By Bryon Quertermous
All the world is a stage, but the players of a small theater company find themselves also playing detective when a controversial guest artist stirs up trouble and murder.
“I don’t get it,” Eden said, staring at the IMDb website. “Duff never comes to town to greet a visiting artist, especially not one without any major credits. He only tears himself away from Manhattan on the weekends.”
Justin rolled in his chair across the small office, away from Eden, and dumped a stack of papers into the trash can.
“Maybe he’s feeling charitable,” Justin said. “Or maybe he’s positioning himself for one of those lifetime achievement awards and wants to look like a mentor.”
“A mentor to who? It’s not like this guy’s IMDb credits are the only ones lacking.” Eden glanced his way, her blue eyes wide. “I checked the Broadway database and the Equity database. No listings, no stories, no website. Nothing. He’s a ghost.”
The floor creaked by the door, and they turned to see me filling the doorway and spying on them.
“Y’all really don’t have a lick of common sense between you,” I said.
“Hey, grandma,” Justin said. “Don’t hate on us kids.”
I smiled and pushed Justin’s chair across the room and into the wall. At age thirty-nine, I was only fifteen years older thanEden and Justin, our current acting apprentices, but that may as well have been a hundred years to them. The other apprenticesin production and business tended to be a bit older, but these were the two I was in charge of and that made them see me more as a mother than a peer.
“It’s a fake name,” I said. “That’s why you can’t find anything about him.”
Justin popped up and took a couple of long strides to tower over me and Eden.
“Wow,” he said. “I guess that makes sense.”
“How do you know that?” Eden asked.
“What’s the name of this theater?” I asked.
Eden rolled her eyes and quickly said, “Shakespeare’s Basement.”
“And it’s named that because…”
Justin spun toward me, eager to answer one of the questions.
“That was the name of the first movie starring our dear founder, Duff Martin.”
“A movie directed by…”
Justin started to answer this one as well, but Eden held up her hand to stop him while keeping her eyes on me.
“You’re kidding, right? He wouldn’t do that, would he?”
“It’s a guess, but yeah, I think so. Why else would Duff insist on being here to greet our newest visiting artist, a visiting artist, I’ll note, who was not originally scheduled for this season?”
“I’m confused,” Justin said.
“The visiting artist is Theo Proper,” Eden said. “Duff feels like he owes his career to the guy even though Theo Proper is a pervert and sexual harasser at best and a rapist at worst.”
“This is why I wanted to be here when he arrives,” Duff said, clearing his throat dramatically before entering the office. “To head off the rumors and—”
“I quit,” Eden said, launching herself out of her chair. “I will not work with that man, and I’ll have my father’s law firm shut this entire place—”
“Please sit down and let me explain.”
She opened her mouth to speak, but Duff’s charisma madeit hard for anyone to say no to him.
“You could have at least let us know beforehand,” I said.“You could have let me know.”
“I couldn’t.” Duff’s broad shoulders rose and fell. “He wanted to…they wanted to be the ones to—”
“They?” Justin asked.
“Theo and Mary Sue. Here together to work on a piece about forgiveness and moving forward and—”
“You brought his first victim here too?” Eden screeched.“When did this turn into Jerry Springer?”
“Mary Sue is his wife now, and it was her idea,” Duff said. “They’ll be coming inside any second now. Just please keep an open mind until you hear what they have to say.”
I sighed and nodded defeatedly. Eden didn’t say anything, but she was fidgeting enough to power a small country. Duff led us into the lobby of the theater. There we fanned out into asemicircle, Duff and I in the middle with Eden on my side and Justin on Duff’s, as Theo and Mary Sue entered the theater.
Theo Proper was barely five feet tall and had wild brown hair that looked like a cross between Albert Einstein and Bob Dylan. He was wearing a burgundy corduroy suit with a paisley shirt underneath and orange-tinted ’70s-style glasses. Mary Sue Sun was taller by several inches and had bleached-blond hair worn straight.
She was wearing wide black yoga pants that came to the middle of her shins, mustard-yellow Doc Martens boots, a plain red T-shirt, and a yellow crushed-velvet vest and matching bowtie. Theo was in his late seventies and moved with the slow pace of age and money. Mary Sue was almost thirty years youngerwith calm, soothing movements.
Duff spread his arms wide and offered a booming welcome to the couple. We all put up a good front and welcomed them as Duff introduced us. He saved me for last.
“Peggy Knopf,” he said, “our artistic director, my right hand, and basically the woman who keeps this place up and running.”
“He’s not wrong,” I said, squashing my tendency to self-deprecate.
“We’ve got an apartment over the theater all set up for you,” Duff said, separating Theo, Mary Sue, and himself from the rest of us.
Theo nodded and whispered something in Duff’s ear. They hugged, and then Theo and Mary Sue went off to the apartment while Duff rejoined us.
“See. That wasn’t awful.”
“After what you said to the Times, I can’t believe you’re dragging the reputation of this theater and all of us through the mud for that monster,” Eden yelled.
“Shhhhhh,” Duff said, moving toward Eden to squeeze her arms—one of his go-to calming moves when someone was upset, despite that I’d told him umpteen times to respect personal space. I hurried to put myself between them, but Justin was already a step ahead of me and shoulder-clipped Duff to keep him from touching Eden.
“Dude,” he said. “Hands.”
Duff pulled his hands back like a chided toddler and snorted, then walked away.
“We’ve got to stop this,” Eden said.
“Let’s all go get a coffee and talk this out,” I said.
“Coffee? That’s your answer to this nightmare?”
I sighed and tried not to explode. She’d been like this a lot lately. Eden was an amazing actress because she was a raw wire. She was a former party girl and, if you believed the rumors,something of a suburban drug maven, but I’d never seen anyone put themselves out there so completely in front of strangers. She was also young and hadn’t quite learned how to harness it. That’s what the creative team and I had been working on with her.
Because of all of that, the stress of being in the final stretch before premiering our new play was getting to her, and the stress of working with someone so young and raw for the first time in ages was getting to me. Duff couldn’t have picked a worse time to spring his little surprise on us.
And I suspected that was why he’d done it. He’d hoped we’d all be so wrapped up in getting the new play across the finish line that we wouldn’t have the energy or the mental capacity to put up much of a fight. He hadn’t counted on Eden.
“We all just need to really think about this and make sure we don’t blow this opportunity,” I said.
“Opportunity?” Eden shrieked. “We have Hollywood’s number one rapist in our theater, and all you can think of is the opportunity? I expected better from you.”
I couldn’t help myself. I reached out and grabbed her by the shoulders. My voice dropped to barely a whisper, but I’m certain people on the other side of the country could hear what I was saying.
“There is more than one kind of opportunity,” I said. “We have an opportunity for justice.”
I felt the tension in her body ease when I said that, and I took my hands off her shoulders.
“Girl or not, you don’t have the right to touch me like that,”Eden said, matching my volume, if not quite my intensity.
“You’re right. I’m sorry. Let’s take five, then we can meetwith all of the other staff in the black box to game-plan.”
Eden nodded but didn’t move.
“Thank you,” she finally said. “Five.”
The black box was part rehearsal space, part experimental theater, and part confessional. It’s where we worked out complicated scenes, complicated emotions, and had hard conversations. What we were about to discuss was all of that at once and was going to test even the most battle-hardened of us emotionally.
“I worked with Theo Proper at the peak of his power in Hollywood and New York,” I said to the group. “I know everything that he’s capable of.”
“Then why are you being such a—”
“Please, Eden, just give me the floor right now. You will be heard. I promise.”
She stopped talking, but she didn’t sit down on the floor with the rest of us. Instead she continued to pace and fidget. I wanted to give her the space to work through what she was feeling without being domineering, but she was distracting me and the others in the box with us. Luckily Justin spoke first and took the hit as the bad guy.
“For god’s sake, Eden, sit down will you. I’m getting the jitters just being around you.”
She finally calmed down enough to squat down next to him and chew on her nails instead of pacing around.
“We have to present an absolutely united front to make sure we’re heard,” I said. “No half-cocked improvised plans or emotional outbursts, okay?”
They all nodded, even Eden. I knew she wanted to do this right; I just wasn’t sure if she had the maturity or emotional fortitude to pull it off. There was no way to cut her out though, so it was just a matter of doing whatever I needed to do to keep her in check.
“You’d think murdering someone every night on stage would be more cathartic than it really is,” Eden said, smiling for the first time I’d seen all day.
“Glad to see you’re all in a better mood,” Duff said, interrupting us and sitting down next to Eden.
She stopped laughing and shifted away from him and closer to Justin.
“We were just talking through some stress relief from the burden of our current show,” I said.
“I’ll admit the timing of all of this could have been better,”he said.
“There was no time this was going to be a good idea, Duff,” I said.
“We’re going to have dinner here tonight, right?”
He looked at me, and I nodded.
“All I ask is that we make it through dinner civilly, and then tomorrow when we have our first session with them you can—”
“Wait a minute,” Eden said, as I watched any sense of calm she’d been able to tap into go up in a flame of rage. “You expect us to work with that—”
“It’s a good thing you’re focusing on stress relief,” Duff said to me, as if Eden weren’t there. “We can’t let this happen at dinner.”
They were all so much on edge I didn’t see how we’d avoida huge emotional explosion at dinner—which I wasn’t necessarily opposed to.
“Come on, Duff. Maybe tonight isn’t a great time for a big get-together,” I said. “Let’s push the dinner back a night and give everyone time to get settled in and calmed down.”
“We’ve got a schedule to keep, and if I’m not mistaken, we’re all adults here and should be able to—”
“We’re all humans here. With emotions and fallible energy levels and stress. They’re just kids, really.”
Eden popped up when I said that, and I knew I’d pushedher toward her breaking point.
“We’re not children,” she screamed. “I know exactly what I’m doing and how I’m feeling.”
Duff muttered a curse under his breath, causing Eden to focus her ire back on him. I thought she was going to tear into him, but she just screamed loudly and left the studio. Justin tried to follow her out, but I stopped him.
“Let her go.”
I looked over at Duff who rolled his eyes at me.
“Let’s talk privately,” I said.
We stepped out of earshot of everyone else, and Duff said, “Nice control of your people.”
“You can’t tell me you didn’t think something like this was going to happen.”
He shuffled his feet and looked away from me.
“I had to invite him. I kept reading the stories they were putting out about him, and they were getting worse and worse.”
“You don’t believe what all the women have said about him?”
“It’s more complicated than that. We don’t have all the information and—”
“I believe the women. The stuff he’s admitted to in public is bad enough.”
“It’s not like I’m an unsympathetic audience,” Duff said. “I made it very clear in that interview I gave to the New York Timesthat I find his behavior problematic. He’s made supporting his art very difficult.”
Who was he kidding? Duff and his pals wanted to help Theo Proper, despite everything he’d done, in order to avoid being tainted themselves. Bringing Theo here was proof of that.
“You want to support his art, yet you’re the one whosuggested someone should drug him and give him a taste of what he’s done to women to shock him into changing.”
“That was hyperbole,” he growled. “We can make this all right through art here, Peg. If there wasn’t something still redeemable about him then why would Mary Sue be willing to do this?”
“Because she’s brainwashed. And you’re going to make it worse.”
“You’re only saying that because you’re a woman.”
I bit my tongue and clenched my fists so I didn’t punch him or go off on him about how one day he would pay for underestimating women.
“I can’t do this right now,” I said. “I need to go make sure my staff is ok.”
We made it to dinnertime without any further blowups. Part of that was because Eden hadn’t been seen since she’d stormed out of the black box. We all had assumed she simply needed space and time to cool off, but when we sat down for dinner in the apartment’s dining room she was still missing.
“Peggy arranged for this abundant spread,” Duff said. “I know how much you love seafood, so I put her on it, and I don’t think she could have done a better job if she’d known it was you she was planning for.”
“You even got razor clams,” Theo said in his famous wheezy twang. “Such an unexpected treat. I never get razor clams.” He piled them on his plate.
We all dove into the food and chatted and ate and drank as the wine and beer flowed around the table. Without Eden around, I noticed the other younger staffers, especially Justin, were more comfortable talking to Theo and showing their true fandom for him. That’s what makes guys like him so difficult to deal with. Their charisma is off the charts, and they have the glow of decades of fame around them.
Everyone had seen Theo on the big screen and on late-night shows and on the news. Even when he was in the spotlight for something controversial, it just raised his profile with another generation. The only thing stopping Theo Proper from riding out his career as a legend was the misfortune of having a son from his first marriage who ended up with all of Theo’s charisma and hypnotic charm but who also had the intelligence and stubborn need for justice of his activist mother.
Theo’s son had written a scathing takedown of him, and Esquire had shared it with the world, moving the rumors and warnings that had long haunted the director from hushed conversations and back rooms to the front page. Theo hadn’t been completely excommunicated from the industry though, and factions had formed among people he’d worked with over the years, some of whom were trying to keep him relevant for their own sakes.
When the meal was winding down, Theo stood and spoke to the table.
“Wow. This was quite the scene,” Theo said. “The food was…mmmmm. Just. Wow. But the conversations have been the best. And the conversations are what we want to build around. We want you to ask us the hard questions, and we want to find an engaging and meaningful way to give the hard answers.”
“It’s what Theo and I always talked about in those early days of our careers,” Duff said. “We wanted to change the world through dialogue and develop something like this. With a group, not just one weirdo alone in a room on his computer.”
“I…I have to say I’ve done some good work as a weirdo alone in a room,” Theo said, laughing to himself. “Though I use a typewriter instead of a computer.”
“But you get the spirit of it,” Duff said. “If people want to gossip about you and have their say, they have to give you the same respect and let you have your say.”
Theo was about to answer again when Eden finally showed up, springing through the door holding a tray of tall silver frosted cups with colorful striped straws.
“We all know you don’t want us to really ask the hard questions,” she said.
“I do,” Theo said. “That’s—”
“But this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I’ll be a good girl and instead share my grandma’s recipe for chocolate milkshakes. They’re you’re favorite, right?”
Theo nodded, a bit surprised, as he took the drink she handed him. Nobody else had anything to say either as she went around the table and passed out the rest of the shakes.
“What’s everyone so quiet for?” she said, taking the last shake off the tray for herself and raising it in the air. “We’re theater people. To theater.”
A half-hearted clinking of glasses followed, then everyone drank their shakes as quickly as they could without getting ice-cream headaches. When the shakes were consumed, Duff invited everyone to join him in the main theater and get the conversational exercises started.
I kept my eye on Eden as she engaged with Theo and Mary Sue and seemed genuinely impressed with what they were doing. She was a good actress—there was no doubt about that—but she was exhibiting a level of emotional control I didn’t know she was capable of.
It made me very suspicious.
I also kept my eye on Theo as he walked around the stage waving his hands and communicating almost as much through body language as words. But it wasn’t long before he crept too much into the actors’ personal space, and his light touches to move them through various spots on the stage turned into heavy ones. I knew I should intervene before he crossed a boundary into harassment, but I was transfixed by Eden’s performance.
While Theo Proper’s movements were awkward and crass,Eden was commanding and breezy, easing out of potentially uncomfortable situations without offending Theo. Her confidence was breathtaking, and I wanted to know the source. Before Theo could do any more harm, I noticed a significant drop in his motor skills. It was like watching someone do a bad impression of a slow-motion movie before he finally wobbled off the stage completely and sat down.
“Creativity and inspiration are no match for the ravages of age, it seems,” he said theatrically as he swatted at the sides of his face trying to shake himself back to attention.
Eventually, he gave up the fight and excused himself back to the apartment with Mary Sue. Everyone else dispersed to their own places, including Duff. I had no interest in going home and dealing with my obnoxious landlord and his come-ons, so I bunked on the couch in my office and slept deeply and wonderfully until I was shocked awake by a piercing scream.
I followed the sound into the lobby, where Mary Sue Sun was screaming that Theo Proper was dead.
When Mary Sue finally stopped screaming long enough to tell me what was going on, I called 911, then Duff.
“He just kept getting worse after we left the studio and talked about not being able to remember anything,” she said to me. “We’ve been traveling so much I thought at first it was just exhaustion or maybe the flu, but in the last hour or so he sounded like his brain had been wiped clean of the entire last week.”
“Was anyone else in the apartment with you two this evening?” I asked as she led me up the stairs to the apartment and opened the door to the bathroom where Theo was splayed out next to the toilet.
“No. Just us. I had the doors locked and the security system on so no one could have gotten in. Why does that matter?”
“It probably doesn’t. I’m just trying to stay calm until the police and ambulance get here, and asking questions is how I stay calm.”
I left the bathroom door open and led Mary Sue back down the stairs
“That’s maybe not the best way to help right now,” she said. “Thinking my husband was possibly murdered is not the way for me to remain calm.”
I was saved from the rest of that awkward conversation by flashing red and blue lights in the windows, which announced the arrival of every emergency vehicle in town. Duff followed close behind and came inside with the police. Justin and Eden arrived soon after. I met them at the door and tried to get them to leave, but they brushed past me and charged to where Duff and the police were congregating near the entrance to the apartment.
“We saw all the lights from resident housing,” Justin said. “What’s going on?”
I triple-stepped it to catch up with them just as the police were pushing them back.
“We don’t need anyone else in here contaminating the crime scene,” a husky officer somewhere close to my age said.
Eden snapped her head back at me.
“Why are you looking at me? I’m sure it’s what they say when anyone dies like this. It doesn’t mean something sinister is afoot.”
“You all really have taken this murder-mystery-play stuff a little too far,” Duff said as a female officer with broad shoulders and bushy bangs escorted Mary Sue to a quieter corner of the lobby.
“Read the room, Duff,” I said. “This isn’t the time.” He often made jokes in uncomfortable moments but still.
“It’s like he barely even knew who I was,” Mary Sue said to the officer as they passed by us. “The flu doesn’t erase your memory, does it?”
Eden lurched toward Mary Sue and started panicking.
“What do you mean his memory was erased?”
The officer tried to push Eden back again, but she was no match for Eden’s persistence as she tried to get closer to Mary Sue.
“If I didn’t know any better,” Mary Sue said softly, “I’d think someone drugged him at dinner.”
When she said that, most eyes in the room turned toward Eden.
“Oh no,” she said. “No. No. No. No. No. I just wanted to—”
She stopped herself before she said anything incriminating. Good girl. I tried to go to her, but the officer did a better job of holding me back.
“Don’t say anything else until you talk to a lawyer,” I said to Eden.
“Why does she need a lawyer?” Duff asked. “What did she do?”
“She drugged him,” Justin said, stepping away from her as his eyes bugged out of his head. “With her milkshakes.”
Both officers were now closing in around Eden, and she was starting to melt down.
“Nobody say another word,” I yelled. “I’ll call your father.”
“I just wanted to make him feel the way the girls he drugged felt,” she said, sobbing, as she fell to the ground. “He wasn’t supposed to die.”
I sighed and went to find a phone.
I was warming up tea the next evening when Duff came in and sat across from me.
“Seems like Eden’s father has dispatched the best lawyers from his firm to make sure she doesn’t get more than community service for slipping Theo a roofie,” he said. “She’ll probably be branded some kind of millennial feminist folk hero for all of this.”
“I’m more of a millennial than she is.”
“Speaking of you, working on this murder-mystery playhas given me heightened deductive skills I thought you might find interesting.”
I took a sip of my tea and smiled at him.
“Oh really? You going to tell me there’s a final twist in this story that only you figured out?”
“As a matter of fact,” he said, “I am.”
I took another, longer, sip of the tea, then pushed the cup and saucer off to the side so I could lean in toward Duff dramatically.
“I can’t wait to hear this,” I said.
“It starts with Facebook of all places,” he said, “and the comment section on one of your friends’ posts.”
“A bit underwhelming place to start if you ask me.”
“Your friend talked about feeling like she got roofied at a bar even though she was there with her husband. Everyone seemed very concerned for her until she mentioned she’d eatenshellfish. That’s when all the armchair scientists crawled out of the woodwork to talk about domoic-acid poisoning or amnesiac-shellfish poisoning and how it can mimic the symptoms of rohypnol if you eat enough of them.”
“That really was quite a rollercoaster of a thread,” I said. “My friend didn’t die though. Thank goodness.”
“No, you’re right about that. But she hadn’t also been drugged that night by someone who actually put rohypnol in her drink. Unlike Theo.”
“That does seem like an unfortunate variable in this case. What are the odds of the food Theo Proper loved best being tainted the same night he was revenge-roofied?”
The medical examiner’s office had tested Theo’s body quickly—even in death he received special treatment—and determined the razor clams combined with the rohypnol had done Theo in.
“Normally, I’d say it would be quite a coincidence,” Duff said. “Except the seafood Theo ate seems to have beenspecifically sourced to increase the chances of contamination.”
“Whoa,” I said, leaning back in my chair. “That would be quite a feat, wouldn’t it?”
“Well, first you’d have to make sure you got the seafood from somewhere with higher-than-normal levels of domoic acid, like, say, Oregon, which has been under a statewide ban on shellfish harvesting for a while because of harmful algae blooms that produce domoic acid.”
“Oregon, eh? Seems like kind of an odd place to order shellfish from,” I said.
Duff smacked the desk in front on me and hopped a little in his seat.
“See, that’s exactly what I thought. Who orders seafood from Oregon? But that’s where the food for our dinner came from. I saw the boxes in the kitchen last night.”
“When you love razor clams, you love razor clams.” I shrugged. “I believe I read somewhere that Oregon is noted for their razor clamming.”
“I read that too. And what’s even more interesting is that razor clams are one of the shellfish species that hold domoic acid longer than others.”
“Huh. I bet that’s why Theo has—had—such a hard time getting them on a regular basis. Kind of ironic that something he loved so much had such an increased risk for poisoning him.”
I expected Duff to shoot back with another quip, but he wasn’t saying anything. His smile was gone, and his demeanor was more aggressive. He stared at me and drummed his fingers on the desk without saying anything.
Finally, Duff stood up and said, “How much longer are we going to do this, Peg?”
“What do you mean? I’m learning so much.”
“Stop with the joking. I know you ordered the seafood specifically to poison Theo. You had the same plan as Eden. Yours just had better planning and more cover.”
“There’s no way I could have planned that because I had no idea Theo Proper was our visiting artist or that Eden would roofie him.”
“That’s garbage, and you know it. You’re well aware that girl has connections and terrible judgment, and you told everyone in the office it was Theo before I ever mentioned it.”
“Nothing more than parlor games among cast and crew. We also thought it was Patti LuPone and George Clooney at one point. When you told me to order the food for dinner, you never once mentioned who it was for.”
He was getting frustrated now, and I could see him twitching.
“You’re lying,” he said, coming around the desk and leaning over me. “You hated Theo and wanted to hurt him.”
I kept my composure as much as I could with his face so close to mine, but I wasn’t going to fall for his bully tactics.
“If the police decide to dig any deeper into this,” I said, without moving from my seat, “you know what they’re going to find? A has-been actor who tied his entire career to working with an outed pariah and was having a hard time escaping his toxic shadow.”
“An actor who recently gave an interview to the New York Times saying he thought the best thing that could happen to Theo Proper was to get a taste of his own medicine that might shock him enough to change.”
“You know that’s not what—”
“Buying roofies would be too obvious and would lead back to you. But arranging a meal you knew he would love whilealmost guaranteeing he’d get poisoned—and in a way that mimics what he’s done to countless women—is perfect.”
“Except I didn’t do the ordering. You did.”
Duff had finally backed away from me, and I took the opening to stand up and get in his face.
“Did I?” I asked innocently. “All the accounts are under your name. All the payments are on your credit card. All the communications with the black-market seafood vendor in Oregon are signed by you. All the research about razor clams and shellfish-poisoning alerts were on your computer. Should I go on?”
Duff’s face turned pale as he realized what was happening. His half-hearted commitment to being an ally had backfired on him, and he couldn’t do anything about it. He couldn’t afford a lawyer even half as good as Eden’s father, and if either of them suspected that Duff was the one responsible for Eden’s minor attempt at revenge turning into a murder, they’d sue him into an early grave.
We sat in silence for a few minutes until he was calm enough to stand and leave.
On his way out, I said, “Don’t leave like that, Duff. Buddy. We can work this out. Let me make you dinner. Do you like seafood?”