From my place in the shadows, I could see her radiate a glow that would cower Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, and every other historical beauty. She was trim, with hair so black it threatened to absorb every photon of light from the room; a face the color of cream hosted large, innocent eyes.
Only the crimson flow of blood oozing through her fingers detracted from her beauty.
My lungs paused as I watched her draw her hand from her chest, look at the thick cherry red fluid that covered her palm and dripped from between her fingers, then raise her eyes to the man who had pulled the trigger.
She worked her mouth but no words came.
A second later she collapsed.
“Excellent,” a voice shouted. A man seated several feet in front of me rose and applauded. “Did that work for you, Catherine?”
The beautiful young woman rose from the stage, holding out her red-tinted hand. A middle-aged woman scurried from behind the side curtains. She held a white towel in her hand and began cleaning the mess from the actress’s hand.
“It worked fine, Mr. Young.” She glanced down at the red spot on her gown. “Did I get enough on me?”
“You did it just right—and I’ve told you to call me Harold. We’re not student-teacher anymore. If anything, you’re teaching me.”
I rose from my seat, uncertain if this was a good time to make my presence known, and walked down the aisle formed by long tables set in rows. Behind me were horseshoe-shaped booths and above them a balcony for other patrons of the Curtain Call, Santa Rita’s only dinner theater.
“It’s hard to change old habits,” Catherine said. “You’re the one who got me into this crazy business.” Her eyes shifted to me. “Maddy! You’re back.”
I smiled as Catherine made eye contact. I hadn’t seen her since she graduated high school and moved off to a college in New York.
She had grown another inch and filled out where women fill out.
As a teenager, she had been slow to develop physically but nature had made up for lost time.
Catherine pulled away from the woman with the towel and trotted down the stage steps to the main floor. She held out her arms to me, then stopped midstep. She looked at her gown again, which still oozed with stage blood.
I closed the gap between us, placed my hands on her shoulders, and gave her a kiss on the forehead. “It’s been a long time.”
“Much too long.” Her smile dazzled even in the dim light of the theater.
“Can I have the houselights, please?” Young bellowed.
Overhead lights swept away the shadows that filled the small theater. “Okay, everyone, that’s it for today. Good work. One more dress rehearsal tomorrow. Dinner will be on me. Strike the set and set up for act one.”
The handful of actors moved from the platform and stagehands took their places.
“Mr. Young—I mean Harold—this is my cousin Maddy. She’s the mayor. Her name is Madison Glenn. Isn’t that a great name? Maddy, this is Harold Young. He teaches drama at the high school, and he’s directing this play.”
The director returned his attention to us. He was stocky with a bald dome, thick black eyelashes, and a round head. His eyes traced my face and form, then smiled through thin lips. I judged him to be well north of fifty. Extending his hand, he said, “I’m pleased to meet you, Mayor. I voted for you and plan to vote for you for congress.”
“Thank you. May your tribe increase.” I shook his hand.
“I see beauty runs in the family.” His smile broadened and he gave my hand a squeeze. I didn’t like it.
“Thank you.” I extricated my hand. “Catherine got most of the beauty genes.”
I felt conspicuous next to her. I try not to compare myself to others, especially other women. Women who worry to extremes about their appearance annoy me, probably because I battle the same disease. Standing next to Catherine made me feel old and just a few years removed from qualifying for senior citizen discounts at restaurants.
I’m thirty-nine, Catherine is twenty-five; my dark brown hair hangs to my shoulders and goes limp if it catches sight of a cloud, my cousin’s black hair shines like obsidian and falls in graceful curls several inches beyond her shoulders. Our skin displayed the same cream color all the women in our family own, but mine had seen a decade and a half more of life. I stood five foot six; Catherine was two inches taller.
“You’re being modest, Mayor,” Young said. “Have you ever thought of acting as a career?”
That made me laugh. “I’m a politician. Some would say that I am already in the business.”
“When did you get back?” Catherine asked. She looked at Young and explained, “Maddy was out of town when I arrived.”
“About half an hour ago,” I said. “I was in Sacramento for the governor’s annual report to California mayors.”
“Sounds exciting,” Young said.
“If you like talking about taxes, crime, population shifts, and faltering budgets, then it’s a hoot. Otherwise, it would put a lifetime insomniac into a coma. Government business is an acquired taste.”
“You’re coming by to see the house, aren’t you?” Catherine said. “Or do you have to go to the office?”
“If I go to the office now, I’ll be gang tackled by a week’s worth of postponed work. I think I’ll save that joy for tomorrow.”
“Great, let me change and then we can go.” She turned, then stopped. “Did you drive?”
“Yes. I left my car at the airport and drove straight here after I landed.”
She frowned. “Maybe I should call Ed.”
“The studio provided a limo. Ed Lowe is the chauffeur.” My face must have betrayed my amusement. “It’s not my limo. The studio is in the final script revisions for my next movie. I have to go into Hollywood this week for a reading. They don’t want me driving on the LA freeways. This way they know I’ll be safe and on time.”
“I can follow,” I said.
“If you don’t mind driving, I’ll call Ed and tell him not to come. I want to spend as much time with you as I can. Taking two cars doesn’t make sense.”
“That’s fine with me.”
“Great. I’ll make the call and change. Harold will entertain you while I’m gone.”
“It’ll be my pleasure,” he said.
Catherine trotted up the steps to the stage, then disappeared behind the stage right curtains.
“She’s a bundle of energy, isn’t she?” Young said.
“I haven’t seen her for years, but I remember her having enough energy to power the neighborhood.”
“Let’s have a seat while we wait.” He walked to the nearest table and pulled a chair out for me, then did the same for himself. He waited until I sat before lowering himself into the armless chair. He leaned an elbow on the table.
“I don’t know how you do it,” I admitted. “Pulling a play like this together with so little practice.”
“Little practice? We’ve been working on this for more than a month.”
That confused me. “I understood Catherine didn’t arrive until the day before yesterday.”
“That’s right. Her first practice was Monday . . . Ah, I see.” He smiled and gave a knowing nod. “It’s not uncommon for the stars of a show to arrive just in time for the last few rehearsals. Usually, they’ve played the part before or they study their lines on their own. Then they show up to run through their paces, fine-tune their performance to the director’s specifications, and learn their blocking.”
“Isn’t it hard to practice without the star of the show?”
“No, not really.” He shifted in his seat. “We use stand-ins during the early rehearsals. The stand-ins become the understudies. These days, the quality actors belong to unions or guilds and smalltime operations like this one can’t afford to pay what it costs to tie up a name actor for several weeks.”
“So, this is Catherine’s second day on the job?”
“We’re lucky to get her at all. Her last movie has made her a star. Everyone who’s anyone in showbiz wants her for something. Our show is going to run for six weeks but we only get her for three, then she has to fly off to location for her next movie.”
“That’s where the understudy comes in.”
“Right. The dinner theater will run the show for six weeks, then a new show comes in.”
“Are you directing that one too?”
He looked embarrassed. “No. Neena lets me do one show a year. The rest of my time is spent teaching high school drama.”
“Neena . . . ?”
“Neena Lasko. She owns the Curtain Call dinner theater. I take it you’ve never met.”
“No. Actually,” I said, “this is my first time here.”
“They do good work and serve up a great meal. You owe it to yourself to come by now and again. I see every one of their shows and I haven’t been disappointed yet.” He paused, then said, “Where are my manners? Can I get you some coffee or a soda?”
He studied me for a moment. “You must be very proud to have Catherine as a cousin. There aren’t many actresses who skyrocket to fame like she did.”
“I am proud, but as I said, I haven’t seen her in years. Catherine is the youngest daughter of my father’s sister. They used to live in Santa Rita, but after Catherine moved off to college, they took an early retirement and relocated to Boise, Idaho.”
“Okay, I’m ready.”
Catherine had started speaking before she reached our table. She was wearing a dark blue T-shirt with the words “Way Off Broadway” stenciled on the front, blue jeans, and orange canvas shoes. She had pulled her hair into a ponytail. The stage makeup was gone and hadn’t been replaced. She looked several years younger, if that was possible.
“That was quick,” I said and stood.
“Actors learn to change quickly,” she said, then paused. “I’m not sure what to do. I tried to get hold of Ed, but he’s not answering his cell phone.”
“Do you know where he went after he dropped you off?” I asked.
“He said he was going to get the limo washed, then go back to my house to wait for my call. This is so unlike him. He was my driver during the filming of my first movie and he was always on time and available.”
“Maybe his cell phone died,” Young said. “It happens to me all the time.”
“I suppose,” Catherine said, “but he’s not answering the house phone either.”
“Well,” I said, “we can wait for him to show up or go on to your house. It’s your call.”
Catherine thought for a moment as if weighing a momentous decision. “Let’s go. I’ll try his cell phone again once we’re on the road.”
“If he shows up here,” Young said, “I’ll tell him you two flew the coop.”
We thanked him and I led the way to the door. With me was the nation’s newest star.