Jasper winced as Tina’s nails dug into his arm for the fifth time that morning. By evening the arm would be black and blue.
“Darling, it was an accident,” she mouthed, gripping tighter. “You’ve got to believe me. I didn’t mean to kill her.”
On cue, Jasper shifted his gaze from Tina to the crumpled form that lay at their feet. But before he could speak, an enraged Gary Brickland began shouting from third row center of the otherwise empty auditorium. “No, Tina. No. With emotion! Show some emotion!”
This was the director’s third outburst in the past ten minutes. Livid with frustration, the poor man sounded as though he might choke on his own spittle, or at least tear his hair out. Jasper inwardly cringed. The situation might have been comical if opening night wasn’t two days away.
As things stood, with Tina Constantine in the lead role the play was a guaranteed flop.
It was all Jasper’s fault. Like a besotted fool he’d insisted that Gary hire Tina, a total unknown, for the female lead. A seasoned actor with enough stage credits to attract a sizable audience, he’d threatened to walk away from the production if the director refused. What a mistake that had been! Tina might be great in bed, but on the stage … well, store-front mannequins demonstrated more talent.
Gary Brickland, having composed himself to the extent that he could speak with studied calm, abandoned his seat and mounted the stage. “Let’s go over it again, shall we, Tina? One more time. Ten minutes ago in a fit of rage you struck your business partner over the head with this paperweight.” He picked the prop up from the stage floor and hefted it in his hand, to emphasize what he was saying, but also, perhaps, with the unconscious desire to bash in Tina’s skull.
“You didn’t intend to kill her,” he continued, in the measured tones of a mother explaining table manners to her four-year-old, “but unfortunately you struck her a little too hard, and she died as a result.” He took a deep breath. “Your boyfriend”—in real life as well as in the play, Jasper thought ruefully—“has agreed to help cover up the crime. You’re in a panic—after all, you have a body to somehow dispose of.
“So please, Tina,” he spread out his hands in a beseeching gesture, “say ‘Darling, it was an accident. You’ve got to believe me. I didn’t mean to kill her,’ like a panic-stricken woman, not someone commenting on the weather.”
“Speaking of bodies …” Cora Randolphi lifted herself off the stage floor. “Mine is getting stiff, no pun intended.” She made a show of stretching her limbs. “I can play dead for only so long. Not,” she looked tellingly at Tina, “like others I know, to whom it comes naturally.”
Tina looked as though she might scratch the woman’s eyes out, but restrained herself and turned to the director. “Gary, I’m giving it all I have. It’s just that I’m tired after all this rehearsing. Believe me, in front of a real audience I’ll do just fine.”
“Then pretend I’m a real audience, huh? Now let’s—”
“Gary, darling,” Cora interrupted. “You won’t need me anymore today, will you? After all, I’m only the corpse. Mind if I head on home?”
Gary Brickland shrugged. “I don’t see any reason to keep you. Just remember,” he reminded her, “we resume rehearsal tomorrow promptly at ten.”
“Oh, I won’t forget. Do you mind if I bring a pillow, darling? I’m beginning to get sores on my posterior from lying on the floor while Tina struggles with her lines.”
As she walked off stage Gary called after her. “Wait a minute, Cora.” He stood with an elbow cupped in one hand and the other hand stroking his chin. “You’ve given me an idea. Why don’t you … yes! By all means go home. Have yourself a cocktail or two. And,” he looked tellingly at Tina, “while you’re at it practice Tina’s lines, will you?”
“Already have, darling,” Cora quipped as she headed toward her dressing room. “I know them by heart.” She paused long enough to blow a kiss, then disappeared back stage.
Tina’s eyes threw parting daggers at the woman. With the same baleful glare she turned to the director. “What’s the idea, Gary? What scheme are you two hatching?”
“Tina, my dear, Cora and I aren’t hatching anything.” He made a placating gesture with his hands. “It’s just that, well, it’s best to prepare for all eventualities, isn’t it? Call it insurance.”
“And what exactly do you mean by that?” Tina demanded.