Business is humming at Dodie O'Dell's Windjammer Restaurant, where she offers theme menus connected to the Etonville Little Theatre’s amateur productions. This June, the theatre is collaborating with the neighboring Creston Players to stage Bye Bye Birdie under the stars—their first musical! There's a contest in the play to pick a fan to receive rock idol Conrad Birdie's last kiss before he ships off for the Army, so Dodie plans a contest to pick the food for a pre-show picnic.
But before the show opens, Ruby, the rehearsal accompanist, is found dead in her car. Why would anyone murder the crusty old gal who loved to sneak a smoke and a nip between wisecracks? Once again, the resourceful restaurant manager must play the part of amateur sleuth, accompanied by Police Chief Bill Thompson, who also happens to be her beau. Confronted with a chorus of suspects, she'll need to stay composed to catch the killer—or it'll be bye bye Dodie…
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"If the Etonville Little Theatre was doing Carousel instead of Bye, Bye, Birdie, I could sing 'June Is Bustin' Out All Over!'" Lola Tripper said, humming and sipping a cup of coffee in a back booth of the Windjammer restaurant, which also functioned as my office. "I love June. Such a gorgeous time of year."
"You're in a pretty chipper mood. Guess it might have something to do with the Creston Players?" I signed off on the inventory sheets for the week's menus. Windjammer's chef/owner Henry was experimenting with some new specials, and I had to order an unusual amount of avocadoes, cilantro, acorn squash, and curry paste.
"Should I speak to Walter?" Lola asked, a mesh of worry lines creasing her forehead.
"Why? What's he done now?" Walter Zeitzman, the on-again-off-again ELT director and Lola's former love interest was in a snit most days now. Professional and personal jealousy if you asked me, Dodie O'Dell, manager of the Windjammer restaurant in Etonville, New Jersey, a stone's throw from New York City.
"You know how he feels about Dale."
I knew. Lola scored a trifecta last month: She met Dale Undershot via an online dating website; Dale turned out to be a member of a theater company in Creston, the town next door to Etonville; they concocted a co- production between the Etonville Little Theatre and the Creston Players. Lola and Dale were the romantic leads in Bye, Bye, Birdie. Walter was chewing nails these days, as the designated director of the production.
"Last night when he was setting light cues, Walter made a snide comment about Dale that, according to Penny, had everyone screaming their heads off. Very unprofessional behavior." She frowned.
Lola, actor, director, and ELT diva, had been my BFF since my arrival in Etonville from the Jersey Shore following the destruction of my home and place of employment during Hurricane Sandy. Henry's cousin owned the restaurant I had managed down the shore before the hurricane and had recommended me for my current job. I thought about moving to New York as I'd headed north across the Driscoll Bridge from the shore. I got as far as Etonville and settled in — managing the Windjammer, Henry's moods, and the staff. I'd also become an honorary member of the Etonville Little Theatre, celebrating its successes, commiserating with Lola when productions went off the rails.
I was sensitive to the fact that Lola had been actively boyfriend hunting for the past year. Dale was a good fit: charming, handsome, and unattached — definitely a keeper. "What did Walter say?" I asked gingerly.
"Something about Dale's hair piece."
"That's dangerous territory." Everybody knew about Dale's explosive temper and great head of hair, but no one mentioned it — until now. "I guess Walter's feeling neglected."
Lola wiped her mouth on a napkin. "I can't keep playing his nursemaid. He has to get over me and grow up."
"Easier said than done." I paused. "What exactly did Walter say?"
"Oh ... something about if they didn't get the cues straight for Dale's 'Put on a Happy Face' number there'd be hell 'toupee.'"
I tucked an inventory sheet onto a clipboard. "Actually, that's kind of clever — for Walter."
"I guess so," Lola conceded.
We both giggled.
"Hey you two," Benny, bartender and Windjammer assistant manager, sidled up to the booth. "You gotta cheer up."
"Wise guy," I said.
Things definitely felt more relaxed at the restaurant these days. Henry's specials were attracting more traffic than at any time in the last year. He was almost on a par with his crosstown nemesis La Famiglia — since he'd gotten an extra half star from the Etonville Standard's restaurant reviewer this spring. The Windjammer came in with three and a half stars to La Famiglia's four. We were gaining on them.
"Henry wants to know if you're going to announce the contest winners tomorrow night?" Benny asked.
I'd been promoting the Windjammer/Etonville Little Theatre connection for several years now by producing some pretty hot theme-food ideas: a seafood buffet for Dames At Sea, Italian night for Romeo and Juliet, a 1940s food festival for Arsenic and Old Lace, and early American concession treats for Eton Town. Each event had its own hiccups, but those are other stories ...
Bye, Bye, Birdie had me stumped. What to do with a 1960s musical about a hip-thrusting rock star drafted by Uncle Sam? Inspired by Elvis Presley's actual army induction, Bye, Bye, Birdie had a good run on Broadway and in the movies, but my usually peppy creativity was snoozing and I was ready to say bye-bye to the entire theme food project.
Then it hit me! In the musical, there's a fan club competition to choose a young woman on whom Conrad Birdie would bestow one last kiss before he's inducted into the service. Why not an Etonville contest to choose dishes to serve during the run of the show? When Etonville got wind of the contest, there was a deluge of entries. Who knew the town was so competitive? Appetizers, salads, entrees — the whole enchilada. Henry chose the winners, since he'd be responsible for actually creating the meals. As usual, he grumbled his way through the process, but, secretly, he was pleased to have so many people interested in his menus. We ended up with three entrees and an appetizer.
"Announcing the winners is a good idea."
A loud crash from the kitchen yanked our attention toward the swinging doors that led into Henry's inner sanctum.
Benny and I locked eyeballs. "Wilson!" we both said in tandem.
"How's Henry's new assistant coming along?" Lola asked tentatively.
"I miss Enrico," Benny answered and headed back to the bar.
"Me too, but he has bigger fish to fry now." Enrico, Henry's second-in- kitchen-command, returned to cooking school to up his future prospects. He now worked part-time, mostly on weekends. In his place, Henry had taken the suggestion of his restauranteur cousin and hired newly minted sous chef Wilson. I was the last person Henry's cousin recommended for hire. That worked out. Wilson was a young Haitian — a new culinary institute grad. Cheerful, full of laughter, always smiling —
Another clatter. "Wilson!" Henry bellowed, his voice audible in the dining room.
— and sort of gravity challenged. He dropped things.
Lola winced. "It was good of Henry to hire Wilson. Being a mentor — giving him a chance to kick off his career."
Henry poked his head into the dining room. "Dodie," he hissed, and motioned for me to join him in the kitchen.
Customers were trickling in for lunch. I jumped up. "Gotta soothe some ruffled feathers."
Lola finished her coffee. "I have to run too. Don't forget you're coming by rehearsal tonight. Last run-through in the theater before we move to the park. I'd like you to see Act One — some new choreography for Dale and me."
"Benny's closing so I can sneak over after seven."
* * *
Dinner was well under way. Regulars stopped in to eat before rehearsal next door. Henry, though cautious, let Wilson try his hand with some items this week and the result was definitely multi-cultural. Sole meunière — complemented by rice and beans and fried plantains — were served on Saturday. Tonight's feature was moules frites. I tried explaining to customers that it was simply mussels and fries. I'd eaten variations on the dish down the Jersey Shore many times.
"We know Wilson is very continental," said one of the elderly Banger sisters — Etonville's gossip mavens who kept their arthritic fingers on the pulse of the town's affairs.
"Very French, don't you know," said the other. They bobbed their curly gray perms in unison.
"But we'd be happy with the other type of French food," said the first one.
I refilled their coffee cups. "What other type?"
"French fries, French toast —"
"French onion soup —"
Geez. "Nice to see you ladies. Have a good rehearsal," I said and scooted away. Walter was no particular friend of mine, but I had to sympathize with him on this one. Directing the Banger sisters in Bye, Bye, Birdie had to be an act of self-flagellation. Of course they were only in the chorus, like a number of other Etonville citizens, but —
"I hear we're going French tonight?"
I looked up from the cash register. My heart did a flip-flop whenever I heard Bill's husky voice, the corner of his mouth inching upward in that quirky smile, and glimpsed his former NFL running back-physique. "Hey handsome. Leaving work early?" I leaned over the counter exposing a bit of cleavage.
Bill's ruddy face turned a shade deeper. "Shh! You want the whole town to know our business?"
"What parallel universe are you living in? We're already the topic of steady conversation." The occupants of most tables in the dining room had swiveled their attention in our direction. "See what I mean?" I murmured.
Bill ducked his head and walked to my back booth. I followed with a menu and a table set-up. "Must be a slow gossip day."
"What happened to privacy?" Bill grumbled.
"That ship has sailed in Etonville."
Bill settled on the moules frites and a glass of cabernet, digging into the mussels with relish. "Wilson is a good addition to the staff."
A racket in the kitchen made us both flinch. "Agreed. Are you going to rehearsal tonight? I'm dropping in later and maybe I can catch a ride home ..." I let the image dangle before his imagination. Bill and I cemented our growing relationship two months ago when we'd begun sharing living accommodations: most weekends at his place because it's larger, tidier, and he loves to cook, and occasional weeknights at my bungalow, which I scramble to make presentable.
"Your Metro out of commission?" he asked innocently.
There was nothing wrong with my red Chevy and its one-hundred- thousand-plus miles. "No, but after you tread the boards tonight you might need a little rest and recreation," I said provocatively.
Bill shook his head vigorously. "I told Walter I can't rehearse tonight. I have a stack of paperwork. I don't know why I let you talk me into acting in this musical anyway."
I straightened up. "First of all, you're not really acting. You play a cop. Second, all you do in the scene is blow a whistle and interrupt the onstage chaos — like you do in Etonville. Third, it's your civic duty to support the town and its citizens. The mayor is certain this will bring positive PR to the municipal building."
"My civic duty is preventing crime and keeping the town safe," he argued and drank his wine.
"Chrystal told me today she needs you to try on your costume," I said.
"Why can't I wear my Etonville PD uniform?"
"Because it's a show and you're an actor."
"You said I wasn't acting." He wiped his hands on the napkin and pushed his plate away.
Bill was being ornery. "This will be fun. You'll see," I said with more enthusiasm than I felt. Maybe it wasn't such a hot idea to have Bill play a police officer in Bye, Bye, Birdie. Even if his onstage presence lasted seconds. It seemed like a nice gimmick at the time. Lola bought into it. Walter was skeptical.
"Any more opinions on vacation?" Bill asked.
We'd been discussing summer plans for weeks now. I wanted to spend some time down the shore in August and he was itching to travel to the great outdoors in upstate New York. Camping, fishing, rafting, and generally, according to Bill, communing with nature. I would be communing with bug spray and a bottle of wine. We had yet to come to an agreement.
"I have to make reservations at the campground," he said.
I hated to throw shade on his plans but ... "Maybe we should think about this some more." I moved out of the booth. "Gotta get to the rehearsal. Talk later."
"But Dodie —"
"I'll have your costume delivered to the municipal building tomorrow."
* * * *
"O'Dell, this is going to put us on the map — doing a show all frisky," Penny said and slapped her clipboard against her stocky body. Penny Ossining, stage manager, was Walter's most loyal minion, a trusted sidekick for many years, a longtime veteran of the Etonville Little Theatre, and part-time worker at the Etonville post office. She saw herself as the cornerstone of the community theater, and loved to dole out theatrical wisdom. Her whistle was legend among theater folks.
"You mean ... al fresco? It's Italian for outside."
Penny squinted at me. "Whatever. It's in the park. First time for the ELT."
"Lola said it's the first time for the Creston Players too."
"Yeah." Penny jerked her head over her shoulder and watched Walter in the center of Etonville and Creston high school students who were playing Conrad Birdie's fan club. They were rehearsing their fainting spell for the moment when Birdie propelled his pelvis at them. They practiced standing, then falling, then standing again, then falling again — until they were laughing hysterically and Walter threw up his hands in frustration. "You are squealing when you should be swooning!"
The kids gawked at their director, shrugged, and remained on the floor.
"Squealing is an exhale." Walter let loose a high-pitched whine that brought the entire theater to a standstill. "Swooning is an inhale! It's a moment of awe! Of astonishment! You are overcome by the presence of Birdie!" He took a deep breath in, fluttered his arms, and plunged to the floor. The kids guffawed. "On your feet," Walter ordered.
He wasn't too keen on this co-production enterprise.
"You're right. Walter hates this co-pro stuff."
Penny was still in my head. How did she do that? "Maybe next year you'll do Shakespeare in the park. You know, like Central Park in New York," I said.
"O'Dell, you crack me up." She checked her watch. "Time to round up the troops."
She blasted her whistle, and the sound waves reverberated off the walls of the Etonville Little Theatre. The cast and crew were holding their ears. Lola and Dale, sitting in the back of the theatre, their heads together, were oblivious. Yowza. She had it bad. Penny prodded and threatened and, gradually, the cast gathered in the first rows of seats. Walter lectured them on the challenges of performing outside — gnawing mosquitos and humidity doing a number on their make-up. The ELT crowd was used to Walter's eccentric tutorials, but the Creston actors displayed a collective "Huh?"
"Lola? Lola, could you come up here?" Walter called out plaintively, eyeing the two leads in the midst of their cozy tête-à-tête. "I need your opinion."
Lola and Dale moved down a side aisle of the theater. Lola was smashing in a snug, black, knit top, her blond hair flowing gently around her face. You'd never know she had a daughter in college. Dale was dressed in a blue knit shirt that accentuated his muscular physique. Lola squeezed her leading man's hand as he joined some actors in the first row, and she made her way to Walter's side. I couldn't help but notice Dale's straight jet-black hair — a toupee all right. Looking at Dale's hair reminded me that my own auburn waves were due for a trim. I needed to call Snippets in the morning.
A hacking cough interrupted my train of thought. It was Ruby, the rehearsal accompanist. She was one of Creston's contributions to the co-production. Word was she'd been working with the Players for a number of years. Mid-seventies, wizened, with close-cropped gray hair, Ruby was an inveterate smoker who had to decamp to the loading dock for a cigarette during breaks. Always in the same uniform — sneakers, rumpled trousers, and an over-sized button down shirt — she was also something of a musical savant. She could scan a score and then play it by heart. "Hi Ruby. How did it go in the park last night?" Lola mentioned that Ruby, Walter, and some crew set musical cues in preparation for the "all frisky" tech tomorrow.
She coughed. "That Walter's a horse's patoot."
She'd hit the nail decisively on the head. "Hard to take sometimes?"
She hacked again, letting out puffs of breath smelling of alcohol. Ruby carried a hip flask in her bag and usually had a few nips during her smoke breaks. "I've worked with the best of 'em and the worst of 'em," she said, her voice raspy. "Him? They broke the mold."
"Well ... as long as the show gets up." I was channeling Penny.
"Hah. I told the Players this two-theater thing would be a disaster. Bunch of amateurs and no-talents."
Was she referring to Etonville or Creston actors — or both? Might as well shift to more pleasant territory. "Lola said you're a terrific accompanist."
Ruby studied me. "What's your name?"
"Dodie. I manage the Windjammer next door," I said, nudging her memory.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Just in Time"
Copyright © 2018 Suzanne Trauth.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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