On opening night, hours before the curtain rises, Dodie runs into an agitated actress backstage with blood on her hands. Then a stranger is found among the chairs set for a graveyard scene with a knife in his chest. The show will not go on—the theatre is now a crime scene. Hoping to clear the red-handed suspect, Dodie returns to the role of amateur sleuth to mull over the clues and beat the backstage stabber to the punch—before someone else becomes history . . .
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Winter in Etonville, New Jersey was not for the faint of heart. The temperature had hovered at fifteen degrees all morning. I backed my Chevy Metro out of the driveway and inched my way down Ames, turning in a wide arc onto Fairfield Street. The streets were empty. Smart folks had stayed home this Sunday morning. I shifted my right foot from the accelerator to the brakes and back again, wary of the layer of ice that glistened on the roadway. Living down the Jersey Shore had not completely prepared me for the ordeals of cold weather months: substantial snow, ice, cold, wind, sleet, more snow, freezing rain —
A horn honked and I jammed on the brakes. My Metro did a one-eighty, skidding into the intersection of Fairfield and Main. I came to rest three feet from the front bumper of a late-model silver Lincoln Continental. I was panting audibly as an occupant of the other car's passenger seat alighted. A middle-aged man in a camel-colored coat with a bronzed face, slicked-back dark hair, and sunglasses.
"Are you okay?" he shouted at me.
I nodded dumbly and studied my shaking hands on the steering wheel. Foolishly, I'd ignored the yellow light and hadn't seen his car heading south on Main. It was my fault, though he was probably driving over the speed limit.
I wound down the window. "I'm so sorry. Didn't see you ..." Puffs of cold breath shot out of my mouth.
"No worries. All's well." He kicked one leather-clad shoe against the bottom of the doorframe to remove snowy muck. "Take it easy." He climbed into his Lincoln with a Massachusetts license plate — it was a game of mine, noticing and remembering plates: a white background with red letters and numbers, Massachusetts printed at the top, Spirit of America at the bottom — and said something to the driver.
"Yes. Yes, I will," I said quickly and watched them back up, maneuver around my Metro, and continue down Main Street. I completed my turn onto Main and eased down the road. Twenty-five miles an hour.
"Achoo!" A sneeze burst out of my stuffy nose and scratchy throat. For the fifth time in the last two hours, I told myself I should have been home installed on my sofa wrapped in a warm blanket, hot buttered rum in one hand, the latest thriller by my favorite author in the other. Or binge-watching a series on Netflix. Instead, I was watching a baking class create early American cakes in the Windjammer restaurant kitchen while listening to the wind howl as it rustled down Main.
Betty from Betty's Boutique, Etonville's version of Victoria's Secret, popped out of the Windjammer's pantry. "Bless you!" She brushed a shock of brown, shoulder-length curls off her face with one floury palm. "Dodie, I can't find the nutmeg."
"Try the spice shelf. Second from the top," I said, blowing my nose and eyeing the recipe for Swamp Yankee applesauce cake. Georgette, of Georgette's Bakery, had volunteered to take her "students" through their pastry paces before the opening of the next Etonville Little Theatre production. We'd been baking for three Sundays now and today was the final session.
"That's one teaspoon of salt?" asked one-half of the Banger sisters duo, two elderly siblings who kept their ancient digits on the pulse of the town. Gossip was their game.
"No, it's a tablespoon," Georgette said patiently. "And remember we are multiplying everything by twelve. We want to end up with a dozen cakes." She jabbed at a copy of the recipe — her stubby, thick fingers were born to knead dough.
The sisters bobbed their gray heads and began to measure.
"Mildred, be sure the baking soda is dissolved in warm water before you add it to the batter," Georgette said to Etonville's choir director and turned to me. "It might have been easier to buy the concession goodies," she muttered.
"Maybe, but I needed something that fit the American Revolution." For the past two years the Windjammer had provided food that matched the period of the ELT plays: themed dinners, a food festival, and now stocking the concession stand. "These early American desserts are perfect. Apple pie, pumpkin bread, hot cider punch, mulled wine. It's going to be great." I smiled my big fake grin, the one I trotted out on occasions when I knew I was in over my head, because it was too late to call things off. The Windjammer freezer was jammed with the apple pies and Georgette had offered to store the pumpkin bread and applesauce cake in her bakery. The punch and mulled wine were left for later this week.
"I hope it's all edible." Georgette returned to the group of bakers and cautioned them. "Let's beat that batter until it's well mixed."
I heard the tinkle of the welcome bells above the restaurant entrance. Probably an out-of-towner who didn't know that the restaurant was closed on Sundays and the only culinary activity afoot was a baking class on steroids. I crossed my fingers that the ELT audiences would be hungry before the show and during intermission.
I pushed open the swinging doors that led into the dining room and was greeted by a blast of cold air. Lola Tripper, current artistic director of the Etonville Little Theatre, forced the front door shut and leaned against the jamb.
"It's feels like zero out there!" She stamped her knee-high boots on the doormat, leaving bits of frozen slush to settle into its bristly fibers.
"With the wind chill, yeah."
Lola flipped the fur-lined hood of her high-end winter coat. "I ignore that wind chill stuff. It's either freezing or it isn't."
"Right." I took her coat, some Icelandic clothing brand. "Looks warm."
"Canadian goose down. Windproof and waterproof." Lola fluffed her blond mane.
Definitely not wallet-proof. I sneezed.
"You poor thing. What are you taking for it?" she asked.
"The usual. Aspirin, vitamin C, a shot of whiskey." That last was my great-aunt Maureen's remedy for whatever ailed you. She usually came down with "something" once a week. "What's happening next door?" The ELT was about ready to open its version of Our Town.
"We're actually ready for tech rehearsal. With only a few items to catch up on. Chrystal has to let out the waistcoats for some of the men. And her crew is still altering aprons and breeches. Good thing we have the ruffled shirts and the men's stockings from Romeo and Juliet." Lola grimaced. "I told Walter we needed to stay on budget for this show."
"So ... that's why he insisted on a rotating stage?" Lola grunted. "He had a vision. You know Walter and his visions."
I certainly did. "You're the director. Walter's only the playwright."
Walter Zeitzman was the on-again-off-again director of most ELT productions. But when the board balked at the budget for a big musical, Walter offered his adaptation of Our Town — called Eton Town — as a replacement, shifting the script to colonial America to celebrate the founding of Etonville, shortly after the American Revolution. I got Walter's vision; I just wasn't sure his playwriting skills were up to the challenge.
Lola twisted one strand of hair in a recognizable nervous gesture. "The turntable sounded like a good idea. One side for Act One, the other for Act Two. Passage of time. Life moving round and round ... you know."
I'd been to rehearsal. It was more like life grinding to a halt every few seconds. "I hope he gets it running more smoothly before opening night."
"That's where he is now. With the cast off today, he and JC are working on the turntable to make sure it's spinning properly." She crossed her fingers.
I crossed mine back. "Come on. Let's see what bakery mayhem the good folks of Etonville are creating. Georgette is so good natured." The smell of something burning leaked into the dining room. I bolted, Lola close on my heels.
I burst into the kitchen just as Georgette withdrew four cakes from the oven and slammed the door shut, stifling a cloud of smoke by locking it away in the oven. On the center island the remaining pans of Swamp Yankee applesauce cake batter were lined up like victims about to face a firing squad.
Georgette cut open one of the four baked cakes: charred on the outside, gooey on the inside. A thin film of sweat covered her forehead. "Not to worry. A minor mishap." She paused and eyed her baking staff, who were staring open mouthed at the burnt cakes. "We need to remember to set the temperature at 350." Her bakers nodded.
"We should have done the regular Our Town," grumped Mildred's husband Vernon, who played the Narrator in Walter's adaptation. Until now he had pretty much kept his mouth shut, either because he had nothing to add or because he was missing both his hearing aids and the gist of the afternoon's conversation. "Walter should have let well enough alone. He's not a playwright."
"I like the costumes in our version," said a Banger sister.
"The tricorn hats and the men's breeches," giggled the other.
Walter had kept many of the original play's elements — the narrator, two families, a love story, everyday life in Etonville, and a visit to the town graveyard. Even the theme was preserved: appreciating life and living in the moment.
"I don't know, I kind of like the early American feel. The founding of Etonville, lovers separated by the war," said Sally Oldfield.
She was a quiet, pretty, twenty-one-year-old transplant from New England. I'd known her since mid-January when she appeared, unannounced, on my doorstep, wondering if I had any advice on places to live. I gave her some recommendations, made a few phone calls, and within twenty-four hours she had rented a room in a boarding house in Etonville and found a part-time job as a car wash cashier in Bernridge, Etonville's next-door neighbor. My younger brother, Andy, who'd moved from San Diego to Boston in November, had apparently given her my contact information.
Sally had seemed lonely and disclosed that she'd done some acting in high school so I suggested she audition for the ELT production. Now a Townsperson and member of the Eton Town choir, Sally eagerly agreed to join the baking class.
"Well, I still think Walter went too far this time." Vernon put on his galoshes and made ready to leave the Windjammer.
"Vernon, you're doing a lovely job as Narrator," Georgette said.
"Say what?" Vernon asked.
Definitely no hearing aids. Mildred and Vernon bundled up and left arm-in-arm, Vernon still grousing.
Sally offered to help with the cleanup.
"Thanks. You've been a really good addition to the class," I said. "You don't complain, you can read a recipe, and you know how to multiply and divide."
Sally grinned. "It's been fun. I've enjoyed meeting everyone. It's given me something to do."
"If you want to stay busy, I could use help with the hot drinks —"
Lola stuffed her cell phone in a pocket. "Dodie, sorry to run off and leave you, but Walter and JC are into it over the turntable —"
"Go. We're fine here," I said.
"I hope that contraption doesn't go any faster than five miles an hour," said one of the Banger sisters and wrapped a muffler around her neck.
More like minus five miles an hour. "I don't think you need to worry," I said.
The other sister studied me over the rim of her glasses. "I was dizzy from the spinning and nearly fell off the stage one night."
Dizzy yes, turntable no.
My cell chirped. It was a text from Bill. Aka Etonville Chief of Police Thompson. We'd gotten to know each other during the past year when I'd assisted in the investigation of a couple of homicides. Okay, so I "investigated" on the sly and jeopardized our budding relationship. But Bill was still grateful for my detection skills and I still got all jittery when I saw that sandy-colored brush cut and former-NFL-running-back build. We'd been dating for the last couple of months. Which included a New York Giants football game, Thanksgiving dinner with Lola and her daughter, home from college, a couple of movies, Christmas Eve dinner at the Windjammer, and an aborted attempt to go sledding in the town park. At the last minute, Bill had had an emergency.
Lola swaddled herself in her Canadian goose down coat and prepared to brave the cold. "Want to stop by my house later for a bite to eat? I shouldn't be more than an hour at the theater."
I waggled my cell. "Bill ..."
Lola beamed. "Ooh la la! Things are really heating up there!"
Not sure, but I might have blushed. "We're still keeping it low-key." His text was an apology for cancelling our dinner date last night. Valentine's Day! I didn't have the heart or energy to explain to Lola that I wasn't sure if things were heating up or cooling down.
Lola smiled knowingly. "Call me later. I want details."
"And take care of that cold."
This time of year, days ended by five o'clock. I watched Lola step into the dark, freezing night. "Good luck next door." Lola was going to need more than luck to get the stage rotating.
I sprayed the kitchen counters with a cleaner, removing all traces of the Swamp Yankee applesauce cake. "Need a ride?" I asked Sally, who was stacking mixing bowls in the pantry.
"I left my car at the boarding house. I like to walk," she said.
"It's starting to flurry. Pretty windy too," I said.
"I'm used to it." I looked up from my wiping. Her pale complexion gave her a waif-like appearance. Not for the first time I noticed how extraordinary her eyes were: one brown and one hazel. Heterochromia iridium. I'd googled the condition the first time I'd met Sally.
"I'm from Boston," Sally said.
"Weather like this? Normal for winter. It has to be zero before Bostonians think it's really cold."
"You never told me what brought you to New Jersey."
She hesitated. "I wanted a change in scenery."
"Sorry to be nosy. In Etonville everyone ends up knowing everyone else's business," I said.
"So I gathered." She laughed amiably.
I realized I knew virtually nothing about Sally's past except for the connection to my brother. He was a therapist, and I wondered if their relationship was that of doctor and patient. "Stay away from Snippets hair salon if you want to avoid town gossip. I call it rumor central."
Sally took off her apron. "I'll be able to help with the hot cider and mulled wine."
"Great! Because the rest of the baking class will be busy getting skittish for opening night."
Sally and I finished up the kitchen. She slipped into a parka and tugged on her snow boots; I donned my own down jacket and turned out the lights.
The sun had set. It was already dark and the streetlamps were shining. "See you later," Sally said and turned to go. Then she froze and caught her breath, staring across the street.
Barbie's Craft Shoppe, one of the only businesses on Main Street open on Sunday, was closing up, lights were being flicked off and Barbie was hanging the Closed sign. On the sidewalk outside the store, two kids rolled snowballs and got set to throw them until their mother intervened and escorted them off. Nothing unusual as far as I could see.
"Are you all right?" I asked.
"I ... uh ..." she stuttered.
I glanced back to see what had disturbed her. To the left of the shop, a man stood under the street light. Big, burly, filling out a camouflage coat, he wore a trapper hat with the ear flaps flipped up. A full beard sprouted out of a face that stared back at Sally.
"Do you know him?"
Then he opened his mouth as if about to shout something at us. Before he could say a word, an Etonville police cruiser, lights flashing, came to an abrupt stop in front of Barbie's Craft Shoppe. Officer Ralph Ostrowski, an agreeable, semi-capable Etonville cop, who was usually assigned crowd control, jumped out. They talked briefly, then Ralph escorted him into the back seat of his squad car. They drove off, but not before the man twisted in his seat and pressed his face against the window, still gazing intently at Sally.
She stuffed her hands in her pockets and backed up, looking around and checking our side of the street. Then she pulled the hood of her coat over her head. "I have to go," she mumbled and ran off.
"Sally?" I watched her leave. Despite the fact that I was warm inside my down jacket and scarf, I shivered. The tiny hairs on the back of my neck stood upright. My radar system giving me a warning: Something wasn't right.
Falling snow had sprinkled a light layer of powdery white stuff on all surfaces. I stuck out my tongue to catch the moisture. Reminded me of afternoons I shared with my little brother, Andy, on those rare occasions when it snowed down the shore. I cranked the engine of my red Metro, ninety thousand miles and counting, flipped on the windshield wipers to clear a patch of window, and set off down Main Street. Slowly. Carefully.
My cell binged again. I pulled over to the shoulder and checked the text. It was Henry, owner/chef of the Windjammer reminding me that I had to do a freezer inventory first thing in the morning. He intended to add a few new cold-weather items to the menu, like roasted parsnip soup and a pasta-and-veggies dish.
Excerpted from "Running Out of Time"
Copyright © 2017 Suzanne Trauth.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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