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Murder on Opening Night
A Myrtle Clover Cozy Mystery, Volume 9
Elizabeth Spann Craig
Published by Elizabeth Craig, 2015.
This is a work of fiction. Similarities to real people, places, or events are entirely coincidental.
MURDER ON OPENING NIGHT
First edition. November 28, 2015.
Copyright © 2015 Elizabeth Spann Craig.
Written by Elizabeth Spann Craig.
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
For Riley and Elizabeth Ruth
“I’d no idea you were such a theater buff, Myrtle.” Miles eyed the ticket that Myrtle brandished in front of her as if it were a poisonous snake.
“I’m not. But this is a freebie. Who can resist a freebie? These tickets are free and by-golly, I am going to use them!” Myrtle’s voice was fervent with emotion as she waved the tickets in the air like someone who’d just won the lottery.
“How did you come about these tickets again?” Miles had every appearance of someone who’d planned on spending a quiet evening at home and was peeved that his plans had been hijacked.
“From Elaine,” said Myrtle. Elaine was married to Myrtle’s son, Red. “She volunteers at the community theater, but they couldn’t make tonight’s production. Their babysitter fell through,” said Myrtle.
“I thought you were their babysitter.”
“Their other babysitter,” said Myrtle with the patient tone of someone who was dealing with a rather dense child. “The one that’s unreliable. I offered to step in, but Elaine said she was just as happy to have an early night.”
Miles said, “What’s the name of this production? It’s nothing fanciful, is it? I haven’t been in the mood for something fanciful for quite a while.”
“It’s not Midsummer Night’s Dream, Miles.” She squinted at the ticket. “It’s something called Malaise.”
Miles made a face. “That sounds ominous.”
“I’m convinced that you’ve got malaise. I’ve never seen anyone so reluctant to enjoy an evening out. Never mind, I’ll find someone else to go with me. The problem with you, Miles, is that you’ve gotten too accustomed to lowbrow entertainment. Your soap opera watching has corrupted your taste.”
“You’re the one who got me hooked on the soap!” said Miles hotly.
“Only because Tomorrow’s Promise provides a fascinating slice-of-life study. I know the characters in soap operas are caricatures, but they hit home so very often. We’re all driven by passions.” She paused meaningfully. “You’re driven by the passion to organize your pantry alphabetically, which is likely what you’ll be doing tonight instead of going out. It’s all right. I’ll introduce Wanda to a bit of culture.”
Perhaps the bit about organizing his pantry hit too close to home. Or perhaps Miles simply didn’t want to imagine Wanda at the community playhouse. It would have been a stretch for Wanda, Myrtle had to admit. Wanda didn’t have an operational car. Myrtle would have to pick up the psychic and Myrtle didn’t have a car, herself. Then there was the fact that Wanda may not be able to endure an entire production at the community theater without a cigarette. Wanda tended to agitate Miles and had done so since he’d discovered they were cousins. The resulting sense of responsibility had proven ... expensive ... for Miles.
Whatever his reasons were, Miles suddenly accepted Myrtle’s invitation with alacrity. “Fine, yes. A night out. Okay.”
“I’m bowled over by your enthusiasm,” drawled Myrtle. “Shall we say seven-thirty tonight? Can you pick me up then?”
“If I’m not too busy clearing out my sock drawer,” muttered Miles. He sighed. “This conversation has reminded me that there’s something I need to talk to you about.”
“So ... I know Puddin drives you crazy,” he said, referring to Myrtle’s housekeeper.
“Is the sky blue?”
“Would you be at all interested in firing Puddin and hiring someone else?” asked Miles.
Myrtle stared at him. “Well, naturally. But you know as well as I do that I’m stuck with Puddin like a bad marriage. If I lose her, I lose Dusty. And I can’t lose my yardman because he’s the only one who’ll mow and use the string trimmer around my yard gnomes. He and Puddin are a package deal.”
Miles said, “I know. I noticed your gnomes are out in full force in both front and back yards. What did Red do wrong this time?”
Myrtle believed Red was a good son, except for the fact that he had a nasty habit of overstepping his boundaries. When he did, she lugged out her tremendous collection of garden gnomes. He loathed them—all the better to put them on display in her front yard where he could see them from his house across the street.
“He implied that I shouldn’t drive after dark. Very ageist of him. Especially since my eyesight is far sharper than Red’s failing vision,” said Myrtle, sounding huffy.
“But surely that argument is completely hypothetical. You don’t even have a car,” said Miles.
“Still, it was completely out of line. It was an insult punishable by gnomes. And perhaps even more punishment is required. I might have to resort to calling Red by his legal name instead of his nickname.”
Miles’s eyes opened wide. “You mean he has another name?”
“Of course he does! Who names their baby ‘Red?’ No, in the South we hand down our ancient family names, even if it means that the child must go by a nickname to avoid being teased at school. It’s tradition,” said Myrtle.
“What is Red’s name then? The one that would have gotten him teased?” asked Miles.
“Horace. He’s the ninth Horace in a row. It was practically mandatory that he be named it,” said Myrtle. “Otherwise,I’d have been haunted by the ghosts of Horaces past.”
“Lucky for him he had red hair and an instant nickname,” muttered Miles.
“I think that anyone named for a Pilgrim doesn’t have room to talk,” said Myrtle with a sniff.
“Miles Bradford wasn’t a Pilgrim,” said Miles stiffly. “Myles Standish was. William Bradford was. Myles Bradford, as a Pilgrim, is a figment of your overactive imagination.”
Myrtle ignored this. “But going back to the original thread of our conversation. Who did you have in mind to replace Puddin? Although, of course, anyone would be better than Puddin.”
Miles cleared his throat. “Wanda.”
“Yes. She showed up at my house yesterday. She required ... financial assistance,” said Miles.
“Showed up at your house? Please tell me she drove one of those decrepit vehicles,” said Myrtle.
“No, the cars are all still up on cement blocks. I’m afraid she walked the whole way. Took her all day.”
Myrtle put a hand to her head. “I can’t believe it. Not again. No wonder she’s stick thin. So this time she actually asked for money? She doesn’t usually do that.”
“She didn’t ask for a dime. She asked me to help her find a job. Wanda said she was tired of the ceaseless struggle for survival,” said Miles.
Myrtle raised her eyebrow. “Wanda said this?”
“Those weren’t her exact words. I’m translating for her. She said something along the lines of: ain’t got no money and I’m sick of it.”
Myrtle nodded. “Got it. But what is Wanda qualified to do?”
They mulled this over for a moment in silence. Miles said, “She does run her own small business.”
“Fortunetelling out of one’s home isn’t like being a CPA or something,” said Myrtle. “I don’t think we can foist her on some hapless business as an office manager, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
Miles said, “How about the housekeeping then? I know ... not for you. But for somebody else? Surely she must be qualified to scrub.”
“I think she could do it, if she had to. But it’s hardly second nature to her. I’m not sure she’s an expert in spotting and eliminating clutter and grime. Think of the shack where she and Crazy Dan live. I wouldn’t use the word ‘tidy’ to describe it.”
Miles held up his hands in surrender. “I give up. What do you think she’s qualified for?”
“I’d look at her gifts and interests,” said Myrtle. “In other words, her sorcery.”
“I’m not sure how that would fly in a corporate environment,” said Miles. “Unless we send her to work at the stock exchange.”
Myrtle snapped her fingers. “I know. Of course! The horoscope for the paper. Sloan, my editor, has been bellyaching for ages because we can’t keep a writer for it. Wanda will be perfect!”
“Except, of course, for the fact that Wanda is illiterate,” said Miles.
“I can fix that,” said Myrtle.
“You can teach Wanda to read and write?” asked Miles doubtfully. “I know you’re a retired English teacher, but Wanda would be a challenge. Even for you.”
“No, I mean that I can edit whatever she writes. I’ll get her to submit horoscopes for the paper in advance, and I’ll clean them up really well. It’ll be fine. And it certainly suits her the best,” said Myrtle.
“Won’t you have to run it by Sloan first?” asked Miles.
“He’ll just be relieved to have it taken care of. But sure, I’ll bring her with me to the Bradley Bugle office one day. I’m sure Sloan will go for it,” said Myrtle.
“I’m glad that’s taken care of. I’ll drive out to see Wanda this afternoon and let her know. But right now, I’m famished. Is it all right if I make lunch for us while I’m here?”
Myrtle nodded thoughtfully, sitting down carefully into an armchair. “Of course. Although it might entail some creativity from you.” Myrtle had the feeling that the cupboard was looking barren.
Miles bumped around in the kitchen for a few minutes. He opened the pantry and closed it. Opened the fridge and closed it. “There’s a small amount of peanut butter,” he called out. “But no jelly.”
“It is possible to eat the one without the other,” observed Myrtle. Although it did make for a very mucky meal.
There were more rummaging sounds. “No ham,” he reported.
“But there is a bit of turkey,” said Miles, sounding excited.
“Well, for heaven’s sake, use that then.”
A moment later, he peered solemnly from the kitchen door at her. “I would. Simply because I’m that hungry. But there’s no mayo in your fridge. And you’ve got no bread.”
“Miles, you should go on the stage, yourself. I’ve never heard such drama through a play by play forage for food. Let’s give up. It sounds as if we’re at the stage where we’ll be eating stray pickles and various condiments if we continue. Red is taking me to the store later today, anyway and I’ll stock up. In the meantime, let’s go to Bo’s Diner. We can pick lunch up and bring it back here.” Myrtle caught the glance that Miles directed to her television. She quickly added, “And we won’t miss a second of the soap, because it’s all set to record.”
They’d decided Miles should drive to the diner. Unfortunately, parking was scarce at the popular lunch spot. There were no empty spaces on the street so Miles tried his luck around the back of the diner. They discovered that cars were even double-parked and parked in makeshift spots. Muttering, he drove down Main Street a ways more until he found an empty space. Myrtle was positive it would have been quicker to have walked from her house.
The diner was packed on the inside, too. When they walked through the door, they had to hover right there since the entire front of the diner was full of customers.
“We should have called for take-out,” said Miles glumly.
“But then we’d have had to carry those greasy bags back home and we’d have ended up greasy, too. It’s okay, Miles. People are in and out here. We’ll soon get a table.”
A blonde waitress wearing an excessive amount of eye makeup sauntered over. She immediately refuted Myrtle’s statement. “Hey, y’all. It’s going to be a forty minute wait, sugar. You okay to stand that long?” Her mascara-encrusted eyes were doubtful.
Miles said, “Actually, we’d rather order it for takeout and wait. That won’t be as long, will it?”
“More like fifteen minutes, love.”
Miles looked questioningly at Myrtle. She snapped, “I think I can stand for fifteen minutes without keeling over! For heaven’s sake.”
The waitress nodded and poised a pen over a battered ordering pad. “What’ll you have?”
“A pimento cheese chili dog,” said Myrtle promptly. “With fries.”
As usual, Miles looked queasy when hearing Myrtle’s order. His own was healthier. “The chicken salad platter with a side of fresh fruit.”
“Got it. We’ll get that right up for y’all,” said the waitress, dashing off on impossibly high heels.
A middle-aged man who was sitting on the bench in the waiting area spotted Myrtle and leaped to his feet, gesturing to the seat he’d just vacated. Myrtle knew this was one of the few benefits to being in one’s eighties, so she was quick to take advantage of it. Another middle-aged man stood up, looked at Miles, and gestured to his seat. Miles pretended not to see it, still being somewhat sensitive about his age—in Myrtle’s mind, anyway. The man settled back down on the bench. The front door continued opening and more customers continued pouring in so Miles moved away from the door and stood near Myrtle.
Myrtle cocked her head to one side and listened intently for a minute. Then she tugged on Miles’s khakis. “Miles! That table directly behind us is full of the actors and actresses from tonight’s show!”
Miles squinted at them. “Are they practicing now? They seem very agitated.”
“No, I think they’re just arguing amongst themselves. You know how excitable these theater types are.”
Myrtle and Miles listened in, Myrtle with her back to the table and Miles facing them. One of the actresses was speaking disparagingly about the cheap costumes and the problems with sound and lighting. An actor complained that he didn’t have enough lines or stage time to make all the practices worthwhile.
Miles said in a wondering voice, “I’m bowled over that they’re having this conversation and you and I are so obviously listening in. Do you think that’s because they’re so used to having an audience that they simply ignore it?”
“No, I think it’s because you and I are old, Miles. They don’t even see us. Welcome to being elderly. It’s like having an invisibility cloak,” said Myrtle.
Now Myrtle turned around too, to demonstrate her point. Conversation and quarreling continued as it had before. Myrtle saw a tanned young woman in a tight red mini-dress with brunette hair down to her hips say, “My problem isn’t lack of lines. I’ve got so much stage time that it’s hard to remember everything.” She made a moue as if it were a huge burden to be such a star. But her eyes glinted with a malicious glee.
A thin woman who was about forty with red hair snapped at her, “You’d better remember them all or you’re not going to go very far in this business. Don’t think you can make it on looks and youth alone for very long.”
The tanned young woman just gave her a sweet smile back. “I’ll be right back. I’ve got to touch up my face.” Although she didn’t seem to be wearing makeup at all.
The redhead threw her balled-up napkin at the table. “That’s it. I can’t stand working with Nandina anymore. She thinks she’s such a big-shot.”
“She is a big-shot. She’s the lead in the play,” pointed out a studious looking young man with black framed glasses.
“She was miscast,” gritted the redhead between her teeth. “The girl can’t act her way out of a paper bag.”
A thin girl with blonde hair styled in a pixie cut seemed to be repressing a grin. She wore a flowing top covered with psychedelic paisleys and appeared to be thoroughly enjoying herself. “Veronica, you should try playing one of your practical jokes on her. Like the one for the last play where you got Tina signed up on every junk mail list in the country. I bet she’s still trying to dig out from under the catalogs!”
The young man in glasses said swiftly, “Veronica, you’re just upset because you’re not playing young female leads anymore. You should face the facts. You’re simply too old to play those parts anymore.”
Miles grunted at this. “She looks like a baby to me.”
“Shut up, Skip,” said a cool male voice. Myrtle peered intently at the back of the speaker. He had long blond hair, a muscular build, and was wearing a white sports jacket. Since his back was facing her, she couldn’t see his face, but his whole aura was one of strength and style.
Skip raised an eyebrow in what appeared to be a practiced gesture. “You’re standing up for Veronica? Since when, Blaine?”
“I’m standing up for every cast member,” said Blaine briskly. “As for Nandina, it’s easy to forget how it was when we were starting out, ourselves.”
“Which has been longer ago for some of us than for others,” noted Skip snidely.
Veronica rolled her eyes.
Then Myrtle observed that the eyes of the vast majority of male diners were trained in one direction. She turned to see the young woman, who was apparently Nandina, sashaying toward the table. She was walking with fluid movements—using almost a runway walk—as she went. A faint smile played around her lips as she felt the eyes on her. She sat in the booth next to Blaine.
Nandina turned to a silent and watchful man on the other side of the table and gave him a simpering smile. “Roscoe, you’ve been so quiet that I didn’t even know you were here. Tell me, how is Josie doing? I haven’t spoken with her for so long! I’ll have to give her a call today. And this time, I’m really going to do it instead of just putting it off.”
Roscoe flushed a mottled red and shot Nandina a look of unadulterated fury. Miles raised his eyebrows at Myrtle. For a moment, Myrtle wondered if the man with the dark, springy hair and beard were going to spring across the table and throttle the young woman. But instead he ignored her, finishing off the last bite of his food with a shaking hand.
Miles raised his eyebrows. He leaned over and said, “That Blaine seems to be friendly with Nandina.”
Myrtle gave up on the entire premise of not listening in. The group of actors couldn’t have cared less about Myrtle and Miles, anyway. She stood up and peered down. Sure enough, Blaine had a hand on Nandina’s knee under the table. Myrtle noticed that the girl with the pixie style haircut also noticed and smirked.
Their eavesdropping was interrupted by the sugary voice of their waitress now belting out over the chatter, “Clover and Bradford! Takeout is ready!”
“Well, shoot,” said Myrtle. “That was even better than Tomorrow’s Promise.”
They quietly rode the short distance to Myrtle’s with their greasy bags on the floor in the back of Miles’s Volvo.
Myrtle finally said, “If the play tonight is half as interesting as lunch, then we should be in for a treat.”
“There’s a lot of tension and conflict going on with those people. If that translates over into the play, it might end up being a stressful experience,” said Miles, pushing his glasses up his nose. He carefully parked in Myrtle’s driveway and then grabbed the bags of food from the backseat floor.
“Did I forget to mention the best part about this community theater? It serves wine. And the audience is allowed to bring their drinks into the theater,” said Myrtle as she unlocked her front door.
“Wine might be the saving grace of the evening,” said Miles.
“Can you imagine working on a play with that constant sniping? How on earth do they learn their lines?” asked Myrtle. She walked into the kitchen and pulled out napkins and plates.
“The source of all the arguments was one person: that Nandina woman. She was obviously a real troublemaker.” Miles put the food out on the plates and turned on Myrtle’s television set.
Myrtle brought in two glasses of water. “That was clear, yes. Part of it was ego, but part of it seemed to be due to the fact that she loved the drama.”
“Does she have top billing on the playbill?”
“I believe this may be the type of production that doesn’t have a playbill, actually,” said Myrtle, settling down in her favorite armchair.
Miles brought up the taped soap opera and Myrtle snapped her fingers. “Hold on a second, Miles. There’s one more thing I forgot to do. Elaine mentioned that we get discounted tickets for the next production if we share on social media that we’re going tonight.”
“Pass,” said Miles, holding up his hands in surrender.
“Well, I’m interested, even if you’re not. Such a fuddy-duddy. I’ll share it on Twitter,” said Myrtle. She got back up and walked over to her desk. Miles started eating his chicken salad platter.
“I wonder if I say that Miles Bradford and I are attending, if it means that you can get discount tickets, too,” murmured Myrtle.
“I said that I’d pass on it,” reminded Miles. “Besides, if you share an update like that, the whole town will presume that we’re dating.” Myrtle was quiet, clicking around on her laptop. Miles sighed. “I suspect you’re not listening to me again.”
“Hmm? Sorry Miles, I was just looking at something online. I was going to mention the Bradley Community Theater in the update and I just saw they posted something rather interesting,” said Myrtle, sitting down in the desk chair.
Miles ate some of his fruit cup. “What did they post?”
“It says: Tonight’s production features the better off dead Nandina Marshall.”
The afternoon flew by for Myrtle. Tomorrow’s Promise had actually been rather suspenseful with Sedate Homemaker Carrie brainwashed by Wicked Ethan into robbing a bank. The nap that Myrtle had planned on taking afterward hadn’t taken place, because her mind was so busy thinking about the soap and the scene that Miles and she had witnessed at the diner. When her son, Red, showed up at her door at around five o’clock, she frowned ferociously at him, unsure why he was there.
Red, of course, was always quick to attribute any forgetfulness on Myrtle’s part to the ravages of age. “Mama?” he asked. “Did you forget I was going to take you to the grocery store?”
Fortunately, Myrtle recovered quickly. “Certainly not. How could I forget when my cupboards are bare? No, I was simply stunned by your choice of attire, that’s all.”
She hid a smile as Red quickly glanced down at his clothing, allowing her time to calculate where she’d put her purse after she’d returned from the diner.
“Shorts and a golf shirt,” he muttered, almost to himself. “What’s wrong with what I’ve got on?”
“Oh, nothing. I suppose I’ve just gotten out of the habit of seeing you in short pants, that’s all. Ordinarily, when you escort me to the grocery store, you’re in your police uniform. It’s sort of fun being squired around by someone in uniform.”
“Next time I’ll remember the fact that you’re on a power trip,” said Red with a sigh.
It was extremely unfortunate that the grocery excursion had slipped Myrtle’s busy mind. She had no list to work from and no coupons from the paper. It was rare that she went to the store and paid face value for anything. Red knew this, too, and seemed determined in his best detective manner to ferret out the fact that his mother had indeed forgotten their foray to the store.
“Where’s your list, Mama?” he asked as he pushed her cart up aisle one.
“In my head,” she said with a sniff. “It’s an excellent mental acuity exercise, if you haven’t tried it.”
“No, I need the crutch of a list. Too much going through my mind to remember what we’re out of.” He paused as Myrtle squinted at a shelf, grabbed a couple of things, and threw them in the buggy. “You usually have a bunch of coupons, too. Did the paper not deliver them this week?”
She’d have used that excuse if she could, but since Red knew everyone in town, he’d have asked her delivery person to give him coupons for her. Myrtle gritted her teeth. Her backup strategy was to purchase items that were on sale at the store. And then, of course, to pick up her regular staples of milk and bread since they rarely had coupons, anyway. Surely she could make a meal out of the store’s weekly specials. However, this method involved a tedious trip up each aisle, peering at small yellow sales tags that the store placed on the shelves.
“I didn’t need the coupons this week, as a matter of fact. It was an amazing thing. Everything I needed at the store was on sale in the grocery flyer.” Myrtle reached for a bottle on the shelf. She decided a change of subject was in order to throw Police Chief Red off her scent. “I was wondering, Red, what you knew about this play.”
“What play?” asked Red absently. He was staring at the contents of Myrtle’s cart which now consisted of quite a few condiments, including a large bottle of barbeque sauce. “Planning a barbeque, Mama?”
Myrtle decided to ignore the question altogether. “The play that you were planning on seeing tonight. With Elaine.”
Red watched as his mother put a jar of pimentos into the cart. And then a second jar. “Oh, that. Well, you know how Elaine gets fixated on these different hobbies and things. We’ve suffered through photography and knitting and painting. She’s very talented, it’s just that she hasn’t really settled on a pastime that ... well, that showcases her talent.”
“So her involvement with the community theater is a hobby then, like the others?”
“Not exactly. This time it’s different. She realizes that she probably doesn’t have the time to be part of the cast. That’s a lot of practicing, and with my job, sometimes I’m not home at a predictable time. And Jack being so little and all ... you know.” His face brightened as Myrtle finally turned the corner to aisle two.
“Elaine is volunteering her time there, then,” said Myrtle. “I see. So she’s spending enough time to form an opinion of the cast.”
Red had the uncomfortable look of someone who was being put to the test and realized a strong possibility that he might fail. “I suppose she would have, yes. Hey, I see these baked beans are on sale—want some baked beans?”
Myrtle was still trying to maintain the fiction that she was working off a mental list. “No, I don’t need any baked beans, thank you. What does Elaine think of the cast of this current show?”
Red cleared his throat and seemed to be anxiously casting back in the recesses of his memory for any half-listened-to conversations. “Let’s see. She did say that there was a woman there who was very obnoxious. Sort of a diva.”
Probably Nandina. “Is she fighting with the rest of the cast?” Myrtle absently threw a can of early peas into her buggy, followed by another one.
“That’s what I don’t know. I only know she’s making trouble.” Red turned to give her a searching look. “Why are you so interested in the cast of this play? You’re not making trouble yourself, are you?”
“Of course not. Miles and I were at Bo’s Diner for lunch today and saw the cast eating there and squabbling like children. I wondered how much Elaine knew about them, that’s all—considering that Miles and I are going to be watching the play tonight.” Myrtle frowned at the shelf. It was difficult to pretend to be working off a mental list, figure out more about the cast members, and actually find low-priced food all at the same time.
“I’m sure, like with anything, the more time you spend with someone, the more opportunity you have to get annoyed by them.” Red gave his mother a long-suffering look as if she were the perfect illustration of this concept. “Say, do you think we can move through the next aisle a little faster? At this rate, you’ll be too late to even see the show tonight.”
At precisely seven-thirty, Myrtle’s doorbell rang. She opened the door and blinked at Miles for a moment. “Miles! You’re wearing a suit!”
“Naturally,” said Miles stiffly. “We’re going to the theater.” He studied Myrtle’s comfortable dark slacks, sensible shoes, and white tunic. “Aren’t we? It doesn’t look like you’re ready to go. Didn’t we say seven-thirty?”
Myrtle stood aside to allow Miles to step in. “This is community theater, Miles. There’s no need to look that nice at any art venue in Bradley. I feel as if I’m being accompanied by a waiter.”
Miles sighed. “I’ll leave the jacket here.”
“Can you leave the tie here, too?”
“Then I’d look silly,” said Miles.
“I suppose we don’t have time for you to change.” Myrtle picked up her pocketbook and fished the tickets out.
“It won’t take that long for us to get to the theater,” said Miles reasonably. “I can make a quick change.”
“But these are general admission tickets,” said Myrtle, peering at them. “Pooh. I should have noticed that. Technically, we should already be in line to ensure a good seat.”
Miles was looking less and less amused about their evening out.
Myrtle made a quick about-face in the interest of time. “Actually, you look very handsome. It’s good to show respect for the actors and the production, isn’t it? Let’s head out. Otherwise, we won’t even have time to grab a wine at the concession stand before going in.”
Myrtle, never one to be late, was tense in the car on the way over. But as soon as they strolled into the small theater downtown, she started to relax. “There aren’t so many people here. We should be able to get a good seat.”
Miles muttered, “May have something to do with the name of the play. Malaise doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as Fiddler on the Roof.”
“Let’s get that wine,” said Myrtle.
A few minutes later, wine in hand, they entered the theater. They were able to sit on the second row. And, since the seats were arranged stadium-style, they could see the stage perfectly.
Miles studied the program. “There doesn’t seem to be an intermission,” he fretted.
“Well, that’s all right, isn’t it? The play will be over sooner.” Myrtle watched the feet she could see under the small gap under the closed curtain on the stage.
“It’s just that with all this wine, I’ll have to visit the men’s room,” he sighed.
Myrtle switched seats with him so that Miles could sit on the aisle.
Right before the curtain went up, the theater owner, a Mr. Toucan, spoke a few words about the production and asked them to turn their phones off. He was a large man who wore an olive tie over a rather dingy khaki button-down shirt. He had orange hair and a matching mustache, and wore over-sized glasses and a pocket protector. “You’re in for a treat tonight, ladies and gentlemen!” he promised.
“I don’t think I know Mr. Toucan,” murmured Miles.
“He used to own the pet food store,” said Myrtle. “But apparently, owning a community theater has been his lifelong dream.”
“Imagine that,” said Miles in a stunned voice.
“We can’t all be CPAs, Miles,” said Myrtle reprovingly.
“Can’t all be engineers, you mean. I was an engineer,” said Miles in a tight voice.
As much as Myrtle was determined to enjoy her arts outing, she had to admit that the play was odd. It opened with a flashback of some sort. Then most of the actors had asides with the audience, breaking down the fourth wall in a way that Myrtle found distracting. There was then a set change behind the curtain with very loud music accompanying it. When the curtain opened, the stage was set for a dream sequence, complete with actress Veronica doing some sort of dreamy dancing while actress Nandina “slept” on a bed on the stage.
Myrtle glanced over at Miles. He appeared to be engaged in a dream sequence of his own. Myrtle elbowed him and he awoke with a start. “You’re missing it,” hissed Myrtle.
“I liked the performance in the diner better,” whispered Miles.
Myrtle frowned. “What’s going on now?” she said.
Nandina appeared to have missed a cue. The actor that they knew as Skip was repeating loudly, “Good morning, darling,” to a very still Nandina.
“Perhaps Nandina has fallen asleep, too,” suggested Miles dryly.
Skip apparently suspected so, too. He walked over to the bed and seemed to improvise a little. “I know it’s hard to wake up and face the day sometimes, dear, but we simply must, mustn’t we?”
Miles made a face at the stilted dialogue.
Skip lightly touched Nandina’s face. Then he abruptly dropped character and more roughly tugged her arm. Finally giving up all pretense of being in character, he said, “Nandina! Nandina!” He turned to look offstage. “She’s not breathing!”
Mr. Toucan appeared from the wings. He was wringing his hands. “Is there a doctor in the house?”
No one came forward.
“Engineering and teaching skills are never helpful in these situations,” said Myrtle regretfully.
“Anyone?” pleaded Mr. Toucan. But apparently the entire house was composed of non-medical types. “Could someone lower the curtain, please?”
The volume of the audience rose in distressed murmurs. They seemed to be wondering if this were just a very avant-guard production or if something were genuinely wrong. Myrtle took out her cell phone and turned it back on. “I’m calling Red,” she said grimly.
When Red picked up, Myrtle could barely hear him with all the commotion in the theater. Impatiently, she got up, grabbed her cane, and moved out to the small sitting area in front of the concessions.
“What’s going on?” asked Red, sounding a bit exasperated.
“It’s the play,” said Myrtle.
“Not your fixation with this play again. You know I didn’t plan on going there tonight, Mama. Besides, hasn’t it already started?”
“It’s started all right. But there was a plot twist that I didn’t see coming. One of the actresses is unresponsive on the stage.”
“What? It’s not part of the show?”
Myrtle could hear sounds on Red’s end that indicated that he was probably already getting dressed.
“It’s a very odd show, but no—this isn’t part of the storyline, I’m sure of it,” said Myrtle.
“All right. Just hold on. I’ll be there in five minutes,” Red said grimly.
Myrtle hung up and watched as Miles approached the concessions stand, solemnly holding his plastic cup. “May I have more wine?” he asked the worker earnestly.
Red arrived in mere minutes and quickly stopped the hubbub in the theater. “Okay, I’m going to need everyone here to keep it down to a whisper,” he barked as he climbed the few stairs to the stage and disappeared behind the red curtain.
The noise in the theater did drop and Myrtle could almost make out the murmurs on the other side of the curtain. A few minutes later, Red walked out looking grim. He addressed the audience again, saying, “There has been a tragic death here tonight. Under the circumstances, I’m going to need to call in a team from the state police. In the meantime, I’ll need everyone to stay in their seats, or at least in the theater, until we have a chance to take statements.”
“We’ll be here all night,” said Miles, looking slightly shell-shocked. He’d gone from accepting that he’d have an evening out to the realization that it was going to be a very long evening out, indeed.
“While we’re here, this might be a good time to try to gather some information about what’s happened,” said Myrtle.
“In a gossipy way or an official way?” asked Miles. “Because I don’t think we have any official clout, despite your being the mother of the police chief.”
“I have plenty of clout as a crime reporter for the Bradley Bugle,” pointed out Myrtle smugly.
“Crime reporter? You’ve got a helpful hints column, Myrtle.”
“Sloan has asked me to contribute crime stories when I have the opportunity,” said Myrtle.
“When Tomorrow’s Promise isn’t on?”
“When there’s actual crime in Bradley,” said Myrtle with a sniff. “Which doesn’t happen all too often. There are only so many stories one can write about Cooter Carson’s bar fighting proclivity. This, on the other hand, looks as though it might be murder. Poor lamb. She seemed to be a trouble-maker, but she was awfully young to die.”
Miles nodded. “It does seem rather unlikely that someone of her age would suffer a natural death in these circumstances.”
“Then let’s find someone we can talk to. Someone who isn’t behind that curtain,” said Myrtle.
She and Miles looked around them. The play was hardly sold out, but there were a fair number of people in the audience. None of them looked like anyone who’d know much about Nandina’s death, though. Then Myrtle spotted someone.