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Molly Masters Series

Death at a Talent Show

Death at a Talent Show

Chapter 1

T.A.G. You're It.

"Tell me again. Why am I doing this?" I asked Lauren Newton, my best friend. Lauren looked over my shoulder in the mirror as I sighed at the reflection that—thanks to the layers of grease paint—had lost all likeness to my face. We were at the dress rehearsal for a PTA variety show in which I was to be a clown. Lauren, comfortably dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, had opted out of performing and was in charge of costumes and makeup. "For our children," she answered, before dabbing more ruby-colored lipstick on my painted smile.

Against my personal preferences, all seven of us clowns—five females and two males—were supposed to look exactly alike, from our half-bald, half-redhead-being-electrocuted hairpieces down to our oversized shoes. Our director had felt that the similar appearances made our entrance funnier, as we piled one by one out of a golf cart transformed into a clown mobile.

Stephanie Saunders, pacing behind Lauren and three of us would-be clowns, scoffed. "We're doing this because you, Molly, sold everyone on this stupid fund-raising idea of yours."

I glared at her reflection in the mirror above the vanity table that ran the length of the dressing-room wall. Stephanie wore a shimmering black evening gown with a slit up the side that showed off her Tina-Turner-has-nothing-on-me legs. Her long blond hair, nary a strand amiss, was fastened on top of her head with gold clips. At the heart of the skit we were about to rehearse, she would sing a serious love ballad, which we clowns would interrupt.

Giving my reflection a disparaging look, she continued, "Lest you forget, Molly, you were the one who came up with this so-called brilliant campaign. As I recall, your exact words were: 'Let's force our children to watch us perform for a change.'"

Though her recollection was accurate, I'd been joking. In as gentle a tone as I could muster, I replied, "Stephanie, you look stunning, whereas—" I held out my hands to indicate my two fellow clowns at the vanity table and Elsbeth Young in the back of the room. "—all of us are made up as Bozos. If you don't want to become a victim of clownicide, be nice to us, okay?"

Lauren laughed. Stephanie shot her a dirty look. Refusing to have her mood dampened, Lauren said with a smile, "This fundraiser was a great idea, Stephanie, and you know it."

"I agree," Danielle Underwood said, her typically melodious voice now sharp. For some reason, whenever she'd spoken tonight it had been to snap at someone. Perhaps stage fright was turning her into a grouchy clown. She was drawing triangular eyebrows over her snow-white forehead with my eyeliner pencil. This was only the second time that particular makeup implement had been used; I'd purchased it solely for my children's Halloween costumes last fall. "When I think of all those interminable performances and pageants I've been to, just so I could be there when my son said his one and only line. And half the time his face was hidden behind his giant hamburger or tree costume."

I looked again at my reflection, trying to decide if I would feel better dressed up to look like a hamburger, rather than as its spokesperson, Ronald McDonald. I decided it was too close to call.

Seated at the far end of the table, Nadine Dahl, a secretary at the high school within Carlton Central's all-grade-levels school, let out a sharp, "Ha!" She had been attempting, with limited success, to center the red ring of hair on her head, and I was beginning to suspect that her head might be lopsided. "You ladies only have to go to your own child's performance. Try being on the school staff sometime. We have to go to damn near every production the school puts on." She winked at Lauren, who worked with her in the high school office. "I'll be seeing school performances in my delirium when I'm old and senile. Which will be next week, at the rate I'm going."

I could appreciate the sentiment, though I suspected that Nadine was only a couple of years older than my own forty. I studied her in profile, amazed at how complete the transformation was. She and I looked like twins—well, provided one of the twins had been dropped on her now lopsided head—and yet in real life, she was thirty pounds heavier and had a button nose, unlike my very non-buttonish one.

"You said it," Lauren added. She donned an impish smile and rubbed her hands together. "So, kiddies, it's payback time. Every one of us jumped at this chance. It's not as though anyone could have predicted..." Lauren let her voice fade away and cleared her throat.

She'd been inadvertently about to bring up the subject we were all studiously avoiding—the uproar between Olivia Garrett and Stephanie.

Claiming that Olivia only wanted her because of the sizable trust fund left by her late father, Olivia's teenage daughter was "divorcing" Olivia in favor of Stephanie. Stephanie, on the other hand, was already wealthy, and her daughter and Olivia's daughter were best friends. To make matters worse, Stephanie's callous remarks to a local television reporter last night had alienated half of the cast, as well as half of the town of Carlton.

Olivia was also a clown in our skit, but was steering clear of Stephanie by dressing someplace else. So were our two male clowns.

The situation between the two women was unlikely to escalate in the forty-eight hours leading up to Friday night's performance. In the wake of the scathing outburst that had been aired on the eleven o'clock news, Stephanie's lawyer had told her not to say another word about the case. Especially not to television reporters.

"As Molly pointed out, you should be the last one to complain, Stephanie," Elsbeth Young muttered from the back of the room. "You're not made up to look ridiculous." Elsbeth was struggling to get into her suit, pulling the red-checkered shirt and yellow-striped pants over her clothes.

"Not true. You're the lucky ones," Stephanie retorted. "You get to be anonymous. I'm the one who's out there center front, supposedly trying to sing a serious song."

"That reminds me, Stephanie," I said, rotating in my chair to face her. "The entire reason I thought up this skit in the first place was because I was supposed to be singing the serious song and you were supposed to be a clown. I, for one, would have paid good money just to see you—our forever classy and impeccably attired PTA president—in big floppy shoes and a red putty nose. I'll bet a lot of other parents in this community would have felt the same way."

Stephanie scowled at me, then leaned close to gaze at the mirror and check her perfect hair for the fiftieth time. "Me, a clown, and you, a torch singer? Please, Molly. There's something to be said for not trying too hard to go against type. Besides, I've heard you sing."

Lauren put her hand on my shoulder to keep me seated. Not to be thwarted so easily, I slammed my upper arm against my side and squeezed the rubber bulb hidden there, squirting water out of the flower on my lapel and into Stephanie's face.

Stephanie gasped and stepped back. Her face dripping, she stared in horror at me.

"Oops," I said in a monotone. "Sorry."

Stephanie swiped the water from her face and narrowed her eyes as she scanned the room to stifle the laughter that had erupted. "Well, Molly. Thank you, at least, for merely using water," she said under her breath, then met my eyes with unmasked fury. "Olivia hates me so much that she undoubtedly would have squirted acid in my face."

Her words made me wince. This parental divorce was a terrible ordeal for all concerned. Stephanie sincerely believed she was doing the right thing to try to gain custody of her daughter's friend. "I'm sorry," I said quietly. "I should have given you more slack, considering the stress you've been under lately."

She was having none of my attempts to mollify. With a few adept strokes, she freshened her makeup, but now spoiled her lovely features with a sneer. "You always were a sore loser, Molly. Our director, if you remember, explained very clearly that it made the most sense for me to sing the solo, since I have to be well-dressed for my role as magician's assistant in the preceding act."

"Where is our illustrious director?" Nadine asked, primarily to change subjects, I thought. "I'm not sure that I've seen Corinne once tonight. Makes you wonder how much she cares about the production."

"Last I saw, she was having a heated discussion with Jack Vance," Stephanie answered, referring to the principal of Carlton Central School. Ironically, he had been our classmate at Carlton Central some twenty years earlier. "She's probably in the rest room, trying to restore her dignity."

"It's far too late for that," Elsbeth murmured.

Surely Corinne was not in trouble with the principal over the parental divorce case, which couldn't possibly involve her. The last thing any of us needed was a second major controversy involving the high school.

Elsbeth continued, "I can't believe that she, of all people, is our show director. Talk about putting the biggest nut of all in charge of the nuthouse."

Everyone was looking at her. To ease the tension, I joked, "Which would make us all, what? Pistachios?"

Elsbeth held her arms out wide and looked down at her outfit, then at me. "Take it from one clown to another. We've both looked more dignified."

"You don't know Molly well, do you?" Stephanie said under her breath. She gave a glance at my squirt-gun flower and wisely stepped back.

Actually, Elsbeth had been my daughter's piano teacher for three years now and knew me quite well. So forcing myself to ignore the remark, I returned the subject matter to our director. "What's wrong with Corinne Buldock? She seems perfectly nice to me. And I hear she's popular at the school, right?"

"Haven't you heard?" Elsbeth asked. She was smiling, till she caught sight of Danielle's reflection in the mirror. Despite the wide red-painted smile there, Danielle's acute discomfort with this subject matter showed in her eyes. Elsbeth, the only one of us not yet in clown face, averted her gaze and returned her attention to her costume, her cheeks now blazing red.

How could Corinne's troubles with the principal involve Danielle? Putting two and two together, I decided this must involve Danielle's teenage son, who was in Corinne's class. I glanced at Lauren, who normally kept me filled in on the major gossip from the high school. She indicated Nadine to me with her eyes, which must have meant that Nadine—senior secretary and Lauren's immediate supervisor—had told her to keep quiet.

For an awkward moment nobody spoke. Meanwhile, Danielle continued to act transfixed by her clown shoes, as if to avoid everyone's eyes.

"Danielle," Stephanie said gently, "if it's any consolation, the latest word is that she's going to be suspended, at the very least. In fact, many of the students in Corinne's classes are expecting her to be fired by Monday."

Fired? Now I was really curious. All of the parental clowns, except me, had children in Corinne's senior TAG language arts class; she'd recruited the participants in this skit from the parents of her Talented and Gifted Students, or TAGS, an acronym that always struck me as annoyingly over-the-top. Some assessment official was apparently in charge of saying such things as, "Sorry, ma'am, but we feel that your son is merely gifted. I'm afraid that he has no discernible talent whatsoever."

"I've got to get some fresh air," Danielle murmured. But just at that moment, Corinne stepped into the room, and Danielle jumped back as if a force field had repelled her.

Corinne, meanwhile, was perspiring heavily and all but foaming at the mouth. Her red-rimmed eyes suggested she'd been crying. Under normal circumstances she was a pretty woman in her mid-thirties, with kinky, short blond hair. She had lost weight recently, though, and was now so thin that she had an angular appearance.

She let her jaw drop at the sight of us. "What the hell are you people doing? You should be dressed and waiting backstage by now. All of you. And where the hell is—" She turned and spotted Stephanie, leaning back against the wall beside the doorway. "There you are, Stephanie. What are you doing?"

"Preparing myself mentally to be humiliated by a batch of clowns. Why?"

"You're supposed to be on stage right now, as Martin the Marvelous's assistant!"

"And you were supposed to tell me when he was ready to begin," Stephanie fired back.

Meanwhile, Danielle quietly and deliberately cut a wide arc around Corinne and Stephanie, and left the room. Corinne gestured at the rest of us. "And those of you already in costume should be waiting backstage!" She stomped her foot in frustration. "For God's sake, people! What good does it do us to have a timed dress rehearsal if you won't even try to see how quickly you can go through the costume change?"

I was too surprised by the woman's fury to respond. Corinne grabbed Stephanie by the wrist and began to pull her out of the room. Stephanie appeared to be stunned into acquiescence. I'd known her since junior high, and she was not the sort to allow others to touch her, let alone drag her by the hand.

As they were leaving, Corinne said over her shoulder, "I'll have you ladies know that you're reinforcing a terrible stereotype. Both men in the skit got dressed in half the time that you gals need, and are backstage, waiting."

"Men are used to being clowns," I called after her.

A silence settled onto the room in Corinne's wake. "Those who can, do," Nadine said sourly. "Those who can't, order the rest of us around." She rose, dressed and in full makeup.

Elsbeth claimed Nadine's recently deserted seat, and Lauren began to help her apply makeup. "All I know," Elsbeth whispered, "is putting Corinne Buldock in charge of the show was a big mistake. For this dress rehearsal to go any worse, somebody'd have to keel over."

"Please don't say that," I moaned.

Ever since I'd moved back to my hometown in upstate New York six years ago, some miserable curse had turned me into Soccer Mom cum Angel of Death. That thought evoked an image of myself in a hooded black cape, wearing jogging shorts and cleats and carrying a soccer ball in one hand and a scythe in the other. Perhaps there was some way to turn the concept into a greeting card. On second thought, no way. With my home business—designing ecards—in a lull, I must have unconsciously been trolling the bottom of the pickle barrel.

The room returned to silence, the tension still palpable. Lauren had probably considered it a favor not to tell me about whatever new controversy was stirring up the already over-stirred staff and parental community, but this had put me in the unenviable position of needing to watch my step. Not one of my fortes, even while not sporting enormous clown feet.

"Well," I said, rising, "no sense in delaying this any longer. I'm off to be a clown." I pumped a fist and, as I did so, remembered that my outfit was lacking one item. I glanced at the small table by the doorway on which I'd laid my gloves prior to putting on my makeup. The tabletop was now bare. "Elsbeth? Lauren? Did you see a pair of red gloves on this little table by the door?"

"No," they said simultaneously.

"Huh. I could have sworn that's where I put them. I'd better retrace my steps."

Easier said than done. For one thing, my steps were now as exaggerated as a landlocked scuba diver's. For another, Carlton's high school auditorium was something to behold. The stage and entire backstage area were unbelievably extravagant and, for me with my poor sense of direction, something of a labyrinth.

I found my way to the stage and paused to watch Martin pull a rabbit out of a bouquet that he'd just given Stephanie. With her usual showmanship, she acted completely surprised and then brought the rabbit offstage toward me, as if afraid the furry little guy would bite her.

"Open the rabbit's cage for me," she ordered.

"Right away, m'lady."

She sighed. "Oh, it's you, Molly. In that case, here." She handed me the rabbit to put away myself, then returned her attention to Martin, who was now doing some card tricks that apparently did not require Stephanie's "lovely" assistance.

Trying to make nice, I simply did as demanded and put the rabbit in the cage, then asked, "How's Martin's act going?"

She rolled her eyes and said sarcastically, "Tonight, Carlton High School. Tomorrow, Broadway." She sighed. "It is so difficult working with you amateurs."

I moved my arm, and she immediately stepped back. "Molly, if you squirt me with that thing one more time I'm going to have to kill you."

"...and kazaam!" Martin said from the stage. This must have been Stephanie's cue, for she retrieved her glorious smile and strode onto the stage.

Too annoyed to watch Stephanie, I decided I should check the second dressing room for my gloves. One of the men could have inadvertently picked them up earlier and left them there. I found the room, but no gloves. Frustrated, I sat down. My pent-up emotions were pointless. Stephanie was always going to be Stephanie, ever annoying, ever capable of goading her fellow Carltonites into forking over a staggering amount of cash for good causes.

"Still haven't found your gloves, Molly?" Lauren asked, entering the room behind me.

"They were right by the door in the other dressing room. Someone must have grabbed them thinking they were theirs."

"They'll turn up. Let's go 'Send in the Clowns,' shall we?" She wiggled her eyebrows at me. "One of us had to say it, right?"

"And I'm glad it was you." That joke had been parlayed about so often in rehearsals that it had become quite the groaner. We headed toward the stage. Or at least, I think that was the direction we were going. "It's too bad you couldn't convince Tommy to be in the show," I said, referring to her husband.

"He said he has no talents." She grinned at me. "At least not G-rated ones."

Ignoring the innuendo, I said, "Too bad. It would have been nice to have a police sergeant on stage with us. Everyone is so on edge. Quite frankly, all this tension has me a bit spooked."

Lauren rubbed her eyes "Your voice is serious, but it sounds so strange when you're dressed like that."

We passed a full-length mirror in the hallway and I caught sight of myself and saw what she meant. Strangely, I'd never felt less like clowning around than I did right at the moment.

We found ourselves on the stage-right wing. Lauren squeezed my arm and whispered, "Actually, I think I'm going to watch from the front row. I'll let you know what I think of the skit."

"Okay. Thanks." Trouble was, though, it was already well after ten p.m. on Wednesday night. If this skit proved to be a disaster, it was too late to improve much before Friday night's performance. I heard some murmurings behind me and rounded a curtain in search of double-gloved clowns.

I stopped the first person in a clown suit I ran into and asked if she—or he, since there was no telling—had picked up my gloves by mistake.

The clown held up red, fuzzy palms. "Not me. These are mine." She pointed. "You might want to try stage left. Or is that right? I think I saw another clown over there."

"Thanks, Olivia."

"How'd you know it was me?" she said, playing with her already unmistakably high-pitched voice.

I chuckled, glad that she seemed to be in a good mood despite her daughter's "divorce." Spotting another clown at the opposite side of the stage, I moved in that direction and called out, "Are those your gloves?"

"Shush!" both Martin the Mediocre and Stephanie the Stuck-up simultaneously said.

The other clown answered, "Yes, they're mine," and I recognized Nadine's voice.

"Hey! What are you doing back there?" Martin said, interrupting his act to shout at me. "I'm about to do my tour de force! I can't have people wandering around behind me now!"

"Oh, for heaven's sake, Martin," I retorted, not appreciating being treated like an idiot, even if I did happen to be dressed like a clown. "I won't be back here during the actual performance. I'm just trying to find my missing gloves for the rehearsal."

I looked at Corinne, sitting beside Lauren, expecting her to yell at me. She didn't. Except for the two of them, the auditorium was empty. We hadn't wanted any of the students to watch the final rehearsal in lieu of the paid event Friday night, so we'd deliberately scheduled this rehearsal well past any after-school activities. There had been a mass exodus of the show's cast who weren't in the last two acts. I only hoped the same thing didn't occur during the real thing on Friday.

"Use the passageway underneath the stage or behind the back curtains!" Martin snarled. Then changing his demeanor, he rubbed his hands together and once again transformed Martin the grouchy tax attorney into Martin the magician. "Now, ladies and gentlemen, I need a volunteer." He turned to speak to our director. "This is the part where I would normally ask the audience for a volunteer."

To her credit, Corinne resisted saying "Duh" to Martin's obvious explanation, and he continued, "Corinne, why don't you stand in? Of course I'd never pick you as a volunteer. You and Stephanie look far too similar."

Corinne beamed. Stephanie's face fell, and she said under her breath, "In her dreams, maybe."

With Martin too engrossed in his act to yell at me a second time, I crossed the stage and reached the other wing. There I saw another clown, leaning against the back wall. "Danielle?" I asked cautiously, merely guessing; the posture was that of someone who wanted to be left alone.

"Yes. Molly?"

"Could you have accidentally picked up my gloves from the table by the dressing room door?"

"No, I keep mine in my pocket."

I nodded and tried to sort through the voices of clowns I'd spoken to already to see if I'd asked everyone. The only clowns I hadn't asked were the male clowns. Or had I asked Elsbeth? I couldn't recall.

Not having seen this trick of Martin's, and curious as to how it was done, I returned my attention to the stage. From someplace behind the curtains some woman cried, "Oh, no! The birds! They're getting away!" Danielle immediately rushed back to help, but this was at least the third time Martin's stupid doves had flown the coop, and I was not about to lend a helping hand. Especially not since discovering that the birds tended to bite anyone's hand, except Martin's.

From the stage, Corinne called, "Forget about the damned birds! You're all supposed to be behind the curtain by now, except for Chester. He should be at the wheel of the golf cart. All of the clowns! Line up behind the back curtain." Corinne gestured wildly for us all to get into position.

Still wanting to watch the act, I very slowly made my way to my position offstage. Martin closed Corinne into her black booth on my side of the stage. He had already closed Stephanie into hers. Martin said some magic words, then paused. Nothing happened.

Switching from bad magician into bad ventriloquist, Martin maintained a wide smile, but said out of the corner of his mouth, "Come on, Stephanie! You know what you're supposed to do. What seems to be the holdup?"

"I'm stuck," Stephanie said, banging on the booth. "Someone closed up the back flap."

"That's impossible," Martin snarled. "Let me see what's going on."

A clown suddenly pushed past me, shoving me off balance. "Hey!" I cried, in indignant surprise. The clown, heading toward the stage, was reaching into a black plastic garbage bag. "Watch where you're going. We're supposed to be—"

The clown turned slightly. I stared, unable to believe what I was seeing. A dark cylinder that looked just like the barrel of a gun poked through the plastic bag. I gasped and froze, suddenly unable even to scream out a warning.

The clown marched onto the middle of the stage, where the magician's back was turned as he worked on Stephanie's booth. My brain screamed at me to do something, anything, but my body wouldn't respond.

Shots rang out. The clown fired at the booth that Martin had sealed Corinne Buldock into only moments before.

© Leslie O'Kane


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