They found Mr. Brown underneath the stage among the props with his throat cut. It was a shame, someone (no one was very clear, later, who it was) remarked in the shocked silence, to spoil his silk bow tie.
The Witches had run on ahead, as every female in The Groundlings Theater Company knew about Mr. Brown’s little love nest under the stage. They’d all been invited there. Some had avoided, and some had acquiesced; the size of ensemble roles reflected, in varying shades, the color of their commitment to Sacrificing for their Art.
He had pushed a chaise lounge (used in a production of Private Lives, and still quite nice, really,) into a small alcove made by pushing various bits of scenery and props to the sides to create walls. No one could picture Mr. Brown doing such menial work, so there’d been a betting pool going around as to whether he would hire some of the stage hands for renovations.
It was a shame, one of the women remarked (no one would say whom), that the killer hadn’t used poison, as there was a nice open bottle of wine sitting ready to hand, with one glass half-full, and the other drained.
“But we wouldn’t know, would we, the clever clogs could have used poison, couldn’t ‘e, then slit his throat after. A sort of Red Haddock.” (That was Bessie, Lady Macbeth’s dresser.)
“Herring,” Macbeth’s voice rang out in an authoritative way into the thoughtful silence. He had just roared his way through three hours of Shakespeare, and was most definitely In Voice as a result.
The cast looked to him as he cleared his throat in a decisive way. “Right, then. Someone must ring the police.”
They shrank back from him a bit. His face, still streaked with blood from his battle with MacDuff, gleamed in a sinister way, lit from below by the flickering candles. He eyed the candles, noting that they were burning quite low- Mr. Brown must have lain here for some time – and snatched one up, snuffing out the other.
“The police?” One of the witches,Witch Three perhaps, whispered.
“He’s very obviously been murdered. It’s what one does, you know.”
“No- ring the police. And don’t touch anything. It is all evidence now. Don’t you read novels?”
So back upstairs they trudged, still in costume, the men clanking in mismatched (looks fine under stage lights) armor and the ladies in either quasi-medieval drapery (gentlewomen) or dyed cheesecloth rags (witches), a ragtag bunch with a strange solidarity.
“She isn’t here,” Witch One hissed to Witch Two.
“She wouldn’t be, would she. Superstitious. Always goes back up after her death, and waits for her notes to be given private-like, in her dressing-room.” They nodded to each other, worried faces conveying a proprietary air. This was their Lady, and though she had strange superstitions, her mad scene brought the house down night after night. Allowances must be made. “Nervy,” they had called her, not without a certain pride.
Murmuring among themselves, they sat on the stage, where they were most comfortable. The ghost light was switched on, making interesting shadows as they settled themselves down on the handy bits of scenery, fallen rocks and trees turning into perfect picnic spots with the addition of bedraggled blankets someone (probably Banquo) had dragged up from the storage room. Props puttered over to make a pot of tea, and it became positively festive. They talked among themselves in low voices, for all the world like a murder of crows settling in for a coze, their eyes continually darting to Macbeth, who had his mobile clamped to his ear.
“You’d think in a poky place like Bangor, the police would be leaping on the phone,” Lady Macduff began, only to be shushed fiercely as the quacking of a nasal voice from the mobile indicated the line had been picked up at last.
In a few curt sentences, Macbeth explained their predicament. They all listened, reaching for biscuits and sipping their tea, heads nodding in support, no doubt taking notes on his delivery to help him later.
He hung up and sighed, tucking his mobile away in the empty sheath that hung from his belt. (No telling where his sword had gone, Props thought resignedly.)
“Who’ll go fetch her?” He said heavily.
Everyone looked to Bessie.
“Oh, must I?” she quavered. No one knew how old Bessie was, exactly; she was strong as an ox and stubborn as a steam train, but had a certain knack for appearing frail when things were asked of her that she didn’t wish to do. One can’t hang about the theater for decades, even backstage, without picking up some acting skills, it seemed.
No one said a word; they lifted teacups to lips to hide their smiles, and munched their biscuits, eyes wide and waiting.
“OH, all right. For heaven’s sake. The poor lamb has had two performances today, and she outdid herself in that last one, if it is me who says it. Who cares what I think, I’m just a dresser, just lays her things out as she likes ‘em, makes sure her binocs is ready so she can be with her birds before curtain, irons the paper so she can read her horoscope of a morning; if it weren’t for me, the poor mite would be all over nerves, you all know she can’t perform unless she has her little rituals.” They nodded in time with the speech, having heard it many times before. It didn’t really lose anything in the retelling; that was the thing about theater traditions, they gave one a safe feeling.
Bessie gave one last glare around the company, muttering to herself “Smug as an alley full of cats outside an Italian restaurant,” and heaved herself to her feet, shaking off Prompt, who had reached out an arm to help her.
Of course they all knew who did it, but one mustn’t spoil the show. Not a single person looked at Macbeth, who sat contentedly sipping his tea with the air of a man who has done a job, and done it well.
Off Bessie clomped; they could hear each step as she climbed the stairs to the Lady’s dressing room, muttering to herself all the while. They heard the door open (wonderful acoustics in this old theater; really, most wonderful!) and, clear as a bell, the Lady’s gasp as Bessie gave her the news. That gasp was well done, Prompt murmured, and they nodded appreciatively. Quite well done indeed.
An unfamiliar sound broke upon them. They blinked as if coming awake from a nice dream as the house door opened, spilling moonlight that was bright enough to pick out worn patches in the red velveteen seats and curtains. Jones-the-Law stood for a moment silhouetted in the doorway. They shivered deliciously at the effect (if only there had been a clap of thunder! Sound thought wistfully). Jones-the-Law brought with him the smell of the outdoors, the sea air; nostrils flared and the company drew together slightly, closing ranks.
One of his shoes squeaking accompaniment, a rousing Lilliputian bagpipe, he walked toward them up the aisle. “Coming straight through the house, just like audience,” someone tittered, quickly shushed, as he climbed the side steps to the stage to stand before them, flipping to a blank page in his notebook, pencil at the ready.
Just then, the Lady joined them. Her hands were still slightly reddened; never could quite get the stage blood off in time, you see, they explained, voices overlapping, as she blinked at him, white with shock. Bessie and Macbeth helped her to a chair.
It was a quick change, someone was explaining. One minute she’s telling Macbeth to wash his hands, and oh, you should see them standing there, sir, their hands dripping! It’s a sight to send chills up the spine; they were that good, sir, really they were – the next minute, she’s got to come out again with clean hands. Theater magic, sir. It wasn’t as important for Macbeth to get his hands clean… the explainer trailed off in confusion. They fidgeted, looking everywhere but at Jones. He sighed.
His bright eyes darted around the company, noting reddened hands, costumes smeared with blood. He pushed his hastily-donned helmet back to give his forehead a good rub as they began interrupting each other, jigsawing together a story that didn’t really surprise him. Truth was, he had just been sitting down to his late supper, and hadn’t much liked Mr. Brown, anyway. He’d had so many reports on the man – watched women, he did. A regular peeping Tom. Bird watcher. Jones’ lip curled as he listened. Sounded like Mr. Brown had been at his antics again, no doubt threatening one of the young ladies with firing if she didn’t warm his chaise lounge for him. Really not the sort of thing they wanted in Bangor, and a good riddance to him.
Jones came back to himself with a start as he heard something new. “Dead birds?” he asked, “Horoscope?”
“Yes – terrible,” Bessie rushed to explain. “She’s a gentle soul; doesn’t ask for anything really, no trouble at all.” She looked fondly at Lady Macbeth, who seemed to be in a state of exhaustion, her pale skin stretched taut over the delicate bones of her face. Bessie took one limp, reddish hand and patted it soothingly.
“She has little rituals she needs before curtain. Comes in for breakfast of a morning. I make her coffee and set out an egg and toast soldiers. She’s got her binoculars. She’s as good as a lamb, really, peaceful, watching her birds in the yard out her dressing room window.” She beamed at Jones as though it all made perfect sense.
“We found it’s the best way to get some food down her, poor mite, or she’d waste away to nothing from nerves.”
“Something happened this morning?” Jones prompted.
A shudder rippled through the company. Jones felt it, more than saw it. They drew closer together.
“Yes.” The one word rapped out of Bessie’s mouth like gunfire. Her muscles grew taut; she was a lioness, defending her cub.
“Someone introduced cats into the yard, and when the poor thing took up her binocs…”
“Death,” everyone looked at Lady Macbeth as the word came out of her in a horrified whisper. “Feathers everywhere, blood, the yard full of them – they’ll never sing again, my lovely, lovely birds,” and with that, shudders seemed to wrack her small frame in its bloodstained nightgown.
Bessie took the Lady into her arms, glaring fiercely over her head at the hapless Jones.
“You can see she can’t have done it. She were onstage, acting her broken heart out. Two performances she gave today, even with her little friends lying dead all over the yard, and that horrible horoscope!”
“Horoscope?” asked Jones.
A rusty little laugh came from under Bessie’s arm, and the Lady’s muffled voice faltered, “If it weren’t for the horoscope, he needn’t have died,” and she laughed again. Bessie shushed her and buried the glossy chestnut mop of hair deeper underneath her chin, stroking the hair with one strong, gentle hand.
“Horoscope?” Jones repeated, feeling like an idiotic parrot. All this talk of birds.
“Found it in her dressing room, and her, poor lamb, in hysterics. Mild hysterics, ladylike,” she corrected herself, crooning a bit to the brown head cuddled against her vast bosom.
“Aquarius, she is,” put in Prompt, and was silenced by a fierce look from Bessie. This was Bessie’s time now, her stage, and she’d turn toes up herself before she’d let anyone else have it.
“Yes, Aquarius. Sensitive-like, you know. She needs to read her horoscope of a morning; it helps her feel how her performance is going to go.”
“Only Mr. Brown found out,” Witch Two said darkly, and Bessie kissed the top of the glossy brown head she cradled and nodded for her to continue.
Witch Two cleared her throat nervously. “Mr. Brown found out, and he used it, you see. Everyone knew, but she wouldn’t believe it. She said it was from the stars, but Mr. Brown bribed Jones-the-News to let Mr. Brown write a horoscope. Aquarius, you see.” She faltered to a stop feeling she could have said that better; Witches One and Three patted her supportively, and she turned a becoming bright pink.
“He…wrote them himself?”
“Aye, that’s it,” they all nodded, delighted as if the clever student had finally learned his sums.
“Said it was to protect the show, you see, to write her lovely things, like. Notes that she would succeed in all she undertook to perform, that sort of thing. Only today’s…”
“Today’s,” The Lady pushed Bessie’s arms gently aside and raised her head, her eyes glowing with indignation, two bright spots of color on her cheeks. For the first time, Jones-the-Law experienced the full force of her personality. What a woman! He thought, and tugged his helmet off to hold it in his hands, turning it round and round as if he were a young bobby on the beat again.
“Today’s was a direct threat. If I didn’t meet him under the stage,” she took a deep breath and her voice grew resonant; he could see now that she’d be a powerful Lady Macbeth –
“More of the birds would die.”
There was silence as the company gazed at her, drawn close together, shoulder to shoulder.
There was a resounding silence as Jones-the-Law looked around at each of the seated figures, and realized they were breathing quietly in unison.
Lady Macbeth sat, wringing her faintly red-stained, lovely white hands in her lap. He had never actually seen a woman wringing her hands before, though all the books talked about it.
“She couldn’t have done it,” Bessie spoke up, her voice breaking the spell that had seemed to fall over the company. They blinked, nodded, sipped tea, rattling packages of biscuits as hands grabbed for the last delicious morsels –
She couldn’t have done it.
She was on stage, you see.
“The whole time?” Jones asked, resigned.
“Yes, yes, the whole time.”
“We all can vouch for her.”
“You all, in fact, can likely vouch for each other?” Jones asked, realizing belatedly that at no point this evening had his notebook come out of his pocket – it was as if they had cast a spell on him, he thought ruefully; he had taken no notes at all.
He didn’t need to see their nodding heads to know they would all vouch for each other’s whereabouts during the time in question.
Must have been a vagabond, someone from outside, someone suggested, and they all joined in gleeful agreement like a demented Greek Chorus.
Jones-the-Law suddenly felt very tired indeed, and his thoughts strayed to his delicious supper, likely grown cold now.
“What will you all do?” He asked.
“Do?” They looked at him in astonishment.
“Why, the show, of course,”
“Yes, the show. It’s really quite good. We are just getting into our stride.”
“By the pricking of my thumbs – something wicked this way comes…” Macbeth whispered, and grinned at Jones-the-Law. “…he’s worth no more. They say he parted well, and paid his score,” he continued, his eyes meeting those of the Lady in a strangely fierce, intimate moment.
“Theater folk,” Jones-the-Law shook his head, squeaking his way back down through the audience (he really must see about some new shoes soon), tucking away the tickets they had pressed upon him. He supposed Maisie would love to come see a show. He turned to look back as he closed the door; they looked back at him, strangely dreamlike in their costumes on that warmly lit stage. Slowly, (Prompt must have exited off stage while he wasn’t looking) the rich red velvet curtain drew to a close with a few dismissive jerks.
He jammed his hands in his pockets to restrain himself from applauding.