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Alex Peres Mystery 4 - Murder Came Second.docx
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Chapter 24

The entire area surrounding the amphitheater sported a festive atmosphere, if a confusing one. Bright flags flew in a circle around the parking lot, as they had flown around the Globe, and Paul had provided groups of costumed strolling minstrels playing Elizabethan airs, while some people enjoyed folk dances and others tailgated and made the rest of us hungry. There were booths with free soft drinks and non-alcoholic punch. I think there were many beers tucked away in coolers and harder stuff concealed in numerous pocket flasks.

Cassie and I taught one group of minstrels what we considered an appropriate addition to their repertoire. It was a sardonic takeoff on a Medieval ditty about Mayday and the dance around the maypole, welcoming summer.

The minstrels quickly set it to some catchy rhythm and Cassie and I did our own little folk dance until Cindy and Lainey suggested we sit down and have some black coffee. So much for carefully concealed flasks.

Then a flag with a giant comedy/tragedy mask fluttered up the high center pole, and three musicians blew a stirring fanfaronade on those long, gorgeous silver trumpets to announce play time.

And we filed down to our seats. Fortunately, Cindy and Lainey—along with most other playgoers—had remembered to bring cushions to soften the unforgiving concrete construction, and we comfortably awaited . . . what? A triumph? A mess? A sleep-inducing drone?

The conductor brought the orchestra to life with a heart-lifting crescendo, and the overture was underway. What is it about overtures to musicals that rouse one so?

I’m the audience any cast would love to have, doubtless an inheritance from my mother. I’m up, I’m trembly, I’m excited. I’m with them all the way. I expect great things from them. Sometimes I’m disappointed, but not because I started with a blasé attitude. I was always entirely ready to be entertained and pleased. Despite all the things I knew about these players and this play itself, that first orchestral chord had still invoked its familiar magic.

And I was entertained and pleased. I’ve seen better shows, but God knows I’ve seen worse. If mistakes were made, they were not obvious. Queenie and the Duke were dutifully married and their reception party was lively with dancers and romantic with their wedding waltz and touching duet. Both perfectly done.

Tension grew as Hamlet’s suspicions around his father’s death deepened and his indecision grew more debilitating. Laertes duly outed Horatio and Hamlet, effectively ending Hamlet’s “romance” with Ophelia. Ophelia’s final song—perfectly miked—was a sweetly sad ballad about a tree which fell in the forest, mourned by the birds and wildlife that had enjoyed its fruit and shelter, but leading her to ask: Will I fall alone and ungrieved ? Will anyone cry when they say goodbye to me? Will a sparrow weep on the day I die? And she, having swallowed her lethal potion, fell gracefully dead, alone on the stage, to long and loud applause.

Laertes wasn’t too popular at this point, and Polonius figured he’d better get his kid out of town for a while, so he sent him to the Caribbean with a bunch of stolen KustomerKing money, ripe for the laundry. Polonius showed a surprisingly subtle comedic talent as he answered his son’s questions of what to expect on his first trip as an illicit courier:

Son, you can sell shares in companies that will never be

Just don’t come to the attention of the SEC

As long as you have a million or two

Anything that you do

Will be quite all right

You’ll nd ladies and gents all quite fond

When they see your sheaf of bearer bonds

When you’ve got a million or four

Any way you care to score

Will be utterly all right

The IRS? Don’t give them a worry!

Just fuel your Gulfstream in a hurry

When you’ve got a billion or so

You can be happy wherever you go!

And any little thing you do

Will be positively . . . perfectly . . . superbly all right!

Made me kind of sorry the old fraud went and got himself killed.

I thought the cast was doing a helluva job, considering the various stresses they must be under. Much as I hated to admit it, I was most impressed by Hamlet. He must have simply coasted through the few rehearsals I had heard or seen, saving himself for the performance itself. And if he were indeed our killer, you’d never know it.

His timing was perfect. He neither trampled other actors’ lines nor lagged. He seemed young and vigorous and vacillated between uncertainty and arrogance, as so many of us do in young adulthood. He managed to come across as both a know-it-all and a boy/man confused and devastated by his father’s death and his mother’s behavior. I could easily visualize him charming his way right past a jury and into an acquittal.

Queenie was playing well, too. Elaine managed to be sexy and conniving and a respectable southern lady, all at the same time. And doubtless with big personal worries and an aching foot.

We had reached the final scene, where Paul Carlucci’s direction would revert to pure Shakespearean tradition, carried out by a bunch of vengeful people littering the stage with corpses, with only Horatio left standing for his “Goodnight, Sweet Prince” soliloquy, which he would deliver as written by the original playwright.

Gathered on stage in the living room for the final scene were Hamlet, his mother, Duke and Horatio. The CFO of Big Mart was expected in half an hour for a final answer: Would KustomerKing sell or not? And still the family could not reach a unanimous decision.

Duke and Queenie were a definite “Sell.” The absent Laertes, everyone knew, would wish to keep the shares he had inherited from Polonius.

Hamlet still worried about how Big Mart would treat the KustomerKing employees they would inherit, and whether they would effectively put the small stores in various towns out of business. On the other hand, a summer in France with Horatio and a permanent escape from small town Georgia beckoned enticingly.

As they hashed and rehashed, the screen door flew open and Laertes—just back from his offshore trip—crashed in, drunk and waving a pistol. He screamed at Hamlet, “You murdering bastard! You killed my father, and you might as well have shot my sister! You think your family owns this county, but you won’t get away with this!” He fired.

A squib went off under Hamlet’s shirt, and apparent blood soaked through the cloth. Hamlet grabbed his chest and staggered back. “Maybe not, Larry, but there’s blame to go around. Your father was complicit in the death of mine, and stole millions from him to boot. After all my father did for him!”

Hamlet reached into the end table drawer and pulled out the pistol, this time in its proper drawer, and shot Laertes.

And then strange things began to happen.

The front of Laertes’s shirt spouted some blood as programmed. But instead of lurching around and spewing out all the crimes and faults of the Hamlet family, Laertes grabbed his shoulder, sat down abruptly on the floor and screamed, “You shot me, you stupid son of a bitch!” And I could have sworn I saw something red oozing between his fingers.

Hamlet rallied. Laertes had obviously forgotten his lines, but Hamlet would cover for him. “I know you think no one in our family should survive, and you may have a point.”

I looked at Noel, seated beside Queenie on the couch. He was staring with deep interest at Laertes who was staring with equal interest at his shoulder. Noel took a clean white handkerchief from his breast pocket and tossed it to Laertes, who pressed it against his shoulder, where it began to streak with red.

Horatio, making a move I was pretty sure was not in the script, crawled behind the dubious shelter of a little coffee table and curled up in a smaller bundle than one would think he could make, with his eyes tightly closed. He reminded me of Fargo going to the vet.

Hamlet’s meandering fill-in speech wobbled to a close. And he turned, pointing the gun at Duke, and bawling something about Duke murdering old King Hamlet. As he raised the pistol, Noel made a surprisingly agile leap for a guy his age and disappeared over the back of the sofa.

From behind it came his voice in a desperate bellow. “David, don’t shoot, man! You’ve got real bullets!”

Finally, it dawned on me that indeed he had. David/Bobby/ Hamlet had gone entirely round the bend and intended to strew the stage with real corpses!

I fought my way to the end of the aisle and ran down the slanting ramp toward the stage. The ramp was fairly steep and I was running out of control as I crashed through a frightened and cursing orchestra and up the small access steps to the stage.

I tripped over a footlight and skidded to a stop on a knee and an elbow in front of Hamlet. Meantime, Noel was trying to wrestle Elaine over the back of the couch into some kind of safety, but she wouldn’t move. She seemed as stiff and unemotional as a cigar-store Indian, but I had no time to help Noel.

Managing to stand and briefly to wonder why skinned knees hurt so much and garnered so little sympathy, I grabbed at Hamlet’s pistol.

“Give it here, you idiot, before you kill somebody! Those are not blanks!”

“Of course they’re blanks,” he hissed. “Get off the stage. You’re ruining the finale! Look, I’ll show you.” He yanked the pistol away and fired in Elaine’s general direction. Noel dived back behind the couch again, and an enormous pillow burst to send a seemingly endless cloud of feathers wafting across the stage in the light afternoon breeze.

The audience had become understandably bewildered. Was this all part of the play? Or had some crazy woman in the audience decided to run up on stage and save the potential victims?

When the pillow exploded there was laughter and cheering and applause. Someone called out, “Run for it, Duke.” Someone else yelled, “Get ’im, Hamlet!”

Finally, a movement in the corner of stage left told me I was not alone in realizing something was terribly wrong. Sonny had come onto the stage from that side and was running toward us. Jeanine had come through the screen door in center stage—in uniform— and was trying to sidle around to the other side of Hamlet. Some people were still laughing and cheering as the cavalry entered. A few were beginning to leave.

I looked at Hamlet and am sure my expression turned to one of horror. He now had the pistol pointing toward his own eye, staring down the barrel as if trying to spot the problem.

“Hamlet . . . David . . . Bobby . . . Whoever,” I almost whispered. “Take your finger away from that trigger. If that thing goes off, you’re hamburger.”

Did Bobby plan to kill himself, too? Could well be.

Hamlet did his foot stomping routine and shrieked, “Oh, you silly dyke, you’ve ruined the whole last act. There’s nothing wrong with the gun!”

He threw the gun from him. It hit the concrete floor and went off. Sonny grabbed his leg and went down, screaming, “O-oh, shit!” Since he landed right beside one of the floor mikes, his shout seemed to echo round and round the theater. There was heavy applause, mingled with a few catcalls.

A nanosecond later a woman’s voice screamed from the audience. “Harry, I’m hit in the behind. I tell you I’m fucking shot!” That earned her cheers and loud clapping, plus several scatological suggestions.

A woman nearby in the audience squealed, “Did you hear that, Frank? Did you? I swear that was Mama. Mama says she’s shot!”

“She can’t be shot too bad, making all that noise. Just sit down! I want to see the end of this thing. For the life of me, I can’t figure what they’re at.”

He wasn’t alone.

I was quite anxious to get to the end of this maelstrom also, before we were all dead. I lunged for the gun and got it before Hamlet could change his mind and pick it up again.

I noticed that Nick, the stage manager, had come out of the wings onto the stage, speaking sternly and calmly to Hamlet, apparently unaware that I now had the gun.

“Give me that gun, David. Somehow you got the wrong kind of bullets in there! I swear you can’t get anything right. You used real cartridges!” He shook his head in exasperation.

“No, I didn’t!” Hamlet was practically spitting with petulance.

I thought he was going to stamp his foot again. “I loaded it with the ones from the new box, just like you told me.” I couldn’t believe this conversation, casually taking place in front of a thousand people, a few of them bleeding badly.

“I didn’t say the new box.” Nick shook his head again impatiently. “I said the blue box . . . blue! You’re shooting all the wrong people.” He smiled ironically. “Now give me the gun before we have somebody accidentally dead.” He extended his left hand.

At this point, I became aware of two things. Nick was holding a thirty-eight revolver in his right hand, and I knew there was no question what kind of ammunition its cylinder held. I knew because suddenly, finally, I saw him. I grasped that I was actually looking at Bobby.

Not Hamlet. Nick. Nick Peters, stage manager with revolver, was Bobby Leonard, grown up little boy.

His child’s skinny body had not grown tall and willowy like his mother’s, but had stayed short and become thickset like his father’s. The tight blond curls had darkened to light brown waves, and only the beautiful blue eyes and full mouth had remained the same.

Jeanine was still angling here and there on stage, trying now for a clear shot at Bobby, and not having any luck there, either, because everyone seemed to keep moving. I now had Hamlet’s gun. Should I try a shot? My path was clear. If I missed, I wouldn’t hit anyone in the audience. I hated to shoot. He wasn’t really threatening anyone. At least, not at the moment.

“Bobby . . . Nick,” I tried to speak calmly. “How about giving me that gun you’re holding? We’ve got way too many people with guns out here. As you indicated, it’s getting dangerous.”

“Stay out of this, Alex. I like you. Anyway, this is strictly a family affair. None of your business. Remember Hamlet’s line . . . she doesn’t deserve to live? Keep it in mind.”

Bobby was now turned toward Elaine. “Well, Elaine, nothing to say? I thought you’d have a lovely soliloquy for us, telling everyone how good and noble you were and how awful everyone else was.”

He leaned nonchalantly against the back of a chair and continued. “And I really should thank you for that dramatic red herring you dragged all over town to make Terese’s demise look like a robbery gone bad. I assume it was to make people think you were protecting your crazy little brother. You had to know the cops would figure out it was phony. Didn’t you? They aren’t morons.” He paused and leaned forward slightly, obviously expecting a reply.

But Elaine had no words. She was staring stolidly into space, seeing . . . what? A little boy? A young girl? A crazed woman and a dismembered man? She looked like someone waiting for . . . for the lights to go off.

“Silence, Elaine? Well, you know you never deserved to live after all the lives you ruined. So I guess it’s time.”

I saw his arm start to straighten and I fired. I was rewarded by the click of an empty chamber. Hamlet hadn’t been playing with a full clip.

That figured.

But at least the sound threw Bobby’s aim off. When he shot, Elaine hardly moved. She lifted her lower left arm across her breast and looked disinterestedly at the fleshy part of her upper arm as a thin stream of blood began to trickle.

Jeanine had finally worked her way around to a clear shot, and she called out, “Okay, you, drop the gun or I shoot! Drop it now!”

Bobby smiled almost sweetly, shook his head and raised his arm again toward Elaine.

Jeanine fired.

At first I thought she had somehow managed to hit Hamlet, as he collapsed at my feet, but then I saw that he had simply fainted.

At the same time, Bobby’s white T-shirt blossomed into an obscene red rose. He took a slow step back . . . and fell.

If there was a hero in the following chaos, it was the conductor of the orchestra. People now realized that actual shooting was going on, and that real blood was being shed all over the stage and even into the audience. They were pushing to get up the aisles and out.

Pandemonium was seconds away, with all the injuries and even fatalities that could cause. Maestro got his people out of their terrified crouch, and seconds later, his first trumpet sounded the high, sweet notes of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

It worked. As other instruments joined in, some people stopped running, faced the flag flying above the theater and placed hands over hearts, or came to attention and saluted. Some began to sing. Most continued their exit, but in march-time and without panic.

When the anthem finished, “Colonel Bogey” followed. The large oval emptied, briskly and safely, of an audience which would doubtless claim to have seen the strangest Hamlet produced in four centuries.

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