Charlie Harris has sworn off investigating murder and mayhem after a recent close call. Instead, he's delighted to cheer on his daughter, Laura, who's starring in a production of Careless Whispers. The theater department at Athena College is debuting the play written by a fledgling playwright with local connections and Charlie's son-in-law, Frank Salisbury, will be calling the directorial shots.
Laura is upset to learn that Luke Lombardi, an overbearing actor she knew from her time in Hollywood will also be taking part in the production as a guest artist. Lombardi arrives with an entourage in tow and promptly proceeds to annoy everyone involved with the production. When he collapses and dies on stage, after drinking from a glass Laura handed him, she becomes the chief suspect in his murder.
Charlie knows his daughter is innocent, and he’s not going to let anyone railroad his little girl. So, despite his intentions to put his amateur sleuthing days behind him, Charlie has to take center stage, and with Diesel’s help, shine a spotlight on the real killer.
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I stared at my daughter in considerable alarm. I couldn't remember ever seeing her like this, grabbing at her hair and stomping around my office. Suddenly she stopped in front of my desk and glared at me.
"I swear, if I could get my hands on Trevor Percy right this minute," Laura said through gritted teeth, "I'd pull every tooth right out of his head."
"Laura, sweetheart, surely it can't be that bad," I said in what I hoped was a soothing tone. Beside me, Diesel, my Maine Coon cat, chirped in distress. Always sensitive to heightened emotion, he seemed to be growing more agitated along with Laura. "What on earth has this Trevor Percy done to make you so upset?"
The glare did not abate. Nostrils flared as she expelled a harsh breath. "What has he done? What has he done?" She threw her hands up and started roaming around the room again. "He's gone and ruptured his appendix-that's what he's done, the bloody idiot-and now he's out of commission, stuck in California, where he's bloody useless."
"I think you ought to have a little sympathy for him," I said. "A ruptured appendix is no fun." I tried not to shudder as I recalled my own experience some twenty years ago. "I'm sure your agent can find someone else to take his place."
"You have no idea, Dad." Laura's stormy expression, as she continued with her restless pacing back and forth, worried me. I wasn't sure she had heard me. "This could be an unmitigated disaster. 'When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions!'"
I recognized the quotation from Hamlet. In reply, I offered another line from the same play, 'There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.'"
Startled, Laura stopped pacing and glared at me. "Do you honestly think I'm imagining all this? Come on, Dad, you know me better than that."
"I understand you're upset," I said, a little tartly. "You've also got Diesel on the verge of a nervous breakdown. You have to stop this ranting and calm down."
Laura looked stricken. Her gaze shifted down toward the cat, as if she were only now aware of his presence in the room. She dropped to her knees and held out her arms. "Come here, sweet boy," she said, her voice low and steady.
Diesel hesitated a moment. She called him again. This time he trotted right into her embrace, and she stroked his head, speaking in a reassuring tone. "I'm sorry, sweet boy. I didn't mean to upset you." He responded with a loud meow.
"I think he forgives you," I said, relieved that the storm seemed to have broken.
Laura remained on her knees for perhaps a minute more, rubbing the cat's head and stroking down his back. Mollifying the cat evidently soothed her as well. When she stood, she appeared composed.
"That's better," I said. "Now, come sit down and discuss this calmly. Hasn't your agent found another guest star for you?"
Laura sank into the chair in front of my desk, and Diesel took up position beside her. He rubbed his head against her jean-clad thigh. "Yes, she has. That's the problem."
"Why?" I asked. "Who is it?"
"His name is Luke Lombardi."
I detected an undertone of distaste in the way she said the name.
"What's so bad about him? Is he a terrible actor?" I asked.
"No." She drew out the syllable. "He's a terrible person, but he's actually quite a good actor." Then she added, almost grudgingly, it seemed, "He was nominated for a Tony a few years ago."
That sounded promising, but I still had no idea what lay behind my daughter's obvious dislike for the actor. "Have you worked with him before?"
Laura nodded. "In a community playhouse production in Connecticut one summer, a couple of years before I moved here. After he'd been nominated for the Tony." She snorted. "He worked it into conversations every day."
I could understand her irritation, but I had other concerns about the man. I put it to her bluntly. "Did he harass you?"
"Good Lord, no." She laughed. "I am so not his type."
"Is he gay, then?" I asked.
She shook her head. "Oh, no, he's definitely straight. He likes his women dumb and stacked." She glanced down at her chest and giggled. "I have two strikes against me."
"I see," I said wryly. Laura, like her brother, Sean, had graduated near the top of her class in high school, and had done extremely well in college. "What are your objections to having him as guest artist, then?"
The theater department at Athena College put on a spring production every year, and they always tried to find an actor of some reputation to play a leading role, not only as a draw to sell tickets, but also for their students to have the chance to work with a seasoned professional. Laura had the leading female role in the play, and her husband, Frank Salisbury, was directing. Laura had professional experience, having spent several years in Hollywood, with bit parts in television shows, as well as theater productions there and back east. She was not a big name, however.
"He's a gigantic drama queen," Laura said. "He throws fits at the drop of a hat if something isn't to his liking. He tries to cow the director into doing what he wants and doesn't take direction well. He can be a bully. And he drinks."
What a charmer, I thought. I began to understand Laura's concerns over having to work with this man.
"Isn't your agent aware of this man's reputation?" I asked.
"She is," Laura said. "He's one of her clients, too, however, and she said he needs the work." She made a guttural noise. "I could kill her. She swore up and down that she had a perfect replacement for us, and then she sticks us with Luke."
"I suppose it's too late for her to find someone else," I said.
"The contract is signed, and it would cost a lot to get out of it. On top of all that, there's absolutely no time," Laura said. "Plus, rehearsals with him start next week. You're welcome to come by anytime." She hesitated. "I'd love it if you did, in fact. I know Frank won't mind, and if Luke knows my father is watching, he might behave better."
"If he's as obnoxious as you say, I can't see that my presence will inhibit him," I said.
Diesel uttered a couple of chirps, as if in agreement. Laura patted his head and laughed. "It probably won't," she replied frankly, "but it would make me feel better, and it might keep Frank from taking Luke's head off."
"I'll do what I can, then, but I don't know that I'll be able to make every rehearsal."
Laura flashed me a smile full of gratitude.
"When does Lombardi arrive?" I asked.
"He's supposed to be here Saturday morning sometime. He's flying into Memphis on Friday and spending the night there, and Frank is going to pick him up in one of the college vans," Laura said. "There's a big reception for him at the Farrington House Saturday night, where he'll be staying for the duration. The department has reserved their best suite for him and his entourage."
"Entourage?" I said. "That sounds pretty grand."
Laura shrugged. "All it probably means is a couple of people: his personal dresser and whatever unfortunate woman he's got dangling at the moment."
I had to admit to a considerable amount of curiosity about Luke Lombardi. He sounded like he could be a nightmare, but I also had complete faith in my son-in-law to handle the situation. Frank was young, but he had a strong character and was not easily cowed or pushed around. He had to be strong, working as he did with the often histrionic personalities in the theater department.
I expressed these thoughts aloud.
"Yes, you're right, Dad," Laura said. "I know Frank can handle him, but Frank does have a temper, and Luke has a knack for finding your buttons and stomping on them."
"I still put my money on Frank," I said, though privately her words caused me a few misgivings. I trusted Laura's judgment about her fellow actor, and I could foresee trouble ahead.
A knock at my office door caught both Laura and me off guard, and we turned to see Melba Gilley, my longtime friend and the administrative assistant to the library director, standing there.
"Is everything all right?" Melba asked, frowning. "I could hear a loud voice when I walked out into the hall a few minutes ago on my way to the lounge for some coffee."
The first floor of the antebellum mansion that housed the archive and rare-book collection, along with my office, also contained the library administrative office, along with a staff lounge and a small kitchen. There were two reception rooms as well. If I left my office door open, as I usually did while working, I could hear sounds from downstairs, and vice versa. I hadn't realized Laura's voice had reached a loud enough volume to attract anyone's attention.
"Sorry." Laura grimaced. "I was ranting to Dad about the guest performer who's coming in for the play, and I didn't know I was so loud."
Melba laughed. "Honey, that's okay. Wouldn't be the first time I heard somebody up here yelling at your dad." She bent to rub Diesel's head. She spoiled him rotten, and he adored her. "What's wrong with the guest performer that you're getting so riled up for?"
"He's a toad," Laura said. "A total drama queen with an ego the size of Memphis."
"Goodness gracious," Melba said, visibly taken aback by the heat of Laura's tone. "Who the heck is this guy?"
"Luke Lombardi," I said. "I'd never heard of him until today, but Laura worked with him doing summer stock in the Northeast." I glanced at my daughter. "Is that the correct term?"
"Luke Lombardi," Melba said, her expression thoughtful. "I saw him in a play a few years ago on Broadway, when a couple of friends and I spent a week in New York during spring break. As I recall, he was terrific."
"He's got talent," Laura said. "I'm not disputing that."
"As a human being, though," Melba said, "he must leave a lot to be desired if you have that kind of opinion of him."
Laura shrugged. "I'm not president of his fan club-that's for sure. Maybe he's mellowed a little by now. He's been having trouble getting work, I think, so I'm hoping he's learned to rein himself in." She picked up her backpack and purse. "I've blown off enough steam now. Time to go home and see my offspring."
"How is baby Charlie doing?" Melba asked.
"Thriving and crawling all over the place," Laura said. "He's trying to pull himself up to stand now."
"He's nine months old," Melba said. "That's on-target. Just wait till he starts walking. You'll be running all over the place after him."
Laura grinned. "We're doing that already. He crawls fast."
"Give him a hug and a big kiss from me," Melba said, as Laura headed for the door.
"Will do," Laura said. "Bye, Dad, and thanks as always for listening. Bye, Melba and Diesel." Diesel chirped unhappily as he watched Laura leave.
"You'll see her again soon, sweet boy," Melba crooned to the cat.
Diesel responded with more chirps.
"I didn't want to mention it after Laura said what she did about him, but I actually met Luke Lombardi in New York," Melba said.
"Did you tell me that before?" I asked, surprised.
Melba shook her head. "I don't think I ever did."
"How did you come to meet him?"
"One of the friends I went with, Katrinka Krause, has a nephew in New York. He's an actor, but so far he's only had minor roles," Melba said.
"So he was in this play with Lombardi," I said.
"Yes, he was. That's the main reason Katrinka wanted to go to New York. It was her nephew's first big play on Broadway," Melba said. "He was good, though he wasn't onstage all that much."
"Was Lombardi good?"
Melba nodded. "He was terrific. Anyway, we got to go backstage after the play to visit with Micah, the nephew, and we also met the rest of the cast." She paused. "Lombardi slobbered all over Katrinka. It was embarrassing, and it made Katrinka really uncomfortable. Micah saw it and got mad and threatened to punch Lombardi if he didn't leave Katrinka alone."
"Sounds like a thoroughly unpleasant scene." It didn't take much imagination to envision it.
"It was, and it got worse. Katrinka was trying to calm Micah down, and Lombardi kept blustering, trying to provoke Micah, and finally the stage manager had to intervene. Micah got fired the next day, actually. Lombardi insisted, and the manager caved."
"I'm sorry for Micah's sake," I said, "but good for him for standing up for his aunt."
"His mama raised him right," Melba said. "Katrinka was fit to be tied when she found out Micah lost his job. I swear if she could have got her hands on Luke Lombardi at that moment, she would have slapped him so hard, his neck would have snapped."
I recalled Melba's words late that Saturday afternoon while I was getting ready to attend the reception for Luke Lombardi at the Farrington House. If Laura and Frank hadn't been so involved in the production, I would have made my excuses and stayed home. I had heard nothing about the guest artist to encourage me to think tonight would be pleasant or low-key.
Helen Louise Brady, on the other hand, was looking forward to it. We had known each other since childhood, but our paths diverged after college. She had gone to law school. I married my high school sweetheart and moved to Texas to attend library school. Many years later, after the deaths of my wife and my aunt, I moved back home to Athena, Mississippi, to live in the house my aunt bequeathed to me. In the meantime Helen Louise had abandoned a promising career in law to move to France to study French cuisine. When she returned to Athena, a few years before I did, she opened a French bistro on the town square.
We picked up our friendship when I came back. I did the same with Melba, but while Melba and I remained simply good friends, my relationship with Helen Louise developed into a romantic one. We loved each other and spent as much time as possible together, but we hadn't really talked about marriage yet. Both of us seemed content with our current status.
Diesel and Ramses watched my preparations with disapproval, or so I fancied. Diesel always appeared to sense when I was going out without him, and Ramses, the new addition to the household, followed whatever his big brother did. An orange tabby, Ramses was still a kitten, less than a year old. Though he would never attain Diesel's size, I reckoned he would be a big boy by the time he was two.