Thursday, July 10, 1947
I was late for a murder. Frustratingly late, in fact. I sat in the early afternoon traffic on State Street, heading west toward Third Street. A light fog drifted aimlessly about, making it hard to see what the holdup was. I checked my pocket watch for the fourth time in the last twenty minutes and realized I’d missed the whole first act. Of course, I knew whowas going to be murdered and when and how, as I had read the script. But I wanted to see what the infamous Henry Hawthorne looked like in person, and why Alan couldn’t seem to stop talking about him. I’m not the jealous type, but how does one compete with someone whom Alan considers a devilishly handsome actor?
Slowly my ’38 Buick Century crawled to the corner of Edison and State, and I realized the State Street Bridge was stuck in the up position. Following the lead of many of my fellow travelers, I turned south on Edison and detoured over the river at Kilbourn. Successful at last at crossing the river, I turned south on Third Street, only to be confounded by multiple red lights that seemed to last an eternity. After at least half of that eternity, I reached the Davidson Theater and found a place to park about a block away. I checked my watch once more. Hopefully I’d see Mr. Hawthorne in the second act, though I couldn’t stay long. I had a counterfeiting case that needed my attention, and the day was slipping away.
I hurried through the front doors, across the lobby, and into the auditorium, pausing only long enough to remove my hat and allow my eyes to adjust to the darkness. I quietly found my way down the aisle to a seat front and center. An easy choice, since I was the only one in the audience. It was just a dress rehearsal, after all. On the stage were two women, one older and one younger. The scene was late night, and a thunderstorm was building outside the windows. They were in the main hall of Lochwood, the old, crumbling Clarington family manor, an estate just outside of war-torn London.
“Don’t be angry with me anymore, Claire, please,” the younger woman said in an accent that sounded like a mix between English and Scottish.
Claire sighed and put her hands in the pockets of her dress, fidgeting with something. “I’m not angry, Charlotte. Not at you, anyway. I know how persuasive Roger can be.”
“Yes, that’s right. He’s an evil man, I see that now. But he’s gone. Let’s forget him. Let’s go back to how it was.”
Claire shook her head. “It’s too late to ever go back to how it was, I’m sorry. And yes, he’s gone, but I fear he’ll come back. Maybe even tonight.”
“You’re waiting for him, aren’t you?”
“Yes. I waited for him last night, too, and the night before that. I can’t explain it to you, Charlotte. Not now anyway. You wouldn’t understand. Go to bed, please.”
Charlotte stepped closer yet and put her hand on Claire’s shoulder. Claire didn’t flinch, but she also didn’t turn.
“Go to bed, Charlotte,” she said again, more sternly.
Charlotte took her hand away and glanced at Claire just a moment more before turning toward the stairs, her head low. She stopped on the first landing and looked back. I could see the utter sadness in her eyes. Then she turned again and climbed slowly up and away to her room as lightning flashed through the large windows and the thunder boomed.
As soon as she’d gone, Beresford entered from the doorway on the left, dressed in his black butler’s livery. He was balancing a china tea service on a silver tray and maneuvered the two steps down into the hall somewhat unsteadily.
“Your tea, madam.”
Claire looked at him. “Put it on the table,” she said in that powerful, commanding voice.
He moved slowly, the tea service rattling a bit as his hands shook. He put it on the table and stood as erect as he could. He must have been nearly eighty.
“Shall I pour, madam?”
“No.” Never “No, thank you” to a servant. It wouldn’t be proper, and Claire was clearly an exceptionally proper English woman. Good research from the playwright, I thought.
“Anything else, madam?”
“Not tonight. You may go to bed. Leave the tea set until morning.”
Beresford went slowly up the two steps and through the doorway on the left, back toward where the kitchen would be, I assumed, and his quarters above it.
When he had gone, Claire turned once more to the fire in the massive fireplace. And then, as Claire feared, Roger came back. He stepped silently through the door from the entryway and looked at Claire, though she hadn’t noticed him yet. His hat and coat were dripping wet as he hung them on the hall tree before moving slowly down the steps toward the center of the room. He paused, his left hand on the back of a green sofa covered in fleur-de-lis. Roger was attractive in a dark, sinister sort of way, with broad shoulders and a narrow, high waist. He was probably in his late forties and had a classic jawline and good cheekbones. “Hello, Claire. Bloody awful night out there,” he said at last, his voice deep and husky.
Claire whirled about and stared at him, her expression changing from one of weariness to one of anger. She walked swiftly toward him. “So, you’ve come back. I told you to stay away, but you didn’t listen. So typical of you.”
“And so typical of you, Claire, to try and tell me what to do. Don’t you know by now that’s a waste of your breath?” He ran his hands over his dark, velvety hair as he leered at her.
“You’re a waste of my breath, Roger, and a waste of my time.”
He laughed bitterly. “You think you can get by without me? Without my money, Lochwood is finished, and so are you.”
“You’re wrong, Roger. I’ve only just begun. You cheated on me with Charlotte, my own sister, you drove my brother to suicide, and you forced me to do things I’m ashamed of, things I don’t even want to think about. I’m over you once and for all.”
He opened his mouth to speak, closed it again, then opened it once more. “No, you’re not.”
“My God, you’re arrogant.” Claire said.
“Maybe, but I’m also cold and wet. I could use a warm shoulder,” he said, his words suddenly almost tender.
She glared at him. “My shoulders are ice. So is the rest of me.”
“A little heat and friction can melt ice,” he said, running his hand up and down her arm.
“You have little heat to spare, Roger, and I have none. At least not for you,” she said, shaking off his hand and moving away.
He smiled broadly. “You never change.” He glanced at the coffee table in front of the sofa. “What about the tea I see there? Is it fresh?”
“Yes, Beresford’s just brought it. But there’s only one cup.”
“I only need one cup,” Roger said.
“Then what am I supposed to use?”
“You shouldn’t drink tea this late at night, Claire. It keeps you up, as I recall.” He walked around the sofa to the coffee table to pour himself some. He took a sip. “You’re weak, Claire.” He made a face as he swallowed. “And so is your tea.” He set the cup down and walked over to the fireplace to warm his hands.
“You’re despicable, Roger. You shouldn’t have come back.”
“But I did, Claire,” he said, looking back at her. “And I’m not leaving. Not until I get Lochwood.”
“Because you want to tear her down and put up your tacky little houses.”
“Tacky little houses are what England needs right now. Big estates like this are out of date, useless, old, just like—”
“Like me?” She finished his sentence as he faced the fire once more, almost as if he couldn’t look her in the eye. So, he didn’t see the glass vial she extracted from her pocket. It was beautiful, with a jewel-encrusted gold stopper. A shiver went down my spine as I watched her pour its contents into the teapot.
She put the now-empty vial back into her pocket. “Is that what you were going to say? Look at me.”
Slowly he turned and stared at her. “I didn’t say that, Claire. You did.”
“I only said what you were going to say.” She picked up the teapot and poured more tea into his cup. “Here, have some more. The first cup is always the weakest.”
He took the cup and saucer from her hand. “Thanks. You may be older, and you’re certainly not a girl anymore, but that’s all right. You’re a big, mature woman.”
Claire opened her mouth to speak, but he held up his hand in front of her.
“Don’t take offense. A mature woman doesn’t play hard to get, and I like that.”
She glared at him. “You’re right, I don’t play hard to get. I amhard to get. And you’re not getting it.”
He took another drink. “Oh, Claire. I thought better of you. I really did.”
“Really, Roger? I never thought better of you. You disgust me.” Another clap of thunder and flash of lightning. The storm seemed to be getting worse.
“No, I arouse you. I can tell. I always could tell.”
“Don’t make me laugh even more. You’re not getting Lochwood, or me, or anything else. Not tonight, not ever.”
Now he laughed, but it morphed into a coughing fit. Clearly something was wrong. Though I knew what was happening, I still gripped the edges of my seat, feeling helpless as my eyes went from Roger to Claire and back to Roger.
“Something the matter, Roger?” Claire said, arching her painted-on brows. From the window on the landing, another bolt of lightning flashed, followed by another clap of thunder. A bit much, I thought.
“My head, it’s suddenly pounding. And my stomach is cramping. What did you do, Claire? What did you do?” He bent over, dropping the teacup and saucer, which shattered across the floor as he slumped to the ground, writhing in obvious pain.
Suddenly, I felt a presence heading toward the stage. It was Oliver, his white hair standing out in the darkness as he waved his hands and shouted.
“Cut! Hold it! Turn up the house lights and stop the damned lightning and thunder! Shelby, I told you not to drop the cup!”
The main lights in the theater came on as Shelby got up off the stage floor and dusted himself off. “For crying out loud, how do you expect me to die convincingly if I put my teacup and saucer down before I fall to the floor?” His English accent had completely disappeared.
“Just set the damned thing down after you’ve taken a drink and before you start to convulse. It’s not hard, Shelby. We’ve been over this. We can’t go spilling tea all over the audience members in the front row!”
Shelby tossed his head back. “Fine, have it your way. Get that idiot Dick to clean this mess up, and we’ll do it again. I’ll set the cup down as delicately as a butterfly, if that’s what you want, but don’t blame me when the reviewers skewer your direction.”
The woman who had been playing Claire scowled at Shelby. “Dick is not an idiot, and if you could follow direction, he wouldn’t have to be cleaning up after you!”
Shelby whirled around. “If this was Broadway, they’d have me drop the cup every time. It’s realistic. A man dying from poison doesn’t stop to gently set his cup and saucer down first.”
Oliver rubbed his temples. “This is Milwaukee, not Broadway, Shelby. Set the cup down first, then die. Got it?”
“Ifyou insist. You’re the director, for better or worse.”
“And stick to the script!” the woman playing Claire boomed again, her voice even louder and no longer English. “The line is, ‘You’re certainly not a girl anymore, but that’s all right. You’re a mature woman.’”
“That’s what I said.”
“You said, ‘You’re a big,mature woman.’ I don’t like you making cracks about my weight.”
“Well, Jazz, I can’t help it if you’ve put on a few pounds since I last saw you,” Shelby said, looking her up and down. “Frankly, I find it laughable Roger is supposed to find you attractive, and the audience won’t believe it. Even from the balcony, they can see you’re old and fat.”
She moved closer to him. “How dare you? So help me, if you improvise your lines when we’re in front of an audience…”
“Oh, don’t be so sensitive.” He waved her off and turned to Oliver again. “I’ll be in what passes for my dressing room. Call me when we’re ready to continue.” He walked upstage and off, shaking his head and muttering.
I had moved to the aisle as Oliver looked back at me. “Hello, Heath. I’m glad you could make it.”
I smiled as I went toward him and shook his hand. “I’m sorry I’m late. Traffic was unbearable. It’s hard to get away in the middle of the day.”
“It’s okay. Most of the action is in the second act, anyway.”
“I can’t stay long. The chief is having a tirade today, and I have a counterfeiting case I need to work on some more,” I said, “though I would like to see—”
“Oliver! I want to talk to you!” the woman playing Claire called out, her voice echoing throughout the empty auditorium and bouncing off the walls and ceiling.
“Speaking of tirades, brace yourself, Heath.”
She came across the stage, heels pounding down the stairs on the left side of the orchestra pit, with a scowl on her face that cracked her pancake makeup. “Did you hear what Berkett just said to me?”
“He didn’t mean it, Jazz,” Oliver said. “That’s just Shelby. Ignore him.”
“I will not be insulted like that.” Her accent was now Midwestern, and her voice boomed.
“I know he can be difficult, but he’s a good actor and a big name.”
“I’m a big name. I’m the star of this show, aren’t I? Berkett is insufferable, rude, and egotistical.”
“So you’ve said many times, Jazz.”
“Apparently, it bears repeating. And he’s nasty to poor little Dick. It infuriates me the way he treats him, always calling him an idiot.”
“You’re not exactly warm and fuzzy to Dick yourself.” I could tell he instantly regretted his comment.
Jazz looked indignant. “Dick’s my responsibility, my ward. I’ve raised him all by myself, I got him this job, and I take care of him the best I can.”
“I’m sorry, that was uncalled for,” Oliver said. He looked quite uncomfortable now. “But Mr. Berkett willsell tickets.” He wiped the sweat from his brow with his handkerchief.
“Oh really? How have ticket sales been so far?”
“Well, a little slow, but it’s early yet,” Oliver said, now mopping the back of his neck.
“Early? We open in two days, in case you’ve forgotten. Obviously, he’s not that big a name.”
Oliver shifted his weight from one foot to another, looked at me, and then back at her. “He’s a big enough name, believe me. It was a coup for the show to sign him. After all, he’s from New York.”
“He’s not fromNew York, he only lives there. He grew up right here, as you well know.”
“He tried to be friends with you and Jasper when he first arrived, but you’d have none of it. You couldn’t put the past behind you.”
“Why should I? I didn’t ask him to be in this play. I didn’t ask him to come back after all these years. He left Milwaukee in February, 1926. I remember it well,” Jazz said. “I have a constant reminder with me always.”
“What reminder?” Oliver said, shoving his now-damp handkerchief into his back pocket.
Jazz’s face took on a strange expression. “The scar from where he stabbed me in the back. And Jasper, well, he has his bad leg as his constant reminder.”
“That was a long time ago, Jazz.”
“As Jasper would say, some wounds don’t heal, but that heel certainly wounds,” she said, shaking her head. Her wig slipped a little. “I wouldn’t have have agreed to do the play if I’d known he was going to be in it. And what Shelby did to Alex back then…”
“Allegedly. Nothing was ever proven. We’ve been over this many times,” Oliver said.
“You weren’t around in the twenties, you don’t know. I still can’t believe he had the nerve to come back, and that you had the nerve to offer him the role,” Jazz said, seething.
“You’re really quite good in the role of Claire,” I said, hoping to take some of the heat off Oliver.
She looked at me then, for the first time acknowledging my presence, her expression softening a bit. “Thank you, Mr…?”
“Ah, er, Miss Monroe, this is Heath Barrington. Heath, this is Miss Jazz Monroe, our female lead.”
“The starof this show, Mr. Crane, notthe female lead.”
Oliver cringed just a little, but I don’t think she noticed. “Right, Jazz, sorry. The star of our show.”
“That’s better,” she said, shooting him another look before turning back to me, her voice a little softer and calmer, but still agitated. “How do you do? You’re that policeman fellow Mr. Crane said was working on the script, is that right?”
“That’s right, though I’m a detective, actually.” Up close, she appeared much older than her character, probably in her late forties. Her makeup was heavy, and her painted-on eyebrows arched up almost to the hairline of her blond wig. She reminded me of a bulldog, with short, stocky legs, small brown eyes on either side of a rather large nose, and chins that hung down in small folds. Her figure was ample, with almost no waistline.
“Mr. Barrington was kind enough to be my consultant, making sure all the little police details are correct, especially with Henry’s Inspector Bloom character. Heath’s a friend of mine from way back.”
“That’s right. Today is the first time I’ve gotten to visit the theater to see the set. Oliver sent me the script a while ago, and I read-through it and made a couple minor changes.”
“How interesting,” Jazz said, though she didn’t seem interested in the least.
“I was happy to do it, though I’m afraid I’m not all that familiar with English police proceedings.”
“Neither will anyone in the audience be, so don’t worry about it.”
“I suppose you’re right. I was late getting here, but the scene I just saw was spectacular, Miss Monroe. I was on the edge of my seat. You were excellent.”
She smiled, and I could tell she was eating up my words. “Thank you so much, Mr. Barrington. Of course, you read the script. You know what’s going to happen.”
“Yes, of course. But seeing it acted out live is entirely different. It’s kept me completely captivated. It feels so real, like I’m a part of it. And the set is magnificent.”
The three of us glanced up at the stage.
“It did turn out rather well, considering the meager budget. We reused a lot of the sets from last year’s Dracula,” Oliver said.
“Well, it looks like jolly old England to me, or at least what I would imagine an old English country estate to look like,” I said.
Oliver smiled. “Good. Theater is illusion, you know, Heath. Make-believe, smoke and mirrors. It’s my job, all our jobs, to make you believe.”
“So far so good. That fire in the fireplace looks real, too,” I said.
“All fake. Fire codes won’t allow for the real thing. Colored bulbs and papier-mâché. And the marble staircase? Just painted plywood.”
“Amazing. And thanks again for giving Alan a part in all this.”
“Who’s Alan?” she asked, looking from me to Oliver.
Oliver couldn’t hide his exasperation. “Alan Keyes. He plays the policeman who arrests you at the end. Geez, there are only six people in the whole show.” He turned back to me. “Jazz plays Claire, of course, and Shelby Berkett is Roger. Eve Holloway plays Claire’s sister, and Eve’s husband, Peter, plays the butler.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Really? The butler is so much older than she is.”
Oliver laughed. “Eve likes older men, I guess,” he said. “Anyway, Henry Hawthorne has the part of the detective and of the brother who dies at the very beginning of the second act. He also has a small role as the deliveryman.”
“Yes. Alan’s told me a lot about Henry Hawthorne, and I must say I’m curious to see him in person. I wish I’d gotten here sooner.”
“He comes on again as the detective shortly after the murder,” Oliver said.
“Henry and I have a wonderful scene together coming up, where he grills me about what’s happened. He’s quite dashing, and I think he favors me,” Jazz said. “He’s such a flirt.”
“Henry’s a good actor. He can make people believe all kinds of things,” Oliver said, but the comment went over Jazz’s head.
“Is he married?” I said.
Jazz laughed. “That skirt chaser? Not hardly. Any woman who would settle down with him would be just asking for heartache. I don’t mind a little flirtation, but that’s it. Never marry a man prettier than you, as my mother used to say.”
“A wise woman, I’m sure.”
“So, Alan’s the kid. The tall cute one who replaced Nick when he broke his arm. I thought his name was Paul. Why didn’t anyone correct me?”
“Mostly because you always refer to him as the kid. I’ve never heard you call him Paul,” Oliver said.
“Well, he is a kid, a newbie. He and Henry have become quite chummy.”
“I know Alan is enjoying his small part immensely,” I said, annoyed by her statement.
“Henry’s taken the kid under his wing,” she continued. “They share a dressing room, you know. Anyway, I’m glad you’re enjoying the show. Death Comes to Lochwoodis a decent play. Not great, but decent. No offense, Mr. Crane. I know your brother wrote it.”
“None taken, Jazz. It’s Wally’s first attempt, and I think he did quite well.”
“Good enough for summer stock, anyway. Something to keep me busy until the season starts again. Besides, my part isn’t bad. I get to kill Shelby Berkett, so that’s a big plus.”
“Honestly, Jazz, you really need to get along with him better,” Oliver said.
She tossed her head to the side, and the wig slipped again. “Why? You don’t like him any better than I do, but you won’t admit it.”
Oliver put his hand to his forehead as if he had a headache. “Fine, have it your way. Make sure Dick cleans up that teacup mess, and tell Jasper we’ll need another cup and saucer. Have him refill your poison vial and the teapot, too. Tell everyone to take ten, and have Hilda touch up your greasepaint and secure your wig better.”
Jazz scowled and pushed her wig back into place. “Whatever you say, boss. But if Berkett makes any more cracks, I’m going to smack him into next week.”
“I’ll talk to him. Again.”
“Good, see that you do, and see that it does some good this time. Nice meeting you, Mr. Barrington.” And she turned and climbed the stairs once more, rather laboriously, before exiting stage left.
I looked over at Oliver, who had a worn-out look on his face. He was only in his late thirties, but his hair was already the color of an early frost. His skin was like fresh buttermilk, and he had a smattering of freckles on his thin nose. His eyes were the brightest blue I’ve ever seen, the color of cornflowers, bluer even than Alan’s. I’d been attracted to Oliver once upon a time, but of course he never knew that and never would.
“She’s certainly something!” I said.
“Yes. Yes, she is. She’s like a freight train that can’t be stopped. She’s loud, brash, obnoxious, and conceited. But she also hits her marks, knows her lines, projects and takes direction. And audiences seem to love her. Her costars, not so much.”
“Especially Shelby Berkett, it appears.”
“You said it, Heath. Those two are oil and water.”
“Why does Miss Monroe dislike Mr. Berkett so much and vice versa?”
Oliver scratched his head, causing his white hair to tumble over his beautiful blue eyes. “Ugh, actors. Come on, we have a few minutes before we start up again. I’ll show you around, and we can have a drink in my office.”
“Sounds great.” I sensed he didn’t want to discuss his two stars in public.
We climbed the stairs on the right side of the orchestra pit up to the stage as I glanced again at Lochwood. It didn’t appear so real up close, but it was still impressive. Oliver led me across the set, up the two stairs to the landing of the house and to the right, toward what was supposed to be the entrance to the manor.
“Past the wings here is the stage door. Thirty minutes or so before showtime, Jasper will put the tea set, vial of poison, and other items on this table. The worst thing that can happen to the prop guy is for a prop not to be ready when the actor gets their cue. If they have to go on without it and improvise, it’s not good.”
“I’m sure it’s not. Jasper’s the prop man? The one Miss Monroe mentioned?”
“That’s right. Jasper Crockett. He used to be an actor a long time ago.”
I looked about. On the far wall was a black metal fire door I assumed led out to the back alley. Next to the door was a wooden stool with a newspaper folded on top of it. A lopsided fire extinguisher hung on the left wall, and on the right was a pay phone, its black paint scratched and nicked.
“Those stairs there go to the basement, of course,” Oliver said. “Besides the other dressing rooms, the green room’s down there along with the boiler room and more storage for old sets, backdrops, and whatnot. The costume shop is in the basement, too. You can access it from either side of the stage. Past the stairwell on this floor is the lavatory, followed by Jazz’s, Shelby’s, and Eve’s dressing rooms, and in here is the makeup department.”
Oliver opened the door for me and flipped on the lights as we stepped inside the rectangular room. There were several tables along the wall, each with its own stool, and a mirror above each of the tables. “Some of the actors do their own makeup here or in their dressing rooms, but Hilda’s our girl for more involved jobs, like transforming Peter into the butler. She’s probably in with Jazz at the moment.”
He walked over to one of the tables and poked about a bit at the various tubes, containers, powders, and brushes, and then he picked up a large, round tin. “This is the makeup putty she uses for noses, wrinkles, and whatnot. It’s pliable but dries quite hard.”
“Interesting,” I said. “I find it all fascinating. To play a part, to act a role…”
“Don’t we all do that to some extent or another, Heath? Isn’t that a part of life, of getting along?”
I glanced over at him, and I knew he was right. I was playing a part right now, keeping my true self hidden, and that was indeed a part of life. Of my life, anyway. And it was necessary for my survival. “What’s on the other side of the stage?” I said, changing the subject.
“I’ll show you.” He put the tin back, and we walked out of the room and down the hall onto the set again, where a small, dark-haired fellow was almost finished cleaning up the shattered teacup and saucer.
“Be sure and get all the broken glass up, Dick. I don’t want Shelby or anyone else getting cut,” Oliver said.
We entered the doorway that was supposed to lead to Lochwood’s dining room, library, and kitchen, but in reality just led to the other side of the stage.
“Who was that?”
“That was Dick, Jazz’s ward. He’s the janitor here now,” Oliver said.
“He looks young.”
“He does, but he’s actually twenty-one, I think. It’s his small stature that’s deceiving. Anyway, the prop room, Jasper’s home away from home, is just here, next to the basement stairs. Across the hall from that is the supply room, the lavatory, and my office at the end of the hall.” I glanced up at the transom windows above each of the four doors as we walked down the dim, narrow hall.
Oliver unlocked his office and ushered me in as he flicked on the overhead light and closed the door again. “Small, but it works,” Oliver said.
The little room was occupied mainly by his large oak desk, which sat like an island in the center, upon which was a green banker’s lamp, telephone, blotter, ink pen, inkwell, a glass ashtray full of butts, and a battered typewriter. Stacks of papers, flyers, and posters were strewn about. A couple of armchairs faced the desk. Behind Oliver’s leather chair was a row of large wooden filing cabinets, along with a console radio and a massive iron safe. On three of the walls were posters of previous shows, some framed reviews, and photographs of people I mostly didn’t recognize.
Oliver sat down in his chair with a thud as I took a seat opposite. “Care for a drink? I just have bourbon, no ice,” he said, opening a drawer and removing a bottle and a couple of glasses.
I shook my head. “I’m okay for now, Oliver, but please go ahead.”
“I think I will. Mama told me never to drink alone, but since you’re here I’m not alone.” He poured a couple of fingers’ worth into one of the glasses and leaned back, breathing in the contents.
“So, what happened between Miss Monroe and Mr. Berkett, Oliver? What’s the story?”
He looked at me over the top of the glass. “It was before my time here, but I’ve heard tales. He said, she said, he said.”
“And the truth is a mixture of it all, I suppose,” I commented.
“Right. Jazz, Shelby, Jasper Crockett, and a fellow named Alexander Lippencott were doing a show here, and it was getting rave reviews, critical acclaim. All four of them were in their early to mid twenties back then, and this was their first big hit.”
“I remember you saying Mr. Crockett used to be an actor.”
“That’s right, and I hear he was pretty good. They all were,” Oliver said.
I fanned my face with my hat, as it was warm and stuffy in his office.
“Word had gotten out that a New York producer had heard about the show and was coming to town, looking for a fresh face, a headliner for a new production he was doing on Broadway.”
“Friendly rivalry, then, between the four of them,” I said.
Oliver nodded. “Yeah, but it got unfriendly quick. Shortly after they heard about the New York producer, Jasper and Alex were rehearsing their big fight scene onstage, trying out something different they thought would spice it up. Somehow, the trap door in the floor got tripped. Lippencott was standing dead center on it, and Jasper was partially on it. Both fell through to the basement, Jasper on top of Lippencott. Lippencott broke his neck and died instantly. Jasper fractured his leg and knocked his head pretty good. He’s been a bit slow ever since, physically and mentally, if you know what I mean.”
“Good Lord, that’s awful. How did the trap door get opened?”
Oliver picked up the glass again and took another drink, finishing it before setting it back down and dropping his cigarette butt into it. “That, my friend, is something no one will ever know for sure, but fingers were pointed at Shelby, who was near the release at the time. Nothing was ever proven, and Shelby claimed he was innocent.”
“Do youthink he did it?”
Oliver shrugged. “If he did, I don’t think he intended to kill anyone. But we’ll never know for sure unless Shelby talks. The New York producer showed up a couple weeks later, and of course, at that point only Jazz and Shelby were left. They brought in replacements for Alex and Jasper’s parts, but it wasn’t the same show, and the director at the time was criticized for not closing after Lippencott’s death.”
“I imagine that was a tough decision for him, a hit show on his hands and all,” I said.
“I agree. I wouldn’t have wanted to make that call. Sadly, Jasper’s leg never healed properly, and his acting career was pretty much over. He took over as prop manager the following year and has been at it ever since.”
“I remember Miss Monroe mentioning Mr. Crockett’s leg earlier. But what about her and Shelby?”
Oliver sighed and rubbed his eyes. “Jasper tells me Jazz and Shelby were close back then. They even dated. But this thing with the trap door put Jazz over the edge. They stopped speaking to each other except during the show. Then the producer ended up choosing Shelby over Jazz for his New York show, and that really sealed it between them. Shelby left Milwaukee and never came back.”
“Until now,” I said. “And he and Miss Monroe are working together again, along with Mr. Crockett.”
“Yes. I thought it was water under the bridge after all this time, but the water washed that bridge completely away, apparently.” Oliver scratched the back of his sweaty neck. “When Shelby first got back he actually seemed to be trying to make amends with Jazz and Jasper, but they wanted nothing to do with him. So, he has replied in kind, rude and uncalled for or not.”
“Old grudges,” I said. “How has Shelby been to work with?”
“Shelby’s a good actor, but he doesn’t like to be directed. At least not by me. All through rehearsals, he’s been giving everyone direction contrary to mine, stepping on their lines, ignoring his blocking, and arguing, especially with me and Jazz. He throws his weight around and rubs everyone the wrong way, and of course, he’s extremely egotistical. He’s also insecure, vain, arrogant, and temperamental. Those are his goodpoints.”
“How did he end up playing Roger, then?”
“He almost didn’t. The entire play had been cast except for the roles of the butler, the detective, and Roger. I had to have someone spectacular for Roger, someone who could stand up to Jazz.”
“A tall order, I’m sure.”
Oliver smiled. “Eve Holloway worked with Henry Hawthorne on the Canteen and USO circuit during the war, entertaining the troops. She suggested Henry would be perfect for the role of Roger, so I gave him a call. He told me he was heading to Hollywood in the fall to try out for a new movie, but he had the summer free and could use the money. He’s working part time at Lempke’s Pharmacy in West Allis just to pay the bills. Acting is a tough way to make a living.”
“I imagine so. So what happened?”
“He read brilliantly for the part of Roger, and he was in my price range, which isn’t much. I was all set to sign him to a contract when out of the blue, I got a long-distance collect phone call from Shelby Berkett in New York. He’d received a telegram telling him about the show and the role of Roger and asking him to call me.”
“Who sent the telegram?”
Oliver looked at me with an odd expression. “That’s the funny part. Shelby told me it was signed by Alexander Lippencott.”
“The actor who died?”
“That’s right. Our friendly neighborhood ghost.”
Oliver shrugged. “Yeah. Jasper believes Lippencott’s spirit is still in the theater. Some say on the anniversary of his death, the blood stain reappears on the basement floor beneath the trap door.”
“Have you ever seen that?”
He shook his head. “No, but I’ve never looked, either. I don’t put much stock in things like that, but I will say ever since his death there have been sightings and reports of strange occurrences, going way back to before I ever took over.”
“Anything you’ve ever witnessed?”
Oliver picked up a folder from his desk and fanned himself with it. “Oh, you know. Sometimes when I’m here alone I hear strange noises, and I think I see things, but then I tell myself it’s just my imagination. Occasionally when I’m in my office the door will seemingly close on its own, but it’s an old building, and buildings settle.”
“Interesting. So, Mr. Berkett claims he got a telegram from this ghost?”
“That’s what he said, and I can’t imagine why he’d make something like that up. He thought someone was playing a joke on him and he sounded upset. As you can guess, he’s sensitive when it comes to Mr. Lippencott.”
“Who really sent it?”
“I honestly don’t know. I certainly didn’t. I’d never even met him before. When I finally convinced him I didn’t know who had sent the telegram, but the part of Roger was available, he seemed interested.”
“But you were all set to sign Henry.”
Oliver looked sheepish. “I know, but business is business. Shelby’s not a big star, but his name is known here in Milwaukee. Local boy makes good, you know? The Journaland the Sentinelhave run a few stories on him through the years. He’s gotten good press. The accident has been all but forgotten over time.”
“What did he say?”
Oliver leaned back, balancing the chair on its two rear legs, his feet on the desk, and stretched, still fanning himself. “After more talking, all on my dime as he’d called collect, remember, he surprisingly agreed to do the show if I paid him what he was asking. It was more than I was going to pay Henry, but I gambled his name would sell tickets.”
“He agreed without even seeing the script? And you wanted him without an audition?”
“I didn’t see the need to waste time auditioning him, especially since he was in New York and I was here. He said he was between shows. I wired him a contract, and he signed it and sent it back. He was on the train west the next week in time for the first read-through.”
“How did Miss Monroe and Mr. Crockett react to Shelby coming back?”
Oliver groaned. “As you can imagine, neither of them were pleased. Jasper even threatened to quit. They both believe the trap door incident was intentional, and they blame Berkett for killing Lippencott. They were angry with me for signing him without consulting them first. To be honest, I didn’t even think of their feelings when I signed Berkett. I just thought Shelby would be good for the show and the bottom line. At this point, I truly regret that.”
“I still had the role of the detective open, so I offered that to him, even though he was all set to play Roger. I sweetened the deal by giving him the role of the brother and the deliveryman, too. Those parts were originally written to go to the person playing the policeman, Alan’s part, but again, business is business.”
“I understand, and I’m sure Alan does, too.”
“Well, Alan’s role belonged to someone else at that point.”
“Yes, I remember. The man you had cast ended up breaking his arm a couple weeks into rehearsal.”
Oliver took his legs off the desk and brought his chair down with a thud. “Right, Nick Schultz. He fell off the stage, but some suggest Jazz pushed him when he blocked her, including Nick Schultz.”
“She wouldn’t really do that, would she?”
Oliver raised his eyebrows. “I wouldn’t put it past her, but she said she accidentally bumped him, and he fell into the orchestra pit.”
“Right. Accident or not, a few weeks into rehearsal, I was left without anyone to play the policeman. When you suggested Alan, it seemed a perfect fit. Of course, it’s a small part with no lines.”
“But he makes it his own,” I said.
“He does. And Henry’s doing a fine job as the detective, though Peter Holloway wanted that role.”
“How did Mr. Holloway take the news the part he wanted went to Henry?”
Oliver shook his head. “Not well. Peter is Eve’s husband, as I believe I mentioned. Eve plays Charlotte, and she’s wonderful. She had suggested Henry for the role of Roger, and her husband for the detective part. Peter is a talented actor, and he fit the role of the detective physically.”
“So why didn’t you sign him for it?”
Oliver sighed. “He drinks too much. He’s not reliable, and he takes a colorful variety of pills with alarming frequency. It’s sad, really.”
“I see. So Mr. Berkett got the role of Roger, Henry took the role of the detective, and you moved Peter to the role of the butler.”
“That was Eve’s idea, too, and I wanted to appease her. The initial cast read-through was pretty tense, and I started to have second thoughts about the whole thing right then and there, but I couldn’t do anything but forge ahead. I’ve been forging ahead ever since.”
“I’m sorry, Oliver.”
“Thanks, but I guess it’s my own fault. I hope the reviewers will be kind.”
“They will be, I’m sure of it. How bad is the financial situation, if you don’t mind my asking?”
Oliver looked pained as he set the folder he had been fanning himself with back down and rubbed his eyes again. “Pretty bad. I have a lot invested in this show. I borrowed some money from a few backers, hoping to make it back and then some so I could do a bigger show in the fall. I just don’t understand it. I really thought signing Shelby Berkett would be a coup for the bottom line. I printed posters and flyers, took out ads in the morning and evening papers—hell, I even signed a contract for some radio ads this morning, though since it was so last minute, the first open slot was this Saturday at 6:13 p.m. on the Opera Hour.”
“Oh my, Oliver.”
He threw his head back and glanced briefly at the ceiling, and then at me. “I know, but I’m desperate, and that’s what I get for waiting. Hopefully, it will do some good, though I’m not sure who all listens to the Opera Hour besides Jasper. He’s a big fan, or at least his dog likes it.”
I laughed, but then I realized he was serious.
Oliver smiled. “It sounds crazy, but it’s true. Jasper has a radio in his prop room and he plays the Opera Hourfor his dog. It’s the only radio I allow in the theater besides the one in my office here.”
“Why is that?”
“They’re too much of a distraction, and people miss their cues. Plus, if I’m doing a musical, I want the players focused on the music in the show and not what’s on the radio.”
“Makes sense, I guess.”
“Yeah, I find it helps. Anyway, I’d appreciate it if you would help spread the word about the show, Heath. I can give you some flyers if you would be so kind as to put them up at work, in the lobby of your building,and anywhere else you think they may do some good.”
“Sure thing, Oliver. I’d be happy to. I don’t know how you manage to do it all. You’re the stage manager, the director, and the producer.”
“Don’t remind me, Heath. But it keeps costs down. And I got used to wearing many hats during the war, when manpower was in short supply. Jasper used to do props andjanitorial, but Jazz pressured me into hiring Dick, so now he’s on the payroll, too.”
“Prop manager sounds like a big enough job on its own.”
“It is. Jasper makes sure everything is where it needs to be when it needs to be. The tea tray and service, the tea in the teapot, the poison in the vial, the rainwater for Roger’s hat and coat, the list goes on and on.”
“The poison is fake, of course.”
“I should hope so! The poison and the tea are all just tea and more tea. Shelby likes it extra sweet, so Jasper always adds a lot of sugar. We’ve gone through a whole bag just during rehearsals, and it’s not cheap. We’re lucky we can even get sugar since the rationing on it ended not long ago.”
“Yes, it’s one of the last items to stop being rationed. In some parts of the country, it just ended this year.”
“And Shelby eats it up like nobody’s business.”
“You certainly have your hands full,” I said.
“And how. Something’s gotta give. On top of everything else, Peter’s pillbox is now missing.”
“As I said before, Peter takes pills to get him going in the morning, pills to calm him down during the day, and pills to help him sleep.”
“That’s a lot of pills, Oliver.”
“I know. He calls them his happy pills. He found a doctor that keeps him well supplied for a price. I don’t like it and neither does Eve, but he’s a stubborn man.”
“All those pills must get expensive.”
“Eve’s been getting the prescriptions filled from Lempke’s Pharmacy.”
“The place where Henry Hawthorne works?”
“That’s right. He and Eve have been friends a long time. I think Henry gets her some kind of a discount.”
“Interesting. Was the pillbox valuable?”
“According to Peter, it was sterling silver and gold. He said someone took it out of his dressing room while he was onstage. And last week, Eve said a small compact framed in ivory that had belonged to her mother had disappeared from her dressing room. Before that, Hilda the makeup lady told me one of her jars of putty had gone missing.”
“The stuff I showed you earlier that she uses to age actors, add wrinkles, elongate noses, that type of thing.”
“Any idea who’s behind it all?”
Oliver shook his head. “None. At first I put it down to items just being misplaced. But three items within days makes me wonder. Jasper thinks it’s the infamous Alexander Lippencott.”
“I wasn’t aware ghosts stole things, or sent telegrams, for that matter. I can’t say I put a lot of stock in spirits.”
“I don’t really, either, Heath, but Jasper and Alex were friends, and he says he can sense Alex’s presence.”
“Who has access to the dressing rooms and the makeup room?”
“The dressing rooms don’t lock from the outside, and the makeup room is always open, so it could have been anyone, really.”
“Curious. The pill case and mirror I can see, as they sound like they were worth something, but the putty?”
“I know, it’s baffling.”
“Has anyone supposedly ever seen this Lippencott ghost?”
Oliver looked surprisingly serious. “Not directly, but Eve mentioned feeling like someone was watching her when she was in her dressing room the other day, even though no one was there. She’s had that sensation several times recently.”
“Hmmm. Do you keep your office locked at all times when you’re not here?”
“Yes, just as a precaution, of course. About the only rooms we keep locked are my office, the box office, the supply room, and the prop room. Why?”
At that moment there was a knock on the door.
“Come in,” Oliver called out.
I turned to see a tall, almost gaunt man about forty-five years old, with a small black and white pup wagging an active little tail.
“We’re all set. Miss Monroe and Mr. Berkett are waiting onstage.”
“Thanks, Jasper. I’ll be right there. Leave the door open, please.”
“Yes, sir,” Jasper said. He turned and walked slowly back down the hall with a pronounced limp. The dog trotted behind, his tail still swishing about like a propeller.
Oliver looked back at me. “That’s Jasper, the prop man.”
“So I gathered. He totally ignored me, as if I wasn’t even here.”
“That’s just the way he is. I’m used to it. His life hasn’t been easy, and he’s not one to trust many people. He and I are friends, but I’m one of the few. He has taken a liking to Alan, though. Alan’s helped him out a lot backstage.”
“Not surprising, knowing Alan.”
“Here’s some of those flyers to put up if you’re sure you don’t mind?” He handed me some from a stack on his desk.
“I absolutely don’t mind, glad to.” I rolled them up and put them in my inside jacket pocket as we exited the office. I waited as he turned out the light and locked the door. I followed him back down the dark hall into the wings. He picked up a megaphone from a small desk and strode onstage.
“Places, everyone! Starting from the death scene. Shelby, take it from: ‘No, I arouse you, I can tell. I always could tell.’ And this time, set the cup and saucer down before you convulse.”
We went into the seating area as Shelby and Jazz took their places onstage, but seeing the infamous Henry Hawthorne in person would have to wait.
“I wish I could stay for the rest, Oliver, but I really have to go. I’ll see it all Saturday night.” I nudged his shoulder. “The show will be great. It will all fall together.”
“Or fall apart,” Oliver said with a sigh. He took out his damp handkerchief again and mopped his brow before shoving it back into his pocket.
“You’ll hold it together.”
“I hope so. I’ll put a ticket aside for you at the box office.”
“Any chance you could make it two?”
“You’ve been holding out on me, Heath. I thought you said you weren’t dating anyone.”
“I’m not. What about you?”
“I’ve got my eye on a pretty blond millinery clerk at Schuster’s, but we’ll see. So, who are you bringing?”
“My Aunt Verbina. She loves the theater.”
“Ah, okay, two it is. Unfortunately, I can spare the seats.”
“Thanks, Oliver, I appreciate it. Tell Alan I’ll call him later.”
“Will do. You’re coming to the cast party tomorrow night at my apartment after the final dress rehearsal, aren’t you?”
“Sure. Alan mentioned that, but aren’t cast parties usually after opening night?”
“Yeah, normally, but Berkett apparently has an engagement Saturday night after the show, and I can’t have the party without him. Jazz may be the star, but he’s the featured attraction.”
I shrugged and rolled my eyes. “Actors. See you tomorrow night, then.”
“If I live that long. Actors.”
I heard Oliver yell, “Action!” as I turned and walked up the aisle and outside to Third Street and the late afternoon sunshine. The fog from earlier had lifted. The sky was now azure blue, and groups of puffy clouds had gathered overhead, bumping into each other as they rolled gently over the city on their way to the lake. I smiled to myself as I put my gray fedora on and hurried back to my car and the police station.