Skullduggery

by L.M. Lewis

ACT I

"I really think I ought to move downstage as everyone exits—the movement would enhance the character's psychological distance as he starts the soliloquy—"

Bill Moss looked up from his script, sparing a quick glance at his watch. "Rory, this is only the second act. We've got three more to block after this. And it's already four-thirty."

"But this first soliloquy," Rory Griggs frowned stubbornly, "it's critical."

"Hamlet—one night only at the Bradford Community Theater—I don't think that rates as 'critical'. I thought a TV guy like you would understand time constraints," Moss shook his head impatiently. "Stand wherever you like."

The young man flashed a smile—the same one that had graced the cover of People less than a month earlier. It disappeared completely a moment later, replaced by the brooding countenance of the doomed Danish prince. Then he took three strides downstage and held the pose without seeming to. A stage hand hastened forward, masking tape in hand, then hesitated a moment.

"Yeah, Jimmy. That's fine." Moss gave him a nod and then looked over his shoulder, shielding his eyes as he searched out a shadowy figure in the balcony. "Got it, Pete?"

"Yeah," a gruff, disembodied voice came out of the darkness. "I can dim the fresnels and use a follow spot."

Moss nodded again, wearily. He was turning forward again, to resettle in his seat, when all hell broke loose.

00000

Dinner at Gull's Way tended to be informal, and lately that had extended to McCormick bringing law books to the table, a continuation of the reading he did while he cooked.

"I'm not sending you out for pizza anymore," Hardcastle said as he used a roll to sop up one last dollop of gravy on his plate.

Mark looked up after the beat-and-a-half it had taken him to register that he was being spoken to. "Huh?"

"Too dangerous." The judge gestured toward the book with what was left of the roll. "Reading and driving."

"I don't . . ." McCormick hesitated, looking momentarily chagrined. "Okay, well, only when I'm stuck at a light." The book was still open, his finger marking where he'd left off.

Hardcastle popped the last bit of roll into his mouth and hmmphed. "I just think you oughta take a break now and then."

McCormick shrugged. "It's only one more month till finals."

There was no arguing with the facts.

The judge changed tacks—"Hey, how 'bout some pecan pie?"

McCormick nodded absently, his eyes already back on the place where he'd left off. Hardcastle took that as a yes and had departed for the kitchen, plate in hand, when the front doorbell rang.

McCormick marked his place again, this time with a paper napkin, and frowned as he stood. He raised his voice slightly, to be heard in the direction of the kitchen. "Hey, were you expecting somebody?"

It wasn't necessary. Hardcastle came bustling back in—no pie.

"Who is it?" Mark asked curiously.

"Old neighbor—Theodora Kemp." The man brushed by, obviously heading for the front hallway. "She's early."

Mark trailed after him, now genuinely curious. His mental file had come up with a lady of dignified years with a creative bent and a quirky smile.

"She the one who paints—down on the beach."

"Uh-huh," Hardcastle nodded, "the artistic type, that's her." He pulled up short in the hallway. "Don't you have some studying to do?"

"Weren't you telling me to take a break?" Mark knitted his brows. "Unless this is some kinda date or something." He started turning, as if to retreat.

"Nah, nothing like that." The judge shook his head for emphasis. "She's on the theater board; so was Nancy, way back when. She probably wants to hit me up for a donation or a subscription or something. She said something about it being their twenty-fifth anniversary season. Can't believe it's been that long—"

The bell rang again and they could see two shadowy shapes through the diamond-paned glass in the front door. Hardcastle frowned. "Musta brought one of the other ladies."

One of the taller ones, Mark concluded on a quick glance, but the mystery was solved a moment later as Hardcastle opened the door.

"Milt, dear," a bird-like woman who matched Mark's recollection fluttered in, "I know I should have called, but when William told me what happened, I told him we mustn't waste a moment. Oh—my, I'm forgetting my manners."

She turned, motioning her companion forward. He was tall and thin, with more salt than pepper in his hair, and a careworn expression. He managed a tentative smile as she introduced him. "This is Mr. Moss—William. Though now that I think of it, you and Judge Hardcastle must have met before."

"I remember your wife," Moss offered his hand. There was nothing tentative about the shake. "She was very kind—a real patron of the arts."

"We've met—been a while, though." Hardcastle smiled. "Can't say I'm as big on theater stuff as Nancy was."

"He's more a John Wayne kinda guy," McCormick said, leaning forward.

"You must be Mark," Mrs. Kemp said, eyeing him with more than casual interest. "Vickie Emmers told me all about you."

Mark grinned nervously. "I'd like to categorically deny everything—"

"Actually, she said you were very good at talking your way out of awkward situations. I believe 'facile' was the term she used."

Hardcastle smiled thinly. "With Vickie, I'd say that's getting off light." Then he turned back to his guests. "Sounds like you have some kind of trouble," he said, gesturing them into the front hall and then toward the den.

He hung back for a moment, slowed by McCormick's hand hooking his elbow and a sharply whispered, "Donation, huh? You didn't know anything about whatever's going on?"

"Scout's honor," Hardcastle sotto voced right back at him, then did his best impression of a congenial host for the company: "Can we get you folks some coffee? Got a nice pecan pie—"

There were polite 'no's. Mrs. Kemp perched uneasily on the edge of her seat but waited until the judge had settled in behind his desk. He lifted one eyebrow quizzically as McCormick pulled a chair in and sat down.

"No studying, huh?"

McCormick shook his head and turned to Mrs. Kemp. "So what happened today that made you think of us?"

She cast a quick sideward glance at Mr. Moss. He sat, tight-lipped. She sighed and then situated herself to take in both of her listeners.

"You know about the Bradford legacy, of course."

Hardcastle shrugged and nodded. McCormick shook his head no.

Mrs. Kemp looked momentarily surprised and then said, "Well, I suppose you wouldn't. It's practically a legend here in town; so one assumes everyone knows about it. Mr. Bradford was an impresario, though the story goes that he only turned to the organizational side of show business after he'd experienced utter failure as an actor."

"But he was very good at the production end of things," Moss interjected, "which is where the money is, most of the time."

Theodora Kemp nodded. "He started his own production company and was immensely successful. He owned a huge estate north of Malibu."

Mark cocked his head. "Where the theater is now?"

"Precisely." Theodora smiled. "He passed away suddenly—it's been twenty-six years. His only living relative was an older brother, back in the Midwest. Amos left everything—the estate, his investments—to a foundation. His plan was for a theater that would combine amateur and professional talent. The board is made up of members of the community and Mr. Moss here has served as the theater's manager right from the start. Two and a half decades of dedicated service."

"Twenty-five productions of Hamlet," Moss said grimly.

Hardcastle wave a hand airily. "This is where the story gets a little weird."

"Not weird, Milton," Mrs. Kemp looked at him sternly, "that would be the Scottish play." She glanced back at Mark and smiled again. "I'd call it theatrical."

"Long story short," Hardcastle interjected, "the will calls for a full-length production of Hamlet every year."

Mrs. Kemp nodded. "On April twenty-third—the anniversary of the Bard's death. As Milton pointed out, it's stipulated in the will. Should the foundation fail in the endeavor, the entire endowment, everything, is to revert to Bradford's natural heirs."

"His brother?" Mark asked.

"Or his descendants."

Mark thought about it for a moment and said, "Okay, that's kinda oddball, but I wouldn't say it's weird."

"We haven't gotten to the weird part yet," Hardcastle said drily. He nodded to Theodora. "Tell him about the last thing Bradford left them."

She sighed. "It's not really all that strange, you know. Amos Bradford had a lifelong dedication to the theater. I'm not a bit surprised that he wanted to continue that connection after his death."

Mark shrugged. "Lots of people leave everything to some good cause."

"He's Yorick," Hardcastle said bluntly.

"Huh?"

"Yorick, the jester, the skull in the cemetery. That's Bradford. He left his skull."

Mark frowned. "His real skull?"

Hardcastle nodded. "He only had the one."

"It was part of the bequest," Moss said quietly. "His skull must appear in Act V. The will is very explicit about that."

Mark cast a quick glance at the judge and muttered, "Weird."

"Toldja."

"But that's really not the issue," Theodora sighed and then looked toward Moss. "Perhaps you should explain. You've been there for most of the incidents."

"'Incidents'?" The judge looked more interested. "Whaddaya mean?"

"Pranks," Moss shrugged, "accidents, maybe."

Mrs. Kemp edged forward even more. "This afternoon it was the lights. Glass shards everywhere."

Moss flashed a sharp glance at her. "I thought you wanted me to tell it?" He turned back to Hardcastle. "It was the overhead floods—they're big lamps."

"One fell?"

"No—shattered, and not 'everywhere'. It was mostly straight down."

Hardcastle ventured cautiously, "A bulb breaking, that sounds like an accident."

"One lamp, maybe, but two at almost the same moment?" Moss shook his head. "Ed Dieter—he's our lighting technician—he thinks somebody messed with the bulbs. It doesn't take much. The techs never touch the glass; just the oil from your hands can make a lamp shatter when it heats up."

"And Rory had been standing right under them a moment earlier," Mrs. Kemp added impatiently.

"Rory?"

"Rory Griggs." She paused, as if that ought to have been enough of a clue. Hardcastle stared obtusely. "Rory Griggs. He's an absolute catch—we signed him last summer, straight off a run in Hamlet at the Tamarack Festival."

The judge cocked an eye. "Haven't been to that one."

"Well, of course not," she smiled, "it's in upstate New York. He got some good reviews, though, and it's not easy to find someone who can handle the role and is willing to do a single performance off one week's rehearsal. Some years our Hamlet has been old enough to be Ophelia's father. But Rory—"

Moss grimaced. "What she means is, we hit the jackpot. Right after we signed him last fall, he landed a spot as the new surgical intern on that show, Med-Star. They wanted a sidekick—something for the 18-30 female demographic—but instead he turned it into a breakout role. They're even talking about a spinoff."

Mark looked puzzled. "And he's still willing to do your Hamlet?"

"Yeah, I know," Moss shrugged, "When everything took off for him I figured his agent would offer to buy him out of the contract. We only pay scale you know."

Mrs. Kemp nodded. "Rory's been a trouper. Med-Star went on hiatus last week and he showed up for our first read-through like it was the most important role he'd ever landed."

Mark grinned. "More important than a vigilante neurosurgeon's sidekick?"

"Okay," Hardcastle grumped, "so you think someone's trying to off your lead—"

Mrs. Kemp shook her head. "Not necessarily. Two days ago it was a fire in the utility room—a match in an old paint bucket. It was just lucky that one of the stagehands had gone back there to get something and was able to put it out. Then yesterday a counterweight fell; it almost struck Roger Phelps."

This time Hardcastle looked properly impressed. "The Roger Phelps?"

"Yeah," Moss said, "that one. He's King Claudius. And we've got his wife, Ruby Seddon-Phelps, as Queen Gertrude."

Hardcastle whistled. "Heck of a cast. Roger and Ruby—they had a real good run of movies." He glanced over at McCormick. "They don't make 'em like that anymore."

"You mean with horses?"

The judge frowned. "Well, yeah, some of 'em—horses, casts of thousands, the works. And they could act, too. They were terrific." His brow furrowed. "I'd've figured they were pretty much retired."

Mrs. Kemp smiled. "They were both close friends of Bradford."

Moss nodded. "He discovered Ruby, back in the fifties—he's the one who got her started in the movies. Then she got paired up with Roger and—magic. On stage and off. So they both owed him."

"They agreed to appear in the anniversary production as a special tribute to Amos," Mrs. Kemp added. "We've been advertising it all year."

Hardcastle sighed wearily. "So the targets—if there really are targets—seem to be random. Sounds like we're back at someone trying to close down the show and revert the estate. What did the police say?"

Kemp and Moss exchanged glances.

"You mean you haven't talked to them yet?" The judge frowned in disapproval.

Moss ducked his head toward Hardcastle but addressed his companion. "Maybe you ought to listen to the man."

Theodora Kemp drew herself up and shook her head tightly. "No. I still say it's a bad idea and the rest of the board agrees with me. We can't go to the police."

"Why not?" Hardcastle asked.

"We aren't certain this is anything more than bad luck, or carelessness, or both," she said pleadingly. "And so far that's been our official position. It's a wonderful cast, the twenty-fifth anniversary—"

Moss grimaced impatiently. "She thinks if we bring the police in, it'll spook the actors and we'll lose some of them—Rory for certain, unless his agent is an idiot. No cast, no production."

"And it would just scare off the person responsible." Mrs. Kemp said insistently. "We won't have any proof of who did it—or who they were working for."

"It has to be someone in the production." Hardcastle said, half to himself and then looking up sharply, "Who are the beneficiaries—and why would they try something now, after all these years?"

"Oh," Theodora smiled, "very astute observation. I've looked into it," she added. "Amos Bradford's only brother died in the late sixties, so until last year the heir would have been his nephew."

"And now?"

"He passed away, which leaves the great-nephew—his name is Wolf Bradford. Who names a child 'Wolf'? You have to wonder about that."

"Do we know anything about him?"

"He's a lawyer," she sniffed.

Mark grinned. "Definitely guilty of something, then."

Hardcastle shot him a look.

"Well," Mark tried for a more serious expression, "he'd know his way around a will, and know what it would take to violate one of the codicils—run the cast off, or even incapacitate somebody. It sounds kinda theatrical, but it makes sense."

Theodora turned to him, looking earnest. "So you'll help?"

"Me?"

She nodded eagerly. "We're short a Guildenstern—"

"One of the grave traps wasn't fastened properly," Moss said quietly.

"That was three days ago." Theodora winced, and then smiled again stalwartly. "He'll be up and about in a few weeks, the doctors say."

Moss cocked his head toward Hardcastle and added, "Brings a certain dramatic irony to the phrase 'Break a leg'."

Theodora shot him a silencing glance and then refocused all her charm on Mark again. "It's a very short part—only twenty-nine lines. The show must go on. Vickie Emmers thought you'd be perfect—"

"I'll bet she did."

"She said you have a real flair for the dramatic," Theodora said encouragingly, "but what we really want is someone to keep an eye on things."

Mark forced a smile, then cast a beseeching look at Hardcastle who intercepted it with a reassuring smile.

"Listen, Theo, he'd like to help—but there's a problem. He's still got a month before his gig goes on hiatus."

Mrs. Kemp looked blank.

"Law school," Hardcastle said. "He's a law student. First year. The exams—"

"Oh," Mrs. Kemp said in sudden astonishment. "Vickie didn't mention that."

McCormick sighed, but didn't have a chance to comment before she'd segued.

"Milt—most of the supporting roles are played by our local amateurs. You know that nice Mr. Jamison, the one with the travel agency? He's Rosenkrantz." She stopped to smile winsomely and then inquired casually, "Didn't Nancy tell me one time that you'd done a turn in Hamlet back in high school?"

"Yeah," Hardcastle admitted reluctantly, "we did that onemy senior year."

Mark looked at him in disbelief. "You're kidding."

"I was Polonius." Hardcastle shrugged. "It was a small school. They needed every kid they could get their hands on, and I figured at least if I played an old guy I wouldn't have to wear tights."

Moss looked dubious but Theodora clapped her hands together. "Perfect." She turned to the director. "We put him in as understudy for our Polonius."

Hardcastle shook his head hastily. "But I—"

Mark chortled and then said, "Come on, Judge, where's the old community spirit? The old can-do undercover attitude? Heck, when it's my turn it's 'McCormick—put one over the centerfield wall. McCormick—pretend you're a cop'."

"It's been fifty years—how the hell am I supposed to remember the lines?"

"You'll only be an understudy," Theodora reassured him, "that way you can poke around all you like."

Moss still looked unhappy. "Let's hope nothing happens to our real Polonius."

She gave him stern glance. "The show must go on. I know it's only two more days, but what if something serious were to happen? We need someone with Milt's experience."

Moss shut his mouth on a frown. McCormick looked suddenly more sober. It was obviously not the judge's thespian skills that were in demand.

00000

Hardcastle saw the company to the door, though not, of course, until he'd pried loose everything they could provide him about the production. He strolled back into the den, already leafing through the file Moss had handed over: production and casting notes, the latter complete with résumés and headshots. Added to that was a list of the crew—a few long-time employees overseeing a collection of dedicated local volunteers. The judge recognized some the names.

"Well," he glanced up and found himself addressing an empty room. "Huh—?" he muttered.

He cocked a look over his shoulder and down the hall, then frowned, shook his head, and settled back down behind his desk. He couldn't fault the kid for being dedicated to his studies, but he thought he'd at least have had to put up with a little kibitzing on this one.

He reopened the file to the place where he'd left off—Ophelia was a young lady named Emma Wister, who hailed originally from Grand Forks and was newly graduated from the UND theater program. He'd just put that one to the side, as an unlikely addition to the list of suspects, when McCormick ambled back in from the hall, his nose in a book. He was still reading as he took the two steps down by rote and dropped back into a chair.

He turned a page, not looking up. "What time did they say you're supposed to be there for rehearsal?"

"Ah," Hardcastle glanced at the schedule in among the other papers, "looks like four-fifteen—tomorrow—why?"

"Good. I'm out by a quarter to three. I can give you a ride, help keep an eye on things while you're emoting—stuff like that. Four eyes are better than two, right?"

"What happened to that whole 'I've got finals' razzamatazz?"

McCormick waved that away, still not looking up. "If I've learned one thing this past year, it's that I can study and stick my nose in where it doesn't belong at the same time . . . I just didn't want to put on a pair of tights."

"Aw, you wouldn't have had to worry about that—look, here's the notes from the artistic director. I guess after twenty-five years of doing these, they must be bored silly. This version's set in the early 50s and the guys all wear suits."

McCormick climbed out of the chair and leaned over to take a look, then frowned. "What's this part?" he pointed and read, "'…a subtle commentary on the Cold War and the anomie of the mid-twentieth century nuclear family'?"

"Who knows? I just wanna figure out who's behind the mischief." Hardcastle gave him a narrow stare. "You don't trust me going off by myself, even for something as picayune as this?"

McCormick said nothing for a moment, then sighed. "You do know how that play ends, don't you?" He held up the book, now closed, with one finger still holding his place.

The judge recognized it now by its cover: a rarely-opened, leather-bound copy of the complete works of Shakespeare, straight from his own library.

"Yeah," he grumbled. "'Goodnight, sweet prince…' and all that stuff."

"Uh-huh," McCormick flipped the book open, "—and that's right after a sword fight and a poison flagon, and a cast reduction of about seventy percent. Supposing somebody really doesn't want this show to go on? There's a lot of money at stake here—a multi-million dollar inheritance—that'll buy a lot of ingenuity. You're damn straight I don't trust you going off by yourself."

"And all that 'Where's your old undercover can-do spirit?'"

"I guess I got a little carried away." Mark's momentary look of embarrassment suddenly hardened into something sterner. "You know old Polonius gets knocked off in Act Three." He held the page up, pointing gravely to the relevant passage. "Stabbed, through a curtain."

Hardcastle shrugged. "Hey, I'm just the understudy. Besides, like you said, this is Hamlet—everybody dies."

00000

McCormick was true to his word, returning home promptly at three-thirty the following afternoon—enough time to grab a snack and a pocket-sized textbook before intercepting Hardcastle in the driveway.

"Uh-uh. Unless you want this to be 'Exit—pursued by Coyote'."

The judge grimaced. "Just came out to see if you were ready."

"Hah, a likely story." McCormick shook his head slowly, then turned and pointed to the truck. "I'll drive. It'll give you time to get in character."

"I'm just an understudy."

"An undercover understudy—there's the rub. How're you going to pass for one of those if you don't at least pretend you're panting to be Polonius?" Mark climbed in behind the wheel and then cocked his head suspiciously. "And how goes the investigation otherwise?"

"You only went to two classes today. How much progress were you expecting? I asked Frank to do a little background check on that Wolf Bradford character, the heir-apparent."

"He didn't ask why?"

"Worse than that," Hardcastle grumbled. "He asked if you know what I'm up to. Do you two have some kind of agreement or something?"

"Not in so many words." Mark grinned as he turned the key in the ignition.

ACT II

The Bradford Community Theater was already sporting signs announcing the upcoming twenty-fifth anniversary performance. "One Night Only!" The marquee featured Rory Griggs' name above the title, and the Phelpses just below—though in slightly smaller lettering.

A small but intense cluster of young ladies lingered by the stage door entrance. They broke off their huddled conference when the judge and Mark rounded the corner. There was some craning and shrill "Ooohs," from several of them before someone else hushed them with "It's not him," in a disappointed tone.

Mark squeezed by with a polite nod and took the three steps up at a trot, with Hardcastle right behind him. He tried the door, which was locked.

"Try knocking," the judge said impatiently, which McCormick did, smiling nervously down at the girls, who were conferencing again.

The door was just opening when one of them reached up through the railing and tugged at Hardcastle's jacket.

"When you see Rory, would you give him this?"

She thrust a crumpled piece of paper into his hand and slipped back into the gaggle at the base of the steps. One of the stage hands held the door open, just long enough for the two men to duck in.

They stood in the relative darkness, waiting for their eyes to adjust. Hardcastle held his hand and paper in front of him.

"What is it?" Mark asked.

"The girls, huh?" the stagehand rolled his eyes. "You're lucky it wasn't unmentionables. They're crazy, that bunch. Sometimes one of us puts on sunglasses and a leather jacket to decoy 'em 'round to the front while Griggs comes in by the service entrance. Doesn't always work, though."

Hardcastle glanced down at it. "Must be some kinda note," he said, still not able to make much out.

"I'll put it in his dressing room." The crew member held out his hand. "And you're…?"

"Hardcastle. I'm one of the understudies." The judge passed the note over and then jerked his thumb at McCormick. "A friend of mine—gave me a ride. Can he—?"

"Mr. Moss is pretty strict about closed rehearsals." The stagehand stared at McCormick. "And besides—"

They didn't get to hear about the besides part as the edge of one of the curtains was pulled aside and an anxious voice inquired, "Is that you, Milt?"

It was Theodora. She stepped past the scrim and squinted. "Oh, it is. Thank goodness. Slight change of plans, I'm afraid. Our Polonius had a family emergency, out of state."

The stage hand snorted sharply then stifled that at a glance from Mrs. Kemp and slipped off into the shadows of the left wing.

Theodora grabbed Milt's elbow and leaned in. "The cast is a bit edgy." She straightened as she handed him a black binder and said briskly, "Thanks goodness we have you. Here's a script. You can use that for now and if it doesn't all come back to you, we'll have some cue cards made up for the performance. Come along; everyone's waiting."

The judge cast a quick anxious look back at McCormick, who forced a smile and said, "Hit one over the centerfield wall."

Hardcastle muttered, "Don'tcha mean 'Break a leg'?"

"Uh-uh," McCormick shook his head, "I think we should stick with the baseball metaphors."

The judge grimaced. Mark watched as he was hauled unwillingly out past the curtain and then heard Mrs. Kemp's now more distant voice announcing, "Here he is—just in time for our run-through. This is Milton, everyone. He's been doing Polonius since the Roosevelt Administration."

McCormick heard some muted laughter, then a voice he recognized as Moss's calling everyone back to order and saying, "We'll take it back to the top of scene three, then, entering from right. Milt—you'll be just upstage of the rest: the green tape, I believe."

Mark looked up into the catwalk, saw no dangling swords, or anything else untoward for that matter. He sighed, supposing the saboteur wouldn't go for the same trick twice, presuming all this was more than just a string of bad luck.

He glanced both ways into the shadowy space that ran the width of the stage behind the back curtain. No one had actually had a chance to tell him he couldn't hang around. Not being thrown out was the next best thing to an invitation. Now that his eyes were better adjusted, he could see storage areas and a ladder leading up to the catwalk.

He skirted around that, feeling his way forward tentatively among wires and temporary equipment. There was more light here, spilling in from the stage on his right. He caught a glimpse of the cluster of actors finding their places, and then a sonorous voice he half-recognized.

"And can you, by no drift of circumstance, get from him why he puts on this confusion, grating so harshly all his days of quiet with turbulent and dangerous lunacy?"

It was Roger Phelps, star of the silver screen, but words were wrong—it ought to have been more like, "They're camped down by the river—we oughta circle 'round so we can jump 'em before daybreak."

Mark shook his head in an attempt to oust the gritty stereo interference, then edged forward again, around another set of narrow curtains, almost stumbling over someone crouched down just on the other side of them. The man looked up over his shoulder at McCormick. The light caught his profile and a pantomimed finger to lips that meant "shh", but the smile behind that was friendly enough. It only took a half-second for Mark to recognize a face that was becoming increasingly familiar from the covers of the grocery store gossip magazines.

"Sorry," Mark whispered.

Rory Griggs rose, lithe and nimble. He leaned in and murmured, "No problem. The Big One is coming up."

To Mark's blank look he quirked a grin and added, under his breath, "'To be or not to be…' yack yack yack. It works better if I don't get all tensed up. Distraction is good."

"Ahh . . . well, then I can go back and do it right—trip over you or something."

"No . . . thanks though." Griggs squinted out into the well-lit stage. "My cue's coming up." The young man frowned, his face—his stance—suddenly more serious. His conversion into character was startlingly complete, without a word yet spoken.

Mark dragged his gaze away from Griggs. Hardcastle—or Polonius—was speaking now, slow and not very convincing.

"I hear him coming: let's withdraw, my lord."

McCormick quirked a smile. The whole thing was so goofy, tights or no tights.

Hardcastle and Phelps departed as Griggs, now a different man, both more distant and more intense, strode out onto the stage. He stared off into the darkened hall, weighing out a long moment of silence before he began to speak.

"To be, or not to be—"

Mark stood, momentarily frozen, and found himself focused on the man again. He blinked and stepped back, into the shadows. The left wing was now deserted, and from his quick reading of the night before, he guessed he had at least a couple of minutes before the Hamlet exited again, stage left. At the very least he thought he ought to have a look around—get the lay of the land.

He turned his back on Hamlet's ponderings and found a curtained passageway. He poked his head through, already planning his alibi: lost while trying to find his way out. It seemed perfectly believable. He was already half turned around in a warren-like space filled with racks of costumes, and bins of props.

McCormick hoped there'd be no one to challenge him as he made his way back to a flight of stairs that led down to a better-lit area—the dressing-rooms, he guessed. He was already on the second step when a shadowy figure entered the stairwell at the bottom. It was impossible to make out an expression on the backlit face, there was only a general impression of a tall, lean man, slightly stooped. At any rate, he was looking down, which made sense in a darkened stairwell, and brushed past without comment.

Mark let out a relieved breath. He hurried down the rest of the steps and into the corridor at the bottom, along which were a dozen or so closely-spaced doors. The first three were labeled "Phelps," "Seddon-Phelps," and "Griggs," one name on each, written in marker pen on slips of cardboard slid into reusable slotted holders. After that there were two or more names to a door, all the way down to the last room on the left, which was labeled with the demoralizing title of "Supernumeraries and All Others."

With only half a scene left in which to consider his options, McCormick was on the verge of picking one of the middle rooms at random for a quick look-see, when he spotted the doorknob turning on the one he'd thought least-likely to be occupied.

The edge of the door to Griggs' designated dressing room opened slowly, just wide enough for whoever was inside to see if the hallway was clear. McCormick had already passed that spot. He stood stock-still, holding his breath. The door opened further and the cautious intruder stepped out, closing the door behind.

Mark cleared his throat. The girl—almost certainly one of those who'd been hovering outside, though he didn't recognize her offhand—spun around, half-stifling a shriek.

He said, quiet but stern, "Are you supposed to be here?"

Her gasped, "Oh, my God," was answer enough. That was all she said before she took off in the direction of the stairs. He started after her, if only to make sure that she went all the way to the exit, but stopped with one foot on the bottom step.

He thought it was a long shot, but what better cover could there be for someone hanging around a theater than a besotted fan? All their assumptions about the "accidents" being an inside jobs were predicated on the theater having a reasonable degree of security, and based on his experience so far, that seemed to be in doubt.

He'd made up his mind a half-second later, wheeling to head back to the dressing room. The least he ought to do was make sure she hadn't left any nasty surprises in there.

He already knew the door wasn't locked, now he could see it wasn't even properly shut. He nudged it open with one foot, feeling silly about being so careful. He could see Griggs' dressing table, the well-lit mirror above it, and what he supposed was the usual make-up clutter on it. He leaned on the door and it swung open. He choked back a shriek of his own as he turned and set eyes on the man seated in the comfortably padded chair in the other corner.

Dozing, no, sleeping—and apparently soundly. No. Mark stepped closer reluctantly. The guy's head was slumped forward, but his eyes weren't completely shut and his face was slack. McCormick grimaced and reached out. The skin over the carotid still felt warm but there was no pulse.

Mark sighed and forced himself to take one slow, careful look at the surroundings—undoubtedly the last one he'd get. He figured even Hardcastle wouldn't be able to horn his way in on this one without forfeiting his undercover status. To his own surprise, he had already—via some strange subconscious mechanism that even he didn't fully understand—worked out an acceptable version of how he'd made the grim discovery, one that stuck closely to all the pertinent facts, including the mystery girl, without making him into anything but a lost visitor.

He reviewed it once more, checking for odd details poking out at strange angles. Finding none, he stuck his head back out into the hallway and shouted, "Hey, can anybody hear me?We need some help down here!"

00000

They'd been plugging along through the second scene of the third act, with nearly the entire cast on stage to witness the staging of the play-within-the-play, which had a pantomime of a murder at its outset. Had it not been for that silent interlude, Hardcastle thought the distant, but very familiar voice hollering for assistance would have gone unnoticed.

As it was, the initial reaction was confusion among the players, followed by an angry inquiry from Moss.

"What the hell now?" He tossed his copy of the script on the table next to his seat and stood, frowning.

Hardcastle moved toward stage left, where the sounds seemed to have come from. Not being familiar with the layout, he was passed by Griggs and Phelps, with Theodora Kemp joining them in the wings near the top of a stairway.

"Down here, I think," she said, starting for the steps and then pausing as they all heard the voice, more clearly now.

"Somebody call 9-1-1!"

It was definitely McCormick, though the tone seemed just a little too studied, based on Hardcastle's extensive previous observations, with none of the loss of pitch control that the judge associated with real alarm. Still—

He pushed past a knot of more hesitant players and maneuvered to the front, catching up with the two leads and Theodora. Moss must have executed the same maneuver. He was right behind, muttering, "We're never going to make it through act five."

But that complaint was cut short as Griggs reached his dressing room doorway and gasped, "Marty!"

He ducked inside. Hardcastle, right behind him, took in the whole tableau with a single, riveted look.

McCormick, looking as if he'd had a moment to compose himself, then carefully un-compose himself, said, "I think he's dead."

It was a helluva performance—understated, with just the right touch of uncertainty. Hardcastle cocked his head, one eyebrow slightly up. McCormick totally ignored the unspoken comment.

Griggs was down on one knee, next to the arm of the chair, urgently inspecting the deceased man. He looked back at them, over his shoulder, his face pale. "I talked to him—it hasn't even been a half hour. He was fine."

Theodora looking horrified, leaned in and whispered to Hardcastle, "Marty Warfel—Rory's agent."

Moss had turned back to the doorway, hollering—"Somebody called for help yet? Tell 'em we need an ambulance." There was a commotion, voices, questions.

"Everybody needs to stay clear of the doorway," Hardcastle said. "Out of the hallway—back."

"What happened?" Griggs said softly.

McCormick shook his head and told his story—the girl, the partly open door, the discovery. "I got turned around, looking for the way out," he added, with just the right degree of facile insistence.

Hardcastle focused on Griggs, aiming for mild sympathetic interest. "You said he was fine earlier?"

Griggs nodded. He was still down at the side of the chair, now with one hand on the dead man's forearm, as though the reality was just sinking in.

"Ah, yeah, fine," he said, though maybe now there was a hint of hesitance. "I asked if he wanted to come up—sit in the house, you know, watch the rehearsal." He patted the man's arm once, uncertainly. "He said no—he'd just stay down here. Do you think there was something wrong?"

"Who was the girl?" Hardcastle asked more pointedly.

"Them," Moss said impatiently. "I told the crew to keep 'em out of here. Damn nuisances."

"Five foot seven, 120 pounds—tops," Mark said. "Medium complexion, brown hair—shoulder-length. She had on jeans and a sweater."

"The one who handed me the note?" Hardcastle asked, getting sharp questioning looks from Moss and Mrs. Kemp. "As we were coming in—one of the girls—she wanted me to give it to him." He hooked his thumb down at Griggs. "The guy who let us in said he'd give it to you."

Griggs made a vague gesture. "Happens sometimes." He wrinkled his nose. "Weird little gifts, artwork."

McCormick had been pondering. "I dunno." He caught Hardcastle's eye. "You were between me and her. I didn't get a good look."

"'Bout the same description," Hardcastle said, "sweater and everything."

Moss glanced at the people just outside in the hall. "Where's Jimmy? He was handling the door today, wasn't he?"

There was movement in the crowd—someone pushing from the back who said, "Yeah, that was me—"

Moss frowned and leaned out the door. "Let him through."

The ones in front parted enough so that the man could get past. He stepped through the doorway, staring curiously, but then dragged his gaze from the dead man long enough to say—"I came straight down with the note. I knocked. He opened the door." Jimmy pointed down at the deceased agent.

"Rory wasn't here?" Theodora asked gently.

Griggs frowned in concentration. "It must've been after I went up to the wing." He turned a focused stare on the stage hand. "How did he look—Marty, I mean—was he okay?"

Jimmy hesitated. It turned into a full-blown pregnant pause. It might have been the influence of the corpse, or just a general lack of drama in his life.

"Jimmy?" Moss finally prodded.

"Ah, yeah—he seemed okay, maybe a little flushed."

"'Flushed'?" Hardcastle cocked his head.

Everyone's gaze seemed to turn to reconsider the deceased, who was now a shade of post-mortem gray.

"Then maybe he was sick," Griggs said cautiously. "Something sudden."

Jimmy nodded in tentative agreement.

The judge grimaced. "And the note?"

Jimmy pointed at the corpse. "I told him it was for Mr. Griggs. He mumbled something. I handed it to him and left."

Griggs glanced over at the table, where there was no note, then reached toward the dead man's jacket pocket.

"Better leave it for the police," Hardcastle said sharply.

"But it was for me—"

"Fingerprints, maybe, if it's from the same girl who was in here."

"You mean she might've killed him?" Griggs looked alarmed. "How?"

Mark looked as if he also wanted to do a preemptive frisk the dead guy's pockets but was managing to control himself. "She might've just been the last one to see him alive."

"Or the first one to see him dead," Hardcastle added. "Either way, it'd be nice to know what she did see."

"Shouldn't be too hard to pick her out," Moss murmured.

"Yeah," Mark nodded, "she'll be the one who's not out there anymore."

00000

An ambulance came, followed in short order by the police—a couple of

uniformed guys to do what would probably turn out to be an routine investigation—death by natural causes. They'd gone as far as gathering all the witnesses in an impromptu assembly in the auditorium, including a small cluster of anxious females who'd been fetched from outside the back door and were now sitting off on their own to one side—none of them in jeans and a sweater. Two more beat cops had arrived to take down names and addresses and begin gathering statements. Finally, about twenty minutes into this routine, a plainclothes officer put in an appearance.

McCormick, who'd taken a seat several rows back next to Hardcastle, leaned over and whispered, "You called Frank?"

The judge shook his head almost imperceptibly. Lieutenant Frank Harper walked past without acknowledging them. He was greeted by one of the officers and escorted back into the wings.

Mark was still puzzling over Frank's apparent omniscience when the judge did some leaning of his own. From the corner of his mouth he said, "What I wanna know is how come if I'm the guy who's undercover, you're finding the dead bodies."

"Just the one," Mark whispered back. "And did you see him? He's sixty-five if he's a day. No signs of trauma. I'll be it's going to turn out to be his ticker."

"You mean it was killing him to see his A-list star working for scale?" Hardcastle nodded toward Griggs, who was sitting a few rows forward, looking pensive. "Anyway, I'm sixty-five—it's not exactly decrepitude."

"Okay," Mark shrugged, "but explain how knocking off Griggs' agent fits into all of this. They aren't even close—Rory just hired him eight months ago, after he got that job with the TV show. I heard him talking to the cops."

"And Theo says he got wind of the 'accidents' and was leaning on Griggs to back out of the deal." Hardcastle furrowed his brow thinking it over for a moment. "I suppose he might have been in on the plot—Marty, I mean." Then he shook his head in disagreement with himself. "Nah. Doesn't make any sense. He wasn't here for a couple of the incidents. I think he was hanging around today because he was worried about something happening to his valuable property."

"Then maybe he figured out who was behind it all."

Frank had returned, stepping out of a side door to the left of the stage. He surveyed the witnesses, his eyes resting only briefly on McCormick with no change in his usual dour expression.

He cleared his throat, though he already had nearly everyone's attention; there was something about Frank that said 'Show me your ID'—without even needing to add a 'please',though this time what he asked was, "Which of you folks discovered the body?"

Mark was willing to play along, in the interest of preserving the judge's undercover status. He raised his hand with the classic tentative air of an honest citizen unaccustomed to official attention.

One of the officers checked his notebook and murmured something to Frank, who nodded and said, "Mr. McCormick, would you come with me?", crooked a finger at him and then pointed to the door he'd just come through.

Mark got to his feet. Hardcastle was right behind him. The officer with the notebook held out a hand as if to send him back to his seat.

"I'm his lawyer," Hardcastle said to the cop. The cop turned to Harper for a ruling.

The lieutenant said, absolutely straight-faced, "Does he need one?"

The judge shrugged. "You never know."

Frank grimaced and shook his head slowly, then ushered both men in front of him into the back, to a small office he'd apparently appropriated. As soon as the door closed behind them, he turned sharply to the judge.

"Three hoursafter you ask me to look up a guy named Bradford we get a call about a dead body in a theater with the same name. Coincidence? I was hoping so, but I call up and ask if there's anybody hanging around there named 'Hardcastle' and . . . bingo."

He hitched his hip on a desk, surveying both men and finally letting out a sigh. "You found the body, Mark?"

"It's not like I put it there." McCormick said.

"You already heard his version," Hardcastle interrupted impatiently. "What do you have?"

Frank looked like he might hold out on them, just on general principle, but that only lasted a second or so. He didn't look particularly happy, though, as he pulled out his own notebook and flipped it open to a page that had one corner folded over.

"Martin Warfel, sixty-six. He was semi-retired, you know. Heart trouble." He reached into his pocket and pulled out an evidence bag containing a small brown screw-top bottle. "Nitroglycerin tablets. The bottle's half-empty and, yeah, we'll have them tested, but they look like the real deal."

"Semi-retired?" Hardcastle looked puzzled. "So why'd take on a new client—a young guy like Griggs."

"That director, Moss, says the dead guy was an old pal of Amos Bradford and had been recruiting cast for this theater for years. This Griggs guy showed up in Warfel's office last year, wants to do Hamlet; thinks this production is just the thing to kick-start his West Coast career."

The judge and Mark locked stares for a moment, then turned back to Frank. Hardcastle said, "Does that sound right to you?"

"Who knows? I wouldn't have thought poking around backstage in a community theater was the way to pass your first year law exams, either." Frank said dryly. He carefully avoided a glance in Mark's direction, fixing his gaze back on his notebook. "Anyway, your director also mentioned that Warfel mighta kept a hand in because of the fringe benefits."

Hardcastle cocked his head.

"Strictly hearsay," Frank added, "that he might've used his position to siphon off some of the fans: they could only get to their heartthrob through him. It's kinda like embezzling—"

"Only ickier," McCormick said, making a face. "Would Griggs have known about that?"

Frank raised an eyebrow. "Would you tell your boss you were embezzling?"

"Not if he valued his job," Hardcastle shot back.

Mark nodded his agreement and then added, "So Warfel was having a little tryst with one of the young ladies—maybe even note-girl—and his heart gave out?"

"Maybe," Franks said, not sounding all that convinced. "Anyway, next time, will ya read the damn note—we haven't found it yet."

"The girl took it because it would identify her," Mark offered.

"Maybe," Hardcastle said doubtfully.

"Why not?"

"Occam's Razor. A girl and a note and a tryst doesn't explain all the other stuff."

"The stuff you were about to tell me about?" Frank said arranging himself a little more comfortably on the desk.

But before the judge and Mark could draw straws on that, there was an insistent knock on the door. It had a cop-like quality to it. At a nod from Frank, Mark turned and opened it. The officer on the other side apologized, though strictly to the lieutenant.

"Moss—the guy running the place—asked me to ask you if they can get back to rehearsing. He says the show opens tomorrow." The officer grudgingly added, "The ME's already picked up the body. The techs are still downstairs in the dressing room, but we've got all the statements."

Harper pursed his lips and finally said, "I suppose they might as well. I'll be in here for a while."

The uniformed guy nodded but didn't turn and depart immediately. Harper frowned.

"Ah, he says he needs the witness." The officer pointed at Hardcastle.

Harper stared at him for a moment in disbelief, then transferred the look to Milt. "You're in the play?"

"No tights," Mark assured him.

"You tell him what's what," Hardcastle groused at his unhelpful sidekick. "I gotta rehearse."

"Wait a sec," Mark said. "How far have you gotten? Scene four's next, isn't it?"

"Yeah, pretty soon."

"That's where you get stabbed."

"No, shot—it's the fifties, remember?"

McCormick said nothing for a moment.

Hardcastle shrugged nonchalantly. "I guess they figured Hamlet wearing a sword around the house wouldn't work."

McCormick was still staring. He finally shook his head sharply and said, "Just be careful."

"You mean 'break a leg'?" Frank said.

"I'm not gonna break anything except the head of the first guy who tries anything funny up there," the judge growled. "Fill him in on the details, will ya?" he snapped at McCormick as he turned and stalked out.

00000

The cast resumed their places, just as they'd been standing when the interruption had occurred several hours back. There was a tension in the air that served the purpose of the scene well. Moss, though he looked weary, seemed satisfied with their progress, as the rest of act three wound on.

Hardcastle kept one eye on his script and one on Griggs as they exchanged lines through the tail-end of the second scene. The young man seemed to have immersed himself in his part. The judge stopped and listened to the soliloquy unfold after his exit—

"Tis now the very witching time of night, when churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out . . ."

He didn't know if it was his own imagination or the proximity of death that added a dark layer of meaning to Hamlet's words.

He shook his head as he tucked his script in his pocket and meandered further into the right wing. He ducked past the rear curtain to the crossover behind the stage thinking he might go back to the office until act four. It hadn't really been fair to make McCormick face an irritated Frank by himself.

He felt his way along, one hand on the back wall for guidance. His eyes hadn't adjusted yet, but coming up the steps on the left side was a tall, slightly stooped figure he didn't recognize from the earlier gathering.

Hamlet's father's ghost. He wasn't sure why that had clicked right away. It made sense—the character only appeared in the first and fourth scenes, and might have gone off to run some errands for the hour or so in between.

"Hey," he said softly, intending it as a non-specific greeting. He couldn't remember the guy's name among the flurry of résumés he'd read the night before. The man raised a hand in silent response.

Getting in character. Hardcastle gritted his teeth into a smile though he supposed the man couldn't make much out in the shadows either as they passed by each other. Still, the judge glanced over his shoulder at the figure, disappearing between two curtains at the far end of the crossover—weird.

He never made it back to Frank's borrowed office. He heard a softly-spoken, "Oh, Milt," and turned to look as he passed one of the storage areas. It was Theodora, sitting at a work table. She had a stack of tag-board sheets in front of her. She had a broad-tipped marker pen in her right hand. There was a copy of the script braced open to one side, held open by a coconut.

"Here," she said, taking the sheet she'd just finished and holding it up. "Is this big enough?"

He squinted and then read it off: "'Oh, I am slain!' Yup, looks fine."

She turned the sheet back toward herself and studied it. "Good. That's the last line for you, of course. Though, come to think of it, you're behind the arras for these last two—so we can't really use them."

She shuffled it back into place at the bottom of the heap then sat back and sighed heavily. "We must appear very single-minded. The show must go on—even if everyone gets a case of the heebie-jeebies and remembers somewhere else they have to be at the last minute and Bill Moss and I have to do it with hand puppets."

Hardcastle cocked his head. "Would that count?" he asked curiously.

Theodora thought about it for a moment and finally said, "I think it would, as long as Yorick puts in an appearance and all the lines get said. But there's such a thing as winning the battle and losing the war. Saving the theater won't count for much if we turn it into a laughingstock. I hope it won't come to that."

"It won't." Hardcastle tried to sound reassuring. "But I do think you should hire some security—you can't have folks wandering in and out of here."

"I've already talked to the other board members. We've got some retired police officers in the 'Friends of Bradford' group—at least their wives are members. We'll try and get a couple of them to take shifts until this is over." There was a pause, and then she blurted out, "Marty Warfel's death was just bad luck—his heart or something—wasn't it?"

"There's no sign of anything else. We won't have the autopsy results for a day or two, though."

"Good," she said defiantly. "By that time we'll be done—whatever they find, it won't matter."

"Well, it'll matter if it's murder."

She shushed him, then looked around sharply, as if she expected to see eavesdroppers in the shadows.

Hardcastle squinted again, this time at her. It was that kind of single-mindedness that might make someone do just about anything to protect their cast.

"How hard was Marty leaning on Griggs to get out of this production?" he asked casually.

Theodora pressed her lips together disapprovingly. She seemed to become aware that she was doing it and, just as suddenly, relaxed them. She even forced a small smile.

"Pretty hard," she admitted.

She stared at Milt for a moment and finally let out a little gasp. "You don't think I killed him?"

To his surprise, this was followed by a giggle. It might have been all the pent-up stress of the past few days—one turned into a cascade, though she managed to keep it almost silent. She finally caught her breath and wiped her tearing eyes. "Oh, Milt—though I suppose you have to consider all the possibilities, but me?" She smiled gently.

The judge shrugged. He was staring at the coconut. "You're doing South Pacific next?"

"What?" she reflected she reflected his puzzled expression and then followed his gaze. "Oh, this?" She hefted the hairy sphere and looked at it solemnly. "Alas—poor Yorick has an understudy, too. Amos only appears in the actual performance. Otherwise he's kept under lock and key."

She tilted her head to listen for a moment and then said, "Here's Roger's big scene—the King's confession soliloquy."

Hardcastle heard it now, too. There really was nothing quite like a good confession. He excused himself and stepped forward into the wings on the left side. Roger Phelps was confessing like a champ—though, of course, there was no one around to hear except Hamlet—entering unseen from the other wing. Phelps was down on his knees now and Griggs took his turn at the speechifying, giving voice to Hamlet's sudden reluctance to do in his murderous step-father—

Hardcastle heard a whispered voice, with a note of regret. "It'd be a lot shorter if he just finished him off now."

The judge turned his head slightly—McCormick was right behind him. He looked weary, though it wasn't clear if this was from the lateness of the hour, or Frank's version of the third degree.

"He can't now—not while Claudius is getting right with his Maker. Besides, we've got two more acts."

"I know, but we've already been here almost five hours."

Hardcastle craned around Mark. "Where's Frank?"

"He's heading back to the station—you know he's off duty in a half hour. He doesn't think the PD is going to be happy about him spending this much time on a natural death."

"So he's willing to keep quiet about the other stuff?"

"For now. But if the autopsy shows anything unusual—"

"It'll all be over by then."

McCormick gave him an odd look. "'The show must go on,' huh?"

"Well, it might as well—that's the only way we're gonna keep our saboteur around so we can catch him . . . or her."

Griggs had finished his bit. Phelps was rising, too, with one last couplet to declaim, and then the scene was over.

"And . . . curtain," Moss made a gesture to indicate the motion. "Okay folks, let's get a move on. Places for scene four—the queen's chamber. Polonius?"

Hardcastle straightened, leaned out from the wing-curtain and waved then ducked back in and turned to McCormick. "I'm up—this is my big scene. Wish me . . . I dunno, a strikeout or something."

McCormick was darting suspicious glances at the set-up. "Be careful." Then he fell silent, with only a polite nod to Ruby Seddon-Phelps, who'd joined them in the wing for their entry.

"Curtain up," announced Moss.

McCormick watched them stroll onto the stage, conversing. The curtain next to him moved slightly and he realized that Griggs had stepped in behind him. Mark supposed it hadn't so much been stealth, as keeping quiet in the wings. He nodded. Griggs didn't look as cheerful as he had earlier, but he was all business—no eyes reddened from grief for his manager. He was also wearing a professional-looking shoulder holster.

"Lemme see the gun," Mark said quietly.

Griggs frowned. "The prop guy already checked it."

But McCormick's palm-out gesture was insistent. Griggs drew the weapon and handed it over.

It was a revolver of a disturbingly familiar vintage. McCormick swung the cylinder out and inspected the sole cartridge it held—a blank. He snapped it shut and gave it back, just in time for Griggs to replace it in the holster, give him a strange look, and make his entrance.

It seemed like only a moment later that he'd drawn it again and was waving it, yelling something about rats and ducats, over Gertrude and Polonious's shouts for help. Blank, or not, when the sound of the shot rang out, Mark flinched—and the feeling of déjà vu didn't subside until he heard Hardcastle announce, "Oh, I am slain!" for maximum effect as he fell through the curtain onto the stage.

Mark let out a breath he'd been unaware he'd been holding, though he still wasn't completely comfortable with the rest of a scene that included Hardcastle's still form sprawled on the floor. The ghost showed up—Hamlet's dad's, not Polonius's. He came up from below the stage, via a trap, like a man ascending from his basement workshop. Apparently only Hamlet and the audience could see him, and Mark thought he looked a lot less tall and cadaverous in full stage light.

The argument continued—typical family life: who's sleeping with whom and how often were the sheets getting laundered—except for the ghost getting his two cents in now and then. And finally the scene ended, with Hamlet hauling Polonius's inert form off, stage left.

"Curtain," Moss said, sounding satisfied.

"Damn," Hardcastle muttered, still on the floor, feeling his backside gently. "I think I picked up a splinter."

"Sorry about that," Griggs said, offering him a hand up.

"Nah," the judge brushed his hands off on his pants and got himself up without any assistance before turning to McCormick. "Whadja think? Did I nail that line or what?"

"All that ham reminded me I missed dinner," Mark said flatly. "Can we go home now, or do we have to wait so you can take your final bow?"

"Hah. I thought I was pretty good. The gun, though," he wrinkled his nose, "doesn't seem very Shakespearian."

"Don't worry," Griggs said, "they left the sword duel in the final scene. Wouldn't make any sense to have them taking shots at each other for practice." He gave McCormick a studied look. "You sure you don't want to stay for it?"

"No—thanks though, it's been interesting. Don't tell me how it ends; I don't want to ruin the surprise for tomorrow." He shot a glance at Hardcastle and jerked his head toward the door.

The judge shrugged at Griggs and followed Mark, catching up with him back near the stage door.

"They're gonna be at it here for at least another hour or two, ya know."

"And whatever it was that happened to Marty—"

"You mean his heart attack?"

"His heart or . . . whatever, I think the excitement is over for tonight."

"Yeah," Headcastle squinted back at the curtains and shadows for a moment, and then nodded, "you're probably right. Might've even scared off the person who was doing all the other stuff—all those cops showing up."

"That could be it," Mark nodded, not looking very convinced. He stared into the darkness, past Hardcastle, and finally turned back, saying, "Can we go home now?" as he hit the panic bar on the stage door with more force that absolutely necessary.

ACT III

McCormick arrived home at three-thirty again the next day, this time going directly to the main house. He tried the front door, which was unlocked, then stuck his head in and said, "Judge?"

"The ambassadors from Norway are joyfully returned."

McCormick snorted, opened the door further and stepped through. "Not Norway, and not too joyfully. I had to sit through two hours of torts today."

Hardcastle was sitting at his desk, chin propped on his hand and his copy of the script open in front of him. He tapped the page once with his other hand. "Ya know, I think it's starting to come back to me. Fifty years."

"Guess it's true what they say," McCormick dropped his briefcase on one chair and himself into another, "it's all part of your permanent record."

The judge covered the bottom half of a page with his hand and muttered something, then shook his head and took a peek and sighed. "Still, I'm glad I'll have the cue cards."

McCormick leaned back and started to put his feet up on the coffee table.

Hardcastle glanced up. "Don't get too comfortable. We gotta leave in fifteen minutes."

"Uh-huh," Mark muttered. He was staring at something dark blue, swathed in a dry cleaning back, draped over the arm of the sofa. "Your costume?"

The judge looked up again impatiently. "Yeah."

McCormick leaned over and lifted the plastic for a peek. It was navy, lightweight wool, with lapels that screamed 1949, or thereabouts. "It fits?" he asked curiously.

"It better. It's mine. I wore it to my wedding."

"It fits?" McCormick said doubtfully.

"Yeah, well, Nancy had it let out for our twenty-fifth anniversary. Hers still fit."

McCormick thought about that one for a moment: the approximate dates involved and other reasons why Nancy Hardcastle might have had no difficulty fitting into the clothes she'd worn twenty-five years earlier. He grabbed for the nearest goofy substitute to dwelling on the past.

"She had a blue suit, too?"

Hardcastle snapped out of his reverie. He made a face. "Nah, jeez, she had a dress—ivory satin, orange blossoms in her hair and everything."

"Hmm." Mark nodded, and then suddenly frowned. "Hey, you got to wear a suit—how come I had to put on a tux?"

The judge apparently had no problem with the segue.

"That," he pointed out patiently, "was a morning coat, not a tux. It had tails. And I wasn't getting hitched to some oil sheik's daughter." He grimaced at the recollection and then added, "Next time, wear a suit. They're more practical; you can use 'em again."

"Better than tights, at least."

The judge had opened his mouth to reply, but the doorbell rang and he said, "That's Frank," instead.

"How did you—?"

"He said he was coming."

McCormick got up to do the honors. It was Harper, as predicted, though he didn't look very pleased about whatever news he was bringing. He had a file tucked under his arm.

"Did the M.E. say anything yet about the death?" Mark asked, ushering him into the den.

The lieutenant shook his head. "You know how backed up they are? Anything that doesn't have an entry wound is gonna take at least three days—longer if you're waiting on toxicology."

Mark sighed. "As long as somebody down there doesn't hold that nitro bottle up to their forehead and just write 'M.I.' on the death certificate."

"Which is probably what it was," Hardcastle muttered. "Anything on Wolf Bradford?"

"The heir unapparent?" Frank said. "You mean besides him being the only one who definitely didn't kill Martin Warfel?"

"You sure about that?" McCormick asked, reaching for the file. Hardcastle beat him to it.

Frank released it with a shrug. "He's in Minneapolis, practicing law."

"No record," Mark asked. "Nothing?"

"There's some links to the Norwegian Mafia," Frank said dryly.

McCormick frowned. "I didn't even know they had a Mafia."

"You've never heard of Olaf Jorgenson?" Hardcastle grumbled. "Last I heard he had a four-state dairy operation." He looked up. "Frank, tell him when you're making a joke, will ya?"

"It was a joke, Mark."

"We got nothing here." Hardcastle shut the file in disgust.

McCormick had pulled something out of his shirt pocket. He glanced at what was in his hand and then at Frank. "I think I ought to reconsider giving these to you."

"The lieutenant had brightened considerably. "Tickets?"

"Two, front row, on the aisle."

"How'd you get 'em? I call the box office this morning and they told me they were sold out."

"Griggs gave 'em to me last night. I'd told him you were interested." Mark handed them over and then smiled serenely at a scowling Hardcastle.

Frank was staring down at his booty with a slightly puzzled expression. Mark shrugged and added, "They were intended for Warfel, but naturally he won't be going . . ."

The lieutenant smiled uncertainly for a moment and then nodded and stuffed the two tickets in his pocket. "Thank him for me, will ya? Claudia'll be excited."

"A chance to see the judge chewing up the scenery?"

"Ah, well," he hesitated, "she's a big fan of that Med-Star show—I didn't know she liked those 'Doctor Kildare' kinda things." He glanced at his older friend and grinned, ". . . and of course she couldn't wait to see Milt in tights."

"No tights," the judge grumbled.

"But we better hustle," Mark said, glancing down at his watch. "Make-up and all that."

00000

They parted ways with Frank in the front drive and, with McCormick behind the wheel, made the silent drive to the theater—Hardcastle still studying his lines. He didn't look up until he heard McCormick mutter, "What the—?" as he made the turn into the parking area.

The ambulance was just pulling out. The back stage door was still open and Theodora was on the steps along with a few others, talking among themselves.

McCormick pulled into a spot. The judge was out almost before the truck had halted, hustling toward her. Mark grabbed the dry cleaning bag and followed along behind.

She turned to them and said, "Oh, you're here—did you bring your costume?"

Mark held it up. Her tense smile of approval barely concealed her anxiety. She grabbed Hardcastle's sleeve and tugged him away from the rest of the crowd, who were mostly drifting back inside anyway.

"I didn't have time to call you," she said in something approaching a stage whisper.

"What happened?" he said.

"Another accident—a fall down the steps. Jimmy Wainwright—one of our stagehands. They found him a little while ago but nobody's sure when it happened. There were a few people here early, getting things set up."

"Dead?"

"No—but it doesn't look good. He was barely breathing."

Hardcastle shot a sharp look at McCormick. "Think it was his ticker? Call Frank and give him the latest, will ya?"

"Frank—that policeman from last night?" Theodora asked anxiously. She knit her brows. "Do you have to? It's only a few more hours."

Mark glanced at Hardcastle who frowned and said, "Call him." To Mrs. Kemp he said, "Theo—one guy's dead and one's in serious condition. And we don't know who's gonna try what next."

She bit her lower lip and then nodded once, sharply. Then she sighed and said wistfully, "Those stairs are very steep—and not at all well-lit."

A middle-aged woman stuck her head out the door and looked around, her eyes alighting on Hardcastle. "There you are—anyone else missing? Make-up, now. We're behind."

McCormick handed him the dry-cleaning bag and muttered, "Watch your step in there." He watched the judge and Theodora head inside. As he stood there for a moment, hands in pockets, wondering where he'd find the nearest phone that offered some privacy, he became aware he was being watched.

The usual clutch of young females was there, moved a little further off during the emergency, but now starting to drift back into their usual orbit. Most of them were focused on the stage door, but one stood a little apart from the rest and she was staring at him.

He met her eyes straight on. She didn't flinch or look away. He made the first overture, taking a couple of steps toward the truck. She parted further from the crowd, glancing around surreptitiously. None of the rest were looking in her direction.

She approached him cautiously. She wasn't the girl from the day before, Mark was certain, not unless she'd changed her hair color and put on ten pounds.

"You're in the play?" she asked, when she got close enough to speak quietly.

Mark shook his head.

"Oh . . . I thought—" she started to turn away.

"I'm sort of part of the crew," he improvised hastily. "I'm helping out some."

She paused, looking back at him. "Yeah, I saw you yesterday." She frowned. "You know Rory?"

"Ah . . . some."

This seemed to buy him a little credit. He hoped it wasn't the main purpose of the thing. She stood there for a moment, studying him, and finally let out a sigh, decided the waters were warm enough, and dove in all at once.

"It's Marnie—she wants to know if she's in trouble."

"Is she about five-seven, brown hair, shoulder length?"

His informant nodded. He looked around but didn't see the girl in question.

"She's not here—I told you, she's scared she might be in trouble."

"Marnie's last name is . . .?"

"None of your business, if she's in trouble," the young woman said sharply.

"Maybe you could tell me what she told you—I mean, I have to know what happened if you want me to help."

The girl appeared to weigh that, then gave it a nod. "I suppose." She leaned in a little, assuming a confidential tone. "She's been a fan of Rory's forever."

McCormick's eye's narrowed slightly. "How big a fan?"

She looked at him and frowned. "No, not like that." She cast a look over at the rest of the crowd by the door. "Marnie's, like, way different. When she fans someone, she just wants to know everything about them—maybe talk to them, but that'd be it."

"And she knows a bunch about Rory?"

The girl nodded enthusiastically. "Bunches. I mean, everything—like, from before he was famous even. She's amazing."

"Gotcha. She just kinda collects people—things about them. Details."

"That's Marnie." The girl smiled slyly. "She even has a copy of his birth certificate and one of his dental x-rays. Like I said, amazing."

"I'd like to meet her."

"Uh-uh. I saw you with that cop yesterday—the plainclothes guy."

"Did she do anything wrong?" Mark said practically.

The girl shrugged. "Wrong place, wrong time, mostly."

"What did she say she saw?" He was willing to settle for hearsay at this point but even that was a disappointment.

"She wouldn't tell me. She just seemed scared."

"The safest thing would be to tell someone."

"Maybe. Not the cops, though."

"Then me."

She gave that some thought and said, "Maybe." She sounded tentative. "I can ask her. It'd have to be someplace public."

"You watch a lot of TV, huh?"

She shrugged again. "Yeah, maybe . . . I know how it's done."

"Great. You talk to her, see if she'll talk to me." He looked around and then at her again. "Once the show starts everybody will be inside. I could meet her right here at, say, eight o'clock?"

"Make it nine. I'm not promising—"

"Try."

The girl nodded, mostly to herself. Then she looked up and said, "Say 'hi' to Rory, will ya?" Then she turned and headed across the parking lot, away from the theater.

It briefly occurred to McCormick that he might follow her, a notion he quickly dismissed, as it appeared she was heading for the bus stop. Offering her a ride might have made a little more sense, but it had the feel of a wild goose chase, and one that would probably take him away from the theater for an unconscionable period of time.

He headed for the steps, ignoring, and being ignored by, the rest of the girls. A quick rap on the door got him entry, let in by an older guy he didn't recognize, but who looked like a retired cop.

"You got a pass?" the man asked.

"I'm with the band," Mark quipped.

The guy gave him a puzzled look and said, "I didn't think it was a musical."

Mark had been on the verge of opening his mouth when Theodora stuck her head out of an alcove and said, "That's all right, Phil. I didn't have a change to get him signed in yet."

The guard waved him through. "So whaddaya play?"

"First base, mostly." Mark nodded as he ducked by.

Theodora took him by the arm once he was inside. "Could I impose on you to help me sort through Milt's cue cards? I need to make sure we have them in the right order."

"Why, Mrs. Kemp," Mark said, looking sternly at her, "I do believe you are trying to distract me from my duty."

She let go of him, looking a little chagrined.

Mark dropped his voice a notch. "We both heard him. I'm supposed to keep Frank informed. I don't think they're going to come in here and close the place down for a safety violation."

Her lips thinned and her eyes narrowed. "We are so close to pulling this off."

"And if we're right—the closer it gets, the worse the risk. Whoever's doing this may be getting pretty desperate—if Jimmy's fall wasn't an accident, and Marty's ticker didn't quit on him—" He shook his head. "I hate to say this, but I almost miss having a nice clear-cut murder to work with." He frowned for a moment and then sighed. "Now, do you have a phone I can use? Somewhere where there's a little privacy? How 'bout that room I was in yesterday."

"That's our accounts room—where we keep the books and the box-office receipts for deposit. I was just going there now."

She led him, though he already knew the way. "I'll stop trying to distract you," she promised, "but I really will need some help with the cue cards during the performance. We lost a couple more crew members since yesterday—"

"More accidents?"

"No . . . people are frightened. They don't know if there's a jinx, or a curse, or what. Theater people can be very superstitious. Here we are," she ushered him into the room.

It looked much the same as it had the day before. The phone was on the desk, a five-button model with three outside lines, all of which were lit up and currently in use. He slid in behind the desk and took a seat, prepared to wait. Theodora edged past the desk and lifted a framed poster from the wall.

Mark looked up at the now-revealed wall safe with distant and abstract interest. It had an inset combination lock and a no-frills practical style.

Mrs. Kemp glanced over at him with no particular hostility. "I'm not supposed to let anyone see the combination."

"Ahh," Mark nodded and swiveled his chair to face away from her.

He tried not to notice the poster propped against the opposite wall: "All That Jazz"—a nearly black background with perfectly reflecting glass in front. Sure the dial was small, and backwards, but it had been a matter of pride that he could pick these things up, at least within a number or two, on one go.

She'd finished up. The door swung open. She screamed.

00000

The door was closed, fortunately. Mark was up out of the chair and at her side in a flash. The scream had been cut short but the residual pallor told him that had been a supreme act of self-control. He helped her over to the seat. She gasped—gesturing at the open safe.

"What?" he said, looking into it and seeing nothing but the usual shallow metal box, the kind used to sort and store ready cash. There were some papers under that—curled slightly along the one edge, as though the door pressed up against them when closed. He turned back toward her. She still looked stricken. "What?" he asked again, impatiently.

She finally caught a breath and squeaked, "He's gone."

A glimmer of a notion formed in McCormick's brain. He glanced back into the safe. The empty spot next to the box was about the right size. He swallowed squeamishly. "That's where you keep . . . Amos?"

She nodded.

"When did you see him last?"

"This morning. I came in to check if we needed any additional cash for the concessions. He was smiling."

"I'd kinda figure he's always smiling."

"Yes," she nodded anxiously, "but particularly so on April twenty-third. I've always thought so."

"And who has the combination—maybe someone took him out already, you know—make-up, a little polishing—?"

"No, no, I'm the only one who has it. I always bring him to the prop-mistress for the graveyard scene and take him back after the final bows."

"He gets a bow?"

"Of course. He's very beloved. He's the only member of the cast who's been in all twenty-four of the productions."

He studied the framed poster propped against the wall. He supposed the next question ought to be, "How many people have been in here when you've opened that safe?" but he kept his mouth shut. He glanced down at the phone—all three lines still in use.

"I noticed nobody uses the lobby doors during rehearsals."

"No, they're kept locked. They open from the inside, of course, but there's an alarm system."

"And you've got someone watching the stage door?"

"Since six this morning."

Mark nodded. "Then I'd say there's a good chance Amos hasn't left the building. Whoever took him just needs to be certain he's not available for today's performance. They don't want to be caught with him."

A look of hope blazed Theodora's cheek. "Do you think? Oh, you've got to find him."

"Me?"

"I'll help, but you're good at this sort of thing. It's a rescue mission."

Dubious did not begin to cover McCormick's expression. He though her assessment was more a function of her desperation rather than his track record. But he finally let out a long sigh and said, "Okay, I'll poke around a little. I need a cover story."

Mrs. Kemp thought for a moment and then looked up again. "The mousetraps—there's a crate of them in the utility room. We've had an infestation. Jimmy was supposed to handle it but we've been so busy."

"Nobody is going to believe that."

She drew herself up, her eyes darkening. "I don't care what they believe. You have the full authorization of the board to go wherever necessary in pursuit of this rodent infestation." Her chin quavered slightly. "It's not just the play—the theater . . . you've got to find Amos."

00000

He found Hardcastle, who was sitting in a well-lit corner having make-up applied by a young lady.

"This is Shelly," the judge waved a hand, "she's thinks I'm a winter. Shelly, this is McCormick. He's responsible for the frown lines."

She smiled. "Almost done—and we call those 'character features'." She tilted his chin left for a final inspection and then snapped her case shut. "On to my next victim."

Mark nodded as she sashayed off, case in hand.

Hardcastle snapped his fingers—"Hey, you call you-know-who yet?"

"Huh? Oh . . . I tried. You know this whole place has only three phone lines? Anyway," he dropped his voice several notches, "there's been a kidnapping."

Hardcastle stared at him in disbelief for a long moment and then finally said, "Must be the Norwegian Mafia again."

"Nope. And I'm serious. Amos Bradford vanished from a locked safe sometime after nine-thirty this morning. Mrs. Kemp discovered the crime, and she's the only one who has official access to the safe where he was kept, in the very office you and Frank and I conferred in yesterday. Got the picture?"

"You didn't take it, didja? Some kind of weird practical joke?"

"Judge, get serious."

Hardcastle frowned as seriously as possible and thought for a moment. "Well, it's probably still in the building."

"That's what I said. And guess who she appointed inspector general?"

"You better not have taken the darn thing in the first place," Hardcastle muttered.

"I didn't." This time McCormick looked genuinely peeved. "I didn't even know it was there until it was gone."

"Okay, sorry. You got some kind of excuse for snooping around?"

"I do. This is your ACME Catch-n-Release Rodent Reservoir, model 175—patent pending. I have six dozen of them. I am going hunting."

"Break a leg," Hardcastle said.

00000

The witching hour was getting inexorably closer. Hardcastle had tried to call Frank—both at the office and at home, and presumed he was already on the way to the theater. He heard the muted murmur of the first few guests trickling into the hall, but hadn't caught sight of McCormick since he'd set out to find the essential Amos. Moss was back in the crossover, conferring with the Phelpses. It looked a bit intense, thought they were keeping their voices low.

He wandered in that direction only to find they'd stopped abruptly as they noticed him approaching. It was too abrupt, and naturally they started up again, in a misguided attempt to not appear to conspire.

"Anyway, I thought it was agreed," Roger Phelps said crisply. "We were to have top billing in the program."

"I know," Moss flustered, "and I told the graphics people that's how we wanted it."

"No matter, though," Phelps smiled, suddenly gracious. "We're all professionals here—it's the performances that matter, and getting Amos's little theater the recognition it needs."

But his wife apparently couldn't put it down. "He must have gone over your head," Ruby sniffed. "I don't like him, not a bit. He turns that charm of his on and off like a switch."

"I don't know, dear," Phelps smiled slyly at her, "He reminds me a little of you. Anyway, I think that's why the third act is so effective. You two are so nasty together. It's positively Freudian. And it probably wasn't him—I'd put my money on that agent of his."

Ruby nodded in arch agreement. "You know we used to call him 'Awful Warfel'. No starlet was safe in the same room with him." Her lips narrowed. "Maybe that's why he and Amos got along so well together."

The Phelpses nodded their farewells and slithered off. Moss looked relieved enough at the arrival of a neutral party. He smiled thinly at his newest cast member.

"Hey, Milt—how's it going? Any jitters?"

"Nah." Hardcastle stuck his lower lip out a bit—his face felt thick and . . . false. It reminded him uncomfortably of his brief run on that courtroom show a few years back. This, however, was business.

He wondered if Moss had gotten the word yet about Amos, and, deciding he hadn't, just as suddenly decided not to tell him. A scene in the crossover was not what was needed right now.

"It's a lot of work, huh?" He jerked his thumb in the direction of the departing stars.

Moss's gaze went a little unfocused, or maybe he was focusing on something farther back, beyond the dimensions of the stage they were on.

"Hmmph," he said, snapping back and blinking. "Sorry—tired. Put in a lot of hours this week."

"Here night and day, huh?"

"It's like that most of the time," Moss smiled. "But Hamlet is always a little crazy—and this one, well—I'd like to go out with a bang."

"You're quitting?"

"Retiring. I'll be seventy next year, you know. This is my last production." He looked up and around. "I probably should have moved on years ago. I had an offer—NYU's theater program."

"You didn't take it?"

He smiled wanly. "That was fifteen years ago. I always thought I could make something of this place—a theater mecca."

"You got the Phelpses and this Grigg fellow."

"He's an anomaly. Even his agent thought he was crazy for sticking around. Hey, maybe that's what make him such a good Hamlet—just a touch of obsession." Moss shrugged. "Anyway, they say the money is in movies and TV—Shakespeare is dead."

"You got a sellout, I heard."

"The girls are here to see the Med Star sidekick." As if on cue they heard some high-pitched squeals from beyond the curtains. Moss smiled again, stuffed his hands in his pants pockets, shrugged, and walked away.

00000

Seven ACME traps later, and otherwise empty-handed, McCormick found himself by the dressing rooms. This time he knocked.

"Later," Mr. Phelps said, and since his door connected with his wife's room, Mark figured that went for both of them.

They weren't very high on the list of suspects, anyway, though he intended to be thorough and it was always possible that Amos had been somewhere that wouldn't point to the thief. He knocked on Griggs' door next, where he got no answer. The door was unlocked—a bad sign for a potential hiding place. He stepped in, pleased to find the chair not occupied by a corpse.

His search was based on the efficiency of practice. He'd just completed it when he heard the door behind him open again. He turn as he heard Griggs say, more resigned than surprised, "You again."

He held up the trap—exhibit A. "Rodents," he said.

"How now? A rat? Dead for a ducat, dead!"

Mark nodded once. "That's what I always say."

Griggs smiled. It wasn't the megawatt one that was featured in his head shot. This was something a little slyer, yet altogether more sincere.

"You are not the exterminator."

"Nope, strictly catch and release."

"So," Griggs went on, as though Mark had said nothing, "who are you?" He cocked his head as if he were making up his mind about something. "Someone's trying to shut down this show, but you knew that, huh? You and that other guy—Milt—you're here to figure that out."

Mark sat down slowly. "Maybe."

"Good. I really want to do this Hamlet."

Mark considered him. The guy was painfully sincere. He had to ask. "How come? I mean, it's one performance."

Griggs pulled the dressing table chair out, and straddled it backwards. He spoke, almost dreamily, "That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain; At least I am sure it may be so in Denmark." He broke from his reverie with a crooked smile of his own. "Where else can you get lines like that? And so many of them." He frowned again. "So what are you looking for, anyway?"

It took him by surprise, or maybe that was just an excuse for telling the truth. "You might be working with the coconut again tonight."

Griggs didn't immediately grasp the reveal.

"Amos—Yorick. Somebody snatched him. Any thoughts?"

The man's face drained. It was quite remarkable. He finally said, "You're going to think I'm crazy."

"Try me."

"Moss. Three nights ago, after rehearsal, I sat down in here—I was so wrung out I fell asleep, right there in that chair. Must've been twenty minutes. Anyway, I woke up, realized everybody had gone. No problem, though, I just figured I'd let myself out the back."

"Only you saw something on the way out?"

Griggs nodded. "I didn't make much of it at the time, but it was Moss, and he was stepping off the ladder that leads up to the catwalk."

"Where the lights are?"

"Exactly."

"Why didn't you say anything?"

"Then? Why? Maybe he was checking something. He didn't even see me."

"And after the bulbs shattered?"

Griggs shrugged. "He's the director. It didn't make any sense that he'd be pulling pranks like that. And, anyway, who was going to put this thing together in time if I started pointing fingers three days before the show?"

Mark thought about for a moment. "Okay," he finally said, "if Moss did have a reason—like maybe someone was paying him a big pile of money to sink the show—where do you think he'd put Amos?"

"You know they were friends," Griggs said. "Him and Amos and Marty. All of them. Moss was kind of the poor cousin because he stuck with legitimate theater. Hah—and he outlived them all."

"And Amos—we need to find Amos," Mark reminded him.

"I don't think he'd just toss him in the bottom of a bin. It'd be somewhere . . . respectful."

"Suggestions?"

"I don't know. Everybody says Amos wanted to be an actor."

A double stroke dimming of the lights halted that thought. Someone in the hallway announced "Two minutes, places for scene one."

Griggs rose, grabbed a fedora off the dressing table, and said, "Find him—please."

And he left.

McCormick went out into the hallway, which was rapidly emptying. He didn't bother with the traps anymore, knowing that Moss would be up in the wings, observing. He continued his search, armed with Griggs' impressions. Moss's office was a warren of detritus from past shows. It occupied a half-hour, after which he knew he'd drawn a blank. He sorted through a quarter-century of weapons and other props, finding nothing even remotely useful, then back-tracked to the Phelpses' suite, just on the off chance that Griggs was mistaken. From there he worked his way through the rest of the dressing rooms, finally coming to the one shared by Hardcastle and the guy playing Laertes—a long-limbed grad student from UCLA named Chip who was knotting a silk tie in the mirror.

"Can we have a moment?" the judge jerked his chin toward the door.

"No problem," Chip said. "Gotta go get some stretches in before the last scene anyway."

Mark let him ease past and turned to Hardcastle. "Your rouge is smudged."

The judge started to turn toward the mirror, caught himself and glowered. "You find Amos yet?"

"Would I be walking around with this if I had?" He held up a trap and then let it drop to his side. "I got a hint, though."

"I think it might be Moss," the judge said abruptly.

Mark, mouth already half-open, shut it on a wondering, "Damn."

"Yeah, I know, it sounds goofy."

"No," Mark shook his head. "Griggs thinks he walked in on him pulling one of the dirty tricks—the one with the light bulbs."

"Lamps—they call 'em lamps." Hardcastle leaned forward, hand on his knee, elbow bent. "It makes sense, though. We would've seen it sooner if he hadn't been with Theo the night she came to us. He was the one who wanted to go to the cops—that would have panicked the cast. That's probably all it would have taken to put a kibosh on the whole production."

"Instead he gets stuck with us watching his every move." Mark looked up sharply. "But what about Marty and Jimmy?"

The judge shook his head. "I don't see a connection. Marty had a bad ticker and Jimmy tripped in the dark."

There was a tap on the door and someone said, "Act three in two minutes."

"Already?" Mark said.

"Keep looking." Hardcastle was already on his feet and heading for the door.

Then he was gone. Mark got up, did a quick riffle through Chip's stuff to ward off dramatic irony, and moved on to the next room, checking his watch frequently as he made slow but steady progress in determining all the places where Amos wasn't.

After one final check of his watch, he broke off and headed for the stairs. Given his caution, it might have thought he'd timed it early but, no, there was Griggs in the wing. The shoulder holster wasn't visible under his nattily cut but out-of-date pinstripe. Hardcastle had not yet taken his place behind the curtain, onstage, and Ruby, in a timeless red satin number, was draping herself across on a divan.

McCormick tapped Griggs on the shoulder. The man turned, a questioning look in his eye. Mark shook his head to indicate the results of the search so far. The he pointed to the holster.

"I checked it myself this time," Griggs assured him, but he also removed the gun and passed it to him. Another blank. This time Mark didn't stick around for the murder. The costumes and stage lighting increased the creep factor considerably.

The audience seemed to think so, too. He was half way down the stairs this time, when he heard the shot, which was immediately followed by a gasp from the audience, which had probably drowned out Hardcastle's big line. Mark had avoided the flinch, and even managed to take another step, after only a moment's hesitation. He headed back to the rooms below, to continue his search.

Three more rooms. He was vaguely aware of a couple more scene announcements from the hallway, though there didn't seem to be anyone hanging around down there. This was opening and closing nights, all wrapped up in one.

"And maybe the final performance for the theater," he muttered to himself, aware that he was now dripping with sweat and starting to toss things with limited finesse, like a midnight burglar.

He was finishing up in Rosenkrantz's and Guildenstern's room. Nothing but a bottle of Dramamine with a blue ribbon on it with a note that read: "Have fun in London!" signed by Peaches and Gail. He sighed and tossed it over his shoulder into a pile and sat down wearily. He heard the hallway proctor announce "Four minutes to Act Five."

Mark stood again and stepped out into the hall. There were two men there, wearing denim overalls and muddy boots, presumably the fifties version of rustics.

"The graveyard scene?" he asked

They looked at him. One nodded. The other was holding a coconut. "When do we get the skull?" He said. "I'm supposed to hand it to Griggs."

Mark winced. "It'll be a minute or two more. Ah," he pointed at the coconut, "improvise."

They didn't look too convinced but both strode off down the hall, in the opposite direction of the stairwell to the left wing. Mark watched them go, feeling the passing of each second in the pounding of his pulse. His eyes focused on the last remaining door.

Supernumeraries and all others.

He cocked his head and then bolted through the door into a room that looked less comfortably inhabited than the others. No one made this home; it was just a place to park a coat. Nothing would look suspicious or out of place in here, because if it wasn't yours, it obviously belonged to someone else.

It would have to be locked, though, a box, not easy to open.

He was moving fast, shifting piles of stuff, bags, things left behind by previous legions of spear carriers. Nobody ever cleans up other people's stuff, and if you found something that didn't belong in here, how would you know who to blame?

And there it was. He knew it, though he didn't know how, the minute he laid eyes on it: an old-fashioned square box with metal reinforced corners and its handle riveted on. The padlock was ridiculously simple, almost decorative, just enough to prevent a random peek without generating any curiosity on its own. Simple, yes, but—

My kingdom for a set of picks—just one pick even.

He ransacked the drawers of the dressing table, found a coffee-stained script held together with a paperclip, and grabbed for it. It took longer to find than to use. The lock sprung open. He snatched it off, but opened the lid slowly.

He dropped the lid back in place. He didn't really want to see if Amos was still smiling. Then he scooped up the whole case and ducked out into the hall, turning in the direction the two men had gone a moment earlier. The door at that end led to another hall, set at right angles to the first and lit only by a nightlight down near floor level.

He peered ahead, and saw a more open area with light piercing down from above, forming sharp rectangular puddles. He heard voices, too. The area was wider, but not particularly high. He almost brained himself on a crossbeam as he felt his way forward one-handed, clutching the box.

Overall-clad legs protruded down through one of the rectangular holes, the man's boots resting on the platform below stage level. The grave trap, McCormick surmised, and from the audience's perspective the man would appear to be sitting at ground-level, his feet dangling into the grave which he'd recently been digging.

There was the coconut, sitting next to the man's left foot. Mark put his box down, opened the lid silently, and reached in, suppressing a shiver as he removed the contents. He barely spared it a glance, swapping it out for the coconut. As he picked up the box and started to retreat, he heard the man say—with more surprise than the line deserved—"Here's a skull now; this skull hath lien you i'th' earth three and twenty years."

Mark smiled, ducking under the beam and making it all the way back to the dressing rooms without tripping over anything. Mission accomplished. He supposed it wouldn't have mattered if Moss's fingerprints had been on the skull. Surely he'd handled it in the past. Nearly any of the regulars might've made that claim. The box, on the other hand, could prove evidentiary. He decided to put it in Hardcastle's room and had just set it there, in an out-of-the-way corner, when he glanced at his wristwatch.

9:05.

Something clicked. He had an appointment—though it didn't seem all that important now, since they'd decided Marty's ticker had been his downfall. Still, it wasn't polite to keep a young lady waiting, and he could at least tell her she wasn't in any trouble.

He slipped into the stairwell, trying to move as silently as the guy he noticed coming down. The man had an advantage, being Hamlet's dad's ghost—done with his fourth act duties and ready to hit the dressing room. Mark only glanced at him, though. Not backlit anymore, it was easy to see his features—good casting.

Mark kept the observation strictly internal, but to his surprise, the otherwise impassive visage gave him a slight but solemn nod as they passed. He returned it, and then joined the throng above, observing briefly from the wings. Griggs was holding the skull almost reverentially. The audience was silent, enrapt, even the young ladies who were ordinarily prone to shrieking.

That reminded him of his appointment again. He didn't see Hardcastle, or the guard who'd been watching the door. Possibly the judge had recruited him to help keep close tabs on Moss. Mark gave it all one last look and then headed for the stage door, trying to open it as noiselessly as possible.

He stood outside, taking in the cool air. He hadn't realized how soaked he'd gotten in his frantic search. A chill settled on him. The light from over the door cast harsh puddles of light into the surrounding shadows. He stepped down, to get out where he could adjust to the darkness.

He saw someone standing with her back against the wall, looking anything but relaxed and watching him warily. The general shape and size looked right so he took a chance.

"Marnie?"

She nodded.

"Your friend told me you were worried." He took a step forward. That was a mistake. She backed up twice as far as he'd advanced. It wasn't a comfortable distance for a conversation.

"Listen, we just want to know what you saw down there, that's all. I'm not even a cop."

"Are you a friend of Rory's?"

There was something in the tone—he wasn't sure how he figured it out, but he knew almost at once that the honest answer was also the right one.

"No—I mean, I just met him yesterday. Why?"

She edged toward him just a little, peering closely. "That guy's dead, isn't he?"

"Marty, Rory's agent? Yeah. Do you know what happened?"

"Maybe." She hesitated again and stepped closer and lowered her voice to a near-whisper. "I snuck in; the door didn't latch. I just wanted to get the note back."

"Huh? Why'd you send it?"

"I didn't. That was Kris. She said she signed my name to it."

"Kris? Is that the blond girl I was talking to today?"

Marnie nodded. "She thought she was doing me some kind of favor. She thinks I'm too shy."

"You have any idea what the note said?"

"That I've been his biggest fan for ages." She waved her hand in little circles. "Which is true, I guess—and that I knew all about him, which is also true." She sighed heavily. "She says she just wanted him to know how devoted I was."

Mark considered that for a moment and then said, "Are you familiar with the term 'stalking'?"

"It's not like that at all," she insisted. "I just want to know things about people . . . some people."

"People you don't have to actually talk to and become friends with?"

"There," she said, "that's it. Why doesn't anybody get that?"

"Did you get the note back?"

She shook her head. "I'd looked up the plans for the theater. I like things like that—layouts. Anyway, I knew where I was going. You know Malibu has a really nice library—and it's right on the bus line. I moved out here last fall."

"Because of him?"

She hesitated. "Yeah, maybe."

"Stalking," Mark said gently.

She shook her head again. "No, I just spend a lot of time looking stuff up. Really."

"Okay, so you got inside, and went down to the dressing rooms, then what?"

"I heard them. It was muffled, but there were two voices. One was Rory's."

"Arguing? Joking?"

"Arguing. Not loud, though. Then I heard some noises. The other man was coughing or something like that. Maybe he was having trouble breathing. Rory said something but didn't sound angry any more. He didn't." She sounded convinced, but not happy. "And then it got quiet. I hid in the next room over."

"Why?"

"'Cause it was empty."

Mark shook his head. In a way, he thought the answer made perfect sense.

"And then I heard someone open the door—footsteps in the hall. I peeked out. It was Rory, walking away. I thought he was going to get some water. He had a cup in his hand—but he didn't come back."

"You still thought you could get your hands on that note?"

"Yeah."

"But the other guy?"

"It was really quiet."

"You knew he was dead. You knew Rory wasn't going for water."

"Maybe."

"Kiddo, trust me, you're not very good at this lying thing. But you didn't kill anybody. You're not in any trouble. Did you find the note?"

"No. I looked and . . . and that guy was sitting there in that chair the whole time. I'm pretty sure he was dead. I don't think anybody could have helped him."

"So you finally gave up looking and tried to leave—that's when you ran into me, huh?"

"Yeah. I still don't know where the note is."

"Five'll get you ten, Rory's got it. And I don't know why, but something your friend said must have scared him."

"What?"

Mark frowned at her. "Remember what I said about lying? You know something. Maybe your friend didn't know what you know, but something in that note she wrote told him you knew too much. What was it?—Think."

"His name's not Griggs."

"Okay, well, lots of people change their name when they go into show business."

"He didn't change it—I mean, the first time. He was only a month old. I found a photostat of the original birth certificate in the court records."

"You got that legally?"

"Well," her eyes narrowed slightly, "it might have been a filing mistake. Usually they redact stuff like that."

"So he's adopted." Mark hesitated a moment, and then said, "Okay, whose name was on the papers?"

"Ruby Seddon—she was the mom. Rory's name was Evan Bradford."

Mark whistled, long and low. "As in 'son of Amos Bradford?'"

"It was some kind of private adoption. The family that got him was named Grabowski—he was Gregory Grabowski. When he turned twenty he petitioned to change it to Rory Griggs."

"On the advice of an agent, I'd guess." Mark frowned. "So when he went to change his name, he must've found all the same records you read. His parents, the ones who adopted him, never told him?"

"I don't know. They were both dead by then. A car crash. This is really his first chance at happiness," she sighed. "That was what I was hoping. I really wanted to be here for it."

Mark considered that for a moment and then shook his head doubtfully. "I don't think this is going to have a happy ending. I think he killed the two people who saw that note. I'm not sure how he missed you—unless," he frowned, "it didn't matter anymore." His frown deepened and then was replaced by a growing look of horror.

"Rory's not here for a family reunion." He turned and took off at a trot for the stage door, stuffing the note in his pocket as he ran.

ACT IV

He took the steps up two at a time and grabbed for the handle of the door—locked, of course. He pounded on it, paused for a moment, then pounded again, louder. He briefly considered going around to the front lobby, but that would involve ushers and sounding like a madman. He'd just rejected the idea and resumed pounding, when the door opened from within.

The security guard shushed him quietly, unwilling to add to the noise. McCormick, having the element of surprise, pushed past him into the darkened crossover.

00000

The handy thing about being killed in Act Three was that it had left Hardcastle at liberty to keep an eye on Moss. He'd been near enough at hand to witness the man's reaction when the gravedigger pulled Amos Bradford's skull up from the sub-stage platform and handed it to Griggs.

As for the judge, he'd smiled to himself and rocked back slightly on his heels. He'd only had to look at the surprise on the gravedigger's face to know it had been a near-run thing.

Moss, on the other hand, who'd been pacing in the right wing like a man who knew something was brewing, had been caught totally aware when nothing at all happened. Hardcastle wished he could have had a picture of the exact moment then the director realized his plans had fallen through. It wouldn't have been admissible in a court of law, but his expression had convinced the judge completely.

He was still smiling, but he stuck close to his suspect just in case Moss had one more trick up his sleeve. In the meantime, he watched the action on stage—Griggs handled the Yorick bit with complete sincerity. He could have convinced anybody that the skull's previous owner had been very dear to him.

Moss, on the other hand, looked stunned. Hardcastle half-wondered if a little pressure, judiciously applied, would crack the man. He sidled in closer and leaned toward him.

"Nice timing, huh?"

Moss jumped at the first sound, then stared at the judge and swallowed hard.

Hardcastle nodded once thoughtfully. "Yeah, I think Amos would've gotten a kick out of it."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Moss hissed.

The judge just smiled and jerked his chin toward the first row seats. A lively-looking middle-aged lady on the aisle was leaning forward slightly, like many others in the audience, absorbed by the performance. Moss paled as he recognized the man in the next seat, caught in the edge of the limelight and looking a little bored, as though he thought the real action would be after the show.

Moss darted a worried glance at Hardcastle.

The judge shrugged and said, "I think he said his name is Harper. He's that lieutenant from yesterday, if I'm not mistaken. Who knows, maybe he's just a fan."

"I think . . ." Moss cleared his throat and started again. "You're a lawyer, a judge. I know some things about that man, Amos's great nephew, Wolf Bradford. Do you think the district attorney might be interested?"

Hardcastle grinned. It was shark-like. He said, "I'm sure they'd love to hear all about it."

The scene had ended, and the curtain came down for the quick shift from the graveyard set to the hall at Elsinore. Hardcastle looked around, wondering where the hell McCormick had gotten off to. Still, he was reluctant to leave Moss, lest he give the man a chance to regroup.

He had to admire Griggs. The whole shebang had been going on three and a half hours now, with him out there in the thick of it for much of the time, and the final scene, as McCormick had pointed out, had a lot of hacking and slashing and poison quaffing in it.

Yet the man stood in the wing opposite to him, looking neither weary nor perturbed. He'd even retrieved the skull from its graveside resting place in the last scene and was transferring it carefully to Theodora's anxious custody. Hardcastle watched him give her—and maybe Amos, too—a parting nod before strolling over to the rack of fencing foils—picking one out and hefting it for a moment.

Two stagehands installed the furnishings—a swan sofa and a kidney bean coffee table, with martini glasses and a shaker to round out the atmosphere. They returned a moment later. Griggs hastily restored the foil to the rack before they carted that onstage as well

Then the players took their places and the audience hushed as the curtain went up. Griggs appeared, explaining the king's treachery to his companion with a decree of angry earnestness that made the antique phrases seem fresh again. The judge shook his head; you couldn't blame Hamlet for being a little nuts, though brevity really wasn't the guy's strong suit. And McCormick really ought to be here by now. Or maybe he'd found a quiet corner and was getting a few more pages read in his textbook.

Hardcastle kept Moss in sight, but edged back to expand his view into the crossover, now crowded with people who'd soon be taking their final bows. On stage the action was heating up, with wagers and challenges and foils out, and pretty soon the guys were going at it, hammer and tongs.

In fact, it seemed like that blond UCLA kid, the one who (rumor had it) had mostly gotten the role as Laertes on the basis of how he well he could swash a buckle, looked a little worried, as Griggs slashed at him again.

The queen was reaching for a martini glass and just about to lift it in toast to her son when there was a stirring from the folks in the crossover, some scattered 'shh's' and, more distant still, a rapid, hollow thumping, like someone pounding on a door. Hardcastle frowned. More people were becoming aware of it, even a few in the audience, where there were a few audible whispers.

The backstage hissing and shushing increased momentarily, followed by some scuffling sounds and a frantic familiar voice shouting "Don't drink that!"

Ruby Seddon-Phelps glanced left, her concentration broken and her toast interrupted as McCormick, looking as if he'd just sprinted the quarter-mile, stumbled around the rear curtain and onto the stage. She stared at him, then put the martini glass down very slowly and carefully, as if it might be about to explode in her face.

Even the combatants had frozen, or at least the blond guy, Chip, aka Laertes, who looked both puzzled and relieved. Griggs paused too, but was frowning. He looked as though he were still poised to strike, except that now his attention was turned toward the intruder.

"Dammit," Hardcastle growled.

McCormick wisely grabbed for one of the foils that still hung from the rack. He might have been better off with the kidney table, or even the rack itself as Griggs came at him suddenly with the lithe determination of a madman.

Mark parried almost by reflex, then they locked blades.

Griggs put his weight against his foil, leaning in and muttering, "My fight's not with you."

"Good," Mark panted, "then we can put these down, right? Have a nice talk."

Griggs executed a slash, followed by a lunge that forced McCormick back two more steps. The Phelpses were up from the settee and skittering back, half-tangled in the curtains.

"It's them," Griggs gestured with his épée.

"I know." McCormick tried to sound sympathetic, as he dodged another thrust and almost tripped over the coffee table, sending the martini shaker and glasses to the ground, shattering in all directions. Mark looked down, then up at Griggs again.

"Cyanide, right? It's what you used on Warfel, isn't it?"

Griggs didn't disagree. Hardcastle had stepped forward, hoping to distract the man.

McCormick waved him back with his free hand. "Everybody," he said grimly, "just stay back. If it's on the glass—" He glanced down again at the shards, glimmering in the stage lighting, some protruding between the floor boards. "Not good."

"Them," Griggs said, lifting his blade and jabbing in the direction of the Phelpses. "Her—my own mother." He pointed the blade squarely at Ruby, though he was not yet within striking distance.

"Dear mother," he crooned, the tip of the weapon making little circles in front of him, "why don't you tell them? Tell them all."

He gestured grandly to the audience, some of whom had scrambled out of their seats, and were crowding into the aisles. They were nearly all frozen now.

"Evan?" she said faintly.

"The abandonment I might have understood. After all, you had your career to consider," he spat. "But murder?" He jerked the blade sharply to the left, directing it at Roger Phelps. Griggs was clearly addressing him, now. "And all because you had to have her to yourself."

"It wasn't like that," Phelps protested. "Dammit," he hissed, "that man was a monster." He looked around, suddenly aware of his surroundings, and then lowering his voice. "It wasn't love; it was rape. He sent her to New York when she found out she was carrying his child. He told her not to come back until she'd gotten rid of it. My God, he deserved whatever happened to him."

He shot a nervous look left and right, and then added, "Not that anything did happen to him."

Ruby nodded in anxious agreement.

Mark thought it wasn't the most politic way to speak to a madman. He would have tried for a little more sympathy, considering the facts of the case. He watched as Griggs's lips tightened in anger and he knew the man was about to spring.

Phelps had seen it, too. He turned and stumbled, flailing in panic as he fell. Ruby lurched back, hands to her face in horror. Mark lunged for Griggs, knocking him onto the settee and hauling back for a punch. He had an impression of motion off to his left—Hardcastle, who must've grabbed one of the gravediggers' shovels from a prop box in the right wing and was hefting it, ready to swing, as he approached.

"Ah . . . wait a sec," McCormick said.

It was one of those odd, preternaturally calm moments, like the eye of a hurricane. He looked down and confirmed that the circular pressure he felt just to the left of his sternum was the muzzle of the gun. Somehow, in the fracas, Griggs had managed to pass off the épée to his left hand, and grab the gun from his holster with the right.

"He's got a gun," Mark announced. He tried his best to keep that calm, too, but heard an almost immediate response—the audience wasn't frozen anymore. There were shouts and the sounds of panicky movement.

Hardcastle hadn't put the shovel down. Mark couldn't see his face, but he could picture his expression from just the tone of his two words.

"The Colt?"

"Ah," Mark looked down again to be absolutely sure, "uh-huh."

"You checked the load, right?"

Mark felt himself quirking the most inappropriate smile—that the judge had known what he'd done. He'd probably thought the whole thing was silly, but had decided to let it go unremarked.

"Yeah," he said, "I checked . . . two hours ago."

There'd been an act and a half on the stage since then—and that whole time he'd either been frantically searching for Amos, or outside catching up on the back story. How long did it take to reload a revolver? Six slugs in any convenient pocket and fifteen seconds in a quiet corner of the wings.

He looked down at Griggs, who was no help at all, the madness of a moment earlier having hardened into steel. At least he wasn't raving something like "Do you feel lucky?" Mark didn't, not as a rule—not enough to bet his life on it. He caught himself staring hard from the left corner of his eye, trying to get a better fix on the judge.

Now is that fair? There was no way that Hardcastle could have kept an eye on Griggs the whole time the man was off stage. He'd just be guessing. Mark might not feel lucky, but he knew dumping it on the judge was just plain wrong. Everybody ought to be responsible for their own death. Do your own guessing.

Griggs was still gazing at him steadily, but now with a hint of a smile on his face. He nudged the barrel into Mark's chest. It was almost playful. "I told you, this isn't your fight."

McCormick started to edge back, but paused with only an inch or so between himself and the muzzle. "It's too bad," he said, "about the theater. Once you kill them, I mean."

Griggs's smile flattened.

"You kill them before the end of the last act, and no more theater." He shook his head gently. "Amos retires and gets a shelf in the evidence lock-up. All this," he glanced around him at the stage, "goes to a lawyer in Minnesota . . ." He paused and frowned, as he thought it through, and then murmured, "or you—Amos Bradford's son—that's a lot closer than some great-nephew" He was staring hard, right back at Griggs. "Was that what this was all about?"

"No." Griggs shook his head vehemently. "No. It was never about any of that."

"You'd heard the terms of the will," Mark insisted. "Everybody knew that story. This place, your father's legacy—"

"It wasn't about the will," Griggs muttered stubbornly.

"Then," Mark said quietly, with an almost imperceptible shrug, "the show must go on."

There was a portentous pause. He didn't want to sneak another look at Hardcastle, who'd at least had the sense to keep his mouth shut up to now. His whole attention was focused on Griggs, whose frown had deepened through a long moment of silence.

"Yeah," the man finally grudged, "it has to."

Mark edged back further. Griggs was still holding the gun in his right hand and the épée in his left, though he managed to get up from the settee without putting either down. It looked as if he had no intention of doing so, but he kept his back to the Phelpses. He moved upstage slowly, as if he were still thinking things over.

McCormick thought it was still possible that he would change his mind. So did Roger and Ruby, it appeared. They looked ready to bolt. Mark was convinced that would be a lethal mistake. He subtly jerked his chin toward the settee. They glanced at each other, then nervously edged toward it, taking their original places.

Hardcastle hadn't stepped back from his position, halfway between the wings and the settee. Mark frowned at him. He still didn't move. Mark sighed and looked around. They were short a couple of players. The kid playing Laertes had apparently had enough. He'd dropped his épée and fled during the chaos.

Mark stooped and picked it up, moving slowly so as not to alarm Griggs.

"Anybody got a copy of the script?" he asked politely.

00000

This is nuts, Hardcastle thought. On the other hand, they'd all taken a big step back from a showdown to something just barely resembling sanity. At the very least, this would give some more of the audience a chance to get out safely before anything else happened.

The judge had lost track of Frank and Claudia. Moss hadn't tried to run, but stood there looking remarkably useless, caught up in his own misery, no doubt. The guy who'd been refereeing the swordfight—a retired dentist named Hoggs—had made it into the wings, where he was visibly quaking. Theodora bustled out, script in hand.

"Get me one too," Hardcastle nodded with his chin toward what she had in her hand.

She looked around for a frantic moment, then someone handed her a second copy. She brought them forward, opening Mark's to the proper page and putting it in his left hand, her eyes on Griggs throughout. Then she stepped over to Hardcastle and whispered, "Milt—"

"Just get out of the way and let 'em finish," he said quietly.

Griggs was standing, pondering the floor near the front of the stage, oblivious to the audience, mostly crammed into the rear part of the aisles. He frowned gently and then cocked his head over his shoulder, looking toward the wing. His expressing was slightly embarrassed.

"Line?"

Moss twitched, then muttered, apparently from memory, "Come for the third, Laertes! You but dally."

Griggs smiled and turned toward McCormick. "Pray you pass with your best violence; I am afeard you make a wanton of me." He lifted his épée as Mark glanced down hastily at his script.

"Um . . . Say you so? Come on. Play."

Blades were joined, though this time it was with the measured intensity of stage play, the other players contributing their lines in turn. McCormick and Griggs even exchanged blades at the required moment, Griggs patiently waiting out Mark's inexperienced fumble and murmuring helpfully, "Okay, now you lie down for the last bit." Mark scanned the floor for an unglittered spot on which to die.

The scene wound down, more farce than tragedy, with pantomimed poison quaffs from invisible cups, and, thankfully, no actual bloodletting. It wasn't quite Theodora's sock puppets, but it was a good thing that only a last few members of the audience lingered in the doorway, mesmerized by the disaster.

When Hamlet had finally joined the rest of the dearly departed, Fortinbras—a dedicated member of the local school board—was nudged onto the stage. He walked warily around the corpses, looking as if he'd need a line prompt, too, so pale was he, but he came up to the scratch, rattling off his part as if he was in a hurry to be somewhere else.

Hardcastle followed along in his own copy, and was well aware that whatever the damn gun was loaded with, Griggs still had it locked in a death grip.

"Take up the bodies," Fortinbras droned on."Such a sight as this becomes the field but here shows much amiss. Go, bid the soldiers shoot."

There was no applause. The curtain began its descent. Hardcastle tensed and stepped forward and McCormick was clambering to his feet, but neither of them was as fast as Griggs, now standing.

Even he wasn't as quick as the Phelpses, though, who were already in retreat, nearly to the edge of the rear curtain. Griggs snarled and raised his gun, screaming in rage for them to freeze. They weren't listening. Hardcastle saw the man's finger on the trigger, and then, as if in slow motion, McCormick lunging again.

00000

Sudden movement and the almighty noise of a gunshot in a closed space combined to obliterate the moment of impact. Mark was only aware that they'd gone down, side by side, and now somebody was prying Griggs away from him, immobilizing his wrist, and yanking the gun from his hand: Frank, it looked like, and not being too gentle about it.

Mark heard someone else shouting at him, over the infernal buzzing. It sounded like, "A blank?"

He rolled onto his back and blinked, as if that would help his hearing, which it didn't. He felt as if he'd been punched in the stomach, which he knew wasn't proof that there hadn't been a bullet involved. He reached for the area in question but Hardcastle was already stooping and checking.

McCormick said, "Uh-huh, just a blank," trying to sound more certain than he was. He held his hand up by his face and saw blood on it. "Dammit," he muttered.

Hardcastle was tugging at his shirt. Mark felt a little removed from the situation. It was more than just the persistent buzzing. He almost missed it when the judge growled in confirmation, "Yeah, a blank," and he felt mostly embarrassed to bring up the annoying detail of the hand, which was now stinging, with a deeper ache beneath that.

"Ah," he said. His heart was pounding and he couldn't seem to catch his breath. He glanced up past his head, to about where he must have come down, hand outstretched to break his fall. There was a blood-streaked shard of glass protruding from between two floorboards. "Ah—"

Hardcastle must've noticed the blood. He grabbed for McCormick's hand, inspecting that now, too, with an expression that was caught between aggravation and fear. His lips were moving. Mark stared, trying make out was he was saying.

". . . . you okay?"

He grimaced and was on the verge of saying something about not asking stupid questions, when his vision began to tunnel down, and the irritating buzz swelled to a rushing roar that blotted out everything but the judge's alarmed shout.

00000

"And it turns out there's an antidote for cyanide. The paramedics all carry it with them since that crazy poisoning spree in Chicago a couple years back," Hardcastle said, finishing the story off with a theatrical flourish.

McCormick, being part of the audience, took some of the suspense out of the telling. Still, the rest of the listeners looked properly relieved, since the last time they'd seen the victim he'd been unconscious on a gurney, being loaded into an ambulance. Now, in the well-lit confines of a hospital room, he looked more-or-less all right, allowing for the IV and the bandaged right hand.

"Well, that is a relief," Theodora sighed, reaching out to pat Mark's other hand.

Frank Harper grinned. "And at least the round was a blank. We didn't really need another murder. Your buddy, Griggs, confessed to the other two, though."

Mark cocked his head. "Jimmy's, too, huh?"

Frank nodded. "Sounds like Jimmy was in the habit of reading other people's mail before he delivered it. We don't think it had gotten as far as blackmail but Griggs couldn't take any chances. He was terrified that someone would spook the Phelpses before he got a chance to do his big finale."

"Yeah, and what about Roger and Ruby?" McCormick asked curiously.

Frank's eyes narrowed. "We've got seven hundred witnesses, including me and Claudia, who heard Roger admit to motive, and it also turns out he was a guest at Bradford's home the summer the man died."

Mark frowned. "But that was supposed to have been of natural causes."

"His doctor signed the death certificate—stroke—but now the ME is telling me the same symptoms are compatible with arsenic poisoning."

Theodora looked ill at ease. She sighed and said, "I lent Amos to Rory last fall, after we'd signed him to the role. He said he wanted to be sure he was comfortable with him. What could I say? It seemed like a reasonable request from an artist like him."

"We searched his apartment," Frank said. "We found a receipt from a private lab in Mexico dated last September. They took scrapings from inside the skull. They were positive for arsenic.

"Motive, method and opportunity," Hardcastle observed.

"We're still working on that," Frank said. "Amos is in our lab for a redo."

"Good luck with the jury," Mark observed pithily. "Roger's gonna take the stand and all they're gonna hear is The Sheriff of Hell's Creek or the captain from Three Rode for Freedom." He sighed. "Oh well, can't win 'em all—just gotta give it your best shot."

"That's so true, Mark," Theodora said. "So noble."

He darted a questioning glance at the judge, who merely shrugged.

"Of course with Mr. Moss gone," she went on, musing, "we'll be pursuing a new artistic direction for our flagship production—fresh blood."

Mark sighed, and silently hoped the next time around there wouldn't be too much of that.

She smiled at him with a disconcerting mixture of fondness and determination. "And I must say, you made a very vigorous Laertes—and from merely a cold reading, no more." Her smile broadened to include something very much like artistic avarice.

"Do you suppose you'd consider a return engagement with us next year?"

Mark smiled wanly.

EPILOGUE

The lot of the Bradford Theater was nearly full on a rainy night two weeks later. McCormick finally parked the truck at the end of the furthermost row.

"Just because she sent us season tickets doesn't mean we have to use 'em," Hardcastle grumbled as he climbed out, pulling his collar up against the elements.

"Well, actually, it does, at least once. After this I promise we can give them away." Mark's smile slid into a grin. "Claudia likes plays. We can stiff Frank with 'em." He glanced down at his watch. "But we better hustle," he said, picking up his pace.

Hardcastle followed him, thinking it felt a little odd to be entering by the front door. A crack of lightning sent them scurrying even faster. He gazed up at the glistening marquee as they passed under it.

"I dunno, Arsenic and Old Lace?" he shook his head doubtfully.

"It's been a sell-out," Mark assured him. "Theo says apparently there's no such thing as bad publicity. Anyway, it was already in the line-up when the Hamlet disaster happened. Too late to put in a substitute." He held open the door and let the judge pass by.

Inside the foyer they shook themselves off and doffed their coats, passing them to the young lady at the check-room counter. McCormick froze as she handed the tags back to him.

"Marnie?"

She smiled shyly. "Um, yeah."

"Ah . . .?"

"I decided to stick around."

Mark turned to the judge and said, "This is Rory's stalker, the one I was telling you about."

She sighed heavily. "I resent that term."

Hardcastle studied her sharply. "You know Frank might want to have a word with her—about Rory, I mean."

"Lieutenant Harper?" she said primly. "I already talked to him. In the meantime, Rory's lawyers okayed an official biography."

"Interviews and everything?" Mark asked.

She made a face. "Yeah. So far I'm coping. He's charming enough when he's not murdering people."

"That's . . . really nice," Mark said.

"Anyway, they think it'll bolster his insanity defense. And until I get the advance, this pays the rent." She tapped the tips jar.

"Of course." Mark reached into his back pocket for his wallet. "And I'm glad to see you're staying out of trouble." He stuffed a folded-up bill in through the slot.

"Thanks," she said, still gazing at him rather intently. "You know," she added, "you're kind of interesting."

"Ah . . ." Mark said, backing away slowly, "late for the show."

He turned and bolted, almost knocking over Hardcastle, who was standing stock-still, looking up at one of the elegantly framed black-and-white photos that adorned the lobby.

"Huh?" Mark said, having followed the judge's gaze and encountered a vaguely familiar face. It took him a moment to place it and then he said, "You know, I thought he was just one of the local amateurs—Hamlet's dad is a kinda small role, isn't it? What movies was he in?"

Hardcastle had obviously already looked at the small metal name plate mounted on the bottom side of the frame. He leaned forward again, as if to be absolutely certain.

"None," he said, in a decisive way that was probably intended to be nonchalant. "Says here it's Amos Bradford." He frowned, looking puzzled. "I never met him—I mean, not in the flesh. Looks kinda familiar though." He squinted at the photo then at McCormick again. "What were you saying about the ghost?

Mark looked up at the man who'd really, really wanted to star in Hamlet. "Ah," he swallowed hard, "nothing." The lobby lights dimmed twice.

Hardcastle looked down at his ticket and sighed with grim reluctance. "The show must go on."