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Who Dropped Peter Pan?
A Jocelyn O'Roarke Mystery
By Jane Dentinger
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1995 Jane Dentinger
All rights reserved.
"What can I get you, miss ... Miss?"
The roly-poly Jewish guy behind the busy fish counter at Zabar's wondered why the brunette standing before him had tears in her eyes. Then she looked up with an ear-to-ear grin on her face and he saw they were tears of joy.
"Uh, okay—let's see. Okay, I'd like a half pound of Scotch salmon—no, no, make that the Nova. And—aw, what the hell—a quarter pound of Beluga."
Beluga caviar was a mad extravagance for an out-of-work actor waiting for her first unemployment check to come through, but Jocelyn O'Roarke didn't care. She was back home, she was back at Zabar's, her favorite food mecca, and all was right with her world.
Contrary to popular myth, not all actors have "the gypsy" in their soul. Some do, of course; primarily musical theatre folk who jump for joy when they land a six-month national tour—unless it's a bus-and-trucker, which requires youth, stamina, and a soupçon of masochism. But a first-class tour of, say, Guys and Dolls, with long layovers in major cities and a hefty per diem to boot is often regarded as a busman's holiday and, given the scarcity of jobs on Broadway, a consummation devoutly to be wished.
Many working actors, even the less nomadic by nature, spend part of the year (pilot season) in L.A., where, even if they don't land a job, they can at least fantasize about being discovered while ambling around the Farmers' Market sampling great Mexican food. Others, who would rather be on a stage anywhere than not on a stage at all, traipse off to do regional theatre, summer stock, or even, God help them, dinner theatre.
By showbiz standards, therefore, Jocelyn was something of an anomaly, she was a one-town woman and that town was New York. Oh, yes, she would pack her bags if the role was great or the money was good but, after a week or two, she would start itching to get back home.
O'Roarke had been itching for nearly a year.
A trip out to the Coast had turned into a prolonged stay thanks to a powerhouse agent named Gabby Brent who, grateful for Josh's help in the solving of her husband's murder, had set up a whirlwind schedule of auditions and interviews that had kept O'Roarke busy and gainfully employed for months. When Gabby headed off to Europe for a much-needed vacation, Jocelyn had headed home, only to be detoured upstate by an old director friend who had just lost his leading lady. Once that job was over, it had been time for O'Roarke to visit her family in Saratoga before they completely forgot what she looked like. While she had relished playing Auntie Mame to the hilt with her horde of nieces and nephews, by the end of her stay she was breaking out in homesick hives. The little gypsy in her soul had long since given up the ghost.
After a morning spent prowling her old neighborhood to see which restaurants had closed and what new ones had opened, she had browsed through the new, huge Barnes & Noble on Broadway. O'Roarke was amused to find that it had become the epicenter of the Upper West Side singles scene, giving a new spin to that old saw: Read any good books lately? But, upon consideration, Jocelyn thought it was more informative to know if a guy reads Henry Miller than if he drinks Miller Lite. Still, amidst all the changes, she was comforted to find Zabar's just as it ever was—overcrowded, overstocked, and fragrantly fabulous. And she was so damned glad to be back there, she didn't even mind the usual everlasting wait in the checkout line; that is, not until she got out the door and checked her watch.
"Aw, crud! It's after four. I told P.J. to come at six," she muttered aloud, then smiled to see that no one around took the slightest notice. Another thing that hadn't changed while she was away. Hurrying up West Eighty-second Street as quickly as two bulging grocery bags would allow, Josh told herself not to worry. Pasta alla Mama took almost no time to fix and her buddy, Peter James Cullen—P.J. to his friends—would be happy to wait as long as the wine kept flowing.
Normally Jocelyn's first homecoming dinner guest would have been her old friend and mentor Frederick Revere. But Revere, a legendary actor still much in demand, was in England wrapping up a Merchant-Ivory film. Her sometimes paramour, sometimes pal Phillip Gerrard of the N.Y.P.D. was also out of town, on loan to a Chicago Police unit working on a very hush-hush homicide case. So O'Roarke, who keenly felt the need to get back in the thick of things theatrical, which meant, of course, getting the most news and gossip in the least amount of time, had immediately called Cullen, an up-and-coming young stage manager whose motto was: "Work hard. Play hard. And always get the dish." If you wanted to know what show was going to fold, which new production was in trouble, or who was doing what to whom or was about to, P.J. was your man.
They had met several years back when Jocelyn had stepped in to replace an ailing director in a summer-stock production of Steel Magnolias, which P.J. was P.S.M.ing. Before rehearsals started, they had arranged a lunch meeting, ostensibly to discuss production details, but the real purpose was to check each other out. When you're trying to get a show up and running in ten days' time, the director and the production stage manager have to work as closely as Siamese twins. By their second Bloody Mary, P.J. and Josh had joined at the hip. Jocelyn had sensed this when P.J., who hailed from Texas, had slapped his empty glass down on the table and declared, "Yup, I grew up a lone homo on the range. Tell ya, it takes guts to produce a drag show in San Antone but I did it."
He also did a bang-up job on Steel Magnolias. During a final dress rehearsal fraught with tech troubles, P.J. had soothed a nervous cast by constantly cooing, "Thank you for enduring, ladies." And he had won Jocelyn's eternal gratitude as well, in return for which she had introduced him to Peter Morrance, Broadway's leading P.S.M. and Josh's old comrade in arms. After that, Cullen never had to work summer stock again. So P.J. was more than happy to accept O'Roarke's dinner invitation. Not only had he missed Josh during her long absence, he had missed her cooking. Their friendship was founded on three firm pillars—love of theatre, gossip, and food—though not always in that order. P.J. was looking forward to the meal. Josh was looking forward to the dish.
Only later, much later, would O'Roarke realize that, if her soul's gypsy hadn't croaked, she might have had the prescience to see what disaster lurked ahead.CHAPTER 2
"Oh, no, you're too much, girl. You found a straight hairdresser in LaLa Land?!" P.J. Cullen slapped a jean-clad knee and poured himself another glass of pinot grigio. "Wait—shouldn't we call the Guiness Book of Records?"
Lifting a pot of linguine off the stove, Jocelyn poured the contents into a colander, then rinsed it under the faucet. "Well, Jack's not doing much cutting these days. Now that westerns are back in vogue, his horse ranch has really taken off. Did you see Geronimo? Those were some of Jack's quarter horses."
"Really? I'm impressed. They gave better performances than some of the actors."
As O'Roarke tossed the pasta with the egg and cream sauce, P.J. snuck a cube out of the ice bucket and dropped it in his wineglass. Josh heard the clink of ice against glass and gave him a sorrowful look. He stuck out his tongue in defiance and went on the counteroffensive. "What I don't get is—you find this cute guy who has horses and gives great head—I'm talkin' hair, a' course—and you just up and left! Why?"
"I told you I got homesick," Jocelyn said, dishing the linguine into separate pasta bowls. Her black and white butterball of a cat, Angus, who had been left behind when his mistress went out West, defended her decision by ferociously attacking the tip of Cullen's cowboy boot. "Get the garlic bread, will you."
"Sure, uh ... Can you detach the cat, please?"
"Angus—off! He's just happy to be home."
"Then I don't want to be around when he's feeling sad." P.J. sniffed as he removed the bread from its foil wrapper and brought it to the table. "So how did our Mr. Breedlove take it when you did a bunk?"
"Oh, he wasn't thrilled but I don't think it was a shock. Frankly, the last month or so, I was not a joy to be around."
"No? Gee, I just can't picture you cranky."
"Shut up and eat. Anyhow we parted on good terms and I think, deep down, he was a little relieved to see me go. But we still keep in touch. He's a great guy."
"Uh-huh, But I just wonder—" P.J. paused to take a bite of salad. "Whoa! You put crushed garlic in this dressing, huh?"
"Are you nuts? There's no such thing as too much garlic.... What was I sayin'? Oh, yeah—you sure it had nuthin' to do with ol'
Robocop breaking off his engagement?" Robocop was Cullen's nickname for Phillip Gerrard, whom he had never actually met but disliked on general principle. Twirling pasta around her fork, Jocelyn made a face at her friend.
"Noo, it did not. All right, so Phillip came up to visit me when I was working in Corinth. I didn't invite him but he did. And it was good thing, too, or we never would've got to the bottom of that awful Tessa Grant business."
P.J. watched Josh refill her wineglass and take a long sip, and knew better than to press for details of what had obviously been a painful affair for her. Instead he asked, "So how do things stand with you and Robo these days?"
Smiling despite herself, she assumed a prim tone. "By the time I got back to town, Phil had already left for Chicago. He'll probably be gone for a while. So for now we're just—"
"Just-good-friends." Cullen grabbed his throat and made loud gagging noises. "Oh, barf me! The cliché from hell. From you of all people—tsk, tsk. You don't deserve to have a love life, O'Roarke."
"Well, that's fine," she sniped back. "You screw around enough for both of us."
Reddening, P.J. grinned and dropped his head in mock shame. "True. 'Tis pity I'm a ho—but at least I'm having fun!"
Another thing that hadn't changed while she was gone was Cullen's rabbitlike sex life. Having sown her share of wild oats in younger days, O'Roarke wasn't judgmental about such things, simply concerned, as she was for most of her gay friends. Pointing her fork at him, she said, "Well, carry on wayward son ... as long as you're being safe."
"Ah, here we go again!" P.J. tossed his napkin in the air with a shake of the head. "I swear, you sound like La Olivier in Marathon Man—'Is it safe? Is it safe?' Hey, I may be trashy but I'm no mow-ron, honey chile."
"Really? So the glazed look and the drool cup are just to throw us off track then?"
Josh made kissy sounds and wrinkled her nose. "Missed you, too, asshole."
Over coffee and cannoli, Cullen gave a loud satisfied burp. "If we were Eskimos that'd be a great compliment, you know."
"If we were Eskimos, you'd be eating whale blubber, fool."
Comfortably back on old ground, P.J. poured a little Martell's into each coffee mug as Josh lit a cigarette and wondered why he hadn't yet told her what show he was working on. Ambitious as a beaver, Cullen was usually chomping at the bit to fill her in on his latest career move. He caught her speculative gaze and waggled his eyebrows wickedly, saying, "Hey, let's, play the game."
"What? Oh—Cast in Hell? Sure!"
Cast in Hell was something P.J. had invented one lunch hour in stock when Jocelyn was frothing over the fact that the damn hair dryers hadn't arrived yet. The game succeeded brilliantly in distracting her, and became an instant favorite of theirs. You named a Broadway show with a star who was about to leave the cast, then proposed the most grotesquely wrong actor you could think of as a replacement. There was always a certain degree of irony involved, since there was also the very real chance that the producers might make an even more horrific choice. P.J. started the ball rolling.
"Okay, ummm, Vanessa Williams is about to leave Kiss of the Spiderwoman to be replaced by ..."
He held out a hand as Josh's cue to finish. Without missing a beat, she answered, "Sheena Easton."
"Ooo! Ouch! That's good. Haven't lost your touch." He writhed in pleasurable pain, then paused. "That's too scary—they could do that! Your turn."
"Okay. Uh, Charlotte d'Amboise's going to leave Damn Yankees." She hummed a few bars of "Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets," then asked, "Who'll fill her shoes?"
Scrunching his face, P.J. pondered a second, then shouted out, "Debbie Boone!"
O'Roarke cackled with glee, causing Angus to leap from her lap disgruntled. Then Cullen suddenly changed the rules, saying, "Okay, I got a real one for you. The Peakmont Playhouse is about to do Peter Pan. Who's going to play Peter?"
This was a toughie and Jocelyn's face corkscrewed in concentration. Less than an hour from Manhattan, the Peakmont Playhouse was a large, prosperous L.O.R.T. theatre, which meant it paid well above union minimum, very well if you were playing a lead, and its proximity to the city was a big plus since actors could commute to work—and still get reviewed by the Times. While the playhouse didn't often attract big Broadway names, its boards had been graced by many fading luminaries, ex-TV stars, and popular soap actors who wanted to hone their stage skills. This made for a large pool of potential Peters.
"Gimme a hint," O'Roarke begged. "Just a little one, like—is Richie directing?"
"Oh, yes indeedy." Cullen nodded and smiled like Angus after a big meal. Rich Rafelson was a former Juilliard graduate who had briefly tried his wings on Broadway as an actor-singer and then flown off to direct in regional theatre. Several years back he had found a permanent nest at the playhouse as its artistic director. Jocelyn wasn't surprised that Rafelson was directing Peter; his stock-in-trade was remounting grand old American musicals, like Oklahoma, Carousel, and South Pacific in the style they were once accustomed to, i.e., with large casts, huge sets, and enormous budgets, something very few theatres could afford to do anymore. His productions, large on spectacle, small on substance, were not O'Roarke's particular cup of tea. But the blue-haired ladies, who made up a great part of the Peakmont audience and didn't seem to care that the character comedian wasn't very funny, that the ingenue had all the sex appeal of a prison matron, or that the leading man couldn't act his way out of a paper bag, loved them. This blanket approval, while not always shared by the New York critics, gave Richie a lot of room to indulge his casting whims.
"Hmmm. Rich casts about as well as I knit. Uhh, let's see." Josh stared into her mug as if it were a crystal ball, then, in the spirit of the game, said, "I got it! LaToya Jackson. I can see the ads—Peter's back and she's black!"
Shaking his head, Cullen gave her a pitying smile that said she had gotten a little rusty. Then he whispered one word. "Worse."
"Christ! You're scaring me now, P.J." And he was. Shutting her eyes in dread, she mewled, "Please, please God, not ... Bonnie Franklin?"
P.J. shook his head again and Josh sighed with relief. But again he whispered, "Worse."
"Aw, come on! You can't be serious." O'Roarke smacked the table in frustration. "There is no worse!"
Very gently, preparing her for the blow, Cullen reached over and took her hand. "Think back, hon. Couple years ago, when he did Dolly—who played Barnaby?"
"Richie did. He was a little long in the tooth for it but at least he could still hit the high note—" Jocelyn choked mid-sentence and stared at Cullen as the light broke and horror dawned. She shook her head, tried to speak, failed, and shook her head again. P.J. nodded yes and they went on like two mismatched metronomes until she finally croaked out, "No."
"'Fraid so. I think we've got a shot at makin' Ripley's Believe It or Not with this one."
Simultaneously finding her voice and her outrage on behalf of all talented, deserving actors who were out of work, O'Roarke roared, "Sweet Jesus! The man's past forty. He's too old, too tall, and not a woman!"
"Least he's gay," Cullen offered weakly.
Excerpted from Who Dropped Peter Pan? by Jane Dentinger. Copyright © 1995 Jane Dentinger. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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