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THE SERPENTINE FLOWER
A Community Theater Mystery (#1)
Author: Joseph L.S. Terrell
First Edition
5.5"x8.5" Trade Paperback
Retail: $14.95US
ISBN 978-1-62268-047-4 print
ISBN 978-1-62268-048-1 ebook
LCCN 2016941970


"…To beguile the time,
Look like the time;
Bear welcome in your eye,
Your hand, your tongue;
Look like the innocent flower,
But be the serpent under it."

—Macbeth, Act I, Scene 5


CHAPTER ONE

Mary Ann's fingers curled loosely around the steering wheel of her eighteen-year-old Volvo station wagon. She tapped her short, clear-polished nails lightly on the wheel. They made a soft clicking noise. As the Volvo's engine idled roughly, she stared through the light mist on the windshield at the Tracks Community Theater, debating with herself whether to go inside. The windshield wipers, especially the one on the left, made a scraping noise as they intermittently traversed the glass. She frowned at the sound. She gave her head and shoulders a tiny shake of annoyance, and turned the wipers off. Then she killed the engine, and it shuddered as it shut down.
    It had been three and a half years since she entered the building. Except in those first weeks after that night, she hadn't really intended or planned to avoid the theater. But after those few weeks, it seemed more and more likely that she wouldn't return. The longer she stayed away, the stronger that sense of self-imposed boycott grew so that now she was totally estranged from the Tracks Community Theater.
    That was where her husband, Alan Little, had dropped dead on stage of a massive heart attack. He was just shy of his fiftieth birthday. It was during the final rehearsal of the romantic comedy The Third Best Sport and he had the lead. Mary Ann had been sitting on the front row, smiling at the rapid, perfectly timed give-and-take of her husband and the female lead. Suddenly Alan faltered, as if he had forgotten his lines. His face contorted, and he clawed at his chest, twisted in pain and collapsed. Mary Ann leaped to her feet. She didn't make a sound. No sound would come from her throat.
    Now, sitting there in her car, that night came back to her and a trickle of perspiration chilled her neck.
    But she raised her chin in a posture of defiance. It was not a big deal, she reminded herself. A simple errand. A quick run into the backstage area to return a cell phone to her son, Jerry. He had left it on the front seat when, running late for rehearsal, he had dashed inside. Mary Ann knew how he depended on his phone-calls, messages, communications from the director, pictures, and no telling what else.
    Jerry, now nineteen, had practically grown up in the community theater. He wasn't interested in acting, as his father had been, but instead enthusiastically worked backstage and with the lighting. He was getting good with the lighting, and that was his job on this production-a very ambitious one: Macbeth. It was the first time the community theater had taken on a Shakespearean drama. The cast was quite nervous about whether they could pull it off, even though it was a somewhat simplified version of the original play, one more suitable for amateur productions.
    The director had wanted stage lighting to aid in setting the tone for tonight's rehearsal. Jerry would be in charge of that lighting, and with only three weeks before opening night, Mary Ann didn't want him to be distracted by not having his cell phone. For all she knew, he used it to communicate with the director from the lighting booth at the back top of the auditorium where he would be at some point, maybe now.
    With a deep breath of resolve, Mary Ann picked up the cell phone, opened the Volvo door and stepped out into the foggy mist, which seemed to envelope her like a shroud. She wore a lightweight tan windbreaker over her cotton golf shirt and tailored, off-white slacks. With quick strides, she mounted the steps to the loading platform and pushed open the backstage door.
    As soon as she opened the stage door the old familiar smells of backstage assaulted her. All of the odors were there: the pungent mixture of paint, and makeup, a turpentine smell, fresh carpentry on wooden sets, a certain moldiness that clung to the heavy purple curtains and backdrops. It was all so familiar and so linked to her husband and their life together that she felt the pain and anguish of loss all over again. She almost turned and fled back to the station wagon.
    Mary Ann felt a dampness of perspiration growing under her arms. She squeezed the cell phone so hard her hand hurt. Yet, she believed in self-discipline, and had shut away this element of her life for too long. That defiant thrust of her chin came forward again. She squared her shoulders, head held high, and she began to make her way around the sawhorses, pieces of scenery, the rope pulleys, and other always-present backstage equipment.
    Although dimness prevailed backstage, she caught glimpses of light from the apron of the stage itself and heard the murmur of voices as the rehearsal got underway.
    Quietly, so as not to disturb the actors, she glanced through the backstage gloom to the opposite side. She didn't see Jerry. Maybe he was already up in the lighting booth, high at the rear of the theater. He would be peering down from the tiny windows like in a movie house projection booth. She took a step forward. Her foot came down on something that rolled under the thin sole of her low-heeled shoes. She moved her foot and looked down at a tube of women's lip-gloss. In the dim light, not a foot away from the lip-gloss, lay a small round compact. Then a comb and beside it an open clutch-purse, with a few objects spilled out. Frowning, Mary Ann bent to pick up the purse and other objects. Then stopped, her breath catching as sharply in her chest as if someone had slammed a fist into her. Eyes wide, she straightened. "Oh, my God," she choked.
    Protruding from a tall piece of stacked scenery, Mary Ann saw first the sneaker-clad feet, then the jeans, and finally the torso. It was Sarah Atkins, another young member of the backstage crew, sprawled out on her back, one arm up near her face and the other down by her side. There was blood on the right side of her head and pooled beneath her ponytail. In the dusky light, the blood looked black. At an angle to her body was a heavy four-by-four piece of lumber, longer than her arm with what looked like blood on one end.
    Mary Ann sucked in her breath and stumbled backward a step or two. Her voice finally came to her and she called out hoarsely, "Help, help backstage. Someone has been hurt, hurt bad."
    Her cry spilled out to the rehearsal stage, and everything stopped. Froze.
    Cast members rushed backstage. Mary Ann was already shoving aside a heavy piece of scenery with her shoulder to get to Sarah Atkins. A clamor of voices assailed Mary Ann's ears but she didn't take time to look at the people who had rushed from the stage. Others were coming backstage also. They were all behind her as Mary Ann knelt beside Sarah. Mary Ann called Sarah's name and put her hand against Sarah's temple, which was warm but as unyielding as a statue. Mary Ann's fingers felt sticky, and when she drew them away, they were stained with blood. Drawing in her breath and shuddering, Mary Ann frantically rubbed her fingers on the floor, trying to wipe away the blood. There was no response, no movement from Sarah.
    Still kneeling, Mary Ann turned her head and looked up at the faces staring down at her and the scene. "Help . . . please help," Mary Ann screamed. Pushing past several of the cast members, Mayor Henry Hinkler, who had the lead as Macbeth, knelt beside Mary Ann. Somewhat roughly, Hinkler nudged Mary Ann so he could get closer to Sarah. He glanced at the cell phone Mary Ann clutched in her hand and barked a command: "Call 911."
    Numbly, Mary Ann stared at Jerry's cell phone.
    "Not here," Hinkler said loudly. "Poor reception. Get near the back."
    Mary Ann obeyed his command and scurried to the door by the stage entrance. She made sure Jerry's cell phone was on, and punched in 911. While she waited the few seconds it took for the dispatcher to clear another call and come on the line, Mary Ann watched the backstage area erupt into chaos.
    Cast members who had rushed backstage tried to gain a view of Sarah's form as she lay mostly hidden behind the scenery. Among those rushing up and then kneeling beside Hinkler was Wayne Monroe, who had the role of the general, Banquo. Both men were large and their bulk blocked Mary Ann's view of Sarah. Hinkler glared up at the crowding other cast members. "Step back. Get back. Give some air here." Yet several of them hovered not far away, including the director, Mary Ann's long-time friend Elise Duchamp.
    A tall, husky young man in paint-spattered coveralls, Rufus Todd, shuffled up close. His long, powerful looking arms hung by his sides. "That's my girlfriend. That's Sarah. What's the matter with her?" His voice was desperate, but the speech slow, as if he had trouble getting words out in the proper order.
    Leaning her shoulder against the back door for momentary support, Mary Ann spoke to the 911 dispatcher and quickly explained the emergency at the Tracks Theater. Then she hurried back to where Sarah lay. Mary Ann bumped into an upright piece of stacked scenery with her right hip. It hurt, and she rubbed her palm on the spot, hoping a bruise would not develop.
    Hinkler now stood looking down at Sarah. Wayne Monroe rose also. They stood side-by-side, both tall and straight. "She's dead," Hinkler said, shaking his head. His voice was deep and resonant.
    Hinkler was in his early fifties. Fit, trim, and athletic. Silver-gray hair that he swept back expertly. His commanding presence and imposing air made him a natural as a leading man in a drama. He was perfect as Macbeth. However there was something about the way he tilted his head, chin up at an angle, looking down imperially at the person he might be speaking to that Mary Ann found unattractive and off-putting. He would have been handsome if he didn't carry himself as though he knew it. Monroe, younger than Hinkler, was just as athletic, and carried himself well. Monroe's bearing, too, was like that of the general he portrayed in the play. He always stood erect, shoulders squared, his reddish hair clipped short in military style. He was the manager of the local Fontaine Boat Works, where he had the reputation of a tough but fair taskmaster.
    At Hinkler's pronouncement that Sarah was dead, even though she already knew it was so, Mary Ann felt her shoulders sag. It was as if air had come out of her lungs. Coming up beside her, Elise Duchamp took Mary Ann's arm and squeezed it. Mary Ann trembled, like she was suddenly chilled. As part of her built-in nature, she had to do something, make things neater. Remembering Sarah's spilled purse, she started to bend over and pick up the spilled items and then thought better of it. Maybe she'd better leave the scene like it was, not move things around.
    Sarah's clutch purse still lay open. But Mary Ann had the impression that something was changed. Except for the lip-gloss she'd stepped on, she hadn't moved or even touched any of Sarah's personal items. Yet there was something different, as if the items had been rearranged, or maybe there were fewer of them.
    Then she saw her son, Jerry, standing just on the other side of the stacked scenery. The scenery only partially hid Sarah's body from Jerry's view. Mary Ann could see the anguish that lined her son's face. The expression of his unbearable pain broke Mary Ann's heart. His lips trembled and his eyes were moist. He shook his head in short jerky little movements, like a tremor. He and Sarah had been close friends for three years at least and they both worked behind the scenes at the theater. Mary Ann wanted to run to her son, comfort him, but she stood frozen in place. Emma Young, who handled makeup and helped Sarah from time to time, came up to Jerry, stood beside him, and squeezed one of his hands in hers. Mary Ann had heard Jerry speak of Emma and, as a mother, she sensed that Emma had a strong crush on Jerry. Whether he reciprocated, Mary Ann doubted. At least, so far.
    Then the mayor's presence caught her attention.
    Standing tall, head held high, Mayor Hinkler surveyed the scene. "How tragic," he said. He turned his gaze to a stack of the heavy four-by-fours on top of a high shelf that leaned against the scenery near Sarah's body. Two more pieces of lumber rested on a catwalk above their heads. "Must have fallen when she moved the scenery," he muttered. Then he demanded, "What the hell are those things stacked up there for anyway?"
    Monroe stood beside Mayor Hinkler, casting his eyes around at cast members who remained. It was as if Hinkler and Monroe both waited for someone to respond.
    Jerry spoke from where he stood three yards away. His voice sounded choked and unsteady, but he managed to get the words out. "They're used to separate the scenery flats, prop some of them off the floor."
    Then they all heard the wailing siren of the Camford Courthouse Volunteer Rescue vehicle. Moments later, a second siren. Mary Ann knew Police Chief Tom Dalton would be here, also.
    Elise Duchamp left Mary Ann's side and took a few steps toward the cast members who crowded near the scene. She held both hands in the air and projected her husky stage voice dramatically: "Okay, guys. Sarah Atkins has been hurt. Something fell on her. Please . . . please . . . the rehearsal is over for tonight. Time for everyone to go home. We'll use the phone-tree tomorrow to let you know whether we will have a rehearsal . . . or when the next rehearsal will be." She added, "Please . . . leave and leave by the front, now."
    The cast members appeared to hesitate, not wanting to leave. But then one young man turned to leave and they all began to shift away. All left except Greta Hinkler, the mayor's wife. She stood tall and unsmiling, a severe expression to the set of her mouth. As usual, she was dressed in gray. To Mary Ann, Greta seemed totally gray, and always did. Mary Ann knew it was unkind, and she kept the opinion strictly to herself, but Greta reminded her of pictures she had seen of Eleanor Roosevelt, the same statuesque, imposing figure. Greta was not in the play but obviously had been in the audience to watch the rehearsal and probably keep an eye on her husband, who was at least three years her junior. Greta took a step forward and spoke to her husband. "I'll go on ahead," she said, "and see you at home." She softly clucked her tongue. "What a tragic accident."
    Elise came back to put an arm around Mary Ann's shoulder. "Hell of a welcome back to the theater since Alan . . . and now this." Her gaze followed Mary Ann's to Sarah's motionless, jean-clad legs. "Terrible," she said quietly.
    Mary Ann remained silent Then she turned a sad half-smile toward Elise. "Cell phone. I came in to bring Jerry his cell phone." Mary Ann gestured with the phone she still clutched in her hand.
    Jerry made his way around the scenery to approach his mother. Emma remained where they had stood, watching Jerry. His face mirrored the shock and horror Mary Ann knew was on hers. Tears had left trails down his cheeks.
    Before Jerry got to his mother, the backstage door flew open and three members of the rescue squad-two young men and a woman-scurried in. They wore yellow rain slickers that glistened with moisture. One of the men and the woman pushed a gurney that had a thick, snow-white sheet folded neatly at one end. The other man carried a large black medical satchel. He knelt quickly beside Sarah's form. He groped at her neck and bent over her face as if listening for her breath. He straightened slightly and shook his head.
    With a whoosh sound, the powerful overhead floodlights came on backstage. Mary Ann knew that Jerry, instead of coming straight to her, had veered off to the lights panel and had turned them on. The brightness was almost painful at first.
    The cowboy-booted footsteps of Police Chief Tom Dalton sounded loudly on the backstage floor before he was in view. He rounded the corner with another, younger, officer at his heels. Dalton stood silently looking over the scene. He held a hand up to stop the medics. They waited. Dalton squatted, his knees cracking, to look closely at Sarah's head and the heavy four-by-four a few inches from her head. Blood was visible on the wood.
    Dalton cast his eyes up at the circle of people standing there, staring at each one in turn. "Anyone know what happened here, and how?"
    Hinkler spoke, "Well, Tom, it looks like one of those big pieces-that one there-fell on her from up there on the cat-walk when she was moving these flats of scenery."
    Wayne Monroe spoke also. "That had to be what happened," he said.
    "There's blood on the back of her head, just behind the right ear," the medic who had felt for the pulse said. "She hasn't been . . . been deceased very long. Much less than an hour, I'd say."
    Jerry had reappeared. "I'd have helped her move the scenery, if it even needed moving. I don't think it did." His voice was shaky. Mary Ann thought the tears would come again. The urge was strong to rush to him, hug him tightly, tell him everything would be all right, just as she did when he was a child. The expression of unbearable pain on his face, his entire body, broke Mary Ann's heart. She longed for the past when she held him close, crooning over and over, "It'll be all right. It'll be all right."
    Dalton glanced at Jerry. "Where were you?"
    "I was up in the light booth." He pointed to the two little windows up high at the back of the auditorium.
    "I was going to help her, too," Rufus Todd said. "She was my girlfriend." He bobbed his head up and down as he spoke, his voice almost a monotone, the words slow and halting.
    Dalton cast a quick look at Rufus and away. With his right hand on his knee,     Dalton used the leverage to push himself upright.
    Hinkler, again using his stentorian stage voice, said, "I think she was back here by herself, Chief. She shouldn't have been trying to push that scenery around by herself."
    Chief Dalton said, "Anybody know her folks?"
    "She's from near Edenton," Jerry said. "Lives with her grandmother. Looks after her grandmother. She does stay here in Camford with a girlfriend when we're rehearsing, and for performances." He hesitated. "Her parents are divorced. Her mother lives up in Richmond, I think. She comes down once in a while. Don't know about her father."
    Dalton said, "Give me names and addresses. We'll contact the grandmother and the friend." Slowly he shook his head. "Hate that part."
    "Oh, Christ," Elise said, "this is so damn sad."
    The chief said, "Yep, damn shame." He rubbed his chin as if trying to chase weariness away. "Guess it was just one of those freak things. Seems like no rhyme or reason for 'em sometimes." Then he looked at Elise. "Just the same, Elise, I'll need the names of everyone here tonight."
    "Now, Tom . . ."
    "No big deal. Just routine in doing up a report. You can drop the list off at the office sometime tomorrow."
    Elise pursed her lips but managed an affirmative quick movement of her head.     "Okay," she mouthed inaudibly.
    Then to the young officer with him, Dalton said, "Cordon off this area with some crime tape." He made a circular motion with one hand around Sarah and the nearby scenery.
    "Crime tape?" the young officer said.
    Dalton exhaled an exasperated sigh at the officer. "Yeah, Bobby. You know, that yellow tape in the trunk of the cruiser. Says 'crime scene' on it." Dalton shook his head as the officer, a sheepish expression on his face, hurried toward the back.
    "Crime scene tape?" Monroe said. "An accident and you put . . ."
    "Now, Wayne, it's just part of the procedure. Don't mean anything by it. But we gotta face facts. Here's a young woman's body, dead and all, and we think we know how it happened-how the accident happened-but we don't know for absolute certain, now do we? So, what we do is secure the scene-and it ain't necessarily a crime scene in the usual sense . . . but it is where a dead body is laying there."
    Dalton turned from Monroe and the mayor and made a slight go-a-head motion with this hand toward the medics who stood there silently.
    Mary Ann noticed that one of the medics had gone to the ambulance and brought back a heavy, rubberized body bag. She didn't want to watch.
    Rufus Todd ambled up close to where Mary Ann stood, his head cocked to one side, a frown on his face. "Where they going with Sarah? She's my girlfriend. Why they taking her away?"
    No one responded to him. He continued to stand there, frowning.
    Elise, who remained close to Mary Ann, squeezed Mary Ann's shoulder. The two of them moved away from the scenery and stepped onto the lighted stage. Mary Ann looked around. It was strange. Despite the passage of time, the stage felt familiar to her, as if she'd only missed a rehearsal or two. Jerry came over to her and she gave him a hug, holding on to him. For a moment she wasn't sure whether he was offering comfort or seeking it. He smelled like his father, wearing the same aftershave lotion she had given to Alan for years. Then Jerry eased away and she saw the pain and sorrow on his face as he watched the medics lift Sarah's body, encased in the dark rubberized cocoon, and load it onto the gurney.
    Mary Ann turned away from Jerry. She didn't need to look to know what the medics were doing. She'd watched the same scene once before on this very stage.

copyright 2016 Joseph L.S. Terrell



Author photo by: Tom Irey - Paris

 

About the Author:

Joseph L.S. Terrell makes his home on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, his native state, where he continues the craft of fiction-writing—with a little fishing, golfing and boating thrown in.

Website: www.josephterrellwriter.com.

Books by Joseph L.S. Terrell:

Jonathan Clayton Novels

THE OTHER SIDE OF SILENCE
LEARNING TO SLOW DANCE

Harrison Weaver Mysteries

TIDE OF DARKNESS
OVERWASH OF EVIL
NOT OUR KIND OF KILLING
UNDERTOW OF VENGEANCE
DEAD RIGHT RETURNING
THE LAST BLUE NOON IN MAY

Community Theater Mysteries

THE SERPENTINE FLOWER

Stand alones

A TIME OF MUSIC, A TIME OF MAGIC
A NEUROTIC'S GUIDE TO SANE LIVING


THE SERPENTINE FLOWER
Author: Joseph L.S. Terrell
First Edition
5.5"x8.5" Trade Paperback
Retail: $14.95US
ISBN 978-1-62268-047-4 print
ISBN 978-1-62268-048-1 ebook
LCCN 2016941970

book details
read an excerpt
cover detail
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