The gun went off with a resounding report, and Isobel Spice staggered backward with a gasp. She tried to scream, but her breath caught in the back of her throat and all that came out was a gurgling, choking sound. Her eyes widened in horror as her hands, clutching her chest, came away red and sticky. She swayed precariously for a moment, but then her eyelids collapsed, her head fell back, and her knees gave way. She sank to the ground, arms and legs splayed at unnatural angles.
All was silent.
"Okay, that was way over the top."
Isobel sat up in the middle of the dance floor, wiping her hands on her stained shirt. She frowned at her friend, Delphi Kramer, who was still aiming the old-fashioned derringer at her.
"That's not your call." Isobel turned to Peter Catanzaro, the burly, broad-shouldered, perennially stubbled producer and star of Murder à la Carte. "Was it too much?"
"Are you kidding? The cheesier, the better." Peter offered a hand and pulled her to her feet. "Shakespeare it ain't."
Isobel snuck a glance at Delphi, whose blue eyes grew stormy. Isobel knew Delphi prided herself on her facility with the Bard's iambs, and she, more than Isobel, felt they were slumming doing murder mystery dinner theater. Having won her point with Peter, however, Isobel took pity on her friend and, grabbing her arm, whispered a reminder: "A hundred bucks. And dinner."
Delphi shook her off, and the gun bumped Isobel's side. She let out a little shriek.
"Give me the gun," Peter ordered. "That's why you don't get to handle the weapons except during rehearsal and performance."
"Last I checked, this was a rehearsal," Delphi said. Still, she obediently returned the gun, which Peter pocketed in his tan trench coat.
"Okay. Time to move on to the next scene."
"Wait! Can't I die again?" Isobel pleaded. "I forgot to use the Brioschi." She opened her palm to reveal the antacid tablet, which was damp and starting to melt.
Peter made a face. "What's that for?"
"I thought I might foam at the mouth, too."
"That's only when a character is poisoned," he said impatiently. "And please tell me you brought another top for the show."
"Of course." Isobel glanced down at the spreading stain and hoped the stage blood would wash out as Peter had claimed. The blouse was one of her favorites, a rosy pink that flattered her translucent complexion and gray-green eyes. "I've never worked with this kind of stuff before. I wanted to try it out," she explained.
Peter rolled his eyes. "What are you, a frickin' method actress? Come on. We only have another half hour, and I have to stage the final shoot-out."
Isobel followed his gaze across the Jewel Room, the spacious, central dining area of The Hostelry, a rambling brick edifice tucked just inside Central Park near West 72nd Street. It had begun life in the 1930s as a simple inn, but over the years, enterprising restaurateurs had tacked on additions with more attention to seating capacity than architectural unity. The result was a warren of dining rooms connected by labyrinthine hallways, which the present owners had lined with mirrors. The long, oval-shaped Jewel Room, with its series of spectacular gem-toned chandeliers and floor-to-ceiling glass windows, was often rented out for private events, like the party they were performing at tonight.
Peter paced their circular playing area, a portion of the dance floor tightly surrounded by extravagantly appointed tables pulled in toward the center of the room for increased intimacy. Waiters in light-blue jackets bustled about, laying silverware and straightening wineglasses. A stern-looking, silver-haired woman in a commensurately serious gray suit moved between them with a clipboard in hand, barking orders at an elfin brunette in an emerald-green cocktail dress, who was arranging place cards.
"All right." Peter rested a hand on Isobel's shoulder. "You're dead right here, in front of your table. I'll carry you out, fireman style, so you don't have to lie there trying not to breathe." He nodded at Delphi. "You shot Isobel from the table directly across the dance floor, so go back there now. Andrew..." Peter looked around, but the actor playing Isobel's husband was nowhere to be seen. "Where the hell did he go? We don't have time to fart around!"
Peter stormed off through the maze of tables.
Delphi gathered up her mass of Botticellian blond curls and fanned the back of her neck. "They'd better turn on the AC. And the food better be good."
"Where's your sense of adventure?" Isobel teased. "I think this is going to be a blast. I've always wanted to do one of these murder mysteries, ever since - "
"Ever since you solved that murder at the bank last year?"
"No, ever since I was a kid, and I devoured all the Nancy Drew books."
"News flash: tonight you're the victim, not the detective," Delphi reminded her.
Isobel waved her off. "Details, details. Don't be such a snob."
"I'm not! This thing doesn't even have a decent plot," Delphi complained. "It's so banal. Judge and his wife, innocent man he put away, his mistress... By the time I kill you out of jealousy - "
"Of course the play is silly." Isobel cut her off. "Peter only made the victim a judge because the guest of honor is one. He says he always tailors the plot to the client." They weaved through the tables to the large window overlooking the park. "But who cares? We're at The Hostelry. Central Park in September - gorgeous. And look up!"
Their eyes moved in tandem to a sapphire-blue glass chandelier that dangled like a courtesan's necklace, mocking the pure-white, wedding-cake froth of molded plaster that adorned the ceiling.
"Would not be out of place in Vegas," Delphi remarked.
"It's not like we had anything better to do on a Saturday night."
Delphi groaned. "Oh, man, that's depressing."
"Besides, you do Shakespeare, I do musicals." Isobel threw her arm around Delphi's shoulder. "When else are we going to get to work together?"
Delphi looked down her nose at Isobel. "So we meet at the lowest common denominator?"
Before Isobel could respond, Peter came striding across the room with the delinquent Andrew trailing him. Long judicial robes dwarfed Andrew's gangly frame, and a frizzy barrister's wig sat askew on his head.
"Guys, come on. I've got five minutes left to stage this shoot-out. Chop, chop!"
Delphi and Isobel wound their way back toward the dance floor.
Isobel jumped out of the way as the woman in the gray suit steadied a water glass. "Oh! Sorry."
The woman's lip curled. "By the way, your friend is right. Your death was ridiculous. This whole thing is ridiculous."
Isobel tugged self-consciously at her stained blouse. "Then why did you hire us?"
The woman sniffed. "I didn't. Maggie did." She tossed her head in the direction of the brunette, who was swishing the skirt of her cocktail dress impatiently as she gave instructions to one of the blue-jacketed waiters. "She's only clerked for him for a year. But I've been Judge Harrison's assistant for fifteen, and I can tell you, he's going to hate this. He takes crime and punishment very seriously."
"It's just entertainment," Isobel protested.
"Isobel!" Peter called.
"Maybe to you," the woman said curtly. "But to Judge Harrison, it's life and death."
"Um, I have to get back to work." Isobel escaped and rejoined Delphi on the dance floor. "Tough room."
Delphi raised a questioning eyebrow, and Isobel gestured to the silver-haired woman, who was taking out her disapproval on a bewildered busboy. But before Isobel could elaborate, Peter clapped his hands.
"Okay. Isobel, Delphi, back to your spots. Andrew, you come storming in from the pavilion at the far end of the room. You rush on and say your line."
"Mitzi. You shot my wife," Andrew said in a monotone.
"Delphi responds..." Peter prompted.
"And now I'm going to shoot you," she said, matching Andrew's robotic delivery.
"Delphi shoots you...bang...then I say my line and shoot Delphi. Delphi hits the ground. Then Andrew, before you fall, you say..."
"I was hoping for a one-shot deal," Andrew droned.
Peter gave an exasperated sigh. "Look, I know you're supposed to be dying, but you gotta be a little livelier than that."
"I'm saving it for the performance," Andrew said flatly.
"Oh, please," Delphi grumbled.
Peter rubbed his eyes wearily. "I know we've got ambient room mics, but that doesn't mean you can go all television on us. I want louder, faster, funnier!"
"I think we can manage louder and faster," Delphi muttered, "but funnier is going to be a stretch."
"All right. Let's run it."
They sped through the finale, pausing briefly to let the drummer and sax player from the hired jazz ensemble pass through, the former balancing a snare drum and the latter clutching two cases. They set down their gear near the window, where the piano was wedged into a space between two giant topiaries. The sax player waved hello to Peter, who was too intent on his actors to notice.
They finished their run-through and were joined by Jemma Rhodes, a curvaceous flame-haired vamp with a delicate heart-shaped mole on her perfect cheekbone, and Tony Callahan, an overweight balding man, who tried to compensate for his overactive sweat glands by caking his pudgy face with powder. Peter introduced his cast to the room, which had seen an exponential increase in waiters and other staff bustling about.
"You've seen her on 'Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,' 'Law and Order: Criminal Intent,' 'Law and Order: Trial by Jury,' and 'iCarly' - Jemma Rhodes!"
Jemma stepped forward and bowed so low her breasts threatened to pop loose from her slinky top. The drummer applauded enthusiastically.
"You've seen her as Constance in King John, unless you don't like Shakespeare, in which case you've never seen her - Delphi Kramer!"
"If you actually say that tonight, I'm keeping the gun," Delphi said through gritted teeth as she bowed.
"You saw him in last year's Fringe Festival production of Regurgitation: The Musical - Andrew Dahl!"
Andrew inched forward awkwardly.
"Saving it for the performance, my ass," Delphi whispered to Isobel.
Andrew wobbled and sat on the nearest chair.
"You might have seen him in the last three Woody Allen movies, but you'd hafta squint pretty hard - Tony Callahan!"
Tony waved at a waiter who, after checking behind him, waved back uncertainly.
"You've seen her in..." Peter paused and turned to Isobel. "Remind me what they've seen you in."
"Despite Popular Demand, an evening of original songs by Hugh Fremont. At Don't Tell Mama," she said, her face growing warm. It wasn't much. Even Delphi's credit was better, but it was all she had. "And I did tons of roles at the University of Wisconsin. Anne in A Little Night Music, Carrie Pipperidge in Carousel - "
"You've seen her on stages all over the Cheese State, which, given her performance this evening is no surprise - Isobel Spice!"
Delphi chuckled. "You're right. It's going to be a blast."
"Shut up," Isobel muttered.
"And I'm Peter Catanzaro. Ladies and gentlemen, your cast from Murder à la Carte!"
They joined hands and bowed toward each section of the room. Maggie, the clerk, smiled at them, but the woman in the gray suit hustled her aside and called out, "Please clear the floor. The cocktail hour is about to start."
Peter turned to his actors and spread his arms wide. "It's showtime, folks!"