“So Ash, what took you so long?” Sabrina Royale’s bird’s-egg-blue eyes blink as I expose her head, which sticks out of the contorted black bundle at a comical tilt. Her beehive hairstyle is likewise skewed, and tinged with various shades of gunge. Her fabulous cheekbones glisten with paste, and she bears a blob of cream on the end of her dainty nose, which causes her to cross her eyes in consternation. However, for all the tortured shrieks the Mayoress issued during her drubbing at Cassie’s hands, it appears the costume has shielded her from the worst of the mess.
Stunned at my discovery, I’m unable to come up with a witty riposte, but the Mayoress has her own answer ready anyhow.
“Your problem is you’re too vain”, she explains, “That’s why you’ve blundered headlong into one false conclusion after another. First hint of a clue, and you’re convinced you’ve got the whole thing sewn up. By the way, that phone call from ‘Grace’s school’ was me, and you fell for it.”
I sigh as look back at my bedraggled friend, who is being helped to her feet by Cassie.
“I have to say”, the Mayoress continues, “when I persuaded Clive to send you here undercover, I expected more of a challenge.”
“It was your idea to involve me?”, I gasp.
“Oh yes.” The Mayoress nods vigorously, causing her to sway in her suspended position. “The prospect of playing against a young, smart detective who used to be ‘one of us’ was a thrill I couldn’t resist.”
Despite the situation, I can’t help puffing out my chest. Assassin or no Assassin, when Sabrina Royale pays you a compliment that’s something to be proud of.
“I’m sure Clive believes he had the idea himself”, the Mayoress muses with a condescending air. “But he’s very suggestible, bless him. I planted the foam cannon where it would be discovered, and that set off his protective instincts. He wanted to send in a full police presence from the start, but I sweet-talked him into this lower-key solution. And so the trap was set.”
“And with Tawney feeding you info on the case, you could stay one step ahead”, I reflect. “Hang on… if Tawney told you he was taking me off the case, how did you know I’d be here today?”
“I knew you were too vain to accept defeat on the case, for one thing”, Sabrina smirks. “But more than that, Clive isn’t my only source of information. It’s amazing the things I’ve found out over the last few days.” The Mayoress’ eyes glint as she swings gently back and forth. “I know that Grace drinks more than her daily recommended limit of wine…”
“How dare you!”, Grace snaps, as she tries to shake off the paste.
“…I know that Cassie was inspired to achieve her intellectual feats by an 18th century mathematician…”
“So you’ve been bugging us!?”, Cassie snarls.
“Of course dear”, the Mayoress looks surprised at our surprise. “Your changing cubicle was wired before you arrived, and it wasn’t difficult to fix up your car, Ash. Oh, and Grace, that book you gave me to sign – I stuck a slimline listening device to the back cover. I heard every word in your flat last night.”
Grace continues to glower while wringing out her lab-coat.
“I’ve got a lot more technical know-how than most people give me credit for”, the Mayoress boasts. “But my biggest asset is my saintliness; I’m above all suspicion. Take the incident with Miss Reaping at Manchester, for example. All I needed to do, after committing the act, was turn the corner and stuff the costume into my handbag. The security goons even tipped their hats as they charged past me. Or the stately home in Bicester? I’m friends with Lord Hawthorne who owns it. Getting access was no problem.”
“I understand the how”, I remark grimly. “I’d like to hear about the why.”
“I already told you – to punish their vanity.” Sabrina’s stately countenance glazes over, staring sadly into a dusty corner of the loft. “Let me tell you a story, Ash. Back when you were a fumble on the backseat of your father’s car, I was at the top of the fashion tree. I headlined at the Paris Fashion Week, my face gazed out of advertising boards tens of storeys high, the New York Times referred to the ‘Royale Wave’ as a benchmark pose.
“And still it wasn’t enough. I needed more gushing reviews, more centrefold spreads, more paparazzi on my tail. I wallpapered my house in magazine cuttings. I started turning up late for shoots because I couldn’t drag myself away from the mirror. I threw a tantrum if I didn’t get pole position on the catwalk.” The Mayoress lets out melancholy sigh. “All that mattered was me and my beautiful self.
“That’s what vanity does to you, Ash. It’s a poison that hollows you out inside while extolling your exterior. First it’s an indulgence, then a preoccupation, then an obsession. It distorts your very perception, so that you don’t see how vain you’ve become. The only thing that can shake you out of it is a jarring shock of humility – a slap in the face from reality. For me it came when Versace dropped me. For these young models, I engineered the shock for them.”
“Really? And you think that poor, young Erica Wither needed a jarring shock of humility?” My fists ball.
“Ah, the Exeter schoolgirl. I was there on a Mayoral exchange”, Sabrina recounts. “Granted, she did look meek and modest, and I admit, as I lurked there in the shadows with my hand on the rope, I had second thoughts about pulling. But then, as she received the crown on her head, I saw the glimmer awaken in her eyes. She had taken her first intoxicating sip from the cup of vanity, and I could picture her one year, five years, ten years down the line. And so I made that decision to pull; the earlier you snuff out a vain streak, the better. In the long run, she’ll thank me for… What is it? What are you all looking at me like that for?”
All three of us – Cassie included – stare aghast at the Mayoress as she relates, with casual matter-of-factness, how she crushed a teenager’s dreams. It dawns on me that Sabrina’s musings on vanity ring true in ways that she herself doesn’t realise. In taking on this self-appointed crusade, in believing she has the right to punish others for their own good, she has become the vainest of them all. But I don’t want to venture any further down this rabbit hole; what I’ve seen is disturbing enough.
“Ok Sabrina, let’s get you down the station”, I sigh.
“You really think you can arrest me?”, Sabrina scoffs. “Whose story is Clive going to believe? The woman he idolises, or you three troublemakers?”
A click at the door makes us all jump. I turn to see Charlotte Wade standing in the doorway, her startled eyes flashing between us.
“Charlotte! Thank goodness you’re here!”, the Mayoress wails from her trussed state. “Look what the Assassin and her assistants have done to me! Quick, fetch the Police! Go!!”
Charlotte, instead of hurrying downstairs, steps into the loft. She raises a hand apprehensively to her frizzy hair, perhaps still fearful of our peroxide-loving, fictional fleas. “Nice try, Mayoress, but I heard it all outside the door. Recorded it too.” To authenticate her claim, she holds up her phone and plays back an excerpt of the Mayoress’ deluded rant.
Panic flashes across Sabrina’s fair features. “But Charlotte, surely you’d never snitch on me! Not after everything I’ve done for you.”
“Everything you’ve done for me!?”, Charlotte exclaims. “What about me standing in the rain holding the car door while you stroll along at a piss-taking pace? What about all the cups of tea I’ve remade because the amount of cream ain’t right for your delicate tastebuds? What about having to shine a dozen pairs of shoes so you can decide at the last minute which ones are worthy of your precious Mayoral feet?!” The besuited administrator works herself into an enraged frenzy. “Do this Charlotte! Do that Charlotte! Do it again Charlotte! And never one fucking word of thanks!”
Charlotte picks up a pair of scissors and advances on the prisoner, snipping them menacingly in the air. Sabrina’s eyes widen.
“Everyone’s looking for you downstairs”, Charlotte remarks through gritted teeth. “Why don’t you make an entrance?” She takes the scissors to the neckline of the Assassin’s costume, and begins cutting along the underside. The fabric flaps open, revealing the shoulders of a very expensive, pale-lemon suit. It’ll be a shame to ruin that.
Sabrina gulps as she looks down at the gently bubbling shampoo. “You wouldn’t dare, you horrid little rat!”, she hisses.
“You think not?” Charlotte grins with each determined snip. She’s now halfway down the Mayoress’ abdomen. With the support unbalanced, the Mayoress begins to tip forward, her face moving closer to the shimmering surface.
“Charlotte, I have a lot of influence in the industry.” Sabrina’s voice wobbles with alarm. “If you don’t stop, I’ll have you handwashing models’ underwear for the rest of your career!”
The threat has no effect on Charlotte, who continues to snip away at a merry place.
Desperate, the Mayoress tries a different tack. “Don’t just stand there Ash! You’re the Police; it’s your duty to protect citizens from harm!”
I stand by with my arms folded. “As you said yourself, Mayoress, I’m a terrible copper”, I reply sweetly.
The gash now beyond her waist, Sabrina tips so far she can almost kiss the uneven, soapy surface. Her vision must now be filled with the vivid, synthetic blue. Her legs clench in what remains of the costume, mustering the forces of friction in a bid to avoid going in. “Charlotte please!”, she whimpers. “I’m sorry if I treated you badly. I’ll give you whatever you want: your own clothing label, your own fragrance, your own magazine. Just name your price!”
Charlotte leans down to the Mayoress’ ear. “This is for the young girl in Exeter.” She closes the scissors in a final, decisive snip. Gravity delivers its verdict, and the Mayoress slides out of the costume, her head disappearing into the cobalt slop before she can say anything more. Her torso plunges in, followed by her skirt. Then her thrashing, tight-encased legs lose their battle, and finally her stiletto-clad feet are gone. The viscous surface swallows its prey with a most vile slurp.
A battle ensues in the belly of the vat. For an instant, the feet pierce through the colvulsing surface, now sans stilettos, the silky tights saturated with goo. Then they are sucked down once more. After a few seconds of anguished thrashing, a larger lump emerges. It is only after the appearance of shoulders that I identify this lump as a head. The beehive hairdo has collapsed into a misshapen mop, weighed down by a thick layer of shiny blue sludge. The Mayoress’ face is coated; her mouth gasps for air, her eyes remain closed. Two trembling hands appear and clutch at the side of the tank. As Sabrina tries to haul herself up, her sodden jacket drags down, revealing her mature but firm cleavage, also layered with gunk.
The vat jolts, causing the Mayoress to lose her grip and slip below the surface. I whip around to see Charlotte at the controls of the winch. The tank descends into the floor, and the main hall becomes visible through the hole. As the Monster of the Blue Lagoon re-surfaces, a preliminary gasp sounds around the auditorium.
“We’d better get down there”, I urge.
Downstairs, we burst through the doors to pandemonium. The audience throbs with confusion and excitement, photographers snap away, Police run round like headless chickens. The shampoo vat has already arrived at its pride of place in the middle of the stage. Sabrina has worked up quite a lather, with bubbles overflowing. As for the Mayoress herself, she desperately claws at the sides of the tank, trying to escape her sticky prison.
“Oh my God, there’s the Assassin!” Lacey points a denouncing finger at me. I really should’ve removed this costume before coming down. Ignoring the shouts and stares, I fight my way through the throng.
“DC Wednesday! What are you doing here? What on Earth is going on!?” A red-faced DS Sambrook grabs at my arm.
“All will be explained Sarge!” I shake him off, and press on through the chaos. I mount the stage, marching triumphantly into the blaze of flashbulbs. In front of me, the Mayoress hauls herself over the rim of the vat and tumbles onto the stage, gooped from her hair down to her hosiery. She stumbles to her feet, but promptly loses her footing, landing on her arse with a squelch. Again she tries; again her feet slip in the puddle of shampoo beneath her, sending her flat on her face.
It is a most undignified spectacle, this defiled beauty flailing in front of the watching world. And yet, the blue blob seems intent on making a getaway. After several more failed attempts to stand, she resorts to slithering across the stage. I really should put her out of her misery, but I’m inclined to draw out her disgrace a little longer. She deserves her ‘jarring shock of humility’.
Snaking a slimy trail behind her, the slithering villainess makes it to my feet. She halts, her eyes rising to meet mine from under the gunky mop that used to be her exquistively coiffeured Barnet. She knows it’s over. She thought it would be fun to play me… but she lost. The visage that once graced poster-boards and magazine covers, now slicked with goo, signals acquiescence to her downfall.
My heart palpitates. This is my moment. This time there will be no mistake. “Sabrina Royale”, my voice booms, “I’m arresting you for… for…” Dammit! Why didn’t I prepare this? “…for being the Catwalk Assassin!”