Our next stop was Kilmarnock, Scotland. We were visiting another in an endless parade of second uncles. I was beginning to suspect that Holly’s great grandparents had been huge fans of international adoption.
Uncle Duncan was a bit of an eccentric. An aspiring actor in his youth, he now owned a historic theater and staged experimental productions of Shakespeare plays.
Duncan had promised to pick us up at the airport, but there was no sign of him. Holly finally called him at home. She spoke with him for a few moments and hung up looking puzzled.
“He told me to take a cab.”
Once we arrived at his house, Duncan hurriedly ushered us in and slammed the door, locking it securely.
Once we were safely inside, Duncan relaxed a bit. As he made us tea, he told us that someone was out to get him.
Opening night on his latest production was days away and he was convinced someone was trying to stop it, and him, from going on. The rehearsals had been plagued with problems from the start, but recently they’d taken on a more sinister air.
Theater lights had fallen, not a meter from where he’d been standing. Stage floorboards had suspiciously cracked, almost breaking the leg of a the lead actor.
It certainly seemed very suspicious, so I agreed to attend dress rehearsal that evening and see if I could help out in any way.
The theater had certainly seen better days, but Duncan pointed out its features to me as if he were seeing the place thirty, maybe forty, year prior. Personally, I thought the whole place might come down around our ears at any moment. I suspected that Duncan’s sabotage was simply entropy.
But I, carefully, settled into a theater seat and prepared to watch the rehearsal.
It was clear, from the moment that the first actor walked onto the stage, that theater itself wasn’t the only thing in shambles.
Duncan had warned me that his cast was unusual, telling me his lead actress, Maggie Bethad, was “literally allergic to curtain calls.” But nothing could have prepared me for odd casting choices. The lead actor was seventy if he was a day and Maggie herself—barely nineteen. And curtain calls weren’t her only allergy, if the constant sneezing was any indication.
When Maggie stopped rehearsal for the fifth time in as many minutes to protest that it wasn’t her allergy season, I decided to go back stage and take a look around.
I focused on the dressing rooms and found myself rifling through the contents of Maggie’s makeup kit. I trod the boards a bit in my youth and the smell of the cremes and powders always brought back pleasant memories. I opened up her blush and paused, puzzled. There was something off about the scent—something flowery.
Looking around more, I stumbled across an old woman sitting next to a rack of costumes. At her feet was a makeup kit. In hushed tones we introduced ourselves. Her name was Jeanette, she was a member of the local historic society, and a costumer.
Jeanette had been sewing costumes for productions in this theater for more than thirty years. I asked her how she felt about Duncan’s productions and was met with a polite change of topic.
But I gathered, listening to her talk about the great plays this theater once housed, that she was no more thrilled about the Scottish play being set in 1930’s Chicago than I was.
She also didn’t seem to have a very favorable impression of the cast, particularly “that no-talent diva” Maggie. But again, when I pressed for details, she changed the subject and talked about the former majesty of the theater and how run down it had become.
I asked Jeanette whether she was a makeup artist as well, pointing to the antique wooden makeup kit. She laughed and said no, that was her emergency kit for flaky actresses. Some of which, she added with a roll of her eyes, were flakier than most.
Maggie chose that moment to let forth with a particularly violent sneeze from onstage. We both jumped and laughed quietly, sharing the private joke.
I didn’t have an issue with anything Jeanette had said. In fact, we pretty much saw eye to eye. However, I did have a problem with what she didn’t say and I suspected she wasn’t saying a lot. I decided to tail her after the rehearsal.
Duncan tried to corner me and get my impressions of the show, but I made my hasty apologies and told him I’d find my own way home.
It wasn’t hard to follow Jeanette. Old ladies carrying heavy wooden makeup kits don’t walk very fast. I watched her buy some lettuce from a market, some bread and cheese from a deli, sliced ham from a butcher, and a tabloid newspaper from a pharmacy.
I was about to decide I was on the wrong trail when a dapper gentleman approached her and gave her a warm hug.
An admirer, or someone more sinister?
He took the makeup kit from her and escorted her along her route. As they passed a cafe, he paused and gestured to a table. I watched as Jeanette pretended to demure and allowed him to cajole her into it.
I’ve seen quite a few femme fatales in my line of work and Jeanette, though faded, was a real piece of work. There was no way I could get close enough to eavesdrop without her seeing me, so I hung back and watched the scene unfold.
Several things were apparent, even at a distance. Their easy comfort indicated they’d known each other for years. His impeccably tailed clothes suggested life had been kinder to him than to her. His attentiveness spoke of a long infatuation and her suddenly coquettish nature told me she had him—hook line and sinker.
I followed them to her home, where they parted ways. I decided to follow him.
He walked briskly to a larger house not far away, but rather than go in he headed around to the back of the house. I silently followed him and watched him enter a greenhouse. He flipped on the lights and I saw hundred of roses—the source of the flowery scented blush and of Maggie’s allergies.
I crept around to the front of the house and read the nameplate over the mailbox—Orson Bethad. Bethad? That was the lead actress’s last name too.
The next morning found me at the library, searching the local paper.
Armed with more information, I paid Orson Bethad a visit at his office. He turned out to be a soft mark and was soon telling me everything I’d already guessed.
Orson was an old fashioned businessman and investor. He specialized in connecting money people to entrepeneurs and taking a sizable cut for himself. A few months ago he’d gotten a call from Jeanette with a proposition.
Tired of watching Duncan let the theater fall into disrepair due to the poor box office receipts, Jeanette wanted Orson to find a buyer for the theater. She suggested a movie theater chain known for restoring historic locations. The movies might be inferior to theater, but at leas the building would be returned to its former glory.
Orson agreed and found a buyer, but Duncan wouldn’t sell. So Jeanette took matter into her own hands and started hastening the theater’s decline.
When sabotaging the theater proved not to work, Jeanette starting looking for ways to sabotage the actors themselves. She settled on Maggie as the most likely to crack under pressure talked Orson into telling her all about his young niece.
It wasn’t until she paid him a visit at home that he happened to mention that Maggie couldn’t go into his warehouse without being rushed to the hospital that she hit upon the plan to replace her blush with crushed dried rose petals.
Duncan barred Jeaneete from the theater, but I feared it was too late to keep the wolves from the door. I needn’t have worried, though. Holly hadn’t sat around while I chased leads. She’d placed some calls and on opening night the theater was full of avante garde theater types all the way from Edinburgh.
And they loved it. A lot.
It just goes to show—there’s no accounting for taste.