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Hardcastle and McCormick:
Virtual Season Four

ACT IV

He took the steps up two at a time and grabbed for the handle of the door—locked, of course. He pounded on it, paused for a moment, then pounded again, louder. He briefly considered going around to the front lobby, but that would involve ushers and sounding like a madman. He’d just rejected the idea and resumed pounding, when the door opened from within.

The security guard shushed him quietly, unwilling to add to the noise. McCormick, having the element of surprise, pushed past him into the darkened crossover.

* * * * *

The handy thing about being killed in Act Three was that it had left Hardcastle at liberty to keep an eye on Moss. He’d been near enough at hand to witness the man’s reaction when the gravedigger pulled Amos Bradford’s skull up from the sub-stage platform and handed it to Griggs.

As for the judge, he’d smiled to himself and rocked back slightly on his heels. He’d only had to look at the surprise on the gravedigger’s face to know it had been a near-run thing.

Moss, on the other hand, who’d been pacing in the right wing like a man who knew something was brewing, had been caught totally aware when nothing at all happened. Hardcastle wished he could have had a picture of the exact moment when the director realized his plans had fallen through. It wouldn’t have been admissible in a court of law, but his expression had convinced the judge completely.

He was still smiling, but he stuck close to his suspect just in case Moss had one more trick up his sleeve. In the meantime, he watched the action on stage—Griggs handled the Yorick bit with complete sincerity. He could have convinced anybody that the skull’s previous owner had been very dear to him.

Moss, on the other hand, looked stunned. Hardcastle half-wondered if a little pressure, judiciously applied, would crack the man. He sidled in closer and leaned toward him.

“Nice timing, huh?”

Moss jumped at the first sound, then stared at the judge and swallowed hard.

Hardcastle nodded once thoughtfully. “Yeah, I think Amos would’ve gotten a kick out of it.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Moss hissed.

The judge just smiled and jerked his chin toward the first row seats. A lively-looking middle-aged lady on the aisle was leaning forward slightly, like many others in the audience, absorbed by the performance. Moss paled as he recognized the man in the next seat, caught in the edge of the limelight and looking a little bored, as though he thought the real action would be after the show.

Moss darted a worried glance at Hardcastle.

The judge shrugged and said, “I think he said his name is Harper. He’s that lieutenant from yesterday, if I’m not mistaken. Who knows, maybe he’s just a fan.”

“I think …” Moss cleared his throat and started again. “You’re a lawyer, a judge. I know some things about that man, Amos’s great nephew, Wolf Bradford. Do you think the district attorney might be interested?”

Hardcastle grinned. It was shark-like. He said, “I’m sure they’d love to hear all about it.”

The scene had ended, and the curtain came down for the quick shift from the graveyard set to the hall at Elsinore. Hardcastle looked around, wondering where the hell McCormick had gotten off to. Still, he was reluctant to leave Moss, lest he give the man a chance to regroup.

He had to admire Griggs. The whole shebang had been going on three and a half hours now, with him out there in the thick of it for much of the time, and the final scene, as McCormick had pointed out, had a lot of hacking and slashing and poison quaffing in it.

Yet the man stood in the wing opposite to him, looking neither weary nor perturbed. He’d even retrieved the skull from its graveside resting place in the last scene and was transferring it carefully to Theodora’s anxious custody. Hardcastle watched him give her—and maybe Amos, too—a parting nod before strolling over to the rack of fencing foils—picking one out and hefting it for a moment.

Two stagehands installed the furnishings—a swan sofa and a kidney bean coffee table, with martini glasses and a shaker to round out the atmosphere. They returned a moment later. Griggs hastily restored the foil to the rack before they carted that onstage as well

Then the players took their places and the audience hushed as the curtain went up. Griggs appeared, explaining the king’s treachery to his companion with a decree of angry earnestness that made the antique phrases seem fresh again. The judge shook his head; you couldn’t blame Hamlet for being a little nuts, though brevity really wasn’t the guy’s strong suit. And McCormick really ought to be here by now. Or maybe he’d found a quiet corner and was getting a few more pages read in his textbook.

Hardcastle kept Moss in sight, but edged back to expand his view into the crossover, now crowded with people who’d soon be taking their final bows. On stage the action was heating up, with wagers and challenges and foils out, and pretty soon the guys were going at it, hammer and tongs.

In fact, it seemed like that blond UCLA kid, the one who (rumor had it) had mostly gotten the role as Laertes on the basis of how he well he could swash a buckle, looked a little worried, as Griggs slashed at him again.

The queen was reaching for a martini glass and just about to lift it in toast to her son when there was a stirring from the folks in the crossover, some scattered ‘shh’s’ and, more distant still, a rapid, hollow thumping, like someone pounding on a door. Hardcastle frowned. More people were becoming aware of it, even a few in the audience, where there were a few audible whispers.

The backstage hissing and shushing increased momentarily, followed by some scuffling sounds and a frantic familiar voice shouting “Don’t drink that!”

Ruby Seddon-Phelps glanced left, her concentration broken and her toast interrupted as McCormick, looking as if he’d just sprinted the quarter-mile, stumbled around the rear curtain and onto the stage. She stared at him, then put the martini glass down very slowly and carefully, as if it might be about to explode in her face.

Even the combatants had frozen, or at least the blond guy, Chip, aka Laertes, who looked both puzzled and relieved. Griggs paused too, but was frowning. He looked as though he were still poised to strike, except that now his attention was turned toward the intruder.

“Dammit,” Hardcastle growled.

McCormick wisely grabbed for one of the foils that still hung from the rack. He might have been better off with the kidney table, or even the rack itself as Griggs came at him suddenly with the lithe determination of a madman.

Mark parried almost by reflex, then they locked blades.

Griggs put his weight against his foil, leaning in and muttering, “My fight’s not with you.”

“Good,” Mark panted, “then we can put these down, right? Have a nice talk.”

Griggs executed a slash, followed by a lunge that forced McCormick back two more steps. The Phelpses were up from the settee and skittering back, half-tangled in the curtains.

“It’s them,” Griggs gestured with his épée.

“I know.” McCormick tried to sound sympathetic, as he dodged another thrust and almost tripped over the coffee table, sending the martini shaker and glasses to the ground, shattering in all directions. Mark looked down, then up at Griggs again.

“Cyanide, right? It’s what you used on Warfel, isn’t it?”

Griggs didn’t disagree. Hardcastle had stepped forward, hoping to distract the man.

McCormick waved him back with his free hand. “Everybody,” he said grimly, “just stay back. If it’s on the glass—” He glanced down again at the shards, glimmering in the stage lighting, some protruding between the floor boards. “Not good.”

“Them,” Griggs said, lifting his blade and jabbing in the direction of the Phelpses. “Her—my own mother.” He pointed the blade squarely at Ruby, though he was not yet within striking distance.

“Dear mother,” he crooned, the tip of the weapon making little circles in front of him, “why don’t you tell them? Tell them all.”

He gestured grandly to the audience, some of whom had scrambled out of their seats, and were crowding into the aisles. They were nearly all frozen now.

“Evan?” she said faintly.

“The abandonment I might have understood. After all, you had your career to consider,” he spat. “But murder?” He jerked the blade sharply to the left, directing it at Roger Phelps. Griggs was clearly addressing him, now. “And all because you had to have her to yourself.”

“It wasn’t like that,” Phelps protested. “Dammit,” he hissed, “that man was a monster.” He looked around, suddenly aware of his surroundings, and then lowering his voice. “It wasn’t love; it was rape. He sent her to New York when she found out she was carrying his child. He told her not to come back until she’d gotten rid of it. My God, he deserved whatever happened to him.”

He shot a nervous look left and right, and then added, “Not that anything did happen to him.”

Ruby nodded in anxious agreement.

Mark thought it wasn’t the most politic way to speak to a madman. He would have tried for a little more sympathy, considering the facts of the case. He watched as Griggs’s lips tightened in anger and he knew the man was about to spring.

Phelps had seen it, too. He turned and stumbled, flailing in panic as he fell. Ruby lurched back, hands to her face in horror. Mark lunged for Griggs, knocking him onto the settee and hauling back for a punch. He had an impression of motion off to his left—Hardcastle, who must’ve grabbed one of the gravediggers’ shovels from a prop box in the right wing and was hefting it, ready to swing, as he approached.

“Ah … wait a sec,” McCormick said.

It was one of those odd, preternaturally calm moments, like the eye of a hurricane. He looked down and confirmed that the circular pressure he felt just to the left of his sternum was the muzzle of the gun. Somehow, in the fracas, Griggs had managed to pass off the épée to his left hand, and grab the gun from his holster with the right.

“He’s got a gun,” Mark announced. He tried his best to keep that calm, too, but heard an almost immediate response—the audience wasn’t frozen anymore. There were shouts and the sounds of panicky movement.

Hardcastle hadn’t put the shovel down. Mark couldn’t see his face, but he could picture his expression from just the tone of his two words.

“The Colt?”

“Ah,” Mark looked down again to be absolutely sure, “uh-huh.”

“You checked the load, right?”

Mark felt himself quirking the most inappropriate smile—that the judge had known what he’d done. He’d probably thought the whole thing was silly, but had decided to let it go unremarked.

“Yeah,” he said, “I checked … two hours ago.”

There’d been an act and a half on the stage since then—and that whole time he’d either been frantically searching for Amos, or outside catching up on the back story. How long did it take to reload a revolver? Six slugs in any convenient pocket and fifteen seconds in a quiet corner of the wings.

He looked down at Griggs, who was no help at all, the madness of a moment earlier having hardened into steel. At least he wasn’t raving something like “Do you feel lucky?” Mark didn’t, not as a rule—not enough to bet his life on it. He caught himself staring hard from the left corner of his eye, trying to get a better fix on the judge.

Now is that fair? There was no way that Hardcastle could have kept an eye on Griggs the whole time the man was off stage. He’d just be guessing. Mark might not feel lucky, but he knew dumping it on the judge was just plain wrong. Everybody ought to be responsible for their own death. Do your own guessing.

Griggs was still gazing at him steadily, but now with a hint of a smile on his face. He nudged the barrel into Mark’s chest. It was almost playful. “I told you, this isn’t your fight.”

McCormick started to edge back, but paused with only an inch or so between himself and the muzzle. “It’s too bad,” he said, “about the theater. Once you kill them, I mean.”

Griggs’s smile flattened.

“You kill them before the end of the last act, and no more theater.” He shook his head gently. “Amos retires and gets a shelf in the evidence lock-up. All this,” he glanced around him at the stage, “goes to a lawyer in Minnesota …” He paused and frowned, as he thought it through, and then murmured, “or you—Amos Bradford’s son—that’s a lot closer than some great-nephew” He was staring hard, right back at Griggs. “Was that what this was all about?”

“No.” Griggs shook his head vehemently. “No. It was never about any of that.”

“You’d heard the terms of the will,” Mark insisted. “Everybody knew that story. This place, your father’s legacy—”

“It wasn’t about the will,” Griggs muttered stubbornly.

“Then,” Mark said quietly, with an almost imperceptible shrug, “the show must go on.”

There was a portentous pause. He didn’t want to sneak another look at Hardcastle, who’d at least had the sense to keep his mouth shut up to now. His whole attention was focused on Griggs, whose frown had deepened through a long moment of silence.

“Yeah,” the man finally grudged, “it has to.”

Mark edged back further. Griggs was still holding the gun in his right hand and the épée in his left, though he managed to get up from the settee without putting either down. It looked as if he had no intention of doing so, but he kept his back to the Phelpses. He moved upstage slowly, as if he were still thinking things over.

McCormick thought it was still possible that he would change his mind. So did Roger and Ruby, it appeared. They looked ready to bolt. Mark was convinced that would be a lethal mistake. He subtly jerked his chin toward the settee. They glanced at each other, then nervously edged toward it, taking their original places.

Hardcastle hadn’t stepped back from his position, halfway between the wings and the settee. Mark frowned at him. He still didn’t move. Mark sighed and looked around. They were short a couple of players. The kid playing Laertes had apparently had enough. He’d dropped his épée and fled during the chaos.

Mark stooped and picked it up, moving slowly so as not to alarm Griggs.

“Anybody got a copy of the script?” he asked politely.

* * * * *

This is nuts, Hardcastle thought. On the other hand, they’d all taken a big step back from a showdown to something just barely resembling sanity. At the very least, this would give some more of the audience a chance to get out safely before anything else happened.

The judge had lost track of Frank and Claudia. Moss hadn’t tried to run, but stood there looking remarkably useless, caught up in his own misery, no doubt. The guy who’d been refereeing the swordfight—a retired dentist named Hoggs—had made it into the wings, where he was visibly quaking. Theodora bustled out, script in hand.

“Get me one too,” Hardcastle nodded, then jerking his chin toward what she had in her hand.

She looked around for a frantic moment, then someone handed her a second copy. She brought them forward, opening Mark’s to the proper page and putting it in his left hand, her eyes on Griggs throughout. Then she stepped over to Hardcastle and whispered, “Milt—”

“Just get out of the way and let ‘em finish,” he said quietly.

Griggs was standing, pondering the floor near the front of the stage, oblivious to the audience, mostly crammed into the rear part of the aisles. He frowned gently and then cocked his head over his shoulder, looking toward the wing. His expressing was slightly embarrassed.

“Line?”

Moss twitched, then muttered, apparently from memory, “Come for the third, Laertes! You but dally.”

Griggs smiled and turned toward McCormick. “Pray you pass with your best violence; I am afeard you make a wanton of me.” He lifted his épée as Mark glanced down hastily at his script.

“Um … Say you so? Come on. Play.”

Blades were joined, though this time it was with the measured intensity of stage play, the other players contributing their lines in turn. McCormick and Griggs even exchanged blades at the required moment, Griggs patiently waiting out Mark’s inexperienced fumble and murmuring helpfully, “Okay, now you lie down for the last bit.” Mark scanned the floor for an unglittered spot on which to die.

The scene wound down, more farce than tragedy, with pantomimed poison quaffs from invisible cups, and, thankfully, no actual bloodletting. It wasn’t quite Theodora’s sock puppets, but it was a good thing that only a last few members of the audience lingered in the doorway, mesmerized by the disaster.

When Hamlet had finally joined the rest of the dearly departed, Fortinbras—a dedicated member of the local school board—was nudged onto the stage. He walked warily around the corpses, looking as if he’d need a line prompt, too, so pale was he, but he came up to the scratch, rattling off his part as if he was in a hurry to be somewhere else.

Hardcastle followed along in his own copy, and was well aware that whatever the damn gun was loaded with, Griggs still had it locked in a death grip.

“Take up the bodies,” Fortinbras droned on. “Such a sight as this becomes the field but here shows much amiss. Go, bid the soldiers shoot.”

There was no applause. The curtain began its descent. Hardcastle tensed and stepped forward and McCormick was clambering to his feet, but neither of them was as fast as Griggs, now standing.

Even he wasn’t as quick as the Phelpses, though, who were already in retreat, nearly to the edge of the rear curtain. Griggs snarled and raised his gun, screaming in rage for them to freeze. They weren’t listening. Hardcastle saw the man’s finger on the trigger, and then, as if in slow motion, McCormick lunging again.

* * * * *

Sudden movement and the almighty noise of a gunshot in a closed space combined to obliterate the moment of impact. Mark was only aware that they’d gone down, side by side, and now somebody was prying Griggs away from him, immobilizing his wrist, and yanking the gun from his hand: Frank, it looked like, and not being too gentle about it.

Mark heard someone else shouting at him, over the infernal buzzing. It sounded like, “A blank?”

He rolled onto his back and blinked, as if that would help his hearing, which it didn’t. He felt as if he’d been punched in the stomach, which he knew wasn’t proof that there hadn’t been a bullet involved. He reached for the area in question but Hardcastle was already stooping and checking.

McCormick said, “Uh-huh, just a blank,” trying to sound more certain than he was. He held his hand up by his face and saw blood on it. “Dammit,” he muttered.

Hardcastle was tugging at his shirt. Mark felt a little removed from the situation. It was more than just the persistent buzzing. He almost missed it when the judge growled in confirmation, “Yeah, a blank,” and he felt mostly embarrassed to bring up the annoying detail of the hand, which was now stinging, with a deeper ache beneath that.

“Ah,” he said. His heart was pounding and he couldn’t seem to catch his breath. He glanced up past his head, to about where he must have come down, hand outstretched to break his fall. There was a blood-streaked shard of glass protruding between two floorboards. “Ah—”

Hardcastle must’ve noticed the blood. He grabbed for McCormick’s hand, inspecting that now, too, with an expression that was caught between aggravation and fear. His lips were moving. Mark stared, trying make out was he was saying.

“… . you okay?”

He grimaced and was on the verge of saying something about not asking stupid questions, when his vision began to tunnel down, and the irritating buzz swelled to a rushing roar that blotted out everything but the judge’s alarmed shout.

* * * * *

“And it turns out there’s an antidote for cyanide. The paramedics all carry it with them since that crazy poisoning spree in Chicago a couple years back,” Hardcastle said, finishing the story off with a theatrical flourish.

McCormick, being part of the audience, took some of the suspense out of the telling. Still, the rest of the listeners looked properly relieved, since the last time they’d seen the victim he’d been unconscious on a gurney, being loaded into an ambulance. Now, in the well-lit confines of a hospital room, he looked more-or-less all right, allowing for the IV and the bandaged right hand.

“Well, that is a relief,” Theodora sighed, reaching out to pat Mark’s other hand.

Frank Harper grinned. “And at least the round was a blank. We didn’t really need another murder. Your buddy, Griggs, confessed to the other two, though.”

Mark cocked his head. “Jimmy’s, too, huh?”

Frank nodded. “Sounds like Jimmy was in the habit of reading other people’s mail before he delivered it. We don’t think it had gotten as far as blackmail but Griggs couldn’t take any chances. He was terrified that someone would spook the Phelpses before he got a chance to do his big finale.”

“Yeah, and what about Roger and Ruby?” McCormick asked curiously.

Frank’s eyes narrowed. “We’ve got seven hundred witnesses, including me and Claudia, who heard Roger admit to motive, and it also turns out he was a guest at Bradford’s home the summer the man died.”

Mark frowned. “But that was supposed to have been of natural causes.”

“His doctor signed the death certificate—stroke—but now the ME is telling me the same symptoms are compatible with arsenic poisoning.”

Theodora looked ill at ease. She sighed and said, “I lent Amos to Rory last fall, after we’d signed him to the role. He said he wanted to be sure he was comfortable with him. What could I say? It seemed like a reasonable request from an artist like him.”

“We searched his apartment,” Frank said. “We found a receipt from a private lab in Mexico dated last September. They took scrapings from inside the skull. They were positive for arsenic.

”Motive, method and opportunity,“ Hardcastle observed.

”We’re still working on that,“ Frank said. ”Amos is in our lab for a redo.“

”Good luck with the jury,“ Mark observed pithily. ”Roger’s gonna take the stand and all they’re gonna hear is The Sheriff of Hell’s Creek or the captain from Three Rode for Freedom.“ He sighed. ”Oh well, can’t win ‘em all—just gotta give it your best shot.“

”That’s so true, Mark,“ Theodora said. ”So noble.“

He darted a questioning glance at the judge, who merely shrugged.

”Of course with Mr. Moss gone,“ she went on, musing, ”we’ll be pursuing a new artistic direction for our flagship production—fresh blood.“

Mark sighed, and silently hoped the next time around there wouldn’t be too much of that.

She smiled at him with a disconcerting mixture of fondness and determination. ”And I must say, you made a very vigorous Laertes—and from merely a cold reading, no more.“ Her smile broadened to include something very much like artistic avarice.

”Do you suppose you’d consider a return engagement with us next year?”

Mark smiled wanly.


NEXT ACT

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