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Theater Mystery (#1)
Author: Joseph L.S. Terrell
5.5"x8.5" Trade Paperback
ISBN 978-1-62268-047-4 print
ISBN 978-1-62268-048-1 ebook
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."
Act I, Scene 5
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,
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
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,"
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
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
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.
©2016 Joseph L.S. Terrell