Saturday, July 16, 2016

Brief Candle, Part One

Swords clashed. Lights flashed. Soliloquies flowed. In the end, Denmark survived. Hamlet and his family, not so much.
            I’m not much of a Shakespeare guy myself, but I could recognize a good production when I saw one. I stood up with the rest of the audience, clapping and cheering at the curtain call.
            This would have been a nice date with Rachel, even though I was technically working. But Rachel was out of town, so I sat through Hamlet alone. Although a nice elderly woman two seats away chatted with me during the intermission. Her nephew played one of the guards.
            It was a small community theater in Wheaton, a western Chicago suburb. The theater group had a reputation for good productions, and I could see why. I waited in the lobby by myself as the people made their way out. I dropped five dollars into a donation box. Then I leaned toward a volunteer cleaning up the refreshment table. “Uh, I’d really like to talk to James Forrest. If he’s not too busy.”
            She smiled. “He’ll be out in a few minutes. Did you enjoy the show?”
            What could I say? “I always feel bad about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.”
            “Yeah.” She giggled. “Guildenstern is my boyfriend.”
            “Tell him he did a good job.” I grabbed the last cup of apple juice before she snatched it away.
            I waited ten minutes before Forrest came out. As Polonius, he’d worn tights and a ruffled collar. Now he was in sweats and a corduroy jacket. But his head was still bald, and his jaw was hard.
            “Mr. Forrest?” I held my card out. “Tom Jurgen. Do you have a minute?”
            “Uhh . . .” He stared at the card as if it were a program to autograph. “Private detective?”
            “It might be important. I’d be willing to buy you a drink, or a cup of coffee, or drive you home . . .”
            “What is this? Am I being sued?” Forrest pushed the card back at me.
            “Just look at this.” I pulled a theater program from my back pocket. Two years old, creased with time and sweat. “Do you remember this?”
            “Oh, for God’s sake . . .” Forrest groaned like a bored movie star. But then he looked at the cast list. “Excuse me—why is Sutton Marsh’s name crossed off here? And Abigail Euston? She was . . .” He looked up. “What is this?”
            I took a deep breath. “They’re dead.”
            “But I’m . . .” Forrest ran a hand over his bare scalp. “I was Duncan.” He pushed the program back at me. “I guess you can buy me a drink.”

The Mexican restaurant across the street was still open for the late-night theater crowd. Forrest ordered a glass of sangria.
            I unfolded the program again and ran my finger down the cast list. “Sutton Marsh, Macbeth, suicide. Abigail Euston, Lady Macbeth, hit and run. Rob Robinson, Banquo, overdose. Maria, Marta, and Marianne Moreta—the three witches? They died in a fire at their house.”
            “Oh, god.” Forrest’s eyes went pale. “Marianne was only fourteen. They were adorable. Smart and . . . they were just kids.”
            Yeah. I hated thinking about them. “Uh, then there’s Felipe Hidalgo . . .” I stopped. “Sorry. So are you getting the picture?”
            Forrest gulped his wine. “Who are you? Why are we here?”
            So here’s the thing: I used to be a reporter, until I got fired for reporting things my editors and the authorities wanted to cover up. Now I’m a private detective, and I keep getting the same kind of cases—the supernatural and the just plain weird. I don’t really like it, but I can’t seem to escape it.
            It scares me, but it pays the bills.
            “Felipe Hidalgo played Donalbain.” I pointed at the program. “His wife found him in the garage with the car running. It looked like a suicide, but he had a copy of this program in his lap.” I sighed. “No one wants to believe that someone they love could just—end it all. But she wanted some answers. And she thought it had something to do with Macbeth. All I had to go on was this program, so I started calling people. That’s when I noticed how many of them are—well, dead.”
            Forrest ran his fingers down the page. “Felipe was a fine young actor. And Sutton?” He leaned back on his bar stool. “Suicide?”
            Sutton Marsh had shot himself in the face with a handgun. But I didn’t think Forrest needed to hear the details right now. “I’m sorry.”
            He slid the program back toward me, and then waved an arm for another glass of sangria. “What do you want?”
            “First, I want you to be careful.” I nodded for a glass of water. “If you really want to help, help me find the others.”
            “You think there’s some kind of—serial killer targeting us?” Forrest laughed. “The Macbeth curse?”
            “Not exactly.” I didn’t blame him for doubting my sanity. “But this isn’t a serial killer either. The deaths are too random—suicide, hit and run, fire. It’s not a coincidence. People on this list are dying. So I’m looking at—other explanations.”
            Wizards and witches, angry ghosts, curses. I’d dealt with all of them
            Forrest stared at me. Then he looked down at the bar, his eyelids drooping. “‘When shall we three meet again, in thunder, lightning, or in rain . . .’”
            He was getting it. And he wasn’t rejecting the idea.
            I sipped my water. “You’re the first person I’ve contacted who can still talk to me. Can you think of anyone who might want to—take revenge on the company?”
            “Revenge.” He chuckled. “You don’t know much about the theater world, do you, Mr. Jurgen?”
            “I was in the chorus of The Music Man in high school. Seventy-six trombones, and all the rest. I couldn’t sing.”
            “It’s all about ego and power.” Forrest sighed. “Sometimes. It’s community theater. No one gets paid. But most of the productions I’ve been in were full of talented people who only wanted to do their best. But some, well . . . even a high school musical can turn into a production of Caligula in the wrong hands.” He winked. “Complete with a Roman orgy.”
            “I must have gone to the wrong cast parties.”
            Forrest ran a finger down on the page. “Christopher Minnis—the director here? Good man, very talented. But he was a replacement. Dorian Parker started out directing the show. Until he got fired.”
            That sounded interesting. “What happened?”
            Forrest closed his eyes. “Dorian was brilliant, but he was horribly abusive. He made us repeat scenes endlessly, as if he were Stanley Kubrick. His swordfights could have injured people. He wanted Abigail to be naked whenever she plotted with Macbeth. He wanted the three young girls to wear skimpy black lingerie in their scenes. He called Sutton a no-talent hack when he refused to go along with a scene of him strangling Duncan before stabbing him. Sutton!”
            He groaned. “He sexually harassed Abigail. Lady Macbeth could only understand the desire for power if she let herself be taken by someone more powerful, he said, and it was clear that he meant someone like him. The females on the crew stopped going near him. One girl in the lighting booth quit. And he wouldn’t listen! To anyone. Not even . . . well, I’m just a character actor, but he could have listened to me.”
            “So what happened?”
            Forrest raised his head. “We all rebelled. Refused to rehearse with him. The theater management told him to go home, and Christopher came in. He kept as many of Dorian’s concepts as he could, without the nudity and dangerous fights. He’s a talented director, and so the show went on. Maybe not as spectacular as Dorian’s production would have been, but still, it was a solid show. Sold out performances. Standing ovations. But all of us—even Christopher—knew something was gone. It could have been great. But . . .” Forrest sighed. “We moved on.”
            “So what happened to Dorian?”
            “I don’t know.” He finished his wine. “It’s not like he stood up on the stage and threatened hairy vengeance. He was just gone. Althea, the manager, brought Christopher in and introduced everyone, and we went on with that night’s rehearsal. It was a little awkward at first, but when he didn’t yell or tell us we were stupid, everyone relaxed. And the show went on.”
            Forrest staggered from his stool. “I’m sorry. I should be getting home.”
            I tossed some cash on the bar. “Do you need a ride?” Forrest’s face was flushed.
            “I’m fine.” He coughed and waved a hand. “I can get an Uber. I just need . . .”
            He collapsed on the floor.
            A waiter ran up, but I was already kneeling next to Forrest, my hands on his chest. I’ve taken a few classes in CPR. I pumped his chest while the woman behind the bar called 911. A family at a nearby table scattered. “Come on, come on,” I chanted, even though I knew he couldn’t hear me. “I need your help. Come on . . .”
            The rest was silence.

So I woke up the next morning tired, depressed, lonely—and angry.
            Tired because I didn’t get home until 3:00 a.m., after trailing the paramedics to the nearest hospital and waiting until someone pronounced James Forrest dead. Depressed because I hadn’t been able to save him. Lonely because I couldn’t call Rachel—she’d been pretty clear about not wanting me to bother her while she was out of town.
            And angry because people were dying and I didn’t know how to stop it.
            Yeah, I’d talked to the cops when I first got the case from Felipe Hidalgo’s wife. At least, I’d called the one detective on the CPD who would actually speak to me, Elena Dudovich. But most of the deaths had been cleared—suicide, overdose, car accidents—and they hadn’t all happened inside Chicago city limits, which meant Dudovich couldn’t automatically get involved even if she believed me. Which she didn’t. As usual.
            Editors and cops had stopped listening to me a long time ago. But I’d never learned to sit back and accept it.
            So I made some coffee, ate a bowl of cereal, and then opened up my laptop to look for Dorian Parker.
            I started with the basic Google search. I found one Dorian Parker on LinkedIn, but she was a marketing manager. Someone named Dorian Parkes had a Facebook profile, but he lived in Seattle. Dorian—my Dorian—had almost no internet presence. No picture, no résumé or CV or list of credits, no profile anywhere.
             Adding “theater” and “director” to my search got more results. He’d directed a production of “In the Boom Boom Room” by David Rabe at a theater in Glen Ellyn, and Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit” in Old Town right after that. And other plays, in and around Chicago. The reviews called him brilliant, but dangerous. “He frightens his audiences with his innovations as much as he challenges them with his unconventional approaches to the whole theatrical experience,” one reviewer said. Another wrote, “This production of ‘Titus Andronicus’ is not for the faint of heart, or anyone with a weak stomach at the sight of buckets of blood.”
            Google is useful, but I have a few additional online resources as a PI for tracking people down. I found a phone number and address for Dorian Parker. So after a sip of coffee, I called him.
            “Hello?” He sounded groggy, as if I’d woken him up. I remembered that this was Sunday morning. “Who’s this?”
            “Dorian Parker? My name is Tom Jurgen. I’m a private detective. I’d like to talk to you about a production of Macbeth you were involved in two years ago.”
            “What? Jesus Christ . . .” He dropped the phone. I listened as he grunted and groaned, and waited until he found the phone again. “Who are you? I don’t know—”
            “Can we meet? I need to talk to you about some people involved in the play.”
            “Uhh . . .” Dorian groaned. “I guess. I’m not . . . okay. Give me a few minutes. Where are you?”
            He didn’t sound suspicious or angry. Just irritated at being woken up. We agreed on a coffee shop near his apartment up north, three hours from now.
            I spent the next two hours looking for more of the Macbeth cast. I got lucky and found several—the actor who’d played Malcolm, the brother of Donalbain, and the guy playing Lennox, who worked for King Duncan—the character Forrest had played. Neither one of them quite believed me when I told them they might be in danger, but they both got quiet when I read down the list of actors who’d already died.
            They both agreed to be careful, and neither one sounded suicidal. So I could only hope that I was saving them. Malcolm promised to call me back. Lennox wanted to get me off the phone as soon as he could. 
            I hit the number on one last name before leaving to meet with Dorian. Courtney Silvera had played one of the Three Murderers—they’d cast three women in the roles, and she was the first name I found contact information for. She picked up right away. “Hello?”
            “Hi, I’m trying to reach Courtney Silvera, who worked in a production of Macbeth two years ago? My name is—”
            “Wait, are you a casting agent? Or a director? I can’t talk to anyone right now, but you can find my credits at my website—”
            “I’m a private detective. My name is Tom Jurgen. I’m looking into a series of—incidents among the cast of a Macbeth production.”
            “Oh god.” Her voice was hoarse and ragged. “What kind of—what did you say? Incidents?”
            “Well, I don’t want to scare you—”
            “Scared? I haven’t been outside for three days!” She sounded close to panic. And hanging up. “What are you talking about?”
            “I’m hoping you can help me.” I kept my voice as low and calm as I could. “Can you tell me what’s happening?”           
            “Well—” She gulped. “Let’s see. I almost got hit by a bus. And then a chunk of concrete fell off a building in front of me. And my toaster oven caught fire. A bird pooped on my head!”
            I wasn’t sure about the bird, but the rest of the incidents seemed to fit the profile. “This is going to sound crazy, but someone or something seems to be going after people in the cast of Macbeth. I’m glad you’re all right.”
            “All right? I’m going crazy! Who are you again?”
            I reminded her. “So when did this start?”
            “Last week.” She sighed. “That’s when the bus almost killed me. I haven’t been out of my apartment since Thursday. I’m running out of food.”
            “Get something delivered. Just be careful. I’m trying to find out who’s—”
            “Yeah, who’s doing this? Some kind of serial killer? Or is it the Macbeth curse?”
            She caught on quick. “What can you tell me about Dorian Parker?”
            “Uh, terrific director?” She hesitated. “I mean, he’s a little crazy, some of the things he wanted us to do. But he came up with these great ninja costumes for me and the three murderers that we used even after he—you know he got fired, right?”
            “Was he angry about that?”
            “I don’t know! People were pissed at him, and then one day the manager was there and she introduced Chris to us. Chris Minnis, he was the new director. He was good, a lot calmer and saner. But less creative than Dorian. But the show must go on, right?”
            “Have you seen him or heard from him since?”
            “Nah. I did ‘Company’ right after that, and then I had classes. I’m getting my Master’s at UIC. I’ve been pretty busy.” She sounded less frightened now that she was talking about something different.
            “Good for you. Thanks for your help. I’ve got to—”
            “Wait!” Fear again. “What do I do?”
            I had no idea. “Be careful. Stay in your apartment. I’ll call you.”
            “You’re a private detective, right? Could you protect me?”
            “I’m not much of a bodyguard.” Rachel would tell her most days I can’t take care of myself. “I could recommend someone, but this isn’t the usual type of security situation.”
            “You’re telling me? But you know what’s going on. More than some rent-a-cop would.”
            I managed not to sigh out loud. “I have an appointment right now. I can stop by your place afterward. If you want.”
            “Could you bring me some groceries?”

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