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Alex Peres Mystery 4 - Murder Came Second.docx
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Chapter 23

Some people thrive on a certain amount of stress. I know I do my best work when there’s some amount of pressure. Cindy does well when she’s got several balls in the air at once. Cassie and Lainey both do well when a nice neat schedule starts falling apart here and there. Sonny usually wallows in stress like a pig in mud, the worse it gets, the wider he grins.

But not this time. I think the whole situation was somewhat foreign to him. God knows it was to the rest of us.

While any of us might occasionally read a scandal sheet like the A-List, we simply took the stories as gospel if we were naïve, or as so much scurrilous amusement if we were not. The real threats it could impose on the subjects being pilloried throughout its pages had probably never occurred to any of us before now.

And the sheer, gleefully malicious investigators and writers who turned out the smoking pages were a breed completely alien to most of us.

It seemed that no one in the cast of Carlucci’s play was left untouched. From Hamlet on down there was a little something for everyone. Even the young man who played Laertes apparently had a juvenile record—a record which is supposed to be sealed—for assault and robbery. And one of the electricians had an entire bedroom in his home turned into a Katharine Hepburn shrine of photos and artifacts, including a threadbare terry robe stolen from the set of Adam’s Rib, which he used as a bath towel.

These appetizing tidbits were Terese’s current notes and had come to Sonny via the A-List’s editor, whom Sonny had at last reached Saturday morning, at his Long Island home. The editor had solemnly declared that the public “had the right to know.” And when Sonny had asked “Why?” had seemed genuinely confused.

Fortunately, the publisher either had better sense or had come under some pressure from high places, however, for after speaking with Sonny, he had ordered the editor to dump all the Hamlet printed files plus any other of Terese’s files or notes already transferred to the main office computer, right down to any stray grocery lists. The editor was then to write a brief, but praise filled and fact sparse obituary of that dedicated journalist for next week’s issue. When Terese’s body was released, A-List would provide a private funeral. Terese was being gently erased.

Willie, he added, was on extended vacation in the South Pacific and could not be reached. And whoever had blanked out Terese’s laptop was still unknown. My bet was still Elaine. Before or after the murder, she still was the one with the best opportunities before the murder. After the murder, quite possibly, she was awake early, found Terese’s body, went back upstairs and erased the hard drive, made her trip to the dumpster and then waited patiently for someone else to “find” the body. She would have taken the risk in a heartbeat to protect Bobby and, perforce, herself from Terese’s account of their lives.

While Sonny, like the rest of us who knew of his conversation with the publisher, was relieved that next week’s published A-List would contain no spurious anecdotes for Ptown, its citizens or visiting players, the editor’s information simply broadened the field of those with reason to kill Terese.

Sonny was keeping this information quiet and urged us to say nothing. He was hoping the worry of what they feared might be published the following week would cause one of the players to reveal information. Either accidentally or to incriminate someone else.

We agreed not to tell anyone, whomever that might be, but personally, I thought he was being overcautious. The players were now concerned about presenting a play to a large audience, hoping for good reviews and eager for a reasonable run in New York. Murder came second.

Still, they were a nervous group. I estimated, among actors, chorus, technicians, stagehands and musicians, they had at least thirty-five people who were totally innocent of murder and had the usual reasons for wishing the show to be a success. They had one, and probably two, people involved in Terese’s death, who had an extra reason for hoping for a triumphal presentation. They wanted to look innocent.

After all, if they dressed and acted their parts to perfection, who would dream of thinking them capable of bloody murder only a few days prior? If they were relaxed, handled their lines and songs or other activities with obvious competence and ease, who would ever think they carried the weight of a brutal killing on their conscience?

There’s an old superstition among theater people that a bad dress rehearsal means a good opening show, and vice versa. Paul had scheduled the final dress rehearsal for Saturday afternoon.

Mom drove Noel and a couple of the other men out to the amphitheater for the rehearsal and, at Paul’s invitation, stayed to watch. According to her, if the old fallacy were correct, Sunday’s version of Hamlet should be the greatest success ever produced, up to and including the original opening night at the Globe Theater some four hundred years earlier!

Rehearsal was a disaster. Lines were forgotten, music cues were missed, the mike for Ophelia’s swan song didn’t work at all, and her voice carried to about the second row. Noel and Elaine messed up their love song. Again. The pistol with which Hamlet was to kill Polonius was not in the table drawer, so Hamlet casually pointed his finger and said Bang! which broke up Polonius, causing him to forget his dying lines. Elaine came on stage for a formal soiree in tennis shorts meant for the next scene, and finally everyone was draped in sudden darkness as the electrician skipped a cue and cut the lights before the end of the act.

And that was what Mom remembered offhand. We ran into her and Noel at the Ocean’s Bounty having dinner, and joined them for a drink. At least Mom was having dinner. Noel seemed to be pouring down drinks, pushing an appetizer around his plate and trying not to scream. Finally, he could stand no more of our light, bantering conversation meant to make him feel better, and announced that he was going back to the Marshes. No, thank you, he did not need a ride, the walk would do him good.

He stood and gave us all a wobbly little bow. “Good night, dear ladies. Enjoy your evening.”

“Good night, dear Duke,” Cindy said. “Break a leg.” He turned deadly white and walked unsteadily away.

Cindy looked stricken. “What did I do? I thought that meant ‘Good luck’ in theater talk.”

“Perhaps it isn’t used when someone is upset about their play and about to take a long walk in the dark and has had several drinks,” I replied gently.

“He’s just got a bad case of nerves,” Mom said. “He’ll be fine tomorrow when it’s the real thing. They’re all an inch away from hysteria right now. Ophelia is still screaming about the mike. She won’t have a voice left if she doesn’t quit. Elaine says if Noel screws up tomorrow on that song, she’s walking off the stage. Nick says Hamlet reached in the wrong drawer for the gun. Hamlet just laughed and said to put a gun in each drawer to avoid problems. He’s about the only one just going with the flow.” Mom finished her clams casino.

“He’s probably guzzling Xanax.”

“Quite possibly,” Mom said. “Everyone else is. Won’t you two join me for dinner? I’ve already ordered, and I hate to eat alone in a restaurant for some reason.”

We looked at each other and nodded. “Love to,” Cindy said. “We’re meeting Walter and Billy at the A-House later, but we’ve loads of time.”

We enjoyed our threesome dinner and appreciated Mom’s treat as well. When we parted outside the restaurant, I thanked my mother and then asked. “Mom, do you think Noel is all right? Should we check on him?”

“I think he will be perfectly fine. He’s probably on my answering machine as we speak, apologizing. Remember, he’s an actor. I think he feels he must overreact or he’s not doing his part for the team. They’ll all get together and weep and moan and drink too much and blame everyone but themselves. And tomorrow they will be gorgeous and letter-perfect. And I don’t need to spend a boring evening being part of the chorus. Worry not, darling. He’s not about to put his head in the oven. See you tomorrow for the big event.”

We kissed goodnight, and as Cindy and I walked out of earshot, I said. “Well, you heard that little speech. I must say, my romantic one, that didn’t sound to me like anyone who is dating. Don’t you agree?”

“Absolutely, I agree. Sounded much more like a wife to me.”

I hadn’t had enough sleep, and what I had was laced with strange dreams, but what did Fargo care? He wanted out. My mouth was dry, my head slightly achy, my humor unhelped by my bedmate sleeping soundly at my side. But what did Fargo care? He wanted the beach, and he knew who took him there. It wasn’t Cindy he was nudging with a cold nose and begging with those big brown eyes.

I made the mistake of meeting his look. He grinned and the tail wagged faster.

“Oh, all right.”

I let him out, got dressed and picked up his leash. When I went out the back door, I found him sitting by the garage door looking angelic. How could you stay grumpy?

The cool, salty air helped. Finding the beach virtually deserted at this early hour helped. Watching Fargo chase imaginary foes in and out of the surf helped most of all.

By seven o’clock the beach began to fill with people. Well, it was the last big summer weekend. In a few days children would be back in school. There would be slowly diminishing crowds for another month or so, but then the Atlantic would begin to show its stern autumn face, and nights would replace their soft caress with a harsh nip. The days would still be pleasant, but even their warmth would be tentative. So people were going to enjoy every minute available to them. And why not?

Fargo and I headed toward home via the newsstand. In the backyard we found the omnipresent Sonny, with three containers of Costa Rican coffee on the table, plus a bag that obviously contained pastries.

He walked over to the car and spoke softly. “I think Cindy is still asleep, the house is quiet.”

“Probably.” I yawned. “Only idiots are up at this hour. And dogs.”

“And cops bearing good news. And naughty actresses.”

“Oh? Tell all. Especially about naughty actresses.”

“I think the boots have told us who took them, or more to the point, who wore them to the dumpster.” He took the newspapers and we walked back to the table.

I popped the lid on one of the coffees. “Like who?”

“Arlene found a drop or two of fresh blood in the heel of one boot. She also noticed that the laces were pulled out of the top two holes of both boot tops. She made a quantum leap and decided that someone with considerably smaller feet than Harmon had worn the boots and kept them from slipping off by tying the laces tight around their lower legs. The boots had evidently moved up and down some and caused a blister on the left heel. The blister broke, and a little blood is in the boot, along with a small piece of skin. Clever, what? All buried under the pieces of fax paper, which the whole office is now trying to fit back together.”

“Very clever.” I tried the coffee and approved. “Can you get a match on the blood?”

“Not sure there’s enough, but the skin looks good,” Sonny said. “But I’ve been busy spreading the joy. I called Paul and Hamlet. You can’t imagine how happy they were to hear from me. Hamlet wears the same size shoe as the boots. Carlucci wears one size smaller. Not enough to make any difference in the short run. Get that, the short run? Neither of them would have had to tie the boots on. That left Elaine.”

I groaned at the pun, Sonny’s were invariably awful. Then I informed him, “I can assure you, Elaine does not have feet the size of Harmon’s.”

“No,” he said and sipped his coffee. “I went by the Chambered Nautilus and got her up. She was simply thrilled to see me and flatly refused to lend me or even show me any of her shoes so I could look for a size, not that I would know how to compare them with a man’s without just placing them side by side.”

“So get a warrant and let Arlene handle it,” I said.

“I will.” He grinned. “But since Elaine was barefoot this morning, I saw the big Band-Aid on the back of her heel. I asked her how she got the wound. She said Noel accidentally kicked her while they were dancing on stage.”

“Well, it’s possible, I suppose, but I doubt it. Noel can’t sing worth a damn, but he isn’t clumsy.”

Sonny’s cell phone played a couple of bars of “Me and My Shadow” as he pulled it from his shirt pocket.

“Peres.” Big wolfish grin. “Great, Nacho, read it to me.” Silence. Grin faded. “Read it again.” Pause. “Shit. Balls! Fuckit!”

He threw the phone violently to the ground, where it hit a stepping stone and bounced impressively skyward before falling back to earth in three pieces. Cindy flew through the back door nightgown-clad, eyes wide, hair wild.

“What’s wrong? What happened? What’s all the noise?”

Sonny gave a logical answer to three illogical questions. “I just got the report. The semen is Hamlet’s, all right, but the clear fluid is Paul Carlucci’s. So Terese was not attacked during or after her death. She just had sex with two drunks. One couldn’t pull the trigger and the other couldn’t wait. Dammit all to hell! From what Noel said, and what Carlucci himself implied, I assumed Paul had good old can’t-get-it-up problems and didn’t have sex with Terese at all. It seems he did, in some manner or other.”

Cindy looked at him long and unbelievingly. Finally she spoke. “You made all that racket and demolished a perfectly good phone over somebody’s semen? Men.”

She walked back inside.

“Maybe you could arrest Elaine for obstruction,” I said. “Maybe then she’ll tell you what she really knows about all this.”

“Yeah.”

“Maybe by now Paul has remembered more of what happened between them. Maybe he really is the killer . . . or maybe even Hamlet, later that night.”

“Maybe.” He was trying to fit the pieces of his phone back together. “Dammit! I was sure the leaker was the killer!”

“Just relax for awhile, you’ll work it out.” I pulled the Sunday Times closer and found the Book Review section. I reached in the paper bag and settled down with a French cruller. But it was not to be.

“Good morning, children! I do hope there’s an extra donut. I walked over and I’ve worked up an appetite. Ah, well, I burned some calories walking. I guess I can just put them back and no harm done. Oh, is that an extra cup of coffee? Could I?” My mother was being noisily, obnoxiously and very falsely cheerful. And what was she doing here at this hour, anyway?

“Hi, Mom,” Sonny and I chorused. “Help yourself to whatever,” Sonny added.

“Thank you. I’m glad I happened to catch you both together. Save me explaining twice.” She sipped the coffee and didn’t even seem to realize that it had to be stone cold.

“Explain what?” I asked. “Is anything wrong?”

“Far from it,” she said. “As you know, Paul Carlucci plans to send everyone back to New York Wednesday for a few days rest, and then go into a couple of weeks rehearsal for the Broadway version of Hamlet. It’s just slightly different, being an indoor and smaller stage adaptation. And, of course, there are always a few script revisions after the first performance.” She was beginning to sound like a pro herself.

“Well, Noel has asked me to come down to New York and let him show me his native’s-eye view of the city during the time he’s off, and then stay for the opening night performance. I’ve accepted his invitation, and to top it off, Cassie will fly us down Wednesday morning, along with Paul and Elaine. I’m so excited! I can’t wait!”

I was suddenly and deeply in shock. I looked at Sonny, whose mouth was literally open. I saw Cindy in the doorway again, this time with her face screwed up and eyes tightly closed. Pain? Prayer? Anticipating an explosion? And I knew I could never, ever ask my mother the question that had been forming on my tongue. I managed somehow to make a seamless transition by leaning across the table and bringing her hand lightly to my lips.

“Mom, how wonderful! I’m absolutely envious. Seeing New York with a real New Yorker for your guide. You’ll see all the great little nooks and crannies the rest of us miss. You lucky dog, you!”

Mom smiled, and I saw her whole body relax. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Cindy slump against the doorjamb and blow me a kiss. I kicked my brother under the table and he pulled together a smile.

“Great, Mom! Aren’t you turning into the cosmopolite! Chartered planes, Broadway openings. Gee, Alex, think she’ll give us her autograph when she gets back?”

Cindy appeared with a bottle of champagne and glasses. “It’s a little early, but you look like a champagne-for-breakfast-lady! Here’s to a divine vacation, Jeanne, you deserve it.”

And indeed she did.

But with an actor?

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