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"Man is the most intelligent of the animals—and the most silly."—Diogenes
Ouch!" I cried. "Stop, I'm begging you! You're torturing me!"
"Hold still!" my attacker insisted.
I glanced around desperately, wondering if there was any way out. But I was afraid that continuing to resist would only anger my assailant—who was armed, dangerous, and clearly determined to make me her next victim.
"You are moving too much, signorina!" she exclaimed. "I can not make the neckline straight if you will not stop—what is the word?—fidgeting!"
I have every right to fidget, I thought crossly. First I get roped into spending my Saturday morning standing on a ridiculous pedestal in the middle of a bridal shop, surrounded by enough ruffles and veils to make me break out in a rash. Then I get turned into a giant pincushion. As if that's not bad enough, I'm periodically forced to twirl around like an Olympic ice skater to make sure the skirt of this preposterous dress swirls in just the right way.
But I knew I'd get no sympathy here. In fact, from the relentless way Gabriella Bertucci kept sticking me, you would have thought she was a voodoo priestess instead of a fashion designer whose wedding dresses were well known all over Long Island.
"Take a look in the mirror, signorina," Gabriella said with a sigh. "You look so beautiful, no?"
I screwed up my face before forcing myself to peer into the three-sided full-length mirror. When your idea of sprucing up is putting on a freshly washed Polarfleece jacket and a sparklin' new pair of chukka boots, being encased in a Barbie doll frock that reaches down to the floor and is cut nearly as low is about as much fun as changing a tire on a twenty-six-foot veterinary clinic-on-wheels. In the dark. In the rain. And sleet.
But after all the time, energy, and emotion I'd invested in having this dress made, I figured it was time to check out the results. Maybe, I hoped, I would even look something close to nice . . .
"E-e-ek!" I cried.
"Signorina!" Gabriella sounded as if she was about to burst into tears. "You don't like?"
I stood a little straighter and forced myself to take another look. An objective look. Even though my dark-blond hair hung limply, and even though as usual I wasn't wearing any makeup, I was startled by what I saw. The dress Gabriella Bertucci had custom-made for me fit beautifully, making me look more like Cinderella than I ever would have thought possible.
Her creation was made from a silky fabric that draped around my various body parts in a surprisingly flattering way. It skimmed over my torso and waist and hips, giving me a womanly shape that a comfortable pair of jeans just didn't capture. Even the low-cut neckline looked good on me. At least, once I finally stopped tugging at it after remembering that the petite fashionista had a sharp pair of scissors in her possession and that even she had a breaking point.
The only problem was the dress's color.
When it came to planning her wedding, my dear friend Betty Vandervoort was turning out to be a real traditionalist. Instead of an edgy event with, say, a justice of the peace who did a rap version of the ceremony or a hippie minister who recited the poems of Charles Bukowski, she surprised me by insisting on something out of a fairy tale. And it included a bride in a long white gown accompanied by bridesmaids in pastel shades like baby pink and pale yellow and my own mint green, colors that made us look more like dishes of candy than grown women.
I'd pleaded with Betty to let her bridesmaids wear a more dignified color.
"How about black?" I suggested hopefully. "These days, bridesmaids dressed in black are considered the height of sophistication."
"Black is for funerals," she returned with a frown. "When I married Charles, longer ago than I care to admit, we eloped. This time around, I want the kind of wedding I've dreamed about since I was a little girl. And that means a maid of honor who looks like an angel, not the Grim Reaper!"
The other details of Betty's spring wedding, now just three weeks away, were equally traditional. The ceremony in which she was marrying Winston Farnsworth, a charming British gentleman I completely approved of, would take place in the garden of the estate on which we both lived. The area was going to be festooned with garlands of gauzy white tulle and hundreds of flowers. The music would be performed by a string quartet dressed in tuxedos or black gowns.
She was even demanding that the canine guests come formally attired.
In fact, it seemed as if Betty had put more thought into deciding exactly what my snow-white Westie, Max, and my black-and-white Dalmatian, Lou, would wear on the big day than she put into choosing her own dress. She'd finally decided on red bow ties for both of them, and for her fiance Winston's dog, a wirehaired dachshund named Frederick, she'd selected a bright yellow bow tie that would complement his soft fawn-and-tan fur.
Personally, I thought all three dogs looked just fine naked.
But it wasn't my wedding. Betty had already pointed that out several times. And a few of those times, she'd suggested that I'd have much more leverage if I'd consider making it a double wedding. That certainly put an end to my complaining.
Now that I was officially engaged to Nick, ideas like that probably shouldn't have surprised me. Yet becoming engaged had been a big enough step, one I was still trying to adjust to. I hadn't gotten used to wearing the small but tasteful antique diamond ring that had belonged to Nick's grandmother, so the idea of shopping for caterers, squealing excitedly over bridal shower gifts, and enduring fittings for my own white dress—not to mention contemplating actually being married—was way beyond me.
For the moment, the role of maid of honor was about all I could cope with.
"What you don't like?" Gabriella asked hopefully, studying my reflection with the same intensity as I was. "Maybe I can fix."
"The dress is beautiful," I assured her. "It's just that it's so . . . so green."
The tiny native of Milan, Italy, with the build of Pinocchio and the determination of Julius Caesar, folded her arms against her chest. "Signorina," she replied crisply, "is not me who choose the color. If you no like, you talk with Signora Vandervoort and see if she change."
Fat chance, I thought. There was no reasoning with a woman who, in her eighth decade of life, was suddenly subscribing to magazines like Over-the-Top Bride.
Still, Betty had promised to meet me at Gabriella's shop this morning so she could see the dress. I supposed this was my big chance to make whatever constructive criticisms I could come up with, but I was torn. Up until a few minutes ago, I'd believed I was willing to do anything in the world for her.
I was pondering the possibility that the one thing I wasn't willing to do was risk being arrested for impersonating Scarlett O'Hara when I heard a car door slam outside the shop. Seconds later, the bride-to-be—and the person responsible for my transformation into a life-size after-dinner mint—came dashing through the door.
From Betty's fringed lime-green capri pants, lemon-yellow linen blouse, and orange espadrilles, no one would ever have guessed that at that moment Gabriella was busily stitching up a wedding dress for her that had enough satin, Belgian lace, and tiny beads to make my dress look like a military uniform by comparison. Just looking at her was enough to provide me with the day's minimum requirement of vitamin C.
I was mustering up the courage to register my concerns over the dress when I noticed the expression on her face.
"Betty, what's the matter?" I demanded. "You look like you've just lost your best friend!"
"Simon Wainwright may not have been my best friend," Betty replied seriously, "but that doesn't make the fact that he's been murdered any easier to take."
It took a few seconds for the meaning of her words to sink in.
"Someone you know was murdered?" I cried. I lifted my skirt and started to step off the pedestal.
"Scusa, signorina," Gabriella burst out, sounding completely exasperated. "We will never finish the dress if you do not stop moving around like a . . . a puppy!"
"Let's take a break," I suggested, more calmly than I felt. Apparently, the dress designer's English vocabulary didn't include the word murder.
But mine did.
"Sit down," I instructed Betty. "Take a few deep breaths and tell me exactly what happened."
"Signorina! The pins—"
"I'll be careful," I assured Gabriella. Suddenly, getting poked with a few straight pins didn't seem to matter at all.
As soon as Betty and I perched on the brocade-covered couch that graced one corner of the shop, I turned to face her.
"First of all, who is Simon Wainwright?" I asked.
"A member of the amateur theater group I belong to," she replied, wiping away a tear. "Someone who was so charismatic he would light up a room the moment he walked into it. Yet he never let any of it go to his head. Everyone loved him. He was one of the kindest, most charming, most down-to-earth people I've ever met.
"He joined the Port Players about a year ago, five or six months before I first got involved with them. From what I hear, it didn't take long for everyone to see what a talented actor he was. And then, a few months ago, he mentioned to Derek Albright, the executive director, that he'd written a play. Derek was completely blown away by it, and he begged Simon to let the Port Players put it on."
"Is that the play you've been rehearsing?" I asked gently.
"That's right. The play I've been living and breathing for the past six weeks. It's called She's Flying High, and it's based on the life of the famous aviator Amelia Earhart. It was scheduled to open in two weeks, and it was going to be the world premiere. Simon was playing the male lead, Amelia's husband, George Putnam."
Betty sighed. "Simon Wainwright was a 'triple threat,' one of those rare individuals who's a gifted actor, singer, and dancer. The fact that he was also such a talented writer only made him that much more amazing. There was even talk of She's Flying High being produced on Broadway!"
"And now he's dead," I said softly, still trying to take it all in.
Betty nodded. "His body was found at Theater One early this morning. The police won't know the actual cause of death until an autopsy has been performed, and they're refusing to release any details at the moment, even to those of us in the cast."
"Who discovered his body?" I asked.
"The costume designer, a young woman named Lacey Croft. She opened a trunk that was stashed in one of the dressing rooms and . . ." Betty swallowed hard. "Simon's body was stuffed inside."
"That's awful!" I exclaimed. "You must be so upset, Betty. What a horrible thing!"
She covered her face with her hands. "Simon was such a dear friend!" she cried in a choked voice. "I thought the world of that young man. I'd known him for only a few months, but I was already starting to think of him as a son, much the way I think of you as a daughter, Jessica. And if it isn't hard enough trying to cope with his death, all of us in the company also have to face the possibility that someone in the Port Players killed him!"
I gasped. "Do you really think so?"
"The theater was his life," Betty said sadly, lowering her hands, "so it seems likely that someone who was part of that world was responsible for his death. Simon spent every moment he could at Theater One. To support himself, he took whatever part-time jobs he could find: working as a waiter, a barista at Starbucks, an office temp . . . He had no real investment in any of it. It was just a way to pay the bills."
Shaking her head, she added, "All his friends were involved in theater. His enemies too. Not that I would have expected that he had any, but there was apparently at least one."
"Betty, I'm so sorry," I said. "If there's anything I can do—"
She took a deep breath and looked at me intently. "As a matter of fact, Jessica, there is."
Theater One in Port Townsend had begun life as a button factory a hundred years earlier. Since then, the freestanding red brick building had also been a warehouse, a vaudeville house, and a movie theater. Its last incarnation was still in evidence, thanks to the big marquee jutting out over the glass and wooden front doors, the large glass-covered displays with posters publicizing the next production, and the old-fashioned box office in the middle of the tiled entryway.
Betty and I walked through the side entrance marked stage door. I knew it was business as usual for her, since decades earlier she'd been a Broadway dancer in shows like South Pacific and Oklahoma! But I felt a little flutter in the pit of my stomach. Even though the circumstances that were responsible for me being here in the first place were tragic, I couldn't help feeling a twinge of excitement over getting a behind-the-scenes look at a theater company.
True, the Port Players was only a local group, run by amateurs. But theater had always held a certain mystique for me, mainly because I couldn't fathom anyone actually having the guts to go onstage in front of an audience and perform. Personally, I was one of those behind-the-scenes people. Of course, the only real theatrical experience I'd had was in college, when I'd worked backstage at the Bryn Mawr College Junior Show.
Betty and I made our way past a few dressing rooms, stepping carefully over the ropes and cables that littered the wings and, finally, traipsing along the side of the stage. As we walked down the short set of stairs off to one side, I glanced out at the audience. At least twenty-five people were scattered throughout the first four or five rows, some sitting alone and others clustered in small groups.
The lights were low and the air was somber. It seemed fitting that the entire stage was black—not only the floor but also the tremendous backdrops hanging behind the stage.
As Betty and I sat down in red velvet seats, a tall, gangly man rose from the first row and turned to face the audience. He had gaunt features, piercing dark eyes, and curly dark brown hair that was so thick I wondered how he managed to get a comb through it. It kept falling into his eyes and he resolutely kept pushing it back.