Series: Madison Cruz Mystery #5
Release Date: October 6, 2018
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A darkened theatre. A subtle killer. This wasn’t the death scene she had in mind.
A desperate plea from a beloved mentor thrusts Madison into the director’s chair. In over her head, she must fight her own panic to save his life’s dream. But as rehearsals progress, mysterious mishaps pile up. Illness, accidents, and deadly traps mean someone’s trying to shut them down hard. Madison knows the show must go on, but the death scene may not wait for opening night.
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Read an excerpt:
It was supposed to be an easy gig, a simple singing telegram delivered. Laughs and applause, champagne glasses clinking, and a nice tip. But things don’t always go the way they’re supposed to.
Madison had never heard of an enraged recipient murdering a singing telegram, but she supposed there was a first time for everything. To be on the safe side, it seemed wise to remain inside the coat closet for now, and wait for help to arrive. She hung on to the closet doorknob with both hands as the crazed woman on the other side of the door tried to haul it open.
Surely the party guests from the patio heard all the yelling. With any luck, they were heading into the house to intervene.
“Please, lady!” Madison pleaded through the door, “I’m just the messenger!”
A muffled voice came back, full of anger and volume. “You’re one of his bimbos!”
“What? No! I’m just the singing telegram he hired.”
It was dark and cramped inside the closet, but she didn’t dare let go of the doorknob to search for a light switch.
The angry woman rattled the doorknob, pulling on it. “Come out of there and face me!”
Madison held on. “I’ve never even met the jerk! And I hate bimbos,” she added in a panic. “Death to all bimbos!”
The woman huffed, “Well, that’s the first thing you’ve said that makes sense.”
“Does this mean you’ll put the knife down?”
Madison heard someone’s footsteps rushing across the hardwood floors of this beautiful home. Actually, she’d never had the chance to tell the owner how lovely the interior design was. But now might not be a good time to bring it up. After all, when someone wants to kill you, telling them their taste in furnishings is exquisite might make them think you were trying to change the subject.
She heard a woman’s squeaky voice. “Kate? Is there a woman in that closet?”
New footsteps, heavier, meant someone else had arrived on the scene.
A man’s voice. “What’s going on in here?”
The squeaky voice sounded incredulous. “I heard a woman yelling in that closet.”
Furious pounding on the door caused Madison to flinch. The doorknob rattled with renewed vigor.
Madison yelled through the door, “I need help. Please! This is all a big misunderstanding.”
The man’s calm voice entreated, “Kate? Don’t do something you’ll regret. You need to calm down, sis.”
The squeaky voice chimed in. “Whatever she’s done, sweetie, it’s not worth it.”
More footsteps rushing on the hardwood floors. Murmurs from bystanders.
The man tried again. “Kate, has the irony escaped you that you donated fifty grand to a battered women’s shelter?”
“What of it?” came the angry reply.
“Are you now trying to send them a battered woman?”
Kate yelled, “Why is everyone acting like I’m the bad guy? Did you hear what she sang to me?”
“No,” said the man. “But it can’t be worth pulling a knife.”
“What…” Kate’s voice trailed off. “Oh. Geez.” A metallic clank from the floor suggested that Kate had dropped the knife. “Sorry.”
The pressure on the doorknob stopped. Madison heard footsteps on the wood floor, leading away from the closet.
Madison heard Kate say, resigned, “Get the bimbo out of the closet. I promise I won’t hurt her.”
Madison cautiously opened the closet door, her big green eyes peering around the edge. Finger-combing her dark silky hair out of her face, she delicately stepped out from the closet. Across the room Kate, late forties, wearing wavy light brown hair, slumped onto a sumptuous velvet chair.
Kate rolled her eyes. “Sorry about the knife. I forgot I was still holding it when I ran at you.” She stared into her lap. “I was cutting the cake when…” She closed her eyes, rubbing her forehead with her fingertips.
Madison felt relief, but her heart was heavy. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t understand what was really going on here.”
Kate huffed. “Tell everyone what you sang.”
A small crowd of middle-aged and older people stood around the living room holding glasses of wine, bottles of beer, and plates of appetizers. All eyes shifted to Madison. It was an uncomfortable spotlight.
Her shoulders sank. “It was an old boy-band song, called ‘Bye Bye Bye.’”
The small brown-haired woman standing nearby asked, “You sang a breakup song to Kate?” She had the squeaky voice Madison had heard from inside the closet. “At her own engagement party?”
“I didn’t know.” Madison insisted. “The client, I mean, I guess he was her fiancé…said it was a divorce celebration party!”
The room went quiet. The eating stopped. The drinks in their hands were slowly lowered a few inches.
“Now we know why Trent is so late tonight,” said Squeaky Voice. “He’s not coming.”
A large well-dressed man sounded angry now. “I tried to tell you, sis! He has a reputation for using women.”
“I’m so sorry,” said Madison. “I’d never participate in a cruel prank. I didn’t know.”
Dazed, Kate rose from her chair, then crossed the room to a purse on the floor by the couch. She picked it up, dug through it, and found what she sought. She nodded, pressing her lips together. She tossed the whole purse onto the couch, where its contents slopped out as it fell over. “My credit cards. They’re all gone.” She hunched, ever so slightly, as if standing straight were a tax she couldn’t quite pay. Raising her head, she swiveled her gaze to Madison. “I’m sorry about the knife. But I want you out of here. It’s hard to look at you.”
Madison tried to find words. “I’m so sorry.”
“You said that.” Tears flooded Kate’s eyes. “Please, just go.”
Madison nodded. She couldn’t think of anything to alleviate this woman’s pain, except to leave. She returned to the closet where she’d dropped the gig sheet her agent, Phil, had sent her. It listed Kate’s address, with divorce celebration instructions printed on it. She picked it up from the floor, not wanting Kate to find it later like an emotional land mine.
Squeaky Voice said, “I didn’t know Trent was capable of this.”
Kate returned to her chair, numbly staring into the distance. “You think you know someone.”
Madison skipped her normal ritual of leaving a business card, skipped the good-bye, and threaded her way through the crowd of guests. They shifted away, pulling their drinks or plates away from her as she passed.
Once she was through the front door, she closed it softly behind her.
Hurrying down the landscaped walkway, she passed the lovely archway of neatly trimmed ivy, to her car at the curb. She was eager to get in, and disappear.
She felt like a dog with a sign of shame around her neck.
The traffic signal turned angry red. She waited, but the seconds felt like hours. She grabbed an empty fast food bag from the passenger seat, wadded it into a hard little ball, and threw it at her windshield. It bounced to the floor, landing on the gig sheet from Kate’s house.
Being assigned to a divorce party now and then was not unusual. The party hosts were usually someone relieved to finally escape a bad relationship. Madison showed up at these celebrations dressed in pretty partywear, smiling gaily, and she would sing the requested song, which was often a witty selection. The attendees laughed, joked, and cheered for the newly single person.
At least, that’s how it usually went.
The traffic signal turned green. Madison released a pent-up breath, punching the accelerator. The cheapest grocery store in town was just ahead. She’d planned to pick up a few groceries on the way home, but now she had no tip money. She’d have to carefully stretch what little money she had, and only buy a few things. Singing telegram delivery was supposed to be a side hustle, not her main source of income. She decided to stop doing small jobs, and hold out for the big ones. If she was going to work a miserable job, a bigger paycheck might as well come with it.
Just as she pulled into a parking spot at the grocery store, her cell phone came alive, playing “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Her agent, Phil, was calling. She shut off the car, then grabbed her phone.
“Phil! Just the person I want to talk to. Please tell me this is an audition call.”
“Sorry doll, no auditions yet,” said Phil, his Boston street accent sounding suspiciously upbeat. “But I got a few things to pay a few bucks.”
She rubbed her hand down her face. “What is it?”
“First, I want you to be open-minded.”
“Oh, no,” she moaned. “Whenever you start with being open-minded—”
“I can give you a gig handing out perfume samples.”
“A gig? You’re going to justify that by calling it a gig?”
“Did I not just ask you to be open-minded?”
“You’re a talent agent. What kind of talent does it take to hand out perfume samples?”
“You stand there looking pretty, and you smile when you don’t feel like it. That takes talent.”
She blinked. “Did I just fall from your top call list? Did you sign new actors that you’re giving all the good stuff?”
“Minty, you’re one of the best talents I got in the stable. But times are hard and we gotta make some dough any way we can. Work with me. Perfume samples.”
His nicknames for her, Chocolate Mint, or Minty, referred to her light green eyes surrounded with black lashes. It was usually a sign of affection, but on occasion, he used it to butter her up.
She looked out her driver side window, the phone to her ear. The Seattle weather at this time of year was always tedious. The same grey clouds in the same grey sky. Spring was close enough to be a tease, but not close enough to breathe life, or bring hope. “I’m going to pass.”
“I’d rather go down in a spectacular crash, than quietly go dim.”
Phil went quiet for a moment. She could hear him pushing papers around on his desk while he sighed. “What happened?”
“What do you mean, what happened? Does something have to happen for me to gather up a little dignity and say no to a stupid gig?”
She rolled her eyes. She hated that he was right.
“You’re a fighter and you don’t give up easy. So what happened? Was it the gig? How’d your gig go today?
She closed her eyes and sighed. “Total debacle. You sent me to deliver a prank. A mean one.”
“That don’t make sense. How could it be a prank gig?”
“Because it wasn’t a divorce celebration after all. My song was some guy’s way of breaking up with his fiancée. Her name’s Kate. It was their engagement party, no less.”
“Huh! That’s a new one.”
Her agitation made it impossible to stay in the car any longer. She grabbed her purse and got out of the car, locking it. “Did the client let on that it was a prank?” As she spoke, she walked to the grocery store entrance, feeling a few raindrops on her cheeks.
“I don’t remember. It was booked over a month ago. Hold on while I check.”
“Unbelievable,” she muttered. If the client booked it that long ago, then he had known for a month that he was going to break up with his fiancée at their engagement party. He’d let Kate plan the party, invite the guests… and somehow he’d never let slip what he was really thinking.
Kate should be told about this.
She pulled at a grocery cart with her free hand, setting her purse inside, then entered the store.
Phil came back to the phone. “Little bastard never said a thing. I remember him now. His voice sounded like a fellow Bostonian, I’m ashamed to say. Told some lame joke about women who are inscrutable, but un-screwable.”
Madison shook her head as she pushed her cart down the bread aisle. “That poor woman just got the cruelest breakup. She was humiliated in front of all her friends.” After a longing look at the raisin bread, she made herself put cheap sale bread in the cart, instead.
“This is terrible,” said Phil. “The nerve of that guy! I can’t let him get away with this. Prank gigs cost more.”
“He owes me more money. I’m gonna add extra charges to his card.”
Annoyed at Phil, she tossed items into her cart without checking prices. “Is that all you can think about? Some things are more important than money, you know.”
“It’s my job to think about it. Because what’s been running through your mind this whole conversation?”
“You mean besides your single-minded, money-grubbing, hardened heart?”
“Yeah. Besides that.”
“Well…” Madison blinked. “I keep seeing Kate, and the way her eyes teared up just before I left.”
“Exactly. You’re always thinking about other people and not your own bottom line. Don’t you got bills to pay?”
Agitated, she rushed her cart down another aisle. “Well, sure. But what about Kate?”
“I can help in my own tiny way. There’s a special upcharge when people try to pull a fast one. It’s the punishment fee. It spikes the rate even higher than if they’d just admitted it was going to be a prank gig in the first place. It’s all in the contract.”
“Huh. I forgot about that.”
“Plus, if the prank is especially cruel, there’s the S.O.B. fee.”
“Is that new? You’ve never applied an S.O.B. fee to any of my gigs before.”
“That’s because you’ve never consented to the really mean, we’re talking law-suit, types of pranks. There are fees you don’t usually see because you do the sweet stuff. You should see the fees rack up when Jen does a strip gig.”
“Strip gigs rack up fees?”
“They do when I’m the one booking ’em. There’s the scumbag fee, the goose-bump fee, the zipped-lip fee, the sunburn fee—”
“You’re talking about a world I do not understand. Nor, do I want to.”
“So, trust me. I got fees to make this guy feel pain.”
Once they hung up, she concentrated on the groceries in her cart. What was she thinking? She needed to put some things back. She plucked the Styrofoam cups of ramen noodles from her cart. She was tired of eating so much ramen. It was cheap, sure, but shouldn’t she find something else to add to her diet? How about a can of tuna? That would be better, wouldn’t it? And a jar of pickles would make the tuna better. She peered at the price tag on the shelf for the pickles. Deflating, she put the pickles back just as her cell phone went off again.
Checking her phone’s screen, she didn’t know the number. She braced herself to tell another telemarketer no thank you. “Hello?”
“Madison, you sound so grown up.”
She blinked. She knew that voice. That voice belonged to someone very influential in Madison’s life. It was her old drama teacher from high school. “Mr. Cooperson?”
“Yes! You remembered.”
“Oh my gosh, Mr. Cooperson! How are you?”
“I’m doing great, thank you. And you? I’ve heard your acting has really taken off since you graduated.”
Embarrassed, Madison shot a glance at the scanty provisions in her cart. “Uh, yeah. It’s…hot and cold, you know. Always looking for more work.” She pulled a can of soup out of her cart, searching the shelf for a place she could put it back.
“Excellent. That’s why I called. I just lost my leading lady. I’m hoping you can step in.”
She giggled. “Mr. Cooperson, I’m twenty-four years old, now. I can’t—”
“Sorry, I should explain. I don’t teach anymore. I finally bought my own theatre. I want to hire you.”
“You did?” She found the spot the soup belonged in. “You do?” The soup slipped right into its niche, and she turned back to her cart. Wait a minute. Did she hear him right? “I’m not sure I’m following.”
“I’m the new owner of the Sloane Theatre. Well…not so new anymore. I’ve been trying to make a go of it for six months now. Been a bit rocky.…”
In the back of her mind lived a notion that the old Sloane Theatre wasn’t open anymore. She must have been wrong. “Well, congratulations! Wow…”
“I heard Phil still represents you. I have his number, but I wanted to ask you first.”
“What’s the show?”
“I have a cast rehearsing to perform The Sound of Music. I’ve never forgotten how amazing you were when we did that same show in your senior year. Would you be interested in stepping in to take the role of Maria, again?”
“I’d love to.”
“There’s a catch. We have less than two weeks left before we open. I’ll need you in rehearsal as soon as possible.”
“I still remember those songs. I’m sure I can catch up with the rest of the cast.”
“I won’t sugarcoat it. I’m in a tough spot here. We’ve lost some funding and as a result we lost some key people. It might be a struggle to get to the finish line. But you’re all such a talented bunch, I believe we can pull it off.” He sighed. “We’d better. Or my dream goes up in smoke.”
Madison rinsed red paint out of a paint roller in Grandpa’s sink, set it aside to dry, then moved out of the way. Next in line, her best friend Spenser stepped up to the sink with her own paint roller.
Tossing blond hair behind her shoulder, Spenser leaned back, using great caution to avoid being splashed while she rinsed her red roller. “That’s so cool. I still remember how Mr. Cooperson used to wax poetic about owning his own dumb theatre someday.” She tested the water with her fingers, then held the roller right under the stream.
“Don’t call it dumb,” said Madison, sticking her lower lip out in exaggerated fashion. “It was his dream.”
“Oh, believe me, I loved it when he’d go on and on about it. It meant he was forgetting to give us homework.”
Grandpa walked into the kitchen. “I was grateful you had him for a teacher. He had a good influence on you.” He kissed the top of Madison’s head. At six foot two, he could easily reach it. “Few teachers were able to do that in those days.”
Madison smiled. “Sorry for all the headache I put you through back then.”
“Hey!” said Ann from the living room. “I want in on that. I had a hard time putting up with you, too.”
Madison rolled her eyes, glad her mother couldn’t see. Ann was no picnic herself. They’d both had a hard time putting up with each other back then. “Okay,” she called to Ann. “I’m sorry a million times over.”
Spenser used paper towels to dry off her hands and arms. “Mr. Cooperson was the best teacher we had in that school. Kind of dorky, but sweet. I liked him a lot.”
Madison examined her fingernails for paint. “He had a way of cutting through the excuses, and making you focus on the task at hand.”
Spenser suppressed a laugh. “Remember what he would say when someone gave him lame excuses?”
In unison, they said, “Blah, blah, blah!” and fell into giggles.
“I don’t know how he did it,” said Madison, “but he was always right. He always knew when a sob story was real, and when it was a lame excuse.”
Ann, sporting brown hair in a chin-length cut, entered the kitchen showing Grandpa a wad of sticky tape, bunched into a big ball. “I pulled it from the molding along the wall before the paint dried.”
Grandpa pulled the trash bag out from under the sink. “Put it in there.”
Ann tried to drop the painters’ tape into the trash bag. She had to work the sticky side off of her fingers. “I think we got all of it, Dad. But you should check. Did we miss any spots?”
“I’ll look.” He left the kitchen for the living room and its wet, newly painted walls.
“Where’s Nika?” asked Madison. She was sure her new Russian grandmother would’ve been game to join in on the painting fun at Grandpa’s house.
“She couldn’t make it tonight,” said Ann. “I think she had a date.”
“Of course she did,” said Madison, shaking her head. “When does she not have a date?”
Ann’s brows rose at the thought. “I wish I had as many to choose from as she does.”
Madison’s phone in the living room played “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” She fled the kitchen, grabbing her phone before it went to voicemail.
“Do you like pizza?”
“Of course I like pizza. Why?”
“You could be the spokesperson for Happy’s Party Pizza.”
“A spokesperson?” Her eyes widened. “Wow! TV ads, and stuff?”
“No, not…TV exactly.”
“Well, what then?”
“You’ll, uh, be coaxing people to come into the restaurant and order the best damn pizza they ever—”
“Oh my god, Phil! Costume, right? Out on the sidewalk?”
“Hey, it’s a grand opening. What’s the harm in dressing like a chef?”
“If I hadn’t landed a great gig a few hours ago, I’d be so depressed right now.”
“What great gig?”
“I just got the role of Maria in The Sound of Music.” She smiled, and sang into the phone, “Ta-da!”
“Well…that’s great, Minty.” Phil sounded confused. “Uh, how did you land that without me knowing about it?”
“My old high school drama teacher, Mr. Cooperson. He’s going to call you. He owns the Sloane Theatre now, and lost the actress playing Maria. I’m replacing her.”
“The Sloane Theatre?” Phil went quiet for a moment. “I thought that place was being converted into a warehouse.”
“Mr. Cooperson never mentioned anything like that.”
“He’s a drama teacher?”
“He used to be. I guess he owns a theatre now.”
“Not the same thing. You know that, right? We’re talking a different set of skills.”
Madison put a hand on her hip, disappointed in Phil’s reaction. “What’s the matter? You sound doubtful.”
“Nah, I’m just surprised. Heard that place was for sale and some guy was buying it for his warehouse chain.”
“Not that. I mean about Mr. Cooperson.”
“I don’t know the guy. You do. You think he can pull it off?”
“Why wouldn’t he?”
“Like I said. Different set of skills.”
Madison swallowed hard. “Mr. Cooperson was the only teacher who believed in me, at a time when even I didn’t believe in myself. He was there for me.” She squeezed the phone in her hand.
“Minty, it ain’t personal. This is a business.”
“He’ll pay me like a business. He said he has your number and will call you.”
“Then why hasn’t he?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe because he has a life?” she yelled.
That’s when she realized they were watching her. Ann, Spenser, and Grandpa were in the living room with her, their gazes on Madison. She covered her face with her other hand.
Phil sighed. “I didn’t mean to offend your drama teacher. I don’t earn my cut by merely finding you work. I also earn it by asking hard questions, and looking out for you.”
She took a breath, embarrassed. “I know.” Grudgingly admitting to herself he had a point, she said, “I’m sorry I yelled at you.”
“No problem. You call me if there are any new developments. And congratulations. The Sound of Music is a great show. Good catch.”
As she hung up, her grandfather asked, “What was that about?”
Madison shrugged. “I thought Phil would be happy, but he kept casting doubt on the whole thing.”
Spenser looked annoyed, too. “I’ll bet Phil’s just jealous that Mr. Cooperson offered you something better than what Phil gets for you.”
Madison shook her head. “If I’m honest, that doesn’t sound like Phil. He doesn’t care, so long as he gets a cut. What he seemed worried about was whether Mr. Cooperson can run a theatre.”
She looked up, noticing her mother, Ann, watching. Madison shrugged. “I’m sure it’s nothing.”
Ann had a look of pride as she gazed at Madison. “Well, if there is something, I’m sure you’ll make it work.” Madison loved that look from her mother. It still felt new, and she wasn’t quite used to seeing it, yet.
The cleanup went quickly, while they teased Vincent Cruz about his choice of red paint for the living room. As he shared out beers for everyone, he said he’d chosen red because he wanted to liven the place up. Madison secretly hadn’t liked it. It made her childhood home look off, somehow. But she liked that he was trying new things. He was getting out more, and even at home, seemed more active.
Madison nudged him with her elbow. “I’m actually more surprised that you skipped the game in order to paint.”
Grandpa looked around at the red walls. “Those tickets were too expensive. And these walls really needed freshening.”
“But, red?” asked Ann.
“Well, I have to have a nice place to bring all the pretty ladies, don’t I?”
Ann studied her dad for a moment. “I’ll believe that when I see it.”
He turned to Ann, seeming mildly indignant. “Is it so hard to imagine?”
“For years I tried to get you to go out and meet someone,” said Ann, earnestly. “You wouldn’t do it.”
“I’ve been busy.” He looked away. “There was too much to do.”
“‘Blah, blah, blah,’” said Ann. They all laughed, except Grandpa. “You’ve been busy being retired?”
He fought a smile. “I’ve been busy working up the nerve.”
Phil called Madison one more time to assure her that Mr. Cooperson had indeed made contact, and was on his way over to Phil’s office to sign a contract casting Madison in the show. She was relieved to hear it, and upon hanging up the phone, she clicked beer cans with Spenser, her mother, and Grandpa, as a toast to a happy ending.
But another issue still weighed on Madison’s heart.
After they said their good-byes, Ann and Spenser got into their respective cars, and drove away. Restless, Madison climbed into her car, but didn’t feel right going home just yet. Phil’s words about Mr. Cooperson had annoyed her, sure, but it was his words from an earlier conversation that kept replaying in her mind.
Trent knew for a month that he would be breaking up with the woman he’d just proposed to. He’d planned it. If Kate didn’t know that, what was to stop Trent from coming back with some sob story about how he had made a mistake and wanted to make it up to her?
Madison decided to return to the scene of the debacle gig, with its ivy archway, lovely furnishings, a cramped closet to hide in, and an angry woman in tears.
It was a risk, but Madison had to talk to Kate.
Kate answered the door, her wavy light brown hair looking more tousled than before. Upon seeing Madison, her face turned stony. “You have got to be kidding me. Why did you come back?”
“I found out some information that you should be aware of.”
Kate huffed. “All I want to know is, where is Trent?”
“I wish I knew. I’d like to give him a piece of my mind.”
Kate sighed, opening the door wider. She jerked her head to indicate Madison could come inside.
As Madison entered, she saw the usual remnants of party activity. With all the guests gone, the plates and glasses scattered around the room looked lonely. Some plates still had chicken wings, celery and dip, or salad.
Kate walked deeper into the house, motioning for Madison to follow. They entered a kitchen area with large aluminum baking trays sitting out on the marble counters, lids pulled back to reveal abandoned pastas, their cheese coatings congealed. It had the look of a party instantly shut down, but not cleaned up.
Kate laughed bitterly, waving her arm at the disordered kitchen. “Please excuse the mess. The catering company will return tomorrow to clean it up.” She sat at a table in the corner, pulling a boxed cake closer to her. Without looking at Madison she said, “Have a seat.” She grabbed a fork from a nearby pile of clean forks, stabbed into the cake, and ate it right out of the box. “Want some cake? It’ll go in the trash pretty soon. Too bad, because it’s actually pretty good.”
Madison took a seat across from her. It seemed friendlier to accept. She shrugged, and grabbed a fork. Following Kate’s lead, Madison stabbed the cake inside the box. Lemon icing sang a sweet song on her tongue. “Wow,” said Madison, nodding seriously. “It is good.”
Kate licked the corner of her mouth, then stabbed another piece of cake. “Told you.” Her expression looked casual, but a few tears showed at the corners of her eyes while she chewed. She tried to blink them back, but one escaped down her cheek. “What an asshole.” She sighed, reaching for more cake.
Madison nodded, “Yeah.” She lifted herself a few inches from the chair to peer all the way into the box. “It’s beautiful.”
“Want a flower?”
“Sure.” Madison used her fork to pick up the delicate icing flower. It fell apart, but half of it stayed on her fork. She put the flower in her mouth, watching Kate, waiting for a cue to tell her what she knew.
Kate ran her free hand through her brown hair. “Okay. Maybe you’re not a bimbo.”
“But you should find another line of work,” said Kate. “Delivering bad news, even as a singing telegram, is bad for your health.”
“I have to admit,” said Madison, “you had me pretty worried while I was in that closet.”
“You’re fast.” Kate actually smiled at that, and a small laugh escaped. But her gaze drifted into the distance, her smile slowly fading. “Breaking up is one thing, but he took all my credit cards, and the money in our joint checking account. I found out about the account when I called to cancel all the cards.” She put her fork down, leaning back in her kitchen chair. “I set it up so he could be free to buy things for the new house. We were about to start a new life together.”
“He emptied the account?”
“No. He was very kind and left one lousy dollar in there.”
Madison shook her head as she tried to comprehend. “It’s like he was trying to add more insult. Like he was trying to hurt you.”
“It’s working.” Her tears mixed with anger. “I thought maybe he was upset because I refused to get him the car he wanted. I thought he’d show up late to the party to embarrass me. I was going to hold out, showing him I could be stubborn, too.” Her eyes went to Madison. “But then you showed up with your song.”
Madison poked the cake one last time. She had to tell Kate what she’d come to say. “I don’t think he broke up because he didn’t get the car he wanted.” She put the last bite of cake in her mouth, sad to say good-bye to it.
Kate zeroed in on Madison’s face. “How would you know? You don’t know anything about Trent.”
“This is what I came to tell you. I found out my agent had this gig on his books since a month ago. That’s when your fiancé called, booked it, and paid for it. He’s been planning this for a while.”
“A month ago?” Kate stared. “You’re sure?”
“But…” She shook her head. “That’s when he proposed to me. We planned our engagement party on the spot.”
Madison dared not say the obvious, that Kate’s fiancé hadn’t broken up with Kate because he’d changed his mind. The truth was that he’d never planned to marry her in the first place. Kate was the victim of a gold-digger.
A bitter huff burst from Kate. “Well, he’s smarter than I thought he was, I’ll give him that.” She stood. Slowly walking across the kitchen floor, she processed aloud, “So, this whole time…” She leaned back against the edge of the marble kitchen counter, crossing her arms. “It really was just about my money.” She shook her head, whispering, “How could I have been so stupid?”
“He must’ve been careful if you never suspected.”
“I’m glad there was only three hundred thousand in that account.”
Madison’s eyes went big. “Oh my god!”
Kate waved her hand. “I don’t care about the money. I don’t need it. It’s the fact that he would be willing to do that to me.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know yet. I want to move on and forget about him, but my brother wants a pound of flesh out of him, first.” She pulled open a small drawer, taking out a pen and paper. Jotting on it, she said, “Take my number. I want to know anything else you hear.” She handed the paper to Madison. “When I canceled the cards, they told me there were new charges coming in today. So, while I was here waiting for him to arrive, he was out spending my money.”
Madison pursed her lips. “Any chance the charges came from Key Arena?”
Kate turned her full attention on Madison. “How did you know?”
Madison shrugged. “Big game today. Were the charges small? More than one?”
Kate stared at her. “Yes.”
“Hot dogs and beer. Maybe a few souvenirs.”
Kate squinted in thought. “So, he must’ve gone to the game today. Didn’t have enough sense to leave town.”
“And that’s a good thing, because you want to find him.”
Kate brightened. “You really aren’t a bimbo, are you?”
Madison smiled. “I have lots of problems. Being a bimbo isn’t one of them.”
That first sip of coffee in the morning was always a wonderful thing, but sipping coffee brewed in The Looney Bean café was even better. The heavenly aromas of fresh pastries and muffins contributed to bringing her alive, waking her up, and kick-starting that excitement of working on a new project. She’d been surprised that Mr. Cooperson wanted to meet so early in the morning, but she didn’t mind. He had a full day with too much to do, he’d said. He was trying to fit it all in.
Mr. Cooperson, skinny and in his mid-fifties, sat across the table from her with an impish smile. His thin hair appeared to be hair-sprayed into place. A colorful scarf draped around his neck. Madison was glad to see he still had a happy nature. He looked a little tired but it was, after all, early in the morning.
On an extra chair at their table sat a duffle bag, worn and tattered, made of real leather that had seen better days. Overstuffed and unable to close, it displayed wrinkled papers competing for space with clothing and an accordion file folder, fully expanded, wrapped in large elastic bands. The duffle bag’s style, and its overuse, fit with who she knew Mr. Cooperson to be. He was a disorganized passionate lover of the arts, willing to give his last dime to buy someone a meal. It felt good to know that he was finally doing something for himself, for a change, and taking a shot at what he’d always wanted -- a theatre of his own.
She relaxed into her wooden chair. The coffee, the atmosphere, and catching up with her old teacher brought comfort and happiness. She held her coffee cup with both hands, enjoying the warmth.
He set his cup down. “So, after my wife died I continued to teach for a few years. But her words kept coming back, reminding me I’ll never know if I could make a go of having my own theatre, unless I tried.” He watched the tabletop, as if he were hearing his belated wife’s words right now. He looked up with a smile. “So, I cashed out the retirement account we’d built up all those years. Bought the Sloane Theatre.”
“Wow. You went for it,” she nodded. “And you look great, by the way. All artsy, and dapper,” she teased.
“Thank you. It’s a pain in the ass to get older.” He chuckled. “I’m trying to quit smoking, I’m watching what I eat…”
“Looks like it’s working.”
“And what about you? I can hardly get over the sight of you.” He shook his head, sighing. “Where did the time go? I can’t believe you’re an adult.”
“Yeah…I hear that a lot.”
He smirked. “Still getting in trouble?”
She shrugged. “Haven’t figured out how to stop, yet.”
He softly laughed. “I almost hope you never do.”
“So.” She leaned in on her elbows. “You have a script for me?”
He laughed ruefully, slapping his forehead. “Thank you. Yes. Yes, of course.” He stole one more sip of coffee, then set the cup down. “I need a new head. This one’s all worn out.”
She smiled. He was still absent-minded.
He took a deep breath, puffing out his cheeks as he exhaled. “So much to do, so little time…” He turned to his duffle bag, rummaging through it.
“You said we open in less than two weeks.”
He nodded. “Brace yourself for a whirlwind rehearsal schedule. Things might be a little rough, and a few balls might get dropped.” His brow wrinkled as he searched, pulling things out of the duffle bag, piling them on the table.
Paperwork, scarves, e-cigarettes, a shoebox-sized gift with sparkly foil wrapping, and a lone sock, landed on the table in front of her. She pushed their coffee cups aside to make room for the sudden onslaught.
“But,” he said, “we’ve got to keep the schedule. Publicity has already gone out—where is that script? I know it’s in here…” He stopped for a moment, seeming to have a private laugh. “If my life were a script, this would be the part where the stakes are raised.”
“How so?” asked Madison.
“You deserve the truth, and...” He stared at the accordion file holder. “Maybe the script’s still in here.” He eagerly removed the large elastic bands, triumphantly pulled out a script, and thumped it down in front of Madison. “And the truth is, this is my last chance. If the show doesn’t open as scheduled, I’ll lose the theatre.”
Her mouth dropped open. She said slowly, “Mr. Cooperson…”
“I actually considered selling it, can you believe that? Had a commercial real agent showing it.” He rubbed his chin. “But it’s too soon. I haven’t had a real shot, yet.”
The sudden reversal of fortune left her confused. How could he get his dream, only to have it snatched away? “What happened?”
“Unexpected repairs. Lots of them. Big tax bills, licensing, legal work…” He shook his head. “It’s been a nightmare of expenses. The funding for the show dropped through the floor. That upset the cast, so we lost quite a few actors. But they’ve been replaced,” he shrugged, “mostly. I found a women’s choir happy to play the nuns. Excellent singers, so I’m thrilled. We lost our leading lady, but we’ve replaced her with you,” he said, waving his hand, palm up, to Madison. “I’m even more thrilled with that one.” He counted problems on his fingers. “The choreographer, the wardrobe person…” He leaned back, a little short of breath. “But the biggest hit was losing our director, and our stage manager.”
Startled, she looked down at her script, then back up to his face. “What?” Phil’s words were now coming back to haunt her. We’re talking a different set of skills.
“No worries,” he said. “I stepped in to direct it myself. I think I’m over the hump on the administrative end of the theatre, and I have a theatre house manager – lovely girl, rough start in life – who helps me with daily maintenance of the building, so we should be good.”
She squinted, trying to wrap her head around so much information. “Okay,” she said cautiously. “And you found a new stage manager, too?”
“No.” He shrugged. “The good ones are too expensive, and a newbie who needs training will just take up more of my time. I’ll combine the duties of director and stage manager, and do both jobs myself.”
Madison controlled her face, but alarms were going off in her head. Directing a show with a cast this large, without a stage manager? When did he sleep?
He glanced at his phone and whispered, “The time, the time. I’ve got to run. The park along Green Lake attracts so many people on a Sunday morning, it’s hard to find parking.”
“In fact, I’d better call her, let her know I’ll be late.”
“Oh. That’s right, I haven’t told you the best part.” He smiled wearily. “We have our very own theatre angel. She’s just come forward, eager to hand over a check for a hefty sum to get us through the season and help us until the theatre is on its feet.”
“A theatre angel? Now that is good news,” said Madison, relieved. “They don’t call them angels for nothing. How’d you find her?”
“I was at the store buying cat food, of all things. She bumped into me, we got to talking, and found we had a lot in common. I haven’t asked anyone out since my wife died.” He looked around the café as if he were embarrassed. He quietly said, “I still haven’t. Trying to work up the nerve,” he laughed. “Anyway, I gave her a tour of the theatre and she insisted I not sell it. Said she wanted to help with financing.”
“It’s like a fairy tale,” Madison marveled.
He checked the time on his phone again, winced, and murmured, “I’m supposed to be there in five minutes.” He rose from the chair, pointing at the sparkly gift sitting on the table. “That’s for her. It’s a surprise.” He punched at his phone, sounding breathless. “I need to warn her I’ll be late.”
Madison paged through her script while he made his phone call. Theatre angel or not, this was going to be a challenge.
“Emily? Hi! Yes, it’s Hal.”
Madison giggled. She had forgotten his first name was Hal.
He packed his duffle bag with one hand while he spoke on the phone. “I’m running behind, but I can’t wait to see you. Hey, I’m with our new actress. Yes, the one I told you about. Madison Cruz. Would you like to talk to her?”
Madison lifted her brows, pointing at herself in question.
Mr. Cooperson nodded at her and winked. “Here she is.” He handed his phone to Madison.
She closed her script, holding it in one hand, while taking his phone in the other. “Hello? This is Madison.”
A sweet and delicate voice greeted her. “Hello, there! I’ve heard so much about you from Hal. He’s told me all about his teaching days, and the students he loved.”
Mr. Cooperson stopped packing, and instead, leaned on the table, both hands flat on the tabletop.
“Well, we loved him back,” said Madison. “He’s a great teacher, and a great director.” She smiled at Mr. Cooperson, but it broke her heart to see him leaning there, so tired.
The sweet voice, all aflutter, practically sang. “I’m so excited about this! I can’t wait to meet you, and to see the show.”
“I’m anxious to meet you, too,” said Madison, smiling.
“He calls me his theatre angel, you know,” she giggled, sweetly.
Madison laughed. “I’m inclined to agree with him.” Madison heard a few kitties meowing in the background.
“I need to run,” said the sweet voice, “and feed these silly babies right now. Bye-Bye.” She hung up.
Madison blinked and laughed, looking down at the phone. “That was abrupt. I guess her kitty cats were calling.” She heard the sound of a coffee cup clashing with a saucer. She looked up at Mr. Cooperson and squinted at him. “Are you all right?”
His color suddenly drained from his face, as the coffee spilled from the table.
Alarmed, Madison sprang from her chair, still clutching her script, confused by what she saw. “Mr. Cooperson?”
Like a rag doll with no bones, he crumpled.
She flew to catch him.
Her script hit the floor, landing in cold coffee.
Overhead speakers gently paged doctors, using color codes Madison didn’t understand. She stood facing a wall in a mostly empty hospital lobby, talking to Phil on her cell phone. It was a public place, but facing the wall made it feel more private. Her left hand held the phone to her ear while her right hand gripped a candy bar from a vending machine. Unopened, the candy bar had melted. She could tell the chocolate inside the wrapper was not solid. But she couldn’t let go of it. She held on.