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July 15, 2024

A Dying Fall: Book Excerpt

By John Paulits

The Shakespeare Murders
Volume 2

A Dying Fall
John Paulits

Chapter One

Early morning. The sky a sparkling blue. The calm and gently rolling ocean added its azure to the day. The soft greenery of the island caught the day's golden sunlight, and before long the dappled gray shade would be a much-sought refuge from the eternal summer's heat.

A squatter, grimier than most, shuffled along the tree-lined dirt road. A bicycle rolled by him, but he ignored it, staring instead at a woman, another squatter, bucket in each hand, who approached along the road, heading for the nearby spring. He decided she would be the one.

The woman approached a triangle of golden light filtering through the trees. As she stepped into the light, the man moved to her side of the road. She looked his way and smiled. The smile startled the man, and he paused as the woman passed back into shadow. His surprise had allowed the woman to pass by unharmed, and it angered him. He continued to walk, looking for the next one.

Another bicycle, this one coming toward him, roiled up the dust of the road, and he averted his face. When he turned back, he saw another woman approaching. She carried nothing, perhaps heading to the marketplace for some early shopping. He kept his eyes averted until she was just steps away. He quickly surveyed the road. They were alone. He pulled out the sharp butcher knife he had brought with him from home and pressed it tightly against his right leg. The woman came even with him, and as she stepped past, he threw his left arm around the shocked woman, pulling her head back and exposing her brown neck. He drew the knife across her flesh. Blood spurted, and the woman crumpled.

The man looked up and down the empty road. With a swing of his leg, he pushed the woman's body over the edge of the dirt road. It rolled down the hill until it stopped, its legs entangled in undergrowth. He turned and hurried away. It had been easy.

Chapter Two

Malvolio: I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you!

Malvolio, black of adornment, black of mood, stormed from the stage, leaving behind a chortling entourage of unsympathetic associates. Only the Duke and his former love, Olivia, showed the slightest of condescending sympathy.

Olivia: He hath been most notoriously abus'd.
Duke: Pursue him and entreat him to a peace.

Knowing the Duke's proclivity for grand, self-indulgent, emotional displays, however, no one left the stage. Everyone waited until the Duke finished his speech and exited with him -- in the opposite direction from Malvolio. Only the clown remained behind to toss a few merry sentiments into the air and assure the audience that all was one and life a merry game. The rehearsal ended, and there being no one to applaud their efforts, the actors applauded themselves, knowing they had the play locked a good two weeks before its scheduled opening.

The acting troupe moved down the narrow stairway to the dressing rooms in the basement of the Bouwerie Lane Theatre. The conversation centered around one topic -- had Ashley received a firm invitation yet?

Ashley Warrington Brunner was the excessively rich, excessively thin, on the far edge of middle-aged patron of the eponymous AWB Theatre Company. She occasionally took part in their plays, but after the recent murder of her lover and the former director of the company, Lawrence Mickelman, her urge to trod the boards waned. She chose instead to spend her evenings at happy gatherings of her well-heeled friends, leaving the work of the theatre to the actors. They had put aside the Hamlet they had attempted twice before after being interrupted first by Lawrence's murder and then by the capture of the murderer. Something lighter appealed to their taste, and they chose Twelfth Night. It had no part in it for Ashley, but she'd told them not to consider her when choosing their new play. So they hadn't. They needed a director, however, and decided to give Martin Schonbaum, their erstwhile Polonius, a try. Marty was a two years widowed, white-haired, retired English professor, having the time of his life acting in small theatres in downtown Manhattan. Having a chance to direct a play he had always loved thrilled him more than he imagined something ever could. His spirit infected the company, and they were having a regular festival putting the play together.

To top it off, Ashley had informed them that one of her rich acquaintances wanted their help in enticing a few other businessmen to join him in a fabulous investment enterprise. The investment involved real estate in an island development in the Caribbean. The friend, Anthony Barset, owned practically half of a sparsely inhabited tropical island. The island had no real governmental structure. St. Thomas, the nearest island, administered the part of the island not owned by Anthony Barset. The people who lived there were poor and discarded and had settled on this island as a last resort. Oddly enough, a seventeenth-century cartographer had given the island the unlikely name of Illyria. The island had a marketplace and an assortment of ramshackle houses. The perpetually delightful weather allowed the inhabitants to get by with very little. The inhabitants grew what they could and traded or sold what they didn't need. It was to the tropical paradise of Illyria that the Ashley Warrington Brunner Theatre Company awaited an invitation.

The actors made their separate ways to Phebe's Bar and Restaurant, the local actors' hangout. Mark Louis -- actor, writer, and resident crime-solver, joined Don Lovett, Kristy King, and Karen Christenson, troupe company members all, at a table near the fireplace, now flaming cheerily on this mid-January evening. All four actors were in their mid-twenties, and all were well aware of their good fortune. AWB Theatre Company paid them three thousand dollars a month as full-time, permanent members of the troupe. Unlike other struggling actors, their craft supported them, if barely.

"Have we heard yet?" Karen asked, the most blonde and buxom of the four. "I would dearly love a few days in the sun before we get serious about Shakespeare."

"Me, too," said Kristy, who sported a darker, more exotic look than Karen. "Are we going?"

"From what Ashley said, we're as good as invited," Mark reported. "This guy Barset knows her from when she was married to the late Mr. Brunner. They met again at some party last month."

"Here's the waiter. Let's order," Don suggested.

Phebe's treated neighborhood actors well. Inexpensive, some said cheap, wine and a twenty-five percent discount on food for acknowledged thespians kept actors coming back.

"So Ashley said ..." Kristy urged.

"So she knows this guy from long ago when she was a businessman's wife. They met at one of the parties she's always attending. They got to talking, and he'd like to put on a fancy show to impress some people he wants to invest in his island."

"I don't believe it's really called Illyria," Karen scoffed.

Mark shrugged. "That's what it's called, at least for now."

"I looked for it on a map," Kristy said. "Not there."

"Too small, according to what Ashley said. Small, uncivilized, inhabited by squatters only, I'm told. There's nothing there but Barset's fancy estate."

"And Mr. Barset wants to turn it into a resort?" Don asked.

"He does. He owns a lot of the island. He has permission from St. Thomas to develop it, but he has to find the money, so he's treating possible investors to a few days there to look around. Our job will be to entertain them with a classy collage of Shakespeare."

"Well, if we can't get people interested in an island named Illyria by doing a play about an island named Illyria, we should pack it in," Karen said.

"Where will we stay?" Kristy asked.

"In Barset's big house on the island," Mark answered. "We'd only be taking the full-time members of the troupe."

"Not Marty?" Don inquired.

"Oh, yes, Marty, too. That should give us enough personnel to do a few potent scenes," Mark said.

"Here comes Ashley," Don said. "I guess she doesn't have a party to go to tonight."

Phebe's always buzzed when Ashley Warrington Brunner arrived. The waiters quickly responded by pulling together a number of tables to make one long table, and the members of the AWB Theatre Company left their seats to join their patron. Ashley loved having a theatre company of her own. It had been Lawrence's suggestion originally, and Ashley, former actress and devout theatre lover, agreed right off. They managed to get Desire Under the Elms under their belt before tragedy struck. Ashley caught Lawrence cheating with Karen, but Lawrence was murdered the very night of his exposure. Mark managed to snare the killer, and Ashley, at Mark's petition, forgave Karen. The troupe had hung together through its travail and now looked forward to Twelfth Night.

"I'm here to inform you ..." Ashley paused and smiled. "... we have our invitation."

A cheer arose from the table, the temporary members of the company at least feigning joy for the good fortune of the full-time players.

"We'll be leaving next Monday and returning on Friday. Everyone will of course be paid for the week."

The non-permanent members also received a stipend when hired for an AWB play, and so this news brought forth a more robust cheer.

"We'll go back into rehearsal the following Saturday. All right with you, Marty?"

Marty, too busy smiling to speak up, made an okay sign.

"We'll rehearse Saturday through Tuesday, rest on Wednesday, and open on Thursday. Agreed?"

Everyone nodded, and Ashley went through the details of the upcoming trip.

When the night ended around ten, Don and Karen headed for the subway, arm in arm.

They were on-again-off-again lovers, who lived five minutes from each other in Park Slope, Brooklyn. They had tried living together once and failed, but had been getting along so well recently they both believed their relationship could prosper the second time around. Karen, however, insisted they continue to live apart. Less pressure, she said.

"There go the lovers," Kristy said.

"No," Mark smiled, "here go the lovers. Coming home with me tonight?"

"Yes." Kristy entwined her arm about Mark's. "I hate your apartment, but I love you. And with tonight's news, it seems like a nice night to celebrate."

Mark sighed. "I took up with the right woman when I took up with you."

"Let's get home," Kristy said.

Chapter Three

The island of Illyria -- perfect blue sky, silent ocean breezes, each day sweet and lovely.

A squatter, his heart beating madly, leaned against a tree on the edge of the market clearing. Some two dozen open-air stands sold produce, domestic handicrafts, anything the squatters could make to earn their daily bread. A handful of enterprising souls from other islands had built stalls to sell items impossible of manufacture by the squatters. These enterprising souls also took back with them Illyrian items of possible interest to tourists on the bigger islands to be resold at an exorbitant markup and at no benefit to their producers.

People came to the marketplace, and people left. The tense squatter who lounged by the tree carefully studied the people leaving. Finished with their marketing, people started down one of the island's dirt paths toward whatever dilapidated home they had constructed. The squatter looked for someone making the trip alone.

A woman passed by him with a young child in tow. He rejected them and turned back to the market. Another woman, laden with two packages, one in her hand and the other balanced on her head, started onto a path a short way off. He pushed himself away from the tree and stepped briskly across the marketplace toward the road the woman had taken. No one else seemed interested in taking the same path, so he started down the road, the woman in sight ahead of him. He sweated in the intense heat, but his nerves would have caused him to sweat in any weather. He glanced back often as he followed the woman.

When the woman disappeared around a lazy curve in the road, the man took one last glance back toward the marketplace. Assured no one was coming, he pulled the butcher knife from beneath his shirt and pressed it tightly against his left leg. The woman heard his steps and turned her head. She smiled a greeting. Too nervous to smile back, he merely walked up to her.

The woman gasped when the strong arm pulled her head back. Quickly, the long, sharp blade slid from right to left across her neck.

Grimacing, the killer dragged the body into the brush and tossed the woman's packages in after her. Intensely relieved, he returned his pace to an island shuffle and continued down the hot, dry road, not allowing himself to look back even once.

Chapter Four

The small, single-engine plane banked slightly, enough to give the passengers sitting by the portside window a view of the entire island.

"It looks beautiful," Kristy gushed.

Karen, sitting behind Kristy, quoted, "What country, friends, is this?"

"This is Illyria, lady," Don replied.

"And what should I do in Illyria?" Karen sighed.

"How about swim a little, snorkel a little, party a little, perform a little. You know, the usual," Don said. Don had been in a perpetually good mood since the close of Hamlet. Molly Frederick, a premier actor's agent, had attended the one performance they managed to sandwich in between the murder of Lawrence Mickelman and the capture his murderer. She had been sufficie ntly impressed to take Don on as a client, and he hoped to hear something from her soon.

"Sounds good," Karen said with a laugh.

Kristy leaned her head on Mark's shoulder and spoke softly. "We'll be on the ground in a few minutes. You haven't said an awful lot the whole flight. You okay?"

"I'm fine," Mark said.

"Then why so quiet?"

Mark lifted his hand slightly. "Thinking about my life is all."

Kristy arched her eyebrows. "Rather ponderous. What's the problem? Not me, I hope."

"Definitely not you, sweetie. I consider you more solution than problem." He took her hand. "But the acting, the little writing, everything I do ... I don't know. 'Enough, no more; 'Tis not so sweet now as it was before.'"

"My oh my, you've got it bad. We better have a talk when we get a chance. I had no idea you were so riddled with discontent."

"Not discontent, but riddled with ... something."

"We'll figure it out. Put your seat belt on. I promise you we'll figure it out."

Mark smiled at her. "I'll count on that."

"Have you ever met this Mr. Barset?" Don asked from the seat behind. "He's not a producer or anything, is he?" Don always had an eye out looking for a crack in the door which would lead to acting fame -- in case Molly Frederick failed to come through.

Mark knew Ashley best, and the others turned to him when they wanted an accurate reading of her. Mark had met Ashley at a theatre fund-raising party in Soho and had ended up solving "The Case of the Lost Jewelry" for her. (Her driver at the time had been pilfering.) She then asked him to join her theatre company, and having now brought Lawrence's murderer to justice, Ashley trusted Mark absolutely.

"I have not, and he is not that I know of. Like I told you, he knew Ashley's husband long ago. She met him again recently at some function, and they've chatted occasionally since then."

"Are they amorously involved?" Karen asked.

"I think not," Mark said. The twelve-seat plane skipped once lightly on the runway a half-mile from the Barset estate. The plane rolled to a quiet stop, and the six members of the AWB Theatre Company breathed, unbeknownst to one another, a sigh of relief at the safe landing. None of them had ever been on a plane so small. The first leg of their trip aboard a 747 into St. Thomas bothered no one, but this final leg on a plane that could fit on the stage of the Bouwerie Lane Theatre was a different matter altogether.

As they disembarked onto the single cement runway, Karen remarked, "Oh, this heat felt good for the short time we were in St. Thomas. It feels even better now, knowing it's going to last for five glorious days. Are we the last to arrive?"

The pilot, a native of the islands named Carlos, began transferring their luggage from the plane to one of two Jeeps meeting them.

"Ashley flew over yesterday," Mark said. "The fancy business meetings have been going on since Friday, I think. The investors'll be here for a full week. Everyone leaves Friday."

"Do we know what we're doing yet?" Kristy asked.

"On stage? Ashley suggested some scenes from Hamlet on Wednesday and Twelfth Night on Thursday," Mark said. "The rest of the time is ours."

"Can we see some of the island before we go to the house?" Kristy asked.

"I can find out," Mark said. He walked up to the two drivers who leaned on the nearer of the two Jeeps. They, along with Carlos, constituted Barset's security force on the island. Tony Babbitte and Marty Schonbaum hung back, still talking to Carlos.

"Ashley was right when she said this was a beautiful but desolate island," Kristy remarked. "Did anyone see the house when we were coming in?"

"I didn't see anything but trees and beach," Karen replied. "I hope there's a beach near the house."

"There must be," Don said with a smile. "And we'll be on it before too long."

Mark returned. "We can go in the first car. Otavio, he said his name is, will take us around. He said the only thing to see aside from Barset's house and grounds is the marketplace where the 'squatters,' he called them, do business."

"Squatters?" Karen questioned.

"People from other islands, St. Thomas, who knows where. They somehow end up here when they have nowhere else to go. They throw together a shack and live the best they can. It shouldn't take too much to live here," Mark said, looking around. "A little food, a little water -- what else would you need?"

"You say that with some longing," Kristy said.

Mark laughed. "We'll talk, remember? Here come Tony and Marty. Want to drive around the island a little before we go to the house?"

"No, thank you," Marty answered. "Little planes are nice ... to disembark from. I've had it for a while. The house, some lunch, a nap. I'll see you there."

"I'll go with Marty," Tony said. "What's to see? This is the most godforsaken place in the world. I had no idea it would look like this."

"Oh, Tony," Karen teased, "you know it's beautiful."

"New York is beautiful. Phebe's is beautiful. This is stagnation, pure and total."

"We're going to cruise the island, anyway," Don said. "Meet you back at the house when we're through."

"If you're going out to see all there is to see, you might beat us back to the house," Tony said.

"I doubt it," Karen said, stepping into the Jeep. "You'll be sorry when you hear what you missed."

"Another in a long line of life's regrets," Tony said. "I'll deal with it."

The troupe divided and went their separate ways.

If anywhere on Illyria could be said to throb, it was the marketplace. From early morning through early evening, sellers, buyers, and people with nowhere else to go milled around eating, talking, or doing nothing at all. There were always people about.

"This is some scraggly bunch of merchants," Mark commented. He and the others had left the Jeep and now walked aimlessly among the stalls. "Look how they live."

Many shacks ringed the immediate area, and like the spokes of a very frail wheel, a few dirt roads led off in various directions from the marketplace.

"This really is subsistence living," Don said. "It might be harder than you imagined making ends meet here."

"They don't exactly pick the fruit from the trees and loll about in the sun all day, do they?" Kristy remarked.

"Can we eat somewhere?" Karen interrupted.

Otavio led them to a stall and ordered for them.

"What are we eating?" Don asked.

"Fish and vegetable chowder," Otavio answered.

"Where do we eat it?" Karen asked.

"Just hunker down next to a tree, I suppose," Mark said.

They followed Otavio to the edge of the clearing and settled onto a small, cool patch of shady grass. One of the dirt roads ran nearby.

"It's tasty," Karen said.

"It is," Kristy agreed, relieved.

"I'm glad you like it," Don said. "I know how fussy the two of you can be."

Different squatters passed by them and unfailingly glanced their way. The actors' New York City winter-white skin set them a hemisphere apart from the locals. Don was tall and had hair the color of the sun, a perfect Hamlet for the one night he had the opportunity to play the part. Mark was nearly as eye-catching. He was a shade taller than Don and had hair as near brown as it could be and still be called blond. Acting was Don's sole interest, but only one of Mark's many interests, writing mystery stories chief among them.

Karen had the same sunny blonde hair as Don and was robustly beautiful in every way. Kristy was the sole one of the four without a golden glow to her. Slimmer than Karen, she had long black hair, and her face had the slightest Asian cast to it. Mark had tried repeatedly to pluck Kristy's secret from her -- background, parentage and history -- but so far had received only love and affection, not information, in return.

After finishing the chowder, they roamed the different stalls. Kristy and Karen each bought wide-brimmed straw hats. Mark and Don, though urged repeatedly but unintelligibly by the vendors, bought nothing.

"I want to get to the beach today," Karen stated.

"I've seen enough, too," Don said. "Where's Otavio?"

They stopped and looked around.

"There." Mark pointed across the market clearing where Otavio spoke in some agitation to three stall owners. "He's beckoning us."

So intent were the actors on reaching him quickly, they failed to notice a squatter with fear filled eyes who shuffled past them on their right. This squatter did not turn as they went by, did not glance at them as all of the other natives had done. He simply looked down and continued on his way.

"There's been another murder," Otavio said when they reached him. He spoke with a lilting West Indian patois.

"Murder!" Karen exclaimed.

"What do you mean 'another'?" Mark asked.

"The third in the past three weeks."

"Who was murdered?"

"Another squatter. A bicycler just found the body lying up the road over there."

"The road where we were sitting?" Karen gasped.

"Does the island have a police force?" Kristy asked.

"No, just Carlos, Haniel, and me. We are security for Mr. Barset. I must inform Mr. Barset of the murder."

"How? Can we call?" Mark asked.

"There are no phones but the one at the house and no cell phone service," Otavio explained. "We'll have to go."

They walked rapidly back to their Jeep, climbed in, and sped off down the road toward Anthony Barset's estate.

Chapter Five

"This is outrageous. And at a time like this. Do you know who I have here now? Right upstairs?"

"I can imagine, Anthony," Ashley said, sipping daintily from a glass of white wine. She motioned to Don and Mark, who had entered the room.

The sliding doors facing the ocean were open, showing a long, glittering beach outside. The sun glittered off the ocean beyond. The room itself was furnished with white rattan furniture and the chairs had deep green flowered upholstery. Ashley sat near the open doors, her long white hair moving occasionally in the sea breeze. She rested her wine on a round, glass-topped rattan table and introduced Mark and Don to Anthony Barset.

"My pleasure, my pleasure." Barset shook both outstretched hands vigorously.

Anthony Barset, fifty-eight years old, was an oversized man whose head, even given his large size, seemed too big for his body. He weighed nearly two hundred and fifty pounds, and each visible part of him seemed to have been pumped full of air. His fingers were stubby and sausage-like, and his face leapt off the page, so to speak. His lips protruded. His ears flared wide. His eyes were oddly circular. He was clean-shaven but had ragged, unkempt eyebrows. His thick, swept-back black hair looked oily. He wore a Hawaiian shirt with an impossible conglomeration of colors and baggy khaki shorts. His overblown feet were encased in sandals, the straps of which caused rolls of fat to quiver when he walked, which he did now, incessantly.

"Have a drink. Have a drink," Barset suggested as he paced.

"Where are Karen and Kristy?" Ashley asked. "Tony and Martin are napping. I don't think they like the beach."

"They're changing into bathing suits," Mark said. "I didn't realize the beach was so near until we got back to the house."

"Do you know what's happened?" Barset asked.

Mark answered as he took a vodka tonic Don had made for him. "Only that we were walking around the marketplace when we heard about the murder."

"The third murder in less than a month. I was in New York when I heard about the second one and now another. Only a handful of people on this island, and they wait until I gather the richest investors I know to start killing each other. It's monstrous. Who the hell's going to invest in a place where people are getting murdered right and left?"

"What can be done about it?" Ashley asked.

"What can be done? I have three security men on the island. They're security for this house and these grounds. They're not trained to track down murderers. What the hell is going on here? Where's my drink? Make me a drink!" He directed his request to a dark-skinned man in sandals, a white shirt, and white slacks, who stood quietly on the side and now, on cue, moved to the bar.

"Why would anyone kill anyone else on this island?" Barset wondered. "The people who got killed were dirt-poor squatters. They own nothing. No one owns anything on this island but me. What's to be gained from killing them?"

"Maybe someone simply enjoys killing," Mark said.

Barset stopped pacing and turned toward Mark, surprised at being interrupted.

"I've told you about Mark," Ashley said. The breeze had stopped momentarily, and Ashley took a paper fan from the table and waved it lightly in front of her face. He identified the man who killed Lawrence."

"Ah, yes. Sad business." He turned again to Mark. "Can you do it again? Can you find out who's doing this and put a stop to it?"

* * * *

Article © John Paulits. All rights reserved.
Published on 2014-06-16
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