Trouble is afoot, and Mom is on the case!
Chief Investigator Dave is at the first night of the local amateur theatre's production of Macbeth when the curtain is brought down abruptly on a real-life murder. "The show must go on" and does, but the killings do not end, and there is more drama offstage than on for the doomed production before Dave--and (sshh!) Mom--arrive at the bottom of it all.
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About the Author
James Yaffe is an English professor and writer-in-residence at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, where he lives with his wife and three children. A transplanted New Yorker, Mr. Yaffe first introduced Mom and Dave in the pages of Ellery Queen Quarterly Magazine.
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Mom Doth Murder Sleep
By James Yaffe
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1991 James Yaffe
All rights reserved.
My first contact with those cockamamy murders came on the night of September 29, a Sunday, when I was having dinner at Mom's house.
I didn't know at the time, of course, that the conversation during that dinner would turn out to be the preview — like the coming attractions in a movie theater — for a murder case. I wasn't thinking along such lines, if you want the truth. I was thinking — let's face it, worrying — about Roger Meyer, my young assistant, who was having dinner with Mom and me. I was asking myself, as I'd been doing for weeks now, what was going on in the kid's head.
Before I get to the relevant parts of the conversation, though, I should give a little background information about the three people who were sitting at that dinner table.
First, me. I'm an ex–New York cop who got as high as lieutenant on the Homicide Squad in my forties, which is no small accomplishment. Ten years later I gave it all up, when my wife died and New York wasn't a place I could live in anymore. So I came out here to the city of Mesa Grande, a hundred and eighty thousand people, "nestled in the foothills of the Rockies," as our Chamber of Commerce likes to put it. I became the chief and for a while the only investigator for the public defender's office.
Second, presiding over the table, was my mother. She was widowed at a much younger age than I was widowered. She brought me up in an apartment in the Bronx, held on in New York for a year or so after I left, and finally gave in to my nagging and coaxing and came out here to join me. Not to live with me, though. She bought a little house of her own and settled into it nicely, telling me she'd already used up her youth and middle age waiting "hands and feet" on helpless males (meaning my father and me), and she intended to have an enjoyable old age by living alone and spoiling herself.
And, third and last, was Roger Meyer. He graduated from Yale a year or so ago, with a degree in sociology and a specialty in criminology. A week later, our City Council having voted to increase the public defender's budget accordingly, Roger came out here to be my assistant. How I met this kid in the first place and why I gave him the job is a complicated story that has nothing to do with this particular murder (though it had a lot to do with a totally different murder that I've described elsewhere).
At any rate, Mom had been putting food into him since he got to town the previous June. Whenever she sees a human being under the age of thirty, her first impulse is to feed him or her. (Her second impulse is to find out if he or she is married and to take it from there.)
So the three of us were having dinner together during one of those incredible Septembers that we're lucky enough to get every few years. The air was as mild and balmy as the springtime of your dreams, the mountains glittered at you from the end of every street. If you were standing in one of the older sections of town, that is. If you were standing out east, where the malls have been spawning like salmon in recent years, for all you'd get to see of the mountains you might as well be in Kansas.
To tell the truth, I'm still a little suspicious of those mountains. Part of me still believes that they're made of cardboard and canvas. The Chamber of Commerce puts them up before sunrise every morning to please the tourists, and takes them down again after dark and stores them away backstage.
Back to dinner. We were eating one of Mom's chicken pot pies, with dumplings that spring back from your fork like rubber but go down your throat like honey. Everybody becomes talkative under the influence of Mom's chicken pot pie. So Roger started telling us about the big explosion that had just occurred at the rehearsal of the play he was in, produced by our local amateur repertory company.
"They're nice people, I like them a lot," he said, "but sometimes they don't seem to have much self-control or maturity. They seem to be living in some kind of dreamworld."
"That's what actors get paid for, no?" said Mom. "So they can take us away from the real world and make us enjoy ourselves someplace better."
"I don't actually agree with that," Roger said, and he launched into a long speech about how art, through the use of illusion and selection, interprets and enhances reality, et cetera, et cetera. Well, he had just graduated from college, so you had to make allowances.
And finally he got back to his original point. "Anyway, I do like them. Okay, I know the Mesa Grande Art Players aren't exactly the Royal Shakespeare Company, but some of them are really talented. Only what happened at rehearsal this afternoon was upsetting. I mean, all of a sudden this bunch of nice creative people started acting like babies."
Then, for the next half hour or so, he gave us the details.CHAPTER 2
Actually there were two mysteries, and one of them I managed to solve. The one I didn't solve was the murders, for which I'm still kicking myself; I should have seen a lot more than I did. And the other one was my boss's mother.
My boss — he wants me to call him Dave, not mister — is the chief investigator for the public defender's office here in Mesa Grande. I'm his chief assistant — his only assistant, as a matter of fact — ever since the City Council voted the funds for the public defender to expand her investigative staff.
I wouldn't blame anybody for wondering why Dave hired me, a kid right out of college, with a few criminology courses under my belt, and absolutely no experience. One reason was that the funds the Council voted weren't enough to attract anybody who looked halfway professional. Another was that when I was out here a year and a half ago at Christmastime, visiting my parents, Dave and I were thrown together a lot and I made an obnoxious pest of myself letting him know how much I wanted to work under him. And another reason, which I didn't find out about until much later, was that his mother — this nice old lady, she must be seventy or eighty years old — went to bat for me.
Anyway, here I've been since last June. My parents were still living here then. They moved out to Mesa Grande after Dad retired from business, because he had been stationed here when he was in the Army in World War II and he liked the mountains, the fresh air, and the peace and quiet. Well, the peace and quiet turned out to be strictly an illusion. I won't go into the grisly details, but the upshot was that he and my mother decided to go back to Detroit, where they had lived and worked since they first got married and where all their friends were.
But they had this little house here in Mesa Grande, in a nice quiet section of town with a good view of the mountains, and instead of selling it, they offered it to me. They said they were planning to leave it to me someday anyway; without selling it, they had enough money to buy a little apartment in Detroit. Even so, I told them I wouldn't take it unless they were willing to let me pay rent.
So I've been living here in Mesa Grande ever since. I admit it isn't the most exciting town in America. The population is two hundred thousand; in the next five years it'll shoot up to two hundred and fifty, but what have we got to show for it? Do we have a concert hall, gourmet restaurants, a choice of bookstores, a decent theatre company? No, we don't. What we do have is an escalating crime rate, a lot of drugs, a lot of homeless people sleeping under bridges, a pollution problem, and a shortage of parking places downtown.
But the worst of it is that there isn't a single movie house in town that shows anything with subtitles or anything that isn't the latest Hollywood schlock. Movies, let's face it, are my food and drink. I'll go to see any movie at all, of course, but without some good ones, I feel like I'm living on a diet of McDonald's hamburgers and Dr. Pepper.
The job makes up for a lot. Not that I've always exactly distinguished myself. I wasn't on it two weeks before I made that huge boner with the little Korean girl from the massage parlor. Poor little loser, I told myself from the heights of my superior intelligence, she's so stupid and ignorant, she can't even understand simple English, I have to explain everything to her twice as many times as I would to anybody else. Result: I let her know exactly what we knew, without finding out one damn thing she knew, and that was the end of her as a witness for our client. (Luckily we got him off anyway, though it wouldn't have been any tragedy if we hadn't, since the son of a bitch was guilty as hell.)
Dave wasn't shy about pointing out to me how badly I'd fouled up, and that night I had my suitcase up from the basement, I was all ready to pack and go back to Detroit. But instead, thank God, Dave's mother invited me for breakfast the next morning. She didn't talk to me about that massage-parlor case at all; in fact, mostly what she talked about were things that had happened to people she knew in the old days, when Dave was on the New York Homicide Squad and she was living in the Bronx. But somehow the stories she told seemed to apply to my own situation, and I went away from that breakfast thinking that maybe I could give the criminal investigation business another few months.
And it was only a few weeks later I had my big triumph. A certain VP in one of our local Savings and Loans had an alibi for the night the safe got robbed, which meant that our client, his secretary, could have gone to the cooler for ten years. His alibi, which his wife corroborated, was that he spent the night of the break-in watching an old Bogart movie on his VCR. In repeating the plot of this movie, he said the villain was Sidney Greenstreet, big and fat and smiling. Well, I knew that flick inside and out, I could reel off whole scenes from it by heart, so I knew Sidney Greenstreet wasn't in it, the villain was actually Peter Lorre, small and thin and shifty-eyed. Ann Swenson, the public defender, caught this Savings and Loan guy in that lie right up on the witness stand, and he broke down and confessed everything, and even screamed at his wife for not being able to tell the difference between Greenstreet and Lorre.
All right, enough about me. I'll move on to Sunday afternoon, September 29, and the rehearsal of that play I was in.
I anticipate the question: How did it happen that a young hotshot investigator for the public defender's office found himself acting in a play by Shakespeare?
The answer is that it probably couldn't happen in a city like New York or even my hometown Detroit. It had to happen in a city like Mesa Grande, where there's no professional theatre, where the only public entertainments that most people go to see are rodeos, football games, and Indiana Jones movies, where people mostly like to sit home and watch the top ten TV shows. So whatever theatre there is falls into the hands of amateurs.
I found out about the Mesa Grande Art Players from a small item in The Republican-American, our local rag, saying that casting was being done for their forthcoming production of Macbeth, and urging all interested people, whether or not they had any previous stage experience, to try out. My previous stage experience consisted of a high school production of Our Town. I played Editor Webb, and loved the part because it gave me a chance to suck at a pipe for two hours. But something in me has always got a kick out of acting, no matter how badly I do it, so I asked myself why the hell not.
I went down to this rickety little theatre that was attached to the back of the local convention hall. The director sat a table up on the bare stage, and a couple of dozen of us read lines from the paperback copy of Macbeth that he gave to us, and that seemed to be that. A few days later the stage manager called me at the office and told me I had a part if I wanted it. Three or four parts, in fact, all of them about three or four lines long.
I had to get Dave's permission first, even though all the rehearsals would be at night, except for Sunday afternoons, since practically everybody in the cast was holding down some kind of daytime job. I asked Dave if he could possibly see his way clear to giving me every night off for the month of rehearsals, and Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights for the month of performances. (Productions by the Mesa Grande Art Players run only on weekends, because this area doesn't exactly have an unlimited supply of theatre goers in it. And usually the run lasts for only three weekends; in scheduling Macbeth for a fourth weekend, the Players were indulging in wild optimism.)
Dave was very nice about it. Any emergencies that came along, he could handle them by himself, he said. For what I was being paid, why should I have to work nights?
And when his mother heard about it, she positively bubbled over. "It's a wonderful thing to do," she told me, when she had Dave and me over for dinner that night. "I'm crazy from actors! In New York I went all the time to the theatre. Macbeth by Shakespeare — I saw it years ago on Broadway with Morris Evans and that Anderson girl. The way she washed her hands when she was walking in her sleep, goose bumps it gave me! You say there's a lot of people going to be in this production? Some of them are young people, I hope? Any nice young girls?"
The Mesa Grande Art Players was founded about ten years ago by Lloyd Cunningham, who owns an electronics store. He never talks about it himself, but several people have told me that he graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts when he was in his twenties, that he had tramped the pavement around Broadway for a couple of years, and even had a few small parts in a few small plays. Then he got married, to a girl from Mesa Grande, and she quickly became pregnant. His father-in-law had a very successful business selling TVs and phonographs, and so nature took its course. The Players, I suppose, has been Cunningham's way for the last ten years of smuggling a little theatre into his life.
As rehearsals got underway, I began to realize that the same thing was true about many of the other actors in Macbeth. Like Cunningham, the hardcore members of the Players — the ones who paid dues — had dreamed once upon a time of getting into the profession. Casting calls for all productions are open, and a lot of stage struck citizens like me always show up for them, but the hard-core members play most of the leads.
This particular production, as I soon found out, wasn't typical. Up till then, the Players had been specializing in Neil Simon and other popular American playwrights. They thought they had reached the pinnacle of dramatic art a couple of years ago when they did A Streetcar Named Desire. So why, all of a sudden, were they jumping head-first into Shakespearean tragedy?
The explanation was the director, Martin Osborn. A tall, weedy man in his fifties, with bushy black hair and a bulldog jaw, he looked familiar to me the moment I set eyes on him at that first audition. Pretty soon I found out why. He had once been a character actor in Hollywood; not the most famous character actor in the business, but I watch a lot of movies. I've been known to look at TV till three in the morning just to catch some 1950s grade-B mystery. I recognized Osborn from several of these.
He had retired from the movies a dozen years ago to marry a meat-packing heiress and manage her investments. His wife had died recently, and Osborn, now a wealthy man, had settled in Mesa Grande last April. Right away he'd taken an interest in the Players, and the inevitable happened. The Players are always in desperate financial straits, always on the verge of folding for lack of funds. How could they resist being seduced by an experienced pro who was willing to dig down in his own pocket to guarantee the season? In return, of course, he expected to get his way.
Lloyd Cunningham and a few of the other old-guard members had wanted to open the season with The Odd Couple, but Osborn had laid down the law: not only would they open with Macbeth but nothing by Neil Simon would be done at all. And having chosen Macbeth, he chose himself as its director, a position that usually went to Lloyd Cunningham.
Still worse, Cunningham didn't even get the leading part, though he was certainly the best actor in town. Instead, Osborn brought in a friend of his, Randolph Le Sage, a professional actor from New York who worked off-Broadway and on TV soap operas. Ordinarily Actors' Equity, the national actors' union, won't allow its members to appear in any production in which all the other actors aren't Equity members too. But occasionally (though Equity doesn't like to publicize this) they'll make an exception to the rule. Only under certain conditions though; one of them is that the company must operate strictly on a nonprofit basis. Well, you couldn't get any more nonprofit than the Mesa Grande Art Players, so Osborn inveigled a special Equity dispensation for his old friend.
The unspoken message in all this — but it came across loud and clear — was that nobody in this hick town could possibly be good enough to handle such a demanding role. Cunningham was cast as Macbeth's fellow soldier Banquo, who gets killed off halfway through the play.
So there was a lot of tension during rehearsals. Everybody, even the stage crew, kept saying what a success the show was going to be. Osborn kept telling us what a superb job we were doing: "It's about time this town got exposed to some real theatre!" But the fact was, you could cut the tension with a knife.
And then came that Sunday afternoon, the twenty-ninth, four days before opening night.
* * *
The cause of all the trouble was that Allan Franz sat in on the rehearsal.
Everybody was pretty excited about that, naturally, Franz being one of the biggest directors in Hollywood today. He comes out with a new picture every three or four years, and I've seen and loved them all, even the last one, that big epic about the building of the Panama Canal, and how the United States corrupted the natives.
Excerpted from Mom Doth Murder Sleep by James Yaffe. Copyright © 1991 James Yaffe. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1: Dave's Narrative,
2: Roger's Narrative,
3: Dave's Narrative,
4: Roger's Narrative,
5: Dave's Narrative,
6: Roger's Narrative,
7: Dave's Narrative,
8: Roger's Narrative,
9: Dave's Narrative,
10: Roger's Narrative,
11: Dave's Narrative,
12: Roger's Narrative,
13: Dave's Narrative,
14: Roger's Narrative,
15: Dave's Narrative,
16: Roger's Narrative,
17: Dave's Narrative,
Also by James Yaffe,
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