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Hardcastle and McCormick:
Virtual Season Four


The Bradford Community Theater was already sporting signs announcing the upcoming twenty-fifth anniversary performance. “One Night Only!” The marquee featured Rory Griggs’ name above the title, and the Phelpses just below—though in slightly smaller lettering.

A small but intense cluster of young ladies lingered by the stage door entrance. They broke off their huddled conference when the judge and Mark rounded the corner. There was some craning and shrill “Ooohs,” from several of them before someone else hushed them with “It’s not him,” in a disappointed tone.

Mark squeezed by with a polite nod and took the three steps up at a trot, with Hardcastle right behind him. He tried the door, which was locked.

“Try knocking,” the judge said impatiently, which McCormick did, smiling nervously down at the girls, who were conferencing again.

The door was just opening when one of them reached up through the railing and tugged at Hardcastle’s jacket.

“When you see Rory, would you give him this?”

She thrust a crumpled piece of paper into his hand and slipped back into the gaggle at the base of the steps. One of the stage hands held the door open, just long enough for the two men to duck in.

They stood in the relative darkness, waiting for their eyes to adjust. Hardcastle held his hand and paper in front of him.

“What is it?” Mark asked.

“The girls, huh?” the stagehand rolled his eyes. “You’re lucky it wasn’t unmentionables. They’re crazy, that bunch. Sometimes one of us puts on sunglasses and a leather jacket to decoy ‘em ‘round to the front while Griggs comes in by the service entrance. Doesn’t always work, though.”

Hardcastle glanced down at it. “Must be some kinda note,” he said, still not able to make much out.

“I’ll put it in his dressing room.” The crew member held out his hand. “And you’re…?”

“Hardcastle. I’m one of the understudies.” The judge passed the note over and then jerked his thumb at McCormick. “A friend of mine—gave me a ride. Can he—?”

“Mr. Moss is pretty strict about closed rehearsals.” The stagehand stared at McCormick. “And besides—”

They didn’t get to hear about the besides part as the edge of one of the curtains was pulled aside and an anxious voice inquired, “Is that you, Milt?”

It was Theodora. She stepped past the scrim and squinted. “Oh, it is. Thank goodness. Slight change of plans, I’m afraid. Our Polonius had a family emergency, out of state.”

The stage hand snorted sharply then stifled that at a glance from Mrs. Kemp and slipped off into the shadows of the left wing.

Theodora grabbed Milt’s elbow and leaned in. “The cast is a bit edgy.” She straightened as she handed him a black binder and said briskly, “Thanks goodness we have you. Here’s a script. You can use that for now and if it doesn’t all come back to you, we’ll have some cue cards made up for the performance. Come along; everyone’s waiting.”

The judge cast a quick anxious look back at McCormick, who forced a smile and said, “Hit one over the centerfield wall.”

Hardcastle muttered, “Don’tcha mean ‘Break a leg’?”

“Uh-uh,” McCormick shook his head, “I think we should stick with the baseball metaphors.”

The judge grimaced. Mark watched as he was hauled unwillingly out past the curtain and then heard Mrs. Kemp’s now more distant voice announcing, “Here he is—just in time for our run-through. This is Milton, everyone. He’s been doing Polonius since the Roosevelt Administration.”

McCormick heard some muted laughter, then a voice he recognized as Moss’s calling everyone back to order and saying, “We’ll take it back to the top of scene three, then, entering from right. Milt—you’ll be just upstage of the rest: the green tape, I believe.”

Mark looked up into the catwalk, saw no dangling swords, or anything else untoward for that matter. He sighed, supposing the saboteur wouldn’t go for the same trick twice, presuming all this was more than just a string of bad luck.

He glanced both ways into the shadowy space that ran the width of the stage behind the back curtain. No one had actually had a chance to tell him he couldn’t hang around. Not being thrown out was the next best thing to an invitation. Now that his eyes were better adjusted, he could see storage areas and a ladder leading up to the catwalk.

He skirted around that, feeling his way forward tentatively among wires and temporary equipment. There was more light here, spilling in from the stage on his right. He caught a glimpse of the cluster of actors finding their places, and then a sonorous voice he half-recognized.

“And can you, by no drift of circumstance, get from him why he puts on this confusion, grating so harshly all his days of quiet with turbulent and dangerous lunacy?”

It was Roger Phelps, star of the silver screen, but words were wrong—it ought to have been more like, “They’re camped down by the river—we oughta circle ‘round so we can jump ‘em before daybreak.”

Mark shook his head in an attempt to oust the gritty stereo interference, then edged forward again, around another set of narrow curtains, almost stumbling over someone crouched down just on the other side of them. The man looked up over his shoulder at McCormick. The light caught his profile and a pantomimed finger to lips that meant “shh”, but the smile behind that was friendly enough. It only took a half-second for Mark to recognize a face that was becoming increasingly familiar from the covers of the grocery store gossip magazines.

“Sorry,” Mark whispered.

Rory Griggs rose, lithe and nimble. He leaned in and murmured, “No problem. The Big One is coming up.”

To Mark’s blank look he quirked a grin and added, under his breath, “‘To be or not to be…’ yack yack yack. It works better if I don’t get all tensed up. Distraction is good.”

“Ahh … well, then I can go back and do it right—trip over you or something.”

“No … thanks though.” Griggs squinted out into the well-lit stage. “My cue’s coming up.” The young man frowned, his face—his stance—suddenly more serious. His conversion into character was startlingly complete, without a word yet spoken.

Mark dragged his gaze away from Griggs. Hardcastle—or Polonius—was speaking now, slow and not very convincing.

“I hear him coming: let’s withdraw, my lord.”

McCormick quirked a smile. The whole thing was so goofy, tights or no tights.

Hardcastle and Phelps departed as Griggs, now a different man, both more distant and more intense, strode out onto the stage. He stared off into the darkened hall, weighing out a long moment of silence before he began to speak.

“To be, or not to be—”

Mark stood, momentarily frozen, and found himself focused on the man again. He blinked and stepped back, into the shadows. The left wing was now deserted, and from his quick reading of the night before, he guessed he had at least a couple of minutes before the Hamlet exited again, stage left. At the very least he thought he ought to have a look around—get the lay of the land.

He turned his back on Hamlet’s ponderings and found a curtained passageway. He poked his head through, already planning his alibi: lost while trying to find his way out. It seemed perfectly believable. He was already half turned around in a warren-like space filled with racks of costumes, and bins of props.

McCormick hoped there’d be no one to challenge him as he made his way back to a flight of stairs that led down to a better-lit area—the dressing-rooms, he guessed. He was already on the second step when a shadowy figure entered the stairwell at the bottom. It was impossible to make out an expression on the backlit face, there was only a general impression of a tall, lean man, slightly stooped. At any rate, he was looking down, which made sense in a darkened stairwell, and brushed past without comment.

Mark let out a relieved breath. He hurried down the rest of the steps and into the corridor at the bottom, along which were a dozen or so closely-spaced doors. The first three were labeled “Phelps,” “Seddon-Phelps,” and “Griggs,” one name on each, written in marker pen on slips of cardboard slid into reusable slotted holders. After that there were two or more names to a door, all the way down to the last room on the left, which was labeled with the demoralizing title of “Supernumeraries and All Others.”

With only half a scene left in which to consider his options, McCormick was on the verge of picking one of the middle rooms at random for a quick look-see, when he spotted the doorknob turning on the one he’d thought least-likely to be occupied.

The edge of the door to Griggs’ designated dressing room opened slowly, just wide enough for whoever was inside to see if the hallway was clear. McCormick had already passed that spot. He stood stock-still, holding his breath. The door opened further and the cautious intruder stepped out, closing the door behind.

Mark cleared his throat. The girl—almost certainly one of those who’d been hovering outside, though he didn’t recognize her offhand—spun around, half-stifling a shriek.

He said, quiet but stern, “Are you supposed to be here?”

Her gasped, “Oh, my God,” was answer enough. That was all she said before she took off in the direction of the stairs. He started after her, if only to make sure that she went all the way to the exit, but stopped with one foot on the bottom step.

He thought it was a long shot, but what better cover could there be for someone hanging around a theater than a besotted fan? All their assumptions about the “accidents” being an inside jobs were predicated on the theater having a reasonable degree of security, and based on his experience so far, that seemed to be in doubt.

He’d made up his mind a half-second later, wheeling to head back to the dressing room. The least he ought to do was make sure she hadn’t left any nasty surprises in there.

He already knew the door wasn’t locked, now he could see it wasn’t even properly shut. He nudged it open with one foot, feeling silly about being so careful. He could see Griggs’ dressing table, the well-lit mirror above it, and what he supposed was the usual make-up clutter on it. He leaned on the door and it swung open. He choked back a shriek of his own as he turned and set eyes on the man seated in the comfortably padded chair in the other corner.

Dozing, no, sleeping—and apparently soundly. No. Mark stepped closer reluctantly. The guy’s head was slumped forward, but his eyes weren’t completely shut and his face was slack. McCormick grimaced and reached out. The skin over the carotid still felt warm but there was no pulse.

Mark sighed and forced himself to take one slow, careful look at the surroundings—undoubtedly the last one he’d get. He figured even Hardcastle wouldn’t be able to horn his way in on this one without forfeiting his undercover status. To his own surprise, he had already—via some strange subconscious mechanism that even he didn’t fully understand—worked out an acceptable version of how he’d made the grim discovery, one that stuck closely to all the pertinent facts, including the mystery girl, without making him into anything but a lost visitor.

He reviewed it once more, checking for odd details poking out at strange angles. Finding none, he stuck his head back out into the hallway and shouted, “Hey, can anybody hear me? We need some help down here!”

* * * * *

They’d been plugging along through the second scene of the third act, with nearly the entire cast on stage to witness the staging of the play-within-the-play, which had a pantomime of a murder at its outset. Had it not been for that silent interlude, Hardcastle thought the distant, but very familiar voice hollering for assistance would have gone unnoticed.

As it was, the initial reaction was confusion among the players, followed by an angry inquiry from Moss.

“What the hell now?” He tossed his copy of the script on the table next to his seat and stood, frowning.

Hardcastle moved toward stage left, where the sounds seemed to have come from. Not being familiar with the layout, he was passed by Griggs and Phelps, with Theodora Kemp joining them in the wings near the top of a stairway.

“Down here, I think,” she said, starting for the steps and then pausing as they all heard the voice, more clearly now.

“Somebody call 9-1-1!”

It was definitely McCormick, though the tone seemed just a little too studied, based on Hardcastle’s extensive previous observations, with none of the loss of pitch control that the judge associated with real alarm. Still—

He pushed past a knot of more hesitant players and maneuvered to the front, catching up with the two leads and Theodora. Moss must have executed the same maneuver. He was right behind, muttering, “We’re never going to make it through act five.”

But that complaint was cut short as Griggs reached his dressing room doorway and gasped, “Marty!”

He ducked inside. Hardcastle, right behind him, took in the whole tableau with a single, riveted look.

McCormick, looking as if he’d had a moment to compose himself, then carefully un-compose himself, said, “I think he’s dead.”

It was a helluva performance—understated, with just the right touch of uncertainty. Hardcastle cocked his head, one eyebrow slightly up. McCormick totally ignored the unspoken comment.

Griggs was down on one knee, next to the arm of the chair, urgently inspecting the deceased man. He looked back at them, over his shoulder, his face pale. “I talked to him—it hasn’t even been a half hour. He was fine.”

Theodora looking horrified, leaned in and whispered to Hardcastle, “Marty Warfel—Rory’s agent.”

Moss had turned back to the doorway, hollering—“Somebody called for help yet? Tell ‘em we need an ambulance.” There was a commotion, voices, questions.

“Everybody needs to stay clear of the doorway,” Hardcastle said. “Out of the hallway—back.”

“What happened?” Griggs said softly.

McCormick shook his head and told his story—the girl, the partly open door, the discovery. “I got turned around, looking for the way out,” he added, with just the right degree of facile insistence.

Hardcastle focused on Griggs, aiming for mild sympathetic interest. “You said he was fine earlier?”

Griggs nodded. He was still down at the side of the chair, now with one hand on the dead man’s forearm, as though the reality was just sinking in.

“Ah, yeah, fine,” he said, though maybe now there was a hint of hesitance. “I asked if he wanted to come up—sit in the house, you know, watch the rehearsal.” He patted the man’s arm once, uncertainly. “He said no—he’d just stay down here. Do you think there was something wrong?”

“Who was the girl?” Hardcastle asked more pointedly.

“Them,” Moss said impatiently. “I told the crew to keep ‘em out of here. Damn nuisances.”

“Five foot seven, 120 pounds—tops,” Mark said. “Medium complexion, brown hair—shoulder-length. She had on jeans and a sweater.”

“The one who handed me the note?” Hardcastle asked, getting sharp questioning looks from Moss and Mrs. Kemp. “As we were coming in—one of the girls—she wanted me to give it to him.” He hooked his thumb down at Griggs. “The guy who let us in said he’d give it to you.”

Griggs made a vague gesture. “Happens sometimes.” He wrinkled his nose. “Weird little gifts, artwork.”

McCormick had been pondering. “I dunno.” He caught Hardcastle’s eye. “You were between me and her. I didn’t get a good look.”

“‘Bout the same description,” Hardcastle said, “sweater and everything.”

Moss glanced at the people just outside in the hall. “Where’s Jimmy? He was handling the door today, wasn’t he?”

There was movement in the crowd—someone pushing from the back who said, “Yeah, that was me—”

Moss frowned and leaned out the door. “Let him through.”

The ones in front parted enough so that the man could get past. He stepped through the doorway, staring curiously, but then dragged his gaze from the dead man long enough to say—“I came straight down with the note. I knocked. He opened the door.” Jimmy pointed down at the deceased agent.

“Rory wasn’t here?” Theodora asked gently.

Griggs frowned in concentration. “It must’ve been after I went up to the wing.” He turned a focused stare on the stage hand. “How did he look—Marty, I mean—was he okay?”

Jimmy hesitated. It turned into a full-blown pregnant pause. It might have been the influence of the corpse, or just a general lack of drama in his life.

“Jimmy?” Moss finally prodded.

“Ah, yeah—he seemed okay, maybe a little flushed.”

“‘Flushed’?” Hardcastle cocked his head.

Everyone’s gaze seemed to turn to reconsider the deceased, who was now a shade of post-mortem gray.

“Then maybe he was sick,” Griggs said cautiously. “Something sudden.”

Jimmy nodded in tentative agreement.

The judge grimaced. “And the note?”

Jimmy pointed at the corpse. “I told him it was for Mr. Griggs. He mumbled something. I handed it to him and left.”

Griggs glanced over at the table, where there was no note, then reached toward the dead man’s jacket pocket.

“Better leave it for the police,” Hardcastle said sharply.

“But it was for me—”

“Fingerprints, maybe, if it’s from the same girl who was in here.”

“You mean she might’ve killed him?” Griggs looked alarmed. “How?”

Mark looked as if he also wanted to do a preemptive frisk the dead guy’s pockets but was managing to control himself. “She might’ve just been the last one to see him alive.”

“Or the first one to see him dead,” Hardcastle added. “Either way, it’d be nice to know what she did see.”

“Shouldn’t be too hard to pick her out,” Moss murmured.

“Yeah,” Mark nodded, “she’ll be the one who’s not out there anymore.”

* * * * *

An ambulance came, followed in short order by the police—a couple of uniformed guys to
do what would probably turn out to be an routine investigation—death by natural causes. They’d gone as far as gathering all the witnesses in an impromptu assembly in the auditorium, including a small cluster of anxious females who’d been fetched from outside the back door and were now sitting off on their own to one side—none of them in jeans and a sweater. Two more beat cops had arrived to take down names and addresses and begin gathering statements. Finally, about twenty minutes into this routine, a plainclothes officer put in an appearance.

McCormick, who’d taken a seat several rows back next to Hardcastle, leaned over and whispered, “You called Frank?”

The judge shook his head almost imperceptibly. Lieutenant Frank Harper walked past without acknowledging them. He was greeted by one of the officers and escorted back into the wings.

Mark was still puzzling over Frank’s apparent omniscience when the judge did some leaning of his own. From the corner of his mouth he said, “What I wanna know is how come if I’m the guy who’s undercover, you’re finding the dead bodies.”

“Just the one,” Mark whispered back. “And did you see him? He’s sixty-five if he’s a day. No signs of trauma. I’ll be it’s going to turn out to be his ticker.”

“You mean it was killing him to see his A-list star working for scale?” Hardcastle nodded toward Griggs, who was sitting a few rows forward, looking pensive. “Anyway, I’m sixty-five—it’s not exactly decrepitude.”

“Okay,” Mark shrugged, “but explain how knocking off Griggs’ agent fits into all of this. They aren’t even close—Rory just hired him eight months ago, after he got that job with the TV show. I heard him talking to the cops.”

“And Theo says he got wind of the ‘accidents’ and was leaning on Griggs to back out of the deal.” Hardcastle furrowed his brow thinking it over for a moment. “I suppose he might have been in on the plot—Marty, I mean.” Then he shook his head in disagreement with himself. “Nah. Doesn’t make any sense. He wasn’t here for a couple of the incidents. I think he was hanging around today because he was worried about something happening to his valuable property.”

“Then maybe he figured out who was behind it all.”

Frank had returned, stepping out of a side door to the left of the stage. He surveyed the witnesses, his eyes resting only briefly on McCormick with no change in his usual dour expression.

He cleared his throat, though he already had nearly everyone’s attention; there was something about Frank that said ‘Show me your ID’—without even needing to add a ‘please’, though this time what he asked was, “Which of you folks discovered the body?”

Mark was willing to play along, in the interest of preserving the judge’s undercover status. He raised his hand with the classic tentative air of an honest citizen unaccustomed to official attention.

One of the officers checked his notebook and murmured something to Frank, who nodded and said, “Mr. McCormick, would you come with me?”, crooked a finger at him and then pointed to the door he’d just come through.

Mark got to his feet. Hardcastle was right behind him. The officer with the notebook held out a hand as if to send him back to his seat.

“I’m his lawyer,” Hardcastle said to the cop. The cop turned to Harper for a ruling.

The lieutenant said, absolutely straight-faced, “Does he need one?”

The judge shrugged. “You never know.”

Frank grimaced and shook his head slowly, then ushered both men in front of him into the back, to a small office he’d apparently appropriated. As soon as the door closed behind them, he turned sharply to the judge.

“Three hours after you ask me to look up a guy named Bradford we get a call about a dead body in a theater with the same name. Coincidence? I was hoping so, but I call up and ask if there’s anybody hanging around there named ’Hardcastle’ and … bingo.”

He hitched his hip on a desk, surveying both men and finally letting out a sigh. “You found the body, Mark?”

“It’s not like I put it there.” McCormick said.

“You already heard his version,” Hardcastle interrupted impatiently. “What do you have?”

Frank looked like he might hold out on them, just on general principle, but that only lasted a second or so. He didn’t look particularly happy, though, as he pulled out his own notebook and flipped it open to a page that had one corner folded over.

“Martin Warfel, sixty-six. He was semi-retired, you know. Heart trouble.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out an evidence bag containing a small brown screw-top bottle. “Nitroglycerin tablets. The bottle’s half-empty and, yeah, we’ll have them tested, but they look like the real deal.”

“Semi-retired?” Hardcastle looked puzzled. “So why’d take on a new client—a young guy like Griggs.”

“That director, Moss, says the dead guy was an old pal of Amos Bradford and had been recruiting cast for this theater for years. This Griggs guy showed up in Warfel’s office last year, wants to do Hamlet; thinks this production is just the thing to kick-start his West Coast career.”

The judge and Mark locked stares for a moment, then turned back to Frank. Hardcastle said, “Does that sound right to you?”

“Who knows? I wouldn’t have thought poking around backstage in a community theater was the way to pass your first year law exams, either.” Frank said dryly. He carefully avoided a glance in Mark’s direction, fixing his gaze back on his notebook. “Anyway, your director also mentioned that Warfel mighta kept a hand in because of the fringe benefits.”

Hardcastle cocked his head.

“Strictly hearsay,” Frank added, “that he might’ve used his position to siphon off some of the fans: they could only get to their heartthrob through him. It’s kinda like embezzling—”

“Only ickier,” McCormick said, making a face. “Would Griggs have known about that?”

Frank raised an eyebrow. “Would you tell your boss you were embezzling?”

“Not if he valued his job,” Hardcastle shot back.

Mark nodded his agreement and then added, “So Warfel was having a little tryst with one of the young ladies—maybe even note-girl—and his heart gave out?”

“Maybe,” Franks said, not sounding all that convinced. “Anyway, next time, will ya read the damn note—we haven’t found it yet.”

“The girl took it because it would identify her,” Mark offered.

“Maybe,” Hardcastle said doubtfully.

“Why not?”

“Occam’s Razor. A girl and a note and a tryst doesn’t explain all the other stuff.”

“The stuff you were about to tell me about?” Frank said arranging himself a little more comfortably on the desk.

But before the judge and Mark could draw straws on that, there was an insistent knock on the door. It had a cop-like quality to it. At a nod from Frank, Mark turned and opened it. The officer on the other side apologized, though strictly to the lieutenant.

“Moss—the guy running the place—asked me to ask you if they can get back to rehearsing. He says the show opens tomorrow.” The officer grudgingly added, “The ME’s already picked up the body. The techs are still downstairs in the dressing room, but we’ve got all the statements.”

Harper pursed his lips and finally said, “I suppose they might as well. I’ll be in here for a while.”

The uniformed guy nodded but didn’t turn and depart immediately. Harper frowned.

“Ah, he says he needs the witness.” The officer pointed at Hardcastle.

Harper stared at him for a moment in disbelief, then transferred the look to Milt. “You’re in the play?”

“No tights,” Mark assured him.

“You tell him what’s what,” Hardcastle groused at his unhelpful sidekick. “I gotta rehearse.”

“Wait a sec,” Mark said. “How far have you gotten? Scene four’s next, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, pretty soon.”

“That’s where you get stabbed.”

“No, shot—it’s the fifties, remember?”

McCormick said nothing for a moment.

Hardcastle shrugged nonchalantly. “I guess they figured Hamlet wearing a sword around the house wouldn’t work.”

McCormick was still staring. He finally shook his head sharply and said, “Just be careful.”

“You mean ‘break a leg’?” Frank said.

“I’m not gonna break anything except the head of the first guy who tries anything funny up there,” the judge growled. “Fill him in on the details, will ya?” he snapped at McCormick as he turned and stalked out.

* * * * *

The cast resumed their places, just as they’d been standing when the interruption had occurred several hours back. There was a tension in the air that served the purpose of the scene well. Moss, though he looked weary, seemed satisfied with their progress, as the rest of act three wound on.

Hardcastle kept one eye on his script and one on Griggs as they exchanged lines through the tail-end of the second scene. The young man seemed to have immersed himself in his part. The judge stopped and listened to the soliloquy unfold after his exit—

“Tis now the very witching time of night, when churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out …”

He didn’t know if it was his own imagination or the proximity of death that added a dark layer of meaning to Hamlet’s words.

He shook his head as he tucked his script in his pocket and meandered further into the right wing. He ducked past the rear curtain to the crossover behind the stage thinking he might go back to the office until act four. It hadn’t really been fair to make McCormick face an irritated Frank by himself.

He felt his way along, one hand on the back wall for guidance. His eyes hadn’t adjusted yet, but coming up the steps on the left side was a tall, slightly stooped figure he didn’t recognize from the earlier gathering.

Hamlet’s father’s ghost. He wasn’t sure why that had clicked right away. It made sense—the character only appeared in the first and fourth scenes, and might have gone off to run some errands for the hour or so in between.

“Hey,” he said softly, intending it as a non-specific greeting. He couldn’t remember the guy’s name among the flurry of résumés he’d read the night before. The man raised a hand in silent response.

Getting in character. Hardcastle gritted his teeth into a smile though he supposed the man couldn’t make much out in the shadows either as they passed by each other. Still, the judge glanced over his shoulder at the figure, disappearing between two curtains at the far end of the crossover—weird.

He never made it back to Frank’s borrowed office. He heard a softly-spoken, “Oh, Milt,” and turned to look as he passed one of the storage areas. It was Theodora, sitting at a work table. She had a stack of tag-board sheets in front of her. She had a broad-tipped marker pen in her right hand. There was a copy of the script braced open to one side, held open by a coconut.

“Here,” she said, taking the sheet she’d just finished and holding it up. “Is this big enough?”

He squinted and then read it off: “‘Oh, I am slain!’ Yup, looks fine.”

She turned the sheet back toward herself and studied it. “Good. That’s the last line for you, of course. Though, come to think of it, you’re behind the arras for these last two—so we can’t really use them.”

She shuffled it back into place at the bottom of the heap then sat back and sighed heavily. “We must appear very single-minded. The show must go on—even if everyone gets a case of the heebie-jeebies and remembers somewhere else they have to be at the last minute and Bill Moss and I have to do it with hand puppets.”

Hardcastle cocked his head. “Would that count?” he asked curiously.

Theodora thought about it for a moment and finally said, “I think it would, as long as Yorick puts in an appearance and all the lines get said. But there’s such a thing as winning the battle and losing the war. Saving the theater won’t count for much if we turn it into a laughingstock. I hope it won’t come to that.”

“It won’t.” Hardcastle tried to sound reassuring. “But I do think you should hire some security—you can’t have folks wandering in and out of here.”

“I’ve already talked to the other board members. We’ve got some retired police officers in the ‘Friends of Bradford’ group—at least their wives are members. We’ll try and get a couple of them to take shifts until this is over.” There was a pause, and then she blurted out, “Marty Warfel’s death was just bad luck—his heart or something—wasn’t it?”

“There’s no sign of anything else. We won’t have the autopsy results for a day or two, though.”

“Good,” she said defiantly. “By that time we’ll be done—whatever they find, it won’t matter.”

“Well, it’ll matter if it’s murder.”

She shushed him, then looked around sharply, as if she expected to see eavesdroppers in the shadows.

Hardcastle squinted again, this time at her. It was that kind of single-mindedness that might make someone do just about anything to protect their cast.

“How hard was Marty leaning on Griggs to get out of this production?” he asked casually.

Theodora pressed her lips together disapprovingly. She seemed become aware that she was doing it and, just as suddenly, relaxed them. She even forced a small smile.

“Pretty hard,” she admitted.

She stared at Milt for a moment and finally let out a little gasp. “You don’t think I killed him?”

To his surprise, this was followed by a giggle. It might have been all the pent-up stress of the past few days—one turned into a cascade, though she managed to keep it almost silent. She finally caught her breath and wiped her tearing eyes. “Oh, Milt—though I suppose you have to consider all the possibilities, but me?” She smiled gently.

The judge shrugged. He was staring at the coconut. “You doing South Pacific next?”

“What?” she reflected she reflected his puzzled expression and then followed his gaze. “Oh, this?” She hefted the hairy sphere and looked at it solemnly. “Alas—poor Yorick has an understudy, too. Amos only appears in the actual performance. Otherwise he’s kept under lock and key.”

She tilted her head to listen for a moment and then said, “Here’s Roger’s big scene—the King’s confession soliloquy.”

Hardcastle heard it now, too. There really was nothing quite like a good confession. He excused himself and stepped forward into the wings on the left side. Roger Phelps was confessing like a champ—though, of course, there was no one around to hear except Hamlet—entering unseen from the other wing. Phelps was down on his knees now and Griggs took his turn at the speechifying, giving voice to Hamlet’s sudden reluctance to do in his murderous step-father—

Hardcastle heard a whispered voice, with a note of regret. “It’d be a lot shorter if he just finished him off now.”

The judge turned his head slightly—McCormick was right behind him. He looked weary, though it wasn’t clear if this was from the lateness of the hour, or Frank’s version of the third degree.

“He can’t now—not while Claudius is getting right with his Maker. Besides, we’ve got two more acts.”

“I know, but we’ve already been here almost five hours.”

Hardcastle craned around Mark. “Where’s Frank?”

“He’s heading back to the station—you know he’s off duty in a half hour. He doesn’t think the PD is going to be happy about him spending this much time on a natural death.”

“So he’s willing to keep quiet about the other stuff?”

“For now. But if the autopsy shows anything unusual—”

“It’ll all be over by then.”

McCormick gave him an odd look. “‘The show must go on,’ huh?”

“Well, it might as well—that’s the only way we’re gonna keep our saboteur around so we can catch him … or her.”

Griggs had finished his bit. Phelps was rising, too, with one last couplet to declaim, and then the scene was over.

“And … curtain,” Moss made a gesture to indicate the motion. “Okay folks, let’s get a move on. Places for scene four—the queen’s chamber. Polonius?”

Hardcastle straightened, leaned out from the wing-curtain and waved then ducked back in and turned to McCormick. “I’m up—this is my big scene. Wish me … I dunno, a strikeout or something.”

McCormick was darting suspicious glances at the set-up. “Be careful.” Then he fell silent, with only a polite nod to Ruby Seddon-Phelps, who’d joined them in the wing for their entry.

“Curtain up,” announced Moss.

McCormick watched them stroll onto the stage, conversing. The curtain next to him moved slightly and he realized that Griggs had stepped in behind him. Mark supposed it hadn’t so much been stealth, as keeping quiet in the wings. He nodded. Griggs didn’t look as cheerful as he had earlier, but he was all business—no eyes reddened from grief for his manager. He was also wearing a professional-looking shoulder holster.

“Lemme see the gun,” Mark said quietly.

Griggs frowned. “The prop guy already checked it.”

But McCormick’s palm-out gesture was insistent. Griggs drew the weapon and handed it over.

It was a revolver of a disturbingly familiar vintage. McCormick swung the cylinder out and inspected the sole cartridge it held—a blank. He snapped it shut and gave it back, just in time for Griggs to replace it in the holster, give him a strange look, and make his entrance.

It seemed like only a moment later that he’d drawn it again and was waving it, yelling something about rats and ducats, over Gertrude and Polonious’s shouts for help. Blank, or not, when the sound of the shot rang out, Mark flinched—and the feeling of déjà vu didn’t subside until he heard Hardcastle announce, “Oh, I am slain!” for maximum effect as he fell through the curtain onto the stage.

Mark let out a breath he’d been unaware he’d been holding, though he still wasn’t completely comfortable with the rest of a scene that included Hardcastle’s still form sprawled on the floor. The ghost showed up—Hamlet’s dad’s, not Polonius’s. He came up from below the stage, via a trap, like a man ascending from his basement workshop. Apparently only Hamlet and the audience could see him, and Mark thought he looked a lot less tall and cadaverous in full stage light.

The argument continued—typical family life: who’s sleeping with whom and how often were the sheets getting laundered—except for the ghost getting his two cents in now and then. And finally the scene ended, with Hamlet hauling Polonius’s inert form off, stage left.

“Curtain,” Moss said, sounding satisfied.

“Damn,” Hardcastle muttered, still on the floor, feeling his backside gently. “I think I picked up a splinter.”

“Sorry about that,” Griggs said, offering him a hand up.

“Nah,” the judge brushed his hands off on his pants and got himself up without any assistance before turning to McCormick. “Whadja think? Did I nail that line or what?”

“All that ham reminded me I missed dinner,” Mark said flatly. “Can we go home now, or do we have to wait so you can take your final bow?”

“Hah. I thought I was pretty good. The gun, though,” he wrinkled his nose, “doesn’t seem very Shakespearian.”

“Don’t worry,” Griggs said, “they left the sword duel in the final scene. Wouldn’t make any sense to have them taking shots at each other for practice.” He gave McCormick a studied look. “You sure you don’t want to stay for it?”

“No—thanks though, it’s been interesting. Don’t tell me how it ends; I don’t want to ruin the surprise for tomorrow.” He shot a glance at Hardcastle and jerked his head toward the door.

The judge shrugged at Griggs and followed Mark, catching up with him back near the stage door.

“They’re gonna be at it here for at least another hour or two, ya know.”

“And whatever it was that happened to Marty—”

“You mean his heart attack?”

“His heart or … whatever, I think the excitement is over for tonight.”

“Yeah,” Headcastle squinted back at the curtains and shadows for a moment, and then nodded, “you’re probably right. Might’ve even scared off the person who was doing all the other stuff—all those cops showing up.”

“That could be it,” Mark nodded, not looking very convinced. He stared into the darkness, past Hardcastle, and finally turned back, saying, “Can we go home now?” as he hit the panic bar on the stage door with more force that absolutely necessary.

Tonight's episode of Hardcastle and McCormick
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