Cindy Brown is a theater geek, mystery lover, and professional writer who recently combined her passions to produce madcap mysteries set in the off, off, off Broadway world of theater, published by the award-winning Henery Press. Macdeath (nominated for an Agatha for best debut novel!) The Sound of Murder, and Oliver Twisted all star Ivy Meadows, actress and part-time PI, who’s “sort of a Nancy Drew Barrymore” (Broadway.com).
Cindy and her husband live in Portland, Oregon, though she made her home in Phoenix, Arizona, for more than 25 years and knows all the good places to hide dead bodies in both cities. She’d love to connect with readers at cindybrownwriter.com (where they can sign up for her Slightly Silly Newsletter) or on Facebook or Twitter.
© Cindy Brown 2015
Excerpt from Chapter 11
When Ivy Meadows lands a gig with the book-themed cruise line Get Lit!, she thinks she’s died and gone to Broadway. Not only has she snagged a starring role in a musical production of Oliver Twist, she’s making bank helping her P.I. uncle investigate a string of onboard thefts, all while sailing to Hawaii on the S.S. David Copperfield.
But Ivy is cruising for disaster. Her acting contract somehow skipped the part about aerial dancing forty feet above the stage, her uncle Bob is seriously sidetracked by a suspicious blonde, and–oh yeah, there’s a corpse in her closet.
Forget catching crooks. Ivy’s going to have a Dickens of a time just surviving.
I had a couple hours before afternoon rehearsal for Oliver! At Sea!, so I finished the last few chapters of Oliver Twist, did my regular routine of core exercises on my bunk, and grabbed a late lunch at one of the buffets.
The line at Food, Glorious Food was too long, so I scurried to The Best of Days, Wurst of Days sausage bar and ate a big portion of Toad in the Hole, which was actually very tasty, sausages in some sort of batter. Then I headed to rehearsal. I wanted to be there early.
Jonas was there too, sitting in the front row of the theater. “Hey,” I said.
“Hey.” Jonas turned to greet me with a smile, which dimmed immediately. “I thought Martin was going to fix your hair.”
“He did. He fixed it nice and short and gave me this wig.”
Jonas gave me a dubious onceover.
“Nancy is supposed be a mess,” I said.
“Not that much of a mess.”
“Don’t worry, honey.” Timothy had come up behind me. “Wig styling is one of my many talents, along with—”
“Good,” Jonas cut him off just in time. Timothy had a famously dirty mind. Then Jonas said something else that was drowned out by a tsunami of noise as a pack of boys raced into the theater.
“Ready for rehearsal, Master Bates,” said the tow-headed leader of the group.
“Master Bates! Master Bates!” cried his followers.
“Oliver, I asked you not to call me that,” said Jonas Bates.
“But it’s your name, and besides, the Dick-Meister said it.” Oliver looked to be about eleven, with blonde curls and a snub nose.
“Dickens also killed off little children with impunity.”
“But only the nice ones,” replied Oliver. “I’m safe.”
“He did hang the criminals.” Jonas said to Oliver. “Onstage, everyone.” The boys leapt onstage.
“The new sea urchins,” Timothy said, sinking down into a theater seat. He patted the one next to him. “You can relax. This usually takes a while.”
While Jonas tried to herd the boys onstage, Timothy explained the set-up. As I knew, in Oliver Twist, the innocent orphaned Oliver ran away from a cruel master. Upon making his way to London, he was befriended by a street boy named the Artful Dodger, who took him to the home of Fagin, a villainous but friendly-seeming fellow who headed up a gang of juvenile criminals, all orphans too. The difficulty with mounting any production of Oliver Twist was the large percentage of children needed to play Fagin’s boys.
“So Get Lit! has this genius idea,” said Timothy. “They cast professionals for the roles of Oliver and the Dodger—David over there plays the Dodger.” He waved to a silent black-haired kid with a battered top hat who stood at the side of the stage, watching the action. “And to families with boys between the ages of nine and fourteen, they offer a deal: The kids get to cruise free if they agree to be in the show. It’s brilliant. Get Lit! gets a cast for almost nothing, families with boys compete for the few slots available, and their friends and extended families sign up for a paid cruise in order to see their darlings onstage. There’s just one problem.”
“Boys!” yelled Jonas. “You exit stage left. Stage LEFT.”
“They don’t have to have any acting experience?” I said as boys ran every which way.
“However did you guess?” said Timothy.
Jonas ran his hand through his hair. “God bless us…Everyone! Let’s run it again.”
After about an hour, Jonas had worked a small miracle. The boys had made it through their introductory scene and their first musical number, where Fagin taught Oliver how to steal from passersby. “You’ve got to lift a locket, or two, boy,” sang Timothy. “You’ve got to lift a locket or two.”
While waiting, I kept an eye out for suspects in Harley’s death, but didn’t come up with anything viable. Murder by a pack of marauding orphans seemed unlikely.
Finally I made my way backstage to get ready for my entrance. My first scene consisted of a song and a few lines to establish my character. Nancy was the original prostitute with a heart of gold, who belonged to Fagin’s stable and to her brooding criminal boyfriend, Bill Sikes. She was also Oliver’s protector, which got her killed in the end. She helped keep Oliver away from Fagin so the boy could have the chance to live a regular, non-criminal life. But her interference infuriated the old villain, who wreaked his revenge by telling Sikes that Nancy had turned informant. Outraged, Sikes beat her to death. Offstage, of course.
In the blackout (quick lights out) before my first scene, Jonas said, “Alright, Nancy. We’ve changed the blocking from what’s in the script. You and Fagin enter from slightly upstage, like you’ve come in from a different room. Hu’s on first.”
“Who’s on first?”
“The guy playing…”
The kid playing the Dodger tapped me on the shoulder. “I’m Hu.”
And I was really confused. “Okay,” I said anyway. The lights came up and the Dodger swaggered onstage followed by a wide-eyed Oliver. Timothy and I moved a few feet upstage in the wings to wait for our entrance.
“Welcome to our ’umble abode,” said Hu, doffing his hat to Oliver. “The ’spectable old genlem as lives ’ere will give you lodgings for nothing, as long as I interduces you.”
“He must be very kind,” said Oliver.
“Enter now, Fagin and Nancy,” Jonas shouted over the intro music.
We did, arm in arm and laughing as if we’d just enjoyed a great joke.
“Ah,” Fagin said as he spotted Oliver. “And who have we ’ere?”
“A new pal. Oliver Twist,” replied the Dodger. Recorded music began to play.
“We are very glad to see you, Oliver, very,” said Fagin. “Aren’t we, Nance?”
“We are indeed,” I said, trying to sound like a Cockney putting on a posh accent.
“Indeed,” said the Dodger, whose accent was much more believable than mine. He started off the song. “Consider yourself…onboard.” He sang it to the tune of, yep, “Consider Yourself” from Oliver! “Consider yourself…one of the barnacles.” A smooth-cheeked Asian boy, he had a strong tenor voice and a pitch-perfect Cockney accent.
“You don’t have to stow…away,” I sang. “It’s true, you…have landed a place to stay.”
Fagin put his arm around Oliver and sang, “Consider yourself…shipshape. Consider yourself… one of our happy gang.”
The blonde boy looked up at Fagin with doe eyes and sang, “It’s true that I’m in…your debt.”
“Not yet, but, whatever you take, we get,” sang Fagin.
I knew this number was about Oliver’s introduction to Fagin’s stable of young criminals, but still, I wasn’t sure it was the smartest choice for a theft-plagued cruise line. We finished the song and Jonas said, “Hold it. Nice job, Ivy. Let’s take five. When we come back, we’ll put the rest of the orphans into the scene.”
“Don’t worry, the boys just stand there during our song,” said the Dodger as we exited stage left. “By the way,” he stuck out a hand, “I’m David Hu.”
“Jonas and David like that Hu joke. I don’t get it,” said the blonde boy. “I’m Oliver. It’s my character name and my real name. What’s yours?”
“Right.” The kid laughed.
Jonas joined our group. “Ivy,” he said. “I wanted to apologize about yesterday. I wouldn’t have pushed you so hard if I’d known about Harley.”
“Did you know her well?” I asked.
“I didn’t, but…” He glanced at David, who pulled in his bottom lip.
“She was nice,” David said.
“What’s wrong with Madame De-fart?” Oliver asked.
“She’s dead,” said Timothy.
“Dead?” said Oliver. “She’s dead as a doornail!” he shouted to the orphan actors. Then to me, “It’s Dickens.”
“It’s also Shakespeare,” I said. “And not a very nice thing to say when someone’s really dead.”
“No wonder you were distracted,” Jonas said to me. “It had to be horrible, finding her.”
“Is she in the morgue now?” asked Oliver. “Hey boys, want to see a dead body?” Before us adults could say anything, he added, “Kids saw dead people in Dickens all the time.”
I ignored Oliver. “It was horrible,” I said to Jonas, “especially not knowing if her killer was still close by.”
“Her killer?” said, oh, the entire cast. “She was murdered?”