her so vulnerable now, when she rarely showed a vulnerable side, had pulled that reaction out of him without thinking of the consequences. Usually, he kept his feelings locked tight so that no one, even Nora, would know. However, now was not the time to think about the implications of that momentary indiscretion. They still needed to get to the bottom of this murder.

“I still would have protected you if you were guilty, you have to know that. I had to know you were innocent, though. I never thought for a moment you were guilty, but I had to make certain I wasn’t wrong.”

“You put me through that when you didn’t even believe I was guilty? How could you do that?”

“I had to know. I still need to know who knew about the handcuffs in your purse. We need to find out who the killer is.”

“I told you I won’t incriminate my friends. I just can’t do that.”

“One of them is likely the killer, and likely framed you!” He regretted the moment he said that last part, but it was the truth.

“And if they are the killer? It won’t change my loyalty to them.” Apparently, she decided to ignore his comment about framing her, but he didn’t want to bring that little fact up a second time.

“You can’t protect them. I will find the killer and there will be justice.”

“You said you were willing to protect me if I were guilty, right? Then why can’t you understand that I want to protect them?”

Alexander was starting to lose his patience with the whole situation. While he did understand wanting to protect someone important to you, he didn’t understand protecting someone who would frame you for murder. He also had to know who the murderer was. He’d deal with her need to protect them after he found out who and why. He decided to change tactics and changed back to a much sweeter tone.

“Why don’t you tell me how the fact that you carry the cuffs came up?”

“We were just discussing weird things women carry in their purses. I knew I had the most unusual item that they would have heard about, so I told them about the handcuffs I carry in mine. It was an innocent conversation. I didn’t tell them much about them.”

“Okay, who all participated in this conversation?”

“What if it wasn’t someone involved in the conversation? What if a random person overheard it and decided to capitalize on it? Or what if someone saw it in my purse? Or what if they were looking for something to frame me and came upon it by accident?”

“That’s a possibility, but I need to know who you had this conversation with.”

“Fine, but trust me, I will protect them. The conversation included Jordan, Bradley, Ferdinand, Spencer, and Eric.”

“One of them is most likely guilty. I have to find out who did this.”

“And I will protect them, guilty or not, I promise it.”

“Sure, you’ll protect us while you incriminate us to this man who doesn’t care a bit about us!” Spencer said through gritted teeth from behind them. He was angry and wasn’t trying to hide it. “Don’t think it has escaped my notice that you would choose him over any of us in any situation.” Before either of them could respond, Spencer stormed off.

“Great, now you’ve made my friends hate me!” Nora shouted at him now.

“I promise I’ll protect them, as long as they’re not guilty. I know how much they mean to you.”

“I’ll protect them even if they are guilty!” Nora screamed as she turned away from him. Alexander watched her walk away and was afraid she’d never talk to him again.

“What was that about?” Mike asked, walking up to him and obstructing his view of Nora.

“Don’t worry about that, I just pushed her a bit far.”

“I overheard. If you’re going to protect her, you know you’re going to have to learn to trust and protect her friends as well.”

Alexander didn’t want to discuss it; it hurt him to admit it, but his friend was right. He trusted Nora, therefore, he’d have to trust her choice of friends as well. He’d think about that later, though. Right now, they needed answers.

“There aren’t enough answers here. Now, what do we do?”

“How about we all go back and sit in the theater and talk this out? Perhaps someone saw something or the killer might even confess. Besides, if Sarah’s actually still in there waiting, we definitely shouldn’t leave her alone too much longer. There’s still a killer on the loose, after all.” Spencer spoke up after a long pause. Alexander would have to remember that he seemed to have excellent hearing. He shouldn’t have been able to hear the conversation from his position at the back of the group.

Alexander loathed to follow his advice since he strongly believed he was one of the top three suspects, but it did make sense. It would also move people away from the body. Although he feared that those who had a close look would forever have the image burned in their memories, at least those who hadn’t seen Bella’s body up close wouldn’t have to. “Okay, everyone, stay together and go back into the theater,” Alexander said begrudgingly.

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