As she sat in the green room, wrapped in a blanket, sipping whisky, Isobel took a moment to reflect that first jobs always seemed to bring her bad luck. Or, rather, she seemed to bring bad luck with her to every new situation. At her first temp job, she'd stumbled across a dead secretary in a bathroom stall. And now at this, her first bona fide summer stock job, she'd tripped over a dead ghost.
A dead actor playing a ghost, she reminded herself.
In life, Vaughn Jackson had been something of a mystery. Three sheets to the wind half the time, but with a glorious basso profundo that made the hair on the back of Isobel's neck stand up, Vaughn had kept to himself. Unlike most older actors, who loved nothing more than to confer a lifetime's accumulation of theater anecdotes on an assemblage of hungry acolytes, he showed little interest in fraternizing with the younger members of the company. All Isobel knew about him was that he had a family connection to the Galaxy Playhouse, which had been home base for several generations of Jacksons. Vaughn hadn't performed there in many years, but work had fallen off lately. He was, somewhat reluctantly, treating his role in Ruddigore as a local comeback of sorts, although Isobel thought the move could also be taken as a tail-between-the-legs return.
Sunil emerged through the black felt curtains separating the green room from the dressing rooms. He picked up the whisky bottle from the side table where it was parked beside Isobel's abandoned wig and tipped it questioningly in her direction. She shook her head, but he topped up his own glass and plopped down next to her on the sagging brown sofa.
"Any news?" she asked.
"The medical examiner just arrived."
Isobel set her glass down and started pulling pins from her hair. In a moment, her own straight brown locks were free, and she rubbed her scalp vigorously.
"What's the possibility that Vaughn died while all the men were in position waiting to go on?" she asked.
"With them sitting right there? It would have had to be a very silent death for them not to notice."
"Then he must have died in the forty-odd measures of music between the time the other ghosts leave their frames and Roderic sings his first line."
"Rotten timing," Sunil said drily.
"Unless you're Scott Seward," she pointed out.
Sunil snorted. "If you're killing someone because you want to play a second-act role in a lesser-known Gilbert and Sullivan operetta in non-Equity summer stock, your bar is really, really low."
"Maybe there's more to it than meets the eye."
Sunil gave her a significant glance. "And maybe there isn't."
She leaned forward eagerly. "You realize why Vaughn fell over the way he did and didn't just crumple?"
She stared at him, aghast. "Did you even watch your own SVU episode?"
"Just my two seconds as the halal cart guy."
Isobel smacked his thigh. "Well, I watched it. When they found the body in the storage locker, the ME figured out she must have died two hours before, because rigor mortis was just setting in."
"But that would mean Vaughn was already sitting there, dead, at the top of the show, and that's impossible," said Sunil. "The Act One set is completely different - it's the village green. There's no scrim, no chairs."
Isobel sighed. "That's what I'm saying. It doesn't make any sense."
"So what do you think - "
They started guiltily, as the green room curtains were parted by a heavy-set, middle-aged police officer whose desire to be home in front of the television was writ large on his face.
She gave a wan little wave. "That's me."
"I'm Mike Ford, Vermont state police. You found the...er...Mr. Jackson?"
He unfolded a rickety chair and sat across from Isobel and Sunil. "What exactly happened?"
Isobel relayed her experience, while Ford scribbled on his notepad.
"Did either of you see Mr. Jackson take his place in the chair after intermission?" he asked.
They shook their heads. Ford gave a resigned grunt.
"Men's chorus all say the same thing." He flipped back through his notebook and ran a finger down the page. "They filed on at the start of the act when the stage manager called places. They didn't look around the bend in the set wall, so nobody is able to say with certainty whether Mr. Jackson was already seated in his chair."
"But he must have been...right?" asked Isobel.
"You would think." Ford scratched his upper lip with his pen. "Did you see Mr. Jackson arrive at the theater tonight?"
"No, but there's nothing strange about that," answered Isobel. "Vaughn always checked in at curtain instead of at half-hour, because he doesn't come on until the second act. And he generally keeps a low profile."
Ford jotted this on his notepad. "Is there anything else you can tell me?"
Isobel glanced at Sunil. He gave an almost imperceptible shake of his head, but she forged on anyway. "Something strange happened when I was onstage. I don't know if it's related...probably not..."
Ford looked up hopefully, though Isobel thought it had more to do with the prospect of getting home sooner than with receiving any useful information.
"There was a man sitting on the edge of the stage."
Sunil rolled his eyes, but Ford paused, pen in the air. "When was this?"
"During my aria. Right before the portrait scene."
"What did the man do?"
"Nothing. He just watched and listened."
Ford gave an appreciative chuckle. "A fan, eh?"
Isobel hauled herself up from the carnivorous couch. "You don't understand. It's not normal for an audience member to come onstage during a performance. And as soon as I exited, I looked out again and he was gone."
"What did he look like?"
Isobel paced along the pattern of the rope rug, which, like many of the furnishings in the green room, had been worn down by the repetitive, palliative motions of nervous actors.
"I didn't get a good look at his face, but I have the impression that his hair was gray and on the long side. He was dressed oddly, in a jacket that looked like it might be velvet and a white shirt with a floppy bow tie."
Ford had stopped writing and was staring at her, a wary look on his face. "That's...that's...interesting."
Before Isobel could ask what he meant, Tim Ferguson, the artistic director of the Galaxy Playhouse, strode into the room, brimming with adrenaline. Tim thrived on tense situations and near-disaster, which was why he was so happy running a summer stock theater.
"Audience has gone home. They were pretty traumatized - well, some of the old ladies actually seemed kind of excited - but the ushers were great, really calmed them down. We'll have to reimburse them, or offer replacement tickets or...something." He ran his hand over his spiky gray hair. "Anyway, I've got all the theater personnel sitting out in the house. You'll have to tell me what you want to do with them."
Ford gestured to Isobel. "Tell Tim about the man you saw sitting on the edge of the stage."
Tim turned a curious gaze toward her. "What man? I've been watching from the house. There was nobody onstage who shouldn't have been."
As she repeated her description for Tim, she got the distinct feeling that, despite Sunil's scorn, there was something significant about her vision.