Intrigued by rumors of vanishing box office money, Dodie has agreed to help oversee the casting of Romeo and Juliet at the modest Etonville Little Theater. If nothing else, it's a welcome escape from the thirty-something's usual going-to-bed-with-a-mystery-novel routine. But when Jerome Angleton, a well-respected member of the theater company, is inexplicably found murdered on the loading dock, deadly drama transcends the stage-and the page. As a crime wave crashes over the small town, the spotlight is on Dodie to orchestrate her own investigation behind the scenes . . . before someone has a chance at a killer encore.
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By Suzanne Trauth
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Suzanne Trauth
All rights reserved.
There is no such thing as a Jersey girl. For example, if you lived below the Driscoll Bridge and were a citizen of the Jersey Shore, as I had been for most of my life, you were not necessarily defined by certain hairstyles and a particular accent. You were more likely to have a six-month tan and a strong penchant for boardwalk fries and fresh oysters. So I was a Jersey Shore girl.
Until Hurricane Sandy graced us with her presence. I watched the angry, churning water and crashing waves chew up the boardwalk like a hungry beast. Bigelow's, the restaurant that I managed, sat right on the beach. But then Bigelow's was destroyed, along with every other business in the vicinity. And so was my job. I turned in my keys, took one last look at my beloved ocean, packed my 2000 Chevy Metro, and stepped on the accelerator.
I was headed for Etonville, a quaint little community nestled in the shadow of New York City with a history that dated from Revolutionary War days. Etonville was intended to be a pit stop on my way to New York, somewhere I could live just long enough to save some money and make plans for my future. My former boss had a cousin who owned the Windjammer, a casual, family-style restaurant in Etonville that supposedly needed managing badly. I found an apartment on Craigslist and ended up renting a preWorld War II bungalow in the south end of town, five comfortable rooms all painted the same shade of optimistic yellow.
I settled in to get the Windjammer in shape. I'd been at it eighteen months.
The lunch rush was over. Henry, the owner/chef, and sous chef Enrico were working on prep for dinner, while bartender Benny restocked the bar and part-time server Carmen, Enrico's wife, cleaned tables. Our primary waitress, Gillian, was texting her boyfriend. I usually slipped out for a break at three o'clock.
"Be right back, Benny. Hold down the fort." I headed out the front door. It was a cool, breezy April day. New Jersey in spring. The weather could swing wildly this time of the year — hot, cold, or somewhere in between. I'd even seen a few late winter blizzards in April.
I zipped up my jacket, closed my eyes, and stopped to inhale. It was a favorite habit of mine down the shore, taking the time to smell the salt air and listen to the wheeling seagulls. This time of the day, the gulls would be coming in for a quick landing to scarf up all the edible debris on the boardwalk —
"I was just coming to see you."
It was Lola Tripper.
Lola and I had met the first day I started at the Windjammer. I had been a little harried — Gillian had called in sick and Henry had been barking at me to pick up orders. I'd stumbled out the kitchen door, tripped on my own feet, and plopped a chef salad onto Lola's lap. I'd apologized profusely, but she'd just laughed. I'd loved her instantly. She'd been my go-to confidante ever since. Despite our slight age gap — she was forty-four to my thirty-four — we had become fast friends: Broadway shows and the occasional trip to Atlantic City to play the slots.
Lola had become a widow a decade ago. Since her daughter was away at college in Chicago, Lola was left alone. Alone, but wealthy, thanks to a generous insurance policy. Three years ago, she retired early from the science department at Etonville High and made the time to pursue her passions, one of which was the Etonville Little Theatre, a community theater group with an all-volunteer membership.
"Hi, Lola. How's pre-production going?"
The ELT was getting ready to audition for Romeo and Juliet.
"Doing Shakespeare is more complicated than we thought. It's our biggest show yet. We need a broader casting pool. Are you interested?"
My theater experience was limited to a grammar school production, in which I had been an apple in an orchard of dying trees, and one semester of acting, taken as a lark with my college roommate, that had required us to work on productions. I'd painted backdrops and built a few props, and when a spear carrier caught the flu during the run of the show, I'd stepped in because the costume fit. But I had no greasepaint in my blood.
"Sorry. Acting's not for me. I thought most of the regulars would be cast."
"They probably will." Lola frowned. "It's just that most of them have never spoken blank verse before."
I wasn't sure the ELT was ready for the challenge of Shakespeare. I'd seen all of their productions, and they did a good job with musicals and comedies. They'd even gone to a couple of community theater conferences and won prizes. But iambic pentameter?
"Walter thinks we are up to the challenge," she said as if she could read my mind.
Walter was Walter Zeitzman, the general factotum of the theater part-time, real estate agent full-time. He'd been running the ELT for fifteen years after a middling career as an off-off Broadway director in New York. His primary responsibility was getting the shows up on schedule. For the last year, he'd had to pay more attention to the competition in neighboring Creston, where an upstart theater had just opened. He'd even toyed with the notion of bringing in professional guest artists from the city. Romeo and Juliet was his attempt to solidify the ELT's reputation as the premier theatrical entertainment venue in the area.
"If you want to do Shakespeare, why not start with a comedy? People love to laugh. How about Midsummer Night's Dream? You could get kids from the high school to play the fairies and frankly, I might have a better shot at our dinner theater package. Summer, picnics ... we could do a barbecue outside," I said.
There were exactly three eating establishments in Etonville: Coffee Heaven, an old-fashioned, great-for-breakfast Jersey diner; the Windjammer; and recently opened upscale bistro La Famiglia. Henry's regulars were beginning to sample the new Italian cuisine. Desperate to maintain his position as Etonville's gastronomic king, he was willing to let me think outside the box — which I've always been good at. I had a brainstorm. With the ELT conveniently situated next door, I suggested we begin a dinner-then-theater package, coordinating the menu with theme specials and offering discounts. Of course, the whole thing had taken some finessing. The artistic director had been resistant, and the ELT season had consisted of only four plays, a couple of music events, and a night of Irish step dancing in March. Still, it was a start.
But now I was stumped. The obvious choice was Italian, but with La Famiglia dishing up fettuccine alfredo and shrimp fra diavolo, we needed another theme and I needed inspiration.
"Walter thinks we need a show with 'gravitas,'" Lola said. "Something that will really knock the socks off Etonville."
"Romeo and Juliet certainly has gravitas."
"Walter has ideas about the Jets and the Sharks."
"That was West Side Story."
Lola flipped her blond hair off her shoulders. "Of course. But Walter wants to create contemporary resonance. So the audience will relate to the story of two lovers separated by gangs."
"But we don't have gangs in Etonville." Unless you counted the senior citizens center and the pickle ball club. They squared off once a year for a bocce ball tournament.
"Everyone loves a good romance," said Lola.
"True," I said. Which made me think about the state of my own romantic life. But that's another story.
"Walter's going to play Lord Capulet, and I'm pretty sure I'm playing Lady Capulet." She smiled serenely and assumed a regal pose.
I knew she'd been spending more time than usual at board meetings. Good for her. Walter was fiftyish, a good-looking guy with brown hair, dark eyes, and a full beard. He'd recently become single as a result of a rather messy divorce that had been discussed ad nauseam at the Snippets Salon.
"It's all so overwhelming for him. Directing and playing a lead role. Could you help out with auditions next Tuesday?"
"I'm not sure what Henry —"
"Dodie, we need your managerial skills! Penny will be stage managing, of course, but, well, you know Penny."
Enough said. Penny Ossining meant well, but if there was a complicated way to do things, she'd find it. Walter was loyal to her since she had been one of the first volunteers at the ELT when the doors opened twenty-five years ago.
"I'll have to check the work schedule." Monday was my day off so Tuesday was spent catching up. But Benny and I shared closing duties so some nights I took off after the dinner rush.
"Thanks, Dodie. And do you think Henry would mind putting these near the cash register?" Lola held up a stack of full-color flyers advertising auditions for Romeo and Juliet. "We already put an ad in the Etonville Standard."
I took the flyers. "Sure. You guys are going all out this time."
"Well, it's a big deal." She checked her watch. "Oops. I've got an appointment with Carol in fifteen minutes." Carol was the owner of Snippets, the local salon.
I lifted my auburn hair off my neck and pulled it into a ponytail. "I think I need a trim, too. I'll meet you there. I need some ideas on theme food for R and J. And Carol is such a great cook."
"I'll start thinking." Lola waved good-bye and hurried down the street to her car.
I had about an hour and a half before I was back on duty for dinner. I headed in the opposite direction and climbed into my red Metro.CHAPTER 2
In the town center, I found a parking spot on a side street and glanced at my watch. Just enough time to get a haircut before the dinner crowd arrived. I pushed open the door of the salon and was greeted by a swoosh of sound: dueling hair dryers, a ringing phone, and Carol, laughing loudly with Lola, who was in the process of getting shampooed. Carol had a booming, joyful, infectious laugh that could lighten up even the gloomiest days. It was the first thing I noticed about her. Whenever I needed more funny in my life, she was my go-to person.
I waved from the receptionist's desk, and Carol motioned for me to join them. Snippets had garnered a reputation for great service and reasonable prices. I walked down the middle of the salon, through two parallel rows of cutting and color stations, to the back wall, where silver side-by-side sinks were occupied by Lola and another Etonville patron. The woman on the right stood and wrapped a towel around her head and walked to a cutting station.
"Busy today?" I asked Carol.
"As a one-armed paperhanger."
"Can you fit me in? I just need a half-inch taken off," I said.
"Lola, can you wait a few minutes?" Carol asked.
"Sure. I told Walter I was going home after I was finished here anyway."
I plopped down into the vacant chair. Carol's curly salt-and-pepper head bobbed as she whipped out a cape, snapping it open and around my neck in one motion. Carol was a firmly grounded, forty-year-old Sicilian beauty. After Lola, Carol was my other BFF.
"Speaking of Walter ..." Carol said.
Lola sat up straighter. "Have you heard something?"
Carol lowered her voice. "I hear his ex has been carrying on." She arched an eyebrow.
"About what?" I asked.
While she shampooed my hair, rinsed out the suds, and brushed some conditioner through it, Carol divulged the latest on Walter's divorce. We didn't call Snippets gossip central for no reason. I was just generally interested in catching up with the small-town goings-on. Lola had a more personal stake in Walter's marital status. We settled into her cutting station.
"Annie Walsh. Remember her?" Carol asked.
Lola frowned. "Is she the one who used to own the bake shop on Anderson Street before it became Georgette's?"
Georgette's was a pastry shop par excellence that provided all of the Windjammer's desserts.
"That's the one. Well, she was in here yesterday, and she said that Walter's ex said that he was holding out on her alimony."
"What does that mean?" Lola was a tad defensive.
Carol shrugged. "Something about his having money in other accounts that he didn't fess up to during the divorce proceedings."
"I find that hard to believe," Lola said and opened a magazine.
Carol and I exchanged glances. I'd picked up a little scuttlebutt about Walter's shaky finances from some theater folks one night at the Windjammer.
"What are we doing?" Carol brandished the scissors and frowned at my shoulder-length locks.
"Just clip off the split ends." I swiveled my chair to see the other side of my head in the mirror facing me and looked beyond the sinks to the very rear of the salon. "Is that Pauli?"
He looked up and gave the three of us a solemn wave. Carol stomped on the hydraulic foot rest with authority, and the chair dropped several inches. She glanced over her shoulder to see her seventeen-year-old son, Pauli, seated on a carton of shampoo bottles, securely wedged between a portable hair dryer on wheels and a rolling service tray. His head was bent over a laptop, with an iPod for company.
"I told him he could use the receptionist's desk. I think he's a little self-conscious being in a salon with all these women around."
"What's he doing?" Lola squinted at him.
"Creating a website for Snippets," Carol said.
"Wow. Good for him." Pauli's father was a tech guy who worked in the city. Like father, like son, I thought. Pauli was a bright kid, but a little quiet. Whenever I visited Carol's home and he happened to be visible, it was usually with his face buried in a computer game on his laptop or cell phone, or on Carol's iPad.
Carol combed and clipped and combed and clipped vigorously. "Yeah, I'm proud of him. He wants to start a business doing websites. Can you imagine?"
"His dad must be pleased."
"He is, but I worry," she said.
I noticed Pauli texting, his thumbs moving so quickly they were like appendages of his brain.
"I wish he'd get out more. You know. With girls."
"He doesn't date?"
"He has this group of boys he hangs out with. All of them like him — glued to the computer and video games. He has no social life."
"I think if you're seventeen that is a social life these days. That and Facebook and Instagram."
Lola folded her magazine open and held it up in front of my face. "Look at this. It's a recipe for strawberries dipped in chocolate and covered with fresh cream. Yummy and romantic." Lola's eyes lit up.
"Are you looking for dessert recipes?" Carol stopped mid-snip.
"I'm working on the theme food for Romeo and Juliet and drawing a blank. I've ruled out Italian," I said.
"Too bad. I could give you my meatball recipe." Her husband's chubby physique was a testament to Carol's cooking.
Henry had inaugurated the dinner-then-theater with corned beef and cabbage to celebrate St. Patrick's Day — and the step dancing — and folks had been a little slow to come aboard. But things picked up with a French farce accompanied by beef Bourguignon, and Etonville was eating up the new idea. By the time the ELT produced Dames at Sea and I had devised a seafood buffet, patrons were getting used to dining early and darting next door to the show. It was a marriage made in culinary heaven.
"Something romantic might work."
"I remember a dinner al fresco years ago ... oysters, cheeses, avocados, champagne. ... It was luscious." Lola sighed.
"Maybe we should look into an outdoor café," I said, as Carol blow-dried my hair, giving it a fluff now and then. "Lola thinks I should audition for R and J."
"We need all the potential actors we can get," Lola trilled, still flipping through the magazine.
"Why don't you audition?" I said to Carol, looking at her in the mirror.
"When would I have time to rehearse a play? Not to mention that I can't act."
"Ditto," I said. "Are you helping with the hair and makeup?"
"Yes, she is," Lola volunteered. "Walter needs her expertise."
"If I can get the shop covered." She gelled her hands and patted my hair to pacify the frizzies.
Without our realizing it, Pauli had abandoned his nest in the back of the salon and ambled over to Carol's station.
Carol looked up and smiled. "Honey, say hi to Lola and Dodie."
He brushed a hunk of dark hair off his pimply forehead. "Hey."
"Are you hungry?" Carol asked.
"I can wait." He was smart and considerate.
"After I do Lola, I'll drive you home."
I stood up and grabbed my bag from the floor. "How's the website going?"
Pauli hesitated. "Okay, I guess."
Excerpted from Show Time by Suzanne Trauth. Copyright © 2016 Suzanne Trauth. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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