The Scottish Play
-- Written by Anne
This is sort of a “prequel” to the episode “Stage Struck” (third season, #53). I’ve chosen to set the Appleton Theater on the campus of Bowdoin College, and by extension made that fine institution of higher education Jessica’s alma mater, even though this flies in the face of a number of references made to Jessica’s college days in the show. But I like Bowdoin and I’m familiar with it, so I thought, hey, why not?
Now for the fine print: this is an original work of fiction; none of the characters bear any resemblance to persons living or dead, we’ve all been seen this disclaimer before …
Thanks for reading!
The dagger, sharp and bright, hung suspended in mid-air in front of the young man, its blade flashing with reflected candle light.
“Is this a dagger which I see before me, the handle toward my hand?” Macbeth said in astonishment. “Come, let me clutch thee …”
He reached for the dagger hilt, but it danced beyond his grasp.
“I have thee not, yet I see thee still. Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible to feeling as to sight? Or art thou but a dagger of the mind, a false creation …”
“CUT!” a voice shouted. “That’s all for this evening, everyone. It’s getting late. I want to have you all back here and ready to start with Act 3, Scene 1 tomorrow morning at eight-thirty sharp.”
The young man playing the role of Macbeth relaxed,
the stage crew came onstage to rearrange the sets and props for the next day’s
rehearsal, and the dagger was reeled up and out of the way by a crew member
standing high above the stage on the catwalk.
Everyone came back to the present, the Appleton Theater on the campus of
“That was good, Frank,” Professor Robert Ugerman, the play’s director, told his young Macbeth understudy. “Obviously, you’ve been watching Ryan Pike from the wings.”
“Well,” said Frank, “Mr. Pike’s portrayal of Macbeth is inspiring.”
“And an understudy never knows when they might get
the call to step into a lead role, eh?” said Ugerman,
laughing. “Well, keep it up. You’re learning a lot.” He collected his scripts, then approached
Maggie Tarrow and Julian Lord, two of the actors up
Frank, a rising senior at
Frank went back to the locker room to change into street clothes, then, in no particular hurry to leave, wandered backstage and paused to watch the members of the stage crew going about their business. One of them caught his eye, a golden-haired young woman with blue eyes who was painting a flat. Frank smiled; this girl, who he vaguely remembered as the quiet one with the sweet smile, was no artist, a fact made obvious by the mess she was making of the flat. On sudden impulse, he approached her.
“That’s about the worst paint job I’ve ever seen.”
The girl dropped her brush into a can of paint. “It’s so frustrating!” she said, brushing a strand of hair out of her face and leaving a smear of paint across her cheek. “I can’t get the perspective right.”
“What’s you name again?” Frank asked her.
“Jessica,” she replied shyly.
“Mine’s Frank. Frank Fletcher,” he said. “Here, let me show you. Put the paint brush in your hand, and I’ll guide it.”
Gently, he took her hand in his and moved it across the canvas. He looked at her, and for a moment was captivated by her eyes, fixed on the brush with stubborn determination and sparkling with intelligence. Beautiful eyes. How could he have not taken any notice of her before? But then the spell was broken.
“Jessica! Jessica, come on! We’re going to be late.”
Frank turned and saw the three Bowdoin
students who played the witches in the play, Justine, Marilyn, and
“Be right there!” Jessica called. She extricated her hand from Frank’s and gave him an apologetic smile. “Got to go,” she said, and was gone.
Frank stood in front of the unfinished flat for some moments, then shook himself out of his reverie and turned to leave. As he did a flash of gold caught his eye, and looking down he saw a bracelet, just a simple circle of gold chain, set neatly on the lid of one of the prop trunks. It had to be Jessica’s; she must have taken it off and set it there when she had started her painting project. Frank picked it up and considered it. It was too late to return it to her now, so he returned to his locker and placed it inside on a shelf for safekeeping.
The four Bowdoin women were just about the last ones through the door before the college cafeteria closed for the evening. Throughout the dinner Jessica was particularly quiet and pensive, pushing carrots around with her fork and staring off into the distance.
Marilyn pushed her tray away and tried to catch her friend’s attention. “Jess?” No response; she tried again, this time waving her hand in front of Jessica’s face to restore her to the present. “Jess! Hey, wake up!”
Jessica came to abruptly. “What?”
Justine laughed. “You were a million miles away just now!”
“Was I? Sorry.”
“She’s thinking about the handsome gentleman from Colby with the brown eyes, Frank Fletcher,” Marilyn said teasingly.
Jessica coloured slightly. “I was not!” she protested.
“Well, if you weren’t, you should have been,” Justine said matter-of-factly. “He’s head over heels for you, I think.” Marilyn and Frances agreed.
Jessica was about to stammer something in her own defense, but was saved by a diversion from across the dining hall. Harrison Pelham, a drama critic from a small trade publication, was sitting by himself at a corner table, but looked up now as Ryan Pike, Macbeth’s lead actor, approached him with a newspaper held threateningly in his hand.
“Pelham!” Pike shouted, loud enough to get the attention of everyone in the room. “What the hell is this about?” He threw the newspaper down in front of the critic, who calmly picked it up and scanned the indicated article.
“It’s my column for this week,” he answered. “A review of how Macbeth seems to be shaping up in rehearsals.”
“Yeah? Well where do you come off calling me wooden and boring?” Pike demanded. “I haven’t seen you sit in on a single rehearsal yet!”
“Perhaps you were too preoccupied with your own grandstanding performance to notice.”
“That’s enough,” Pike growled. “I know we’ve had our differences in the past, but this is personal! This is libel!”
“Fine,” Harrison Pelham said, his own anger beginning to rise to the surface. “If that’s the way you feel about it, why don’t you sue me?”
“I just might!” Pike snatched the newspaper back, and stalked out of the cafeteria. Pelham, feeling the pressure of the deafening silence of the room, got up after a moment and followed suit.
Frank returned to the locker room at the end of the next day’s rehearsals feeling he had gotten nowhere: Jessica was proving to be elusive, and he almost wondered if she was trying to avoid him. If she was, she was succeeding. The bracelet was waiting for him in his locker, but he left it where it was. He took his jacket out, shut the metal door, and shrugged it on, but when he reached into his pocket for his keys, he found a folded slip of paper. He took it out, opened it, and read: “Meet me on stage tonight at ten-thirty; there is some information I need to give to you.” At the bottom it was signed, “Ryan Pike.”
Frank refolded the note and slipped it back into his pocket. He didn’t know what to make of this invitation – why hadn’t Pike simply said something to him at the end of rehearsal? But the actor had seemed preoccupied all day; maybe he had forgotten and left the note later. There were a hundred reasonable explanations for why he might have left the note, none of which dispelled his nagging sense that something was not quite right … but in the end, curiosity overruled premonition, and he returned to the theater at the appointed time.
The back door was unlocked, but inside the theater was silent and dark. It seemed to Frank that his footsteps were echoing with unnatural loudness as he made his way through the corridors to the stage. This, too, was pitch black.
“Light,” he muttered to himself. “There has to be a light around her somewhere.”
Finally in the wings he found a promising switch, and flicked it on. A single spotlight came to life, illuminating the body lying in the center of the stage.
Frank took a reluctant step forward, then another and another, until he stood at the edge of the circle of light looking down at the body of Ryan Pike. He was dead, the dagger from the prop room sticking out of his chest, a pool of crimson seeping down toward the footlights.
The medical examiner replaced the sheet and stood up.
“No doubt about it,” he said to Lieutenant Barry, the officer in charge of the investigation. “The stab wound was the cause of death. Couldn’t have happened much more than an hour ago.”
“Mmm,” Barry said. “That’s about half an hour after we got the call from the guy who found him. That’s him over there – Frank Fletcher.”
“He looks pretty shook up,” the doctor observed.
“Hey, can you blame him?” Barry knelt down next to the body, and lifted the sheet himself to take another look. “Anything else we ought to know about before we let the rescue squad boys take him away?”
“Just one thing – he’s holding something in his left hand. Looks like a button.”
The lieutenant took a plastic bag and a pair of tweezers from his pocket, and carefully removed the object in question. “It’s more than just a button, Doctor,” he said as he placed it carefully in the bag and sealed it. “It’s the murderer’s calling card.”
Lieutenant Barry frowned over his notebook. “So what you’re telling me, Mr. Fletcher, is that you have absolutely no idea how the victim came to be holding your button in his hand when he died.”
“That’s right, sir,” Frank said.
“And the note you found in your locker – you’re sure that it came from Pike?”
“Well, I assumed that it did,” Frank said, “because it was signed with his name. But I suppose someone else could have written it.”
“And how would they have gotten it into your locker?” Barry asked.
“I don’t know,” said Frank.
The Lieutenant sighed, closed his notebook, and rubbed his temples in an effort to drive away a minor headache. “I guess that will be all for now, Mr. Fletcher,” he said. “But do me a favor – keep yourself available.”
Frank left the Appleton Theater’s lobby, where the interview with the lieutenant had taken place, and walked along the path feeling discouraged and downcast. He was so lost in his own melancholy thoughts that he didn’t notice Jessica walking beside him until she touched his arm.
“Frank,” she said. “What’s the matter? You look upset.”
“The police found a button off my jacket in Ryan Pike’s hand,” he told her. “I didn’t even know it was missing until they showed it to me. Now I guess I’m their prime suspect.”
“But that’s ridiculous! Why would you want to kill Mr. Pike?”
“I don’t know – maybe they think I was going after his part, since I was his understudy. None of it makes much sense.”
“No, it doesn’t,” Jessica agreed. They walked together in silence for a while, then she said, “Look, maybe I can help. When you work backstage, you hear things, and you can learn stuff because no one pays much attention you. Maybe I can find out something to get you off the hook with the police.”
They reached a crossroads and stopped. Jessica took Frank’s hand. “Hey,” she said. “Don’t give up hope. I know you didn’t kill anyone.”
Frank smiled for the first time. “Thanks,” he said, and gave her hand a squeeze.
They went their separate ways, and as Jessica headed back
toward her dorm,
“Don’t start,” Jessica warned her. “I only told him I’d keep my eyes and ears open backstage.”
“You’re doing this because you like him,”
“I am not,” Jessica retorted. “Liking has nothing to do with it. I just don’t think he’s guilty, that’s all.”
The next morning Jessica came upon Russell Faulkner outside the back door of the theater, sitting on the low concrete wall surrounding the rear courtyard, reading his script. He glanced up as she approached him and said, “Hi. Um, nice background you painted.”
Jessica hoisted herself up on the wall a few yards away from him. “Thanks,” she said. “I had some help. Studying lines?”
“Yeah,” he replied absently. “Act four, scene two. Not that I expect to ever perform them, but an understudy never knows, right?”
Jessica watched him in silence for a few minutes, then said, seemingly out of nowhere, “How long ago were you
Faulkner looked up, startled. “What makes you think I was ever at
“Your sweatshirt. You wear it every day. It’s very faded with washing, but you can still read the name of the school on it, just barely.”
Faulkner laughed quietly and shut his script book. “You don’t miss a thing, do you?” he
said. “Yeah, I was at
“So you must have known Ryan Pike.”
“I knew him, all right,” Faulkner said bitterly. “I was in his junior drama class, the spring of my third year. We had … differences in interpretation.”
“He flunked you?”
Faulkner smiled wryly. “That’s another way of putting it. I needed that class to fulfill my major, and I tried to tell him so, even appealed to the deans … but there’s no talking to the man. I took a year off, took some understudy parts, to get back on track. Needless to say, I don’t have many kind thoughts for Mr. Pike, and I wasn’t happy to find him working on the same production here as I was. It promised to be a long summer.”
“What were you doing at the theater the night Pike was killed?”
The understudy shrugged. “I was taking a walk. I needed to burn off some energy. It’d been a long rehearsal; Pike was on my case all day, and I wanted to walk off my frustration, go somewhere I knew I wouldn’t be disturbed. My feet carried me here. I expected this place to be deserted; that’s why I was so surprised to see Frank come out.”
“And you didn’t see anyone else?” Jessica asked.
Faulkner shook his head. “No one. And in case you’re wondering, no, I didn’t come here to kill Pike, I never saw him. I came here because I wanted to be alone, not to commit murder.”
“Yes, I knew that Russell Faulkner had been Ryan’s student, and failed his class,” Professor Ugerman said when Jessica caught up with him backstage a little while later. “As far as I was concerned, it didn’t matter, so long as they acted like professionals on stage. In fact, I was the one who invited Faulkner here to the theater festival.”
“But there was bound to be friction,” Jessica said. “Was it really worth the risk of disruptive rehearsals just to have them both in play?”
They paused before the prop room, where Ugerman paused and flipped through the keys on a keyring until he found the one he was looking for. “You didn’t know Ryan the way I did,” he said
as he unlocked the door and flipped on the light. “I’ve worked with him, and he has never let
personality get in the way of performance.
As for Russell Faulkner, his record at
“Are you particularly bothered by Mr. Pelham’s reviews of the play?” Jessica asked.
Ugerman shrugged as he sifted through a pile of prop weaponry. “Critics are critics,” he said. “They thrive on being negative. It doesn’t bother me; they’re just doing their job. Ryan felt differently, I know – I heard about their argument in the cafeteria. But as for me, well, Pelham can write what he likes. Even without Ryan, I still have the talent to pack this house on opening night.”
“Well, if Frank can get out from under this shadow of suspicion, I’m sure he will do well as Macbeth.”
“Yes, I think highly of Frank, he shows great promise in the title role.” The theater professor smiled at her. “And I know Frank thinks very highly of you. Why else would he be keeping your bracelet in his locker?”
Jessica was taken aback. “He … what?”
“The night of Ryan’s murder, I was with Maggie and Julian, rehearsing their lines with them,” Ugerman told her. “They told me about the bracelet. I knew that they had a blossoming backstage romance going on, but I must confess I had no idea that you and Frank did as well!”
“Funny,” said Jessica coldly. “Neither did I.”
“Writing another scathing review of the play, Mr. Pelham?”
Harrison Pelham looked up from his seat in the back of the dim auditorium. “It’s my guess,” he said to Jessica, who stood in the aisle, “that you are an English major. Not many young people these days know how to use the word ‘scathing’ in proper context. Tell me, English major: why is Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Macbeth usually referred to by actors as ‘The Scottish Play?’”
“Because superstition holds that the play bears a curse,” Jessica replied. “To mention it by name is to bring bad luck to the production.”
“Excellent,” Pelham said. “You came here with a question, I assume.”
Jessica smiled faintly. “I was wondering,” she said, “how long you’ve known Ryan Pike.”
The drama critic set aside his yellow pad and pencil. “What makes you think I know him at all? Beyond the venue of the theater festival, that is.”
“That encounter you had with him in the cafeteria,” she said. “The argument seemed to be more personal than professional.”
Pelham looked at her in silence for a moment, then said, “You’re right.
I did know Ryan Pike – and Robert Ugerman –
from before, from
“I was extremely bitter about that – and still am, really
- and to this day it is my belief that it was Ryan Pike who planted the papers
that cost me that job, not to mention my chances for getting any good parts in
“Since then, Ugerman has moved on to his present college position her at Bowdoin – I hear he is up for tenure this year - while Pike, as you know, has inherited the Manhattan U. job. I have remained a lowly critic. Some might see that as a pretty good motive for murder, and I suppose it is - were it not for my unshakable alibi.”
“And that is …?”
“I was at that all night diner on the south side of town, writing my next review. Don’t ask me why, but I always seem to think better with background noise. Anyhow, I was there from eight-thirty until well after midnight – the night shift waitress can confirm it.”
“Unfortunately,” Jessica later reported to Frank as they walked through one of the campus quads, “the night shift waitress did confirm he was there – she remembered him well, because he left her a very small tip for several hours of refilling his coffee.”
“Great,” sighed Frank. “Where does that leave us?”
“About where we started,” she told him. “But there’s one other little mystery I think you can clear up, Frank – is there a reason why you’ve been keeping my bracelet in your locker for the past three days?”
Frank groaned. “So you found out about that. Look –“ he pulled her to a bench, and they sat down – “I’ll tell you the truth about that. I found it and put it in my locker for safekeeping. I didn’t tell anyone about it because I … I really like you, Jessica. I was hoping to return it sometime when we could talk, so I could get to know you better. But then this whole thing blew up … I forgot all about it.”
Jessica stared at Frank in stunned silence. “You … didn’t … tell … anyone …”
“No! I swear, Jess, I was going to give it back to you the first chance I got! Jessica? What’s the matter?”
When he entered the Appleton Theater’s main stage Professor Robert Ugerman was surprised to find Jessica there waiting for him.
“What are you doing here?” he demanded.
“I could ask you the same thing.”
“I found a message slipped under my door from Lieutenant Barry, stating that Ryan Pike’s murderer would be revealed on stage at this hour,” Ugerman said.
“That’s true,” said Jessica. “Except that Lieutenant Barry didn’t send you that message, I did.”
“And why would you pull a stunt like that, Miss Macgill?”
“Because,” said Jessica calmly, “you killed Ryan Pike, and tried to frame Frank for the murder.”
Ugerman burst out laughing. “Preposterous!” he said. “You’ve been reading too many poorly-scripted plays. What possible reason would I have for killing my old friend and colleague?”
“Because he was blackmailing you, over what the two of you did to ruin Harrison Pelham’s acting career,” Jessica said. “Professor, you told me that the night Mr. Pike was killed, you were meeting with Maggie Tarrow and Julian Lord, to rehearse their lines. I spoke to Maggie a little while ago: she was with Julian, all right, but she was emphatic that you were not with them.”
“So?” the director said. “I wasn’t with them all evening. That proves nothing. You’ll need to do better than that.”
“I can do better,” Jessica said. “This morning, I saw you open the prop room door with your key; and it occurred to me that it might have been a master key.”
“And what if it was? I’m a member of the theater studies faculty, plus I’m in charge of the summer theater festival. Why shouldn’t I have a master key for the Appleton Theater?”
“Only someone with a master key could get into Frank’s locker to plant the note supposedly sent by Ryan Pike, and take a button from his jacket to place on the body,” Jessica pointed out. “And I know you opened his locker, because how else could you know that my bracelet was there? Frank didn’t tell anyone he had it.”
Ugerman chuckled softly. “Very clever!” he said, pulling a gun from his jacket pocket. “I had a feeling there was more to that note under the door than met the eye. If someone writes a stage version of the Nancy Drew books, you should consider auditioning for the title role.”
Jessica backed slowly away from Ugerman, eyeing the gun warily, until she felt the cool cement wall at the back of the stage with her hand. Trying not to let him notice what she was doing, she felt around the wall behind her until her hand touched one of the ropes running up to the catwalk and rafters high above the stage, its loose end firmly secured to a cleat.
“Pike was going to get me fired,” Ugerman
was saying. “He wanted money in exchange
for silence – I guess he decided his
“But surely you told him this …?” Jessica managed to release the first loops of rope from the cleat with one hand behind her back, and began to work at the knot.
“Oh, I told him, all right, but he didn’t accept my plea of inadequate funds. Instead, he made several interesting suggestions for how I could raise the capital. Needless to say I wasn’t in a mood to hear them; the dagger prop was at hand, and I stabbed him. Anticlimactic, but there it is. It was not a particularly theatrical death, either – I expected a much better final performance from him.”
“But why did you frame Frank?” Jessica asked in bewilderment. “What did he have to do with any of this?” The knot holding the rope fast to its anchoring cleat was tight, but she had managed to pry it loose ever so slightly.
“He was perfect for the role,” Ugerman said lightly. “Straight out of Macbeth: the ambitious underling seeks his way to the throne through murder. As Pike’s understudy, he was an obvious suspect. I took the button from the jacket hanging in his locker – as you well know, I have a master key to everything in this theater – and planted it in Pike’s hand to seal the connection. A nice touch, don’t you think?”
“Not really,” said Jessica.
“I’m sorry you don’t appreciate the subtle subtext. I believe it would have thoroughly convinced the police and secured the case against young Mr. Fletcher, had you not left your place behind the scenes to take center stage in the investigation. I will need to do a complete revision now, starting with writing your character out of the script.”
He raised the gun and cocked the hammer, but at that moment Jessica succeeded in undoing the knot, and the rope, suddenly released from its cleat, whipped straight up in the air to the rafters, as the rack of stage lights it had supported came plummeting down. The lights hit the stage between them with a deafening crash, and Ugerman involuntarily put his hands to his ears and turned away to avoid the flying splinters of glass. When he recovered and looked back, Jessica was gone.
It was not as much of a head start as she would have liked, but it was better than nothing. Jessica took full advantage of it, but Ugerman was more familiar with the layout of the maze of backstage corridors than she was, and he was gaining on her. At last she found an exit, and threw herself against the door … only to find it locked.
“I took the liberty of locking that door behind me when I came in,” Ugerman said as she caught her breath. “It seemed the prudent thing to do, with a murderer on the loose.”
He grabbed her by the arm and propelled her forward, back the way they had come, until they reached backstage and the ladder leading up to the catwalk. “That little trick with the stage lights,” he said, “has cost this school about two thousand dollars in equipment damage, but it has also given me an idea for how I can conveniently get rid of you. Start climbing.”
Jessica looked up at the black metal ladder, then down the barrel of the gun, and realized she didn’t have much choice in the matter. As she climbed up the rungs she asked through clenched teeth, “Do you mind telling me why you’re making me do this?”
“It’s simple, really,” Ugerman said, climbing behind her. “We’re going to make this look like an accident. You were up on the catwalk, messing with the lights, when something came loose and the lights started to fall. Instinctively you reached over the rail to grab at them.”
“And lost my balance and fell to my death,” Jessica finished for him. “Isn’t that awfully cliché?”
“Perhaps, but it does tie up the plot rather nicely, which is the hallmark of every good dramatic production. The police hate loose ends as much as audiences do.”
They had reached the top. Jessica stepped out on to the narrow catwalk, Ugerman a few paces behind her, and looked down forty feet to the stage below.
“Please don’t say anything melodramatic, like ‘You’ll never get away with it,’” he said as he took a step toward her. “It always spoils the ending.”
Just then the doors of the auditorium burst open, letting in bright shafts of sunlight as campus security officers and policemen stormed the theater. More came from the wings of the stage, while still others swarmed up the ladder to the catwalk. Ugerman was completely surrounded; there was no place to go. With a wry smile he set the gun down at his feet and raised his hands in surrender.
“Good triumphs over evil yet again,” he said. “The Bard himself could have done no better.”
Frank Fletcher was waiting at the foot of the ladder when Jessica climbed down, and caught her in an embrace the moment her feet touched the floor. There’s nothing like a dangerously close call to obliterate one’s emotional barriers, and so when Frank kissed her, Jessica kissed him right back.
And the rest, as they say, is history. A happy ending, wouldn’t you say?