. . . a victim must be found . . . The Three Little Maids had twirled their parasols without dropping a one. Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, had been successfully persuaded to drop from his "little list" his more scurrilous inventions involving key segments of the local population. The Mikado had remembered almost all of the words to his big song. The audience had eaten it up.
In fact, the debut performance of the Northampton Repertory Company, presenting Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado, had come off with a smoothness I was not at all sure it deserved. The combined sighs of relief from those reponsible ought to be enough, I reflected, to blow away the sulky clouds that had been hanging over the valley for the past two weeks. Even, perhaps, to disperse the metaphorical bad weather that had been hanging with equal persistence over the members of the Northampton Rep themselves. The rehearsal period had not, in the main, been a happy one.
Now, however, buoyed by the crowd's approval and heady with the relief of having actually pulled the thing off, most of the company had taken themselves off to the cast party in an unwonted atmosphere of good cheer and togetherness. A few of the stage crew were still about, tinkering with a set piece which had almost, but not quite, fallen apart during the second act. And since, as stage manager, I was in charge of locking up, I was obliged to stay around until the building was cleared.
I wandered among the pews (real pews; the Old Church Theater was not named on a whim), picking up programs to recycle at tomorrow night's performance. I had barely had time to glance at them earlier--they had arrived at the theater a half hour before curtain--and now I took a closer look.
Quite handsome, I thought: a red and black design on buff featuring a Mikado who, rather than appearing menacing, had a rather jovial look. Circling his picture were smaller sketches of the other principal characters: Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum making goo-goo eyes under her parasol; Ko-Ko, bent under the weight of his huge executioner's axe; Pooh-Bah, Lord High Everything Else, looking down his nose; Katisha, her headdress sporting pins the size of small swords.
I turned to the inside pages. Directed by Harry Johns . . . production made possible through the generosity of Portia Carpenter Singh . . . potted biographies of the cast, acknowledgments, production crew--ah yes, there I was. Twice. Choreography by Phoebe Mullins, and on the following page, Stage Manager: Phoebe Mullins. I shook my head, asking myself for the umpteenth time how I'd allowed this to happen. But I knew, of course. I had gotten sucked in by a combination of curiosity, flattery, and the charms of Gilbert and Sullivan. And, most essentially, because of my Aunt Portia, a difficult lady to deny, and of whom, in a very short time, I had become deeply fond.
Speaking of Portia, where was she? I'd assumed she'd be waiting for me to drive her to the party, but a quick visual sweep of the now shadowy interior of the Old Church's main space turned up no aunt, nor indeed anyone else. Perhaps she'd gotten a ride from Harry or one of the others. I hoped they'd keep an eye on her. Since she'd recently had the cast removed from her arm and graduated from a four-pronged institutional metal cane to a handsome ebony stick, Portia had become entirely too frisky to please me.
I took my stack of programs--those that hadn't been rolled, folded, sat on, or otherwise mutilated--to the table behind the last pew. From there I started back down the aisle, intending to tell the remaining stagehands to give it a rest for the night. But a glimmer of light coming from the staircase at the far right side of the auditorium just left of the red exit sign gave me pause. The stairs led down to the basement, where the dressing rooms were located. I'd already checked that area and thought I'd made sure everyone was gone and the lights were out. Wasted electricity was not within the budget of the Northampton Rep. I reversed course and headed for the stairway.
At its top, the metal folding chair with a neatly handprinted sign reading no access taped to its back had been shoved aside. And down below, sure enough, a bare lightbulb hanging from the ceiling--all twenty-five watts of it--was doing its best to penetrate the murk. Damn! how had I missed that? I trotted down the stairs and was reaching up to switch off the bulb when I saw another streak of light at the far end of the looming open space that constituted the main area of the church basement. There, in the region under the stage (formerly the chancel), beyond the big central area where the chorus dressed and made up, were located the principal dressing rooms. The light was coming through the half-open door of room number one, most convenient to the stage and therefore quickly comandeered by Dr. E. Foster Ballard, our Pooh-Bah, ostensibly on grounds of seniority but basically out of a sheer bloody-minded inability to consider anyone's comfort but his own. How like him, I thought crossly, to take off without bothering to turn out his lights.
On second thought, how unlike him not to have made sure his door was closed and locked with the padlock that he had insisted the company install after the broken mirror incident. Besides, was he not contributing to the production his own, authentic Japanese kimono, as well as his authentic antique Japanese aikuchi knife? He surely couldn't be expected to leave them unsecured.
Thanks to E. Foster, I thought as I picked my way across the cement floor, I now knew more about Japanese aikuchi knives than I really cared to. A variety of dagger, he'd expounded, with an etched blade and elaborately decorated hilt and scabbard. Carried during the Toku-something era by persons of rank. Also used in committing hara-kiri. Ugh! had been my basic reaction, not having a fondness for weapons of any variety.
E. Foster, however, set great store by his treasured knife, and would never have left it in an unlocked dressing room. Therefore, he'd either taken it with him, or he was still on the premises. And yet I was positive that when I'd checked the basement twenty minutes ago the door to Pooh-Bah's dressing room had been closed, with no light showing underneath. Well, he must have returned for some reason.
Just short of my goal, I stepped on a small object that crumbled under the sole of my shoe. Probably a cylinder of makeup charcoal or some such thing, I thought. Too bad. If people couldn't take care of their stuff . . .
"Foster, are you still here?" I called out, and when there was no answer I pushed the door all the way open.
The bright glare of a row of makeup lights above the dressing table on the opposite wall momentarily dazzled me, and it took me a startled moment to realize that the image floating above the jars and pots and boxes of Kleenex was my own reflection in the wide mirror. My second impression was that someone had carelessly, or perhaps maliciously, thrown E. Foster's authentic Japanese kimono into a heap in the middle of the floor.
But no, the back of a head covered thinly with lank strands of grey hair protruded from the neck of the kimono. Incongruously small white-stockinged feet stuck out below the hem. It was Pooh-Bah himself who lay crumpled facedown on the grey carpeting in his black kimono splashed with yellow peonies. One of the peonies had changed color to an ugly red. From its center, like an obscene stamen, projected the elaborately decorated hilt of the authentic antique aikuchi dagger.
Oh, no, please no! It had to be a joke, a horrible practical joke. A mannequin, a splash of red paint . . . I stepped farther into the room.
From my left, a familiar voice said, "Don't touch 'im, Phoebe. He's dead."
I whirled to face my aunt Portia where she stood in the shadow just beyond the open door. Both hands gripped the silver handle of the ebony stick and she was breathing heavily. She stared down with an unfathomable expression at the man on the floor. Clearly visible on one cuff of her long-sleeved white silk shirt was a smudge of the same color that stained the yellow peony.
It was easily the fourth worst moment of my adult life.
Excerpted from Death of a Pooh-Bah by Karen Sturges. Copyright © 2000 by Karen Sturges. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.