“Have you ever gambled on the premise of The McLeod Community Theatre?”
Nine-year-old Henry Eddleston’s mom held a shortbread cookie to her mouth and paused mid-bite. Henry’s dad tightened his grip on his glass of punch. The three of us stood in the center of The McLeod Community Theatre lobby during the Saturday matinee intermission of The Christmas Carol. Giddy conversation buzzed around us from other adults dressed in sparkly holiday garb. Little girls buried somewhere inside red and green tule dresses ran in circles, joined by little boys dressed in sports jackets, clip-on ties, dress pants, and sneakers.
The Eddlestons appeared just as gaudy as the rest of them. The slit in Mrs. Eddleston’s floor-length red sequined dress framed her left leg and red lace-up heels. Mr. Eddleston wore a sports jacket and a matching sparkly red bow tie.
Did I ever think my job would lead me here, to a small community theatre half a mile from the town’s paper mill, barely visible from the highway? No. But, show me a cute and quirky small town, and I’ll show you a facade.
Mr. and Mrs. Eddleston erupted into laughter.
“Gambling? Not a chance.” Mr. Eddleston barely addressed me, looking for a familiar face in the perimeter. “This is a highly cherished establishment in our community. Our Henry has been in The Christmas Carol every year since he was five.”
“I used to star in shows here when I was in my prime,” Mrs. Eddleston added, and I wondered how that was relevant.
Disappointed that no one caught her conversation bait, she asked, “Is your child in The Christmas Carol, too?”
“No. I’m Allison Rampart, Detective.” I handed Mrs. Eddleston my business card. “There is believed to be illegal, undocumented gambling activity going on in this community valuing over thirteen million dollars. They call the ringleader The Snake. I’ve been partnering with the federal police to track the person down. This morning we got an anonymous lead that The Snake was an actor currently presiding in this area, and since this is the only show in town, I figure they might be somewhere slithering around. The caller disguised their voice, so I don’t have much more to go off, but I plan to interview as many people as I can until I get to the bottom of it.”
Their mouths hung open. Then they burst into laughter.
Realizing I’d come across a dead end, and that I didn’t like these people, I tipped my hat and bid “Good day.”
Outside the third-floor administration office hung pictures of past performances. It didn’t take a detective to know the young woman doing the spread eagle in the 2002 production of Chicago was none other than Mrs. Eddleston. Inside the office, one elderly woman sat typing on a computer, eating a pastrami sandwich.
“Can I help you, dear?”
“I’m Allison Rampart, Detective. We have a suspicion that there could be thirteen million dollars of illegal activity coming from a gambling ring within this theatre. Are you aware of any of this?”
She choked on her pastrami sandwich for the next twelve minutes. “Why, of course not! We are scraped for money as it is.”
I felt the urge to press but didn’t want to stay in the likely case the pastrami did her in. I tipped my hat and bid “Good day.”
The rest of the third floor didn’t have much to offer in terms of ambiance or clues. A speaker on the ceiling piped sound from the theatre. “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” sung by the cast, signaled that intermission was over and act two had begun.
While patrons were occupied by the show, I used the time to explore the building’s every nook and cranny. Each room I walked into appeared to be an empty office, an empty classroom, or a storage room full of costumes and props. Sorting through the boxes of flashy material, I was for a moment sad that I had never been in a community theatre production when I was young because I was unfortunately very cool as a kid and had never had the opportunity to be a super weird dumb nerd.
With a sense of existential dread and no more leads, I returned to the lobby and leaned my ear again the theatre door to hear the flutes and trumpets pipe up. I opened the door slightly, careful not to make too much sound, and eyed the mesmerized crowd staring intently at the stage. The actors were dancing in man-woman pairings kicking up their knees, looking genuinely giddy. I considered finding a seat for myself to take in the joy first-hand just as a man whizzed behind me with measuring tape around his neck and needle and thread in his hand. He ran into the hallway outlining the perimeter of the theatre and opened the wide double doors that said “Cast and Crew Only,” which for a moment revealed an actor wearing a wreath on his head and a long regal coat with a large rip down the right arm, waiting to be stitched up.
Remembering I had a job to do, I regretfully closed the crack in the theatre door and walked the same path as the fast needle man.
Through the double doors, there appeared a long hallway with super weird dumb nerds wearing petticoats and others wearing top hats donned with Christmas holly. As I was dressed in detective black, not period-appropriate clothes for The Christmas Carol, I grabbed a piece of trampled sheet music from the floor and covered my face.
Two children in beggar clothing ran past me.
“Jessie, Harrison, get back in here!”
A panicked lady looked up at me. “Oh, thank God. Can you take these children to the Greenroom with the others while I find a first aid kit for Bethany?”
As someone dressed in black moved a fog machine down the hallway, I realize I looked like another stagehand.
“Sure,” I said reluctantly. It was my own wishful thinking that the case would get cracked while production was in session, and I was fine with children. At least I had met children before–just not two at the same time.
The Greenroom was like a horror movie. Thirty children ran across the floor and, I think, the ceiling. They sported ragged costumes. Some children had patched trousers, and some had fake dirt on their faces. Others showed off their fingerless gloves.
They all looked homeless.
I approached a kid sitting in the middle of the room, caking an absurd among of fake dirt on his face and clothing.
“When do you all go on stage next?” I asked, realizing I knew nothing about The Christmas Carol.
“The children’s chorus doesn’t go on anymore. We only go on twice in the first act so we can sing and Scrooge can tell us he doesn’t want to give us any money. Mrs. Linda says we just have to stay alive until the play is over.”
I inspected the chaotic mess around us and wondered why any child would want to be in a production where they were mostly not in the production.
“I fold.” I heard someone whimper.
Another voice followed with a grimy sequel, “Royal flush.”
I heard Ohs and Ahs and a God dammit! I bid “Good day” to the kid and searched through the screaming children to follow the noise.
“I’m out of cash.”
“Me too! And I already gave you my sister’s wedding ring and her divorce tiara.”
“Here are my dad’s car keys. It’s a Mercedes S-Class. I’m sorry.”
A circle of knees, kneeling on the floor in torn 19th-century garb peeked from behind a row of music stands in the back of the room. I quickened my pace. But when I approached, I only found seven bored children distracting themselves to pass the time, either scrolling on their phones, playing with some single-player gaming device, or staring at the wall. None of it matched the soundscape from before.
I started to feel silly in my suspicion, but I followed my impulse anyway. “Were you all playing poker?” I asked.
A grimy kid sitting with his back to the wall smiled. He put his phone down on top of his overstuffed backpack propping up his knees. “No, we were preparing for our next scene,” he said.
Then I remembered my conversation with the kid before. “Ha! I happen to know that you do not have a next scene. The children don’t go on stage in the second act!”
The door to the Greenroom opened, and Mrs. Linda’s voice pierced through the room. “Alexa, Henry! We need you in the wings, now!” The grimy child stood and passed the overstuffed backpack to a girl who was laying on the floor. She took it, laid her head on it like a pillow, and continued to play with her Nintendo Switch.
The girl saw me and quipped, “Alexa and Henry play Ignorance and Want, kind of like two creepy gremlins or something. They get to go on stage for that stupid graveyard scene, which is not that special because they don’t even have lines. All they do is point at Scrooge’s future grave, but we all know Scrooge isn’t going to die, at least not anytime soon. Otherwise, the play wouldn’t make sense. Alexa’s never even been to theatre camp, and I go to theatre camp every summer.”
Her jealousy bored me.
Mrs. Linda found me.
“Thank you so much for your help with the children! I should be ok, now.”
Knowing I had better leave or the charade would be over, I quickly surveyed the bored kid scene once more and noticed the backpack had a monogram embroidered on the front. H.E…. Henry Eddleston, I thought.
“You know,” I said to the snooty girl. “If you want to go on stage. You should just do it. It’s just pointing after all.”
Her mouth slowly formed a smile. She put her Nintendo Switch down and told the boy staring at the wall to watch the backpack. As she extended it to him, I intercepted and dumped its contents.
Bundles upon bundles of money, engagement rings, car keys, yacht keys, blocks of gold, a Picasso painting, frozen embryos, mummy remnants, fossils proving the birth of Christ, a lock of hair that I can only assume belonged to the artist formerly known as Prince, and baby teeth I can only assume belong to Tom Brady fell to the ground.
I couldn’t believe was I was witnessing! Was weaselly, slimy, nine-year-old Henry Eddleston the evil overlord of this massive scheme? I turned the backpack right-side up, and on the side with the straps, the side no one was supposed to see, was a snake, poorly drawn in black sharpie.
The girl looked at me with terror in her eyes.
I took what was left in the bag and ran past the children, through the double doors, and slowed my pass to inconspicuously enter the dark theatre. Crawling below the chairs, I saw Henry and Alexa on stage. They looked homely, standing opposite someone dressed like the grim reaper. They each raised an arm and pointed at a tombstone.
At the same moment, something fell out of Henry’s hand. I looked closer. It was dice. Alexa began to cry, yet Henry wore a brooding smile. When the pointing was over, she took off her bracelet and dropped it on the floor.
“That snake!” I muttered. I crawled back out of the theatre. Once inside the lobby, I pulled out my phone and called my boss.
“Chief, you’ve got to hear me out! I think I know who this criminal is, and it’s so much worse than we could have imagined. This gambling ring is a group of children in The Christmas Carol at the McLeod Community Theatre. Their ringleader is nine-year-old Henry Eddleston!”
“Ah, here we go again.” Chief sighed. “We’ll have to file this under the age-old Christmas Carol crime.”
I nearly fell back, stunned by his blasé reaction. “Come, again?”
“Happens every year. The children really need more stage time.”