-- Written by Laura Del Borgo
Mort turned aside suddenly, his face contorted with a mixture of dismay and embarrassment. But still, he had to say what he must; there was nothing left to do.
"Line!" he bellowed into the semi-darkness of the auditorium.
At once, as if from a broken spell, the house lights clicked on with a loud hum. Mort and Seth blinked in the sudden brightness as a woman silhouetted against the lights strode purposefully toward the stage.
"Mort, I appreciate that you have many responsibilities protecting the inhabitants of our Village Beautiful, but if do not learn your lines, we shall never finish this play and my promising directorial debut will be for naught!"
"Can't have that, now can we, Eve?" muttered Seth under his breath. Too late he realized his mistake and Evelyn Simpson wheeled on him in all her fury.
"And you!" Eve voice took on a fevered pitch. "Please Seth! Try to remember to call Jessica by her character's name? It's the romantic climax of the second act, and to have Dr. Sethward Kentsfield whispering another woman's name into the ear of the heroine...!" Eve broke off her tirade at the sound of embarrassed giggling from the teenaged stagehands. She flushed at the temples, and announced to the room. "Be back here in five, everyone, and we'll take it from the top of Act II, Sethward and Veronica in Veronica's bedroom!"
Across the stage, in the set designed to be Veronica's bedroom, Jessica sat up and ran her hands through her tousled hair with a reproachful look.
"You know, you really do need to remember to call me Veronica in that scene, Seth," she said teasingly, "People might get the wrong idea, and you know how tongues do wag in Cabot Cove!"
Jessica, having cast her bait, waited for one of Seth Hazlitt's famous explosions. In all her travels, Jessica had never before encountered the ability to shout and whisper at the same time. She was not to be disappointed. Seth reddened up to his eyebrows, which were even now drawing into a frightful scowl.
"Dammit, Jessica," he barked hoarsely, mindful of the impressionable stage hands nearby, "I'm a doctor, not an actor!" Seth paused in confusion, not certain that he hadn't heard that line before, but couldn't quite remember where. The storm past, he took Jessica's arm to help her off of the rickety cot disguised as Veronica's bed. "Let's take our five minutes and disappear before Eve ‘Cecil B.’ Simpson decides to come back and make me do that scene again!"
Jessica laughed and suggested a cup of coffee from the carafe in the hall.
As they were walking out of the auditorium, they encountered the Sheriff, morosely addressing a potted plant near the hall's entrance.
"Well, Doc," he informed the plant, and then paused for a dramatic sigh, "We won't really be sure of that until tomorrow's autopsy." He finished the line seemingly in great angst, eyes closed and gently pounding his forehead with his fist, punctuating it all with a shuddering sob.
After a pause, he recovered himself, assumed a swaggering posture, and began to drawl at the hapless plant.
"Well, now, Doc," he shifted his weight and eyed the plant with cool suspicion reminiscent of John Wayne. "We won't really be sure of that until tomorrow's autopsy."
Then Mort grabbed the stem of the plant, his snarling face inches away from its trembling leaves. He delivered his line with a nasally hiss, giving the bewildered plant an occasional menacing shake to make sure it was listening. If plants could cringe, this one would be making mewling noises and curling up into a leafy ball. Before he could accost the plant again, Seth and Jessica burst onto his scene.
"Have you advised that rubber tree of its rights?" Seth asked sarcastically.
Startled, Mort released the plant, and it wobbled back and forth on its stem with relief. Before Mort could fire off his rude reply, Jessica broke in to smooth things over.
"I thought it was quite good, Mort. Really. Delivered with much... feeling." She poured coffee into three cups and handed them around.
"Well, at least I'm practicing," he announced huffily. Seth studiously ignored the jab. Instead he turned to Jessica.
"Whatever possessed you to let Eve Simpson turn your novel into a play?" he demanded.
Jessica smiled weakly. "She just seemed so excited about it, but I confess I never thought she'd get so carried away with it!"
A group of the stagehands hurried by. "Great job up there, Mrs. F!" one of them called out as she passed.
"You do seem to be taking to this rather easily," Seth grumbled. "It's an unfair advantage. It's all genetic."
Jessica acknowledged the compliment. "It is rather nice, being able to show Emma that she isn't the only MacGill who can walk the boards!"
"Fine for you," Seth retorted. "Some of us were pressed into service simply because we can pronounce 'cartilaginous'."
The trio silently pondered the capriciousness of Fate that had delivered Seth Hazlitt into the role of a romantic lead.
Mort was the first to break the silence. "So, Mrs. F, how about letting us in on how the story turns out? Ms. Simpson hasn't delivered the last part of the scripts to us yet. Who’s the murderer?”
Jessica settled back into a chair. Telling stories was what she did best, and she enjoyed seeing her friends puzzled over the crime she had concocted.
“Well, Sheriff,” she began, “the next scene in Act II takes place in Sethward’s office….”
“What kind of name is ‘Sethward’ anyway?” Seth interrupted grumpily, “It sounds like a character out of Gilbert and Sullivan.”
“’Heathcliff’ isn’t much better and look what it did for Emily Bronte,” Jessica countered. “Now quit fussing, Seth, and listen. Your character gets to be quite the hero in the third act. As I was saying, the Sheriff and the handsome doctor are discussing the results of the autopsy. Kentsfield reveals that although shots may have been fired” - Jessica paused for effect - “Selka did not die of a gunshot wound. Traces of cocaine were found in Selka’s blood, leading our sheriff to conclude that among Selka’s other failings, she was also an addict. Her habit led her to embezzle from the school, and when she came under suspicion by the auditor, she became depressed and consequently took more and more cocaine: suicide.”
“Seems fairly obvious to me,” said Mort. “What isn’t obvious, Mrs. F., is why you always make law enforcement look like a bunch of bumbling idiots.”
“Oh, I’m sorry Mort,” Jessica said comfortingly, “But it’s an occupational hazard, I’m afraid. The literary amateur detective simply cannot shine if the authorities are on top of everything as they usually are.”
Somewhat mollified by this, Mort gestured for her to go on with the story.
"You're right, though, Mort. The answer is simple." She cocked her head toward her audience, which had now swelled to include several of the teenagers. "Deceptively simple. That's what the murderer wanted everyone to think. But don't forget what happened on the bridge."
"The gunshot!” piped up the stagehand in charge of firing the blanks from the prop gun.
"That's right!" Jessica replied. “Although Veronica was too distracted by the amorous attentions of the dashing Dr. Kentfield to remember it during the bedroom scene, she'll recall it at the end of Act II, and our sleuth will be hot on the murderer's trail again."
"Act III opens in Selka's house, which has been ransacked in a most peculiar manner: only the kitchen appeared to have been searched." Jessica sat up, and reflected aloud: "That's very odd. Normally a thief would rifle through a desk or file cabinet, or search the bedroom for jewelry and money, but kitchen doesn't usually interest the average catburgler. This had to do something with the murder!"
"Let me guess, Veronica follows her nose and locates the missing steamship rounds, right?" Mort asked, still smarting at the ingenuous part he had to play.
"Not her nose, Mort, someone else's. Veronica and Dr. Kentsfield are having a romantic interlude, exercising the doctor's prize bull terriers, Falstaff and Pistol, along the waterfront. Suddenly, Pistol breaks his lead and runs for one of the trash bins on the wharf. Inside, Sethward and Veronica find a plastic bag, filled with none other than the missing steamship rounds. Careful examination reveals that each one has been carefully hollowed out and split down the middle.”
"The plot thickens," remarked Seth dryly. "Are we to assume that this sheds a new light on the dear departed Selka?"
"Remember that Selka told Veronica that she had hidden proof that she was innocent of embezzlement?" Jessica asked. "Veronica uses her charms to convince Sethward to go back to Selka's house and search for that proof. Sethward stops in the search to feed Selka's orphaned fish. A consummate animal lover, he discovers a plastic bag buried under the gravel. Inside was a steamship round!"
"Hiding meat in a fish tank? Now that is just disgusting, Mrs. F.!" Mort said screwing up his face with distaste.
"The bag was sealed, Mort. And so was the round. Sethward slices it open, and finds an ounce of cocaine hidden inside." Jessica hesitated, adding for Mort's benefit, "Also sealed in plastic."
"Ah-ha! So someone was smuggling drugs in with the school's lunch program," Seth noted.
"Not just anyone, Seth," Jess replied. "It could only have been the supervisor of the cafeteria. He was the only one with access to the weekly orders. He didn't expect anyone would notice food that was never intended to be cooked, so he hid the drugs in food to be distributed secretly. When Selka showed up and started asking questions, she brought these unusual purchases to the attention of the state. The supervisor figured that he could solve two problems at once by eliminating Selka and making it look like she was the one responsible for the misused funds. Initially he tried to poison her with his own drug stash, but when he found out that she was going to talk to Veronica, he decided to finish the job with a badly aimed shot. Ironically, if he hadn't panicked and fired that gun at the bridge, Selka might have been labeled an addict and a thief, buried and forgotten."
The break was almost up, so Jessica summed up the end quickly. “Veronica goes to the cafeteria to confront the supervisor, her life is threatened, and the sheriff arrives with Dr. Kentsfield just in time to rescue her and apprehend the criminal.” Jessica shifted uncomfortably in her chair. “The last scene involves Sethward expressing his feelings for Veronica in a particularly candid and direct manner.”
The actors filed back into the auditorium, discussing the murder. Eve Simpson, having regained her composure was seated in her director's chair to the left of the stage. The image of calm leadership, Eve clapped her hands for silence.
"Places, everyone! Places, please!" she chirped. "Sethward, we'll pick up with your line in the kitchen! Ready? Go ahead!"
The lights dimmed, and hush fell over the auditorium. All were poised for the next scene. Seth swallowed hard and delivered his line in a clear voice, albeit just a little too loudly, "Was she really shot? Or are you just protecting Veronica?"
"Well, Doc," Mort stiffened …