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By Suzanne Trauth
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Suzanne Trauth
All rights reserved.
It's not always true that "all the world's a stage." Sometimes it's a boxing ring. Right now I had a ringside seat at the Windjammer restaurant in Etonville, New Jersey. A charming little town sitting in the shadow of New York City, it was named after Thomas Eton, one of George Washington's army officers during the American Revolution.
I downed my second glass of seltzer as I watched Benny, the bartender, give a quick swipe to the sticky surface of the glossy wooden bar.
"You missed a spot," I said, pointing to a dollop of barbecue sauce. I pushed my empty glass in his direction.
Benny raised an eyebrow. "Eagle eye. Hey, what's going on next door?" He jerked his thumb in the direction of the Etonville Little Theatre. "I heard there was a real hubbub here at lunchtime today."
Geez. Probably from the dotty Banger sisters. The two elderly women were the gossip mavens of the town. "Lola came in with Antonio. The two of them disagreeing over something. Then Edna stopped in for carryout and Abby tore into her," I said and lowered my voice. "And I'm not even talking about Henry."
Lola Tripper was the reigning diva and acting artistic director of the Etonville Little Theatre, which was deep in the throes of rehearsing its fall play — Arsenic and Old Lace. Antonio Digenza was the guest director trying to create order out of the bedlam of the community theater's rehearsal process. Edna May — dispatcher for the Etonville Police Department — was sharing the leading lady duties with Abby Henderson, manager of the Valley View Shooting Range. They were playing the Brewster sisters. Abby was on probation at the theater, due to unprofessional behavior during the ELT production of Romeo and Juliet, but she had finally accepted the fact that she was less a teenage Juliet and more a matronly sister.
Henry was my boss, the owner-chef of the Windjammer, and in a sulky mood since his cross-town archrival, Italian restaurant La Famiglia, received a four-star review in the Etonville Standard, again, last week.
"Mercury must be in retrograde. Everybody's touchy and having it out with someone. I'm trying to remain neutral. I feel like Switzerland," I said.
I am Dodie O'Dell. Manager of the Windjammer restaurant, BFF to Lola, and her moral support when she's overwhelmed, which she is with just about every ELT production.
"Hi, Dot." Honey bounced out of the kitchen.
I gritted my teeth. I hated being called Dot. Only my great aunt Maureen could get away with that. And she was gone now, so there was no one left to torment me. Except Honey. Benny sniggered and dipped his cloth in soapy water, attacking the bar stain. I turned my attention to Honey — named for her hair, she claimed. As if. It was really mousy brown.
"Uncle Henry wants to know if you have the specials inserts printed for tomorrow." She inclined her head and studied me.
Honey, twenty-two, had been a fixture in the restaurant for the past month, presumably learning all aspects of restaurant management from the kitchen to the dining room, and taking a "gap-semester" away from college. More likely her university was taking a semester break from Honey. She was majoring in Packaging — who even knew there was such a thing — and had nonstop ideas on how to improve the Windjammer's "dissemination presence." Honey had become a pain in my butt, but apparently Henry was making up for some past transgression committed against his brother. Or else he had a long-range plan for his niece? I shuddered. The two of us could not occupy the same space indefinitely.
"I'll pick up the inserts from the printer on my way in tomorrow." I smiled. No sense picking one more fight; tensions in the restaurant were riding high enough.
"Oh, and I don't, like, get this theme-food thing." She propped one hand on her skinny hip, her voice doing that upward sweep that made it seem as if she was asking a question with every sentence.
I counted to five. "What don't you get, Honey?"
She scratched her head. "Who wants to eat stuff like egg creams and nishes?"
"Whatever. I mean, like, the hotdogs aren't too bad but the other stuff? I'd say ditch it and let's have chicken fingers and mozzarella sticks."
I counted from five to ten. "Honey, the whole point of theme food is to match the theme of the play. Arsenic and Old Lace takes place in Brooklyn in 1940, so we're having New York food from that time." I waited while she processed this.
"Hmmm," she said, acting all important. "I still think chicken fingers are, like, more interesting." She flounced off.
My great aunt Maureen would have said Honey was about as useless as a solar-powered flashlight.
"She's related to Henry?" Benny muttered out of the corner of his mouth.
"We've got five days until the food festival. Henry's not thrilled with my choice of menu."
Theme food to accompany each production of the Etonville Little Theatre had been my idea last year and so far, so good. Dames at Sea and seafood, Italian fare for Romeo and Juliet, beef bourguignon for the French farce. I was pretty impressed with my choice for this show: Nathan's hot dogs, Italian ices, egg creams, soft pretzels, black-and-white cookies, and, of course, knishes. But Henry was smarting from his competitor's recent success, and none of my theme-food dishes were exactly haute cuisine. Never mind. People would flock to the sidewalk kiosks and gobble down the throwback food.
"But at least he's agreed to play along. I just hope Lola's scuffle with Antonio cools down before next weekend. I need the staff and cast out in full costume to make the event festive. Smiling. Looking like this theater thing is a lot of fun."
"Good luck with that," Benny said.
The front door opened and Lola strode in, eyes blazing. "Benny, set me up with a chardonnay and keep them coming."
"Hey, girlfriend, what's up? Rehearsal's over already?"
Lola shook her head and took a healthy gulp of her wine. She closed her eyes. "I've been dreaming about that sip for two hours."
Sip? She must really be rattled.
"I had to get out of there. Or I might have killed someone."
"Like the director?"
"I had no idea he was so ..."
"Obnoxious?" I said.
She pointed her index finger at me. "Yes! Obnoxious! I thought it would be, you know, nice to hire a theater professional. Elevate the artistic profile of the ELT."
"And give him a place to stay."
She grumbled. "I didn't know he'd married a twenty-something."
"Or insist she be cast as the ingénue." I was into theater lingo ever since I helped manage Romeo and Juliet last spring.
Antonio Digenza was a fiftyish, fiercely handsome, egotistical theater acquaintance from Lola's days as an off-off-Broadway ingénue herself. Though she'd never admitted it, I had the impression that, until she found out he was married, Lola might have been crushing on the director. Widowed for ten years, her recent love life had consisted of an on-again, off-again dalliance with Walter Zeitzman, the past artistic director who was currently in the doghouse for playing fast and loose with the box office till. No wonder he was cast as the play's criminal element.
"Still, it was nice that you welcomed Antonio and Tiffany into your home."
Lola dismissed her generosity. "Saved the theater money. You know the ELT budget."
The theater's finances were usually stretched to the point of transparency.
"Besides, we have a history." Her face took on a dreamy look. "I remember nights after long rehearsals when Antonio and I would get together to share a bottle of cheap wine and work on lines. Or at least my lines." She smiled at the memory.
I could imagine what Antonio was working on. Even though Lola had been married at the time.
Lola caught herself. "But with Tiffany around ..." She sniffed and swept her long blond hair behind one shoulder. Lola was forty-four but looked thirty — sophisticated, compelling — and certainly not the mother of a college sophomore. Which she was.
"Tiffany's his wife," I said.
"And a terrible actress." Lola motioned to Benny to top off her glass. "They argue constantly. I didn't mean to eavesdrop last night, but I heard Antonio yelling at Tiffany because she apparently misplaced her cell phone and used his."
"What was the big deal?"
"I don't know. He said she had no business getting into his personal affairs and how did she know his password anyway? And she says ..." Lola shifted her pitch upward, mimicking Tiffany's. "Like, duh, the password's your name and you use it for everything. TONY."
"Hard to think of Antonio as a Tony," I said.
"I've never heard him use that name. Anyway, I can't imagine what he sees in her."
I can, I thought, as I pictured the redheaded bombshell in her leggings and tight-fitting sweaters. "What's he done tonight?"
She waved her hand. "Oh, you know, the regular. Bullying actors, canceling rehearsals, then disappearing —"
"Disappearing? Where to?"
"Who knows? At first it was just once a week. Then twice a week. But he was gone Friday and then again last night. He said he wasn't feeling well."
"Wow. That's odd. Don't you have a 'disappearing clause' in his contract?"
"I don't think the board anticipated this. The contract was a handshake." Lola scratched a dark mark on the bar. "They trusted my judgment." She took a swallow of her wine. "I hope I'm not in trouble."
I could see Lola's point. Antonio was the first guest director, and out-oft-owner, that the Etonville Little Theatre had hired in its twenty-five-year history. Walter usually directed all of the productions. Before him, those duties were handled by the drama coach at Etonville High, until his eyesight got so bad that one night he fell off the stage and landed on an oversized female member of the cast. He broke her arm and she squashed his ego. Walter stepped in.
"Maybe he's just getting anxious? Or needs to clear his head?"
Lola frowned. "I wish it was as simple as that. Usually he comes back by midnight, but yesterday he left midafternoon and didn't get back until this morning."
Yikes. This was a little more than pre-opening jitters.
"What does Tiffany say? I mean she is his wife. She must know —"
My cell clanged and I checked the caller ID. "Hi, Carol. What's up?"
"Just checking in about your hair appointment tomorrow."
Carol Palmieri, my second BFF, was the owner of Snippets, Etonville's popular hair salon and rumor central. If you wanted to know what was going on in town — who was romancing whom, whose house was in foreclosure, who'd fallen off the diet wagon — you spent an hour or so at Snippets.
"Is nine a.m. still good?" My auburn hank of shoulder-length hair needed a reprieve from its ponytail. A trim would do the trick. I usually took my afternoon break between three and five, but with Honey in the restaurant, I was wary of staying away too long and had been skipping my late-day breather.
"That's fine. I've got a new shampoo girl and I'm breaking her in tomorrow."
Lola motioned for my cell. "Hang on for Lola." I handed her the phone.
"Carol, are you going to stop by the theater and talk with Antonio about hair for next weekend?" Lola asked.
Carol was the hair and makeup specialist for the Etonville Little Theatre. No one did an updo like Carol.
"Thursday night at nine? That's fine. I'll try to keep Antonio in the theater until then," Lola said with a smidge of sarcasm. "Never mind, Carol. I'll explain later."
Lola clicked off, downed the rest of her wine, and bravely headed back to rehearsal. I moved to my favorite back booth where I did restaurant business, and faced a stack of bills.
* * *
Two hours later, the bills were paid, the last customer had departed, the floor was mopped, and the receipts bundled for deposit. Henry had gone a half hour ago with Honey in tow; I think they were crowding each other's social life, but he was determined to take his uncle responsibilities seriously.
I turned out the lights, locked the door, and stepped into the autumn night, chilly for early October in New Jersey. Next to summer, fall was my favorite time of year. The crispness of the air, the clear night sky, and the faint smell of burning wood. Somewhere in the neighborhood a fireplace was getting a workout. I gazed upward, trying to locate the North Star at the end of the Little Dipper's handle. Stargazing at night had been one of my pastimes before Hurricane Sandy made short work of my beach life two years ago and sent me up north to Etonville.
I trotted to my red Chevy Metro, one of the last vestiges of my previous life in southern New Jersey. It had over 90,000 miles but still purred like a contented cat. Which reminded me, I had offered to feed my neighbor's kitten, Sammy, while she was visiting her daughter in Ohio. Though I'd fed her this morning, I should probably stop in and check on her just in case —
"Hi," said a voice behind me.
I jumped, dropped my keys, and my heart thudded in my chest. I whipped around.
"Didn't mean to scare you." Bill Thompson leaned down to retrieve the key ring, forcing his shoulder muscles to tighten across the back of his uniform shirt. You'd think I'd be used to his former-football-player physique by now. But no, those rippling muscles did a number on my pulse. He placed the keys in my palm, his fingers brushing my hand.
"What's Etonville's police chief doing on the street so late? Chasing bad guys?"
Bill's quirky grin turned up the corner of the left side of his mouth. "More like chasing paperwork."
"Been there, done that tonight."
He rubbed his eyes. "I've been chained to my desk for the past three hours, so I decided to stretch my legs."
The glow of the street lamp lit up his sandy-colored brush cut, blonder now as a result of the summer sun. The police department was a fifteen-minute walk down Amber Street and up Main to the Windjammer. A little more than a stretch. "You had a busy August."
He scraped the toe of one shoe back and forth like an embarrassed kid. "Yeah. My two-week vacation —"
"To see family in Vermont, right?"
He stared at me, his face a question mark.
"No privacy in Etonville," he said.
I laughed. "I guess not."
"Then there was our conference. The Association of —"
"— Chiefs of Police. Right. Also Snippets."
He shook his head. "And you were?"
"Down the shore for a week. Feeding fries to the seagulls, getting buried in the sand ..."
He grinned. "Sounds like illegal activity to me."
"It was nice to see the boardwalk rebuilt after Hurricane Sandy."
He turned serious. "I can imagine."
We let the silence settle between us for a moment. I could sense, rather than see, his laser-like blue eyes on me. "Guess I'll head home. Knowing you're on duty makes me feel a lot safer," I said dramatically. "Anyway, you must be getting cold."
"Nah. I used to play in Buffalo with bare arms in zero degrees."
"The Bills, right," I said.
"Speaking of which. Did you talk with Henry about our picnic?"
Bill had agreed to coach Etonville's Youth Football team for the nine- to eleven-year-old crowd. Saturday after next he planned to treat the kids to Henry's cheeseburgers and fries after the game, win or lose.
Between the food festival this weekend and the football picnic the following weekend, the Windjammer was going to be busy the next couple of weeks. Henry was lukewarm about both events — he was more a stay-home-and-cook kind of chef — but I had convinced him that catering to the town was way more Etonville-friendly than a four-star review in the Standard. Honey agreed, mainly because she could practice packaging skills with cardboard, Saran wrap, and Styrofoam. "No problem. We'll have the food on the field by the fourth quarter."
"If the kids make it that long. Last Saturday we were losing thirty-five to nothing after three quarters, and the official called the game." He shook his head. "The NFL was nothing like this."
I unlocked my door and eased behind the steering wheel. "I'll write up the invoice for the burgers."
I nodded and put my Metro in reverse. Bill's figure on the sidewalk grew smaller as I cruised down Main Street. I mused over our relationship ...
Relationship? Is that what we have? I wondered. I coasted past the Etonville Little Theatre, dark at this hour, and Coffee Heaven, an old-fashioned breakfast diner with a handful of red booths, a soda fountain, and a few modern coffee items on the menu. Caramel macchiato was my obsession.
Excerpted from Time Out by Suzanne Trauth. Copyright © 2017 Suzanne Trauth. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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