Teatime of the Living Dead

Teatime of the Living Dead is a horror/ farce of 70k words.  It’s one of my favorite projects to date.  I love projects where I can combine my 30 years experience working in theatre with writing.

Teatime is available in paperback, Kindle, and through Kindle Unlimited.
Click here to see Teatime’s Amazon page.

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Andrew Hamilton believes in friendship, good theatre, and that Twizzlers are an underrated member of the candy family. He does not believe in magic. His current play is going great, until the actors playing the zombie horde turn homicidal. Zombie madness spreads through the city and the creepers have one thing in common: they all want to kill Andrew. Magic not only exists, it has rules and deadlines. If he can keep ahead of his stumbling and drooling fan club until teatime, he might survive.
They’re coming for you, Andrew.

Amazon reviewer:
“I read a lot. I don’t usually read anything that sounds scary but this just piqued my interest. I read it in one sitting! I had to know what happened next. I was so invested in the characters that I had to finish to see if they made it or not. I truly loved it!!!”

Three chapter excerpt follows:

One

“What the hell do you mean we have to add two zombies to the cast?” The question came out much louder than I intended. I didn’t mean to take it out on Toby…well, yes I did. Toby Blackerby was the marketing director for Actors Theatre. If we had to add two untrained zombies to the cast the day before final dress rehearsal, then it was Toby’s fault. This close to zero hour, I wasn’t in a mood to let him get away with this sort of bullshit. In fact, I’d never had a good mood turn sour so quickly.

“Now, come on Andrew.” Toby raised his hands in a placating gesture which did nothing to stem my growing ire. He might look harmless, sitting across the desk from me in a plaid jacket and a perky bow tie, but this was not the first time this smooth-talking businessman had caused the theatre trouble. Hell, it wasn’t even the first time he had caused me trouble, and he knew it. He was walking on mighty thin ice where I was concerned, and his easy smile and natty bow tie wouldn’t protect him if he pissed me off.

“I’m not asking for a major cast change here,” Toby continued. “All we need is to add two zombies to the horde. You already have thirty in the play. Just dress them up and tell them to follow the other zombies.”

“You went to the dress rehearsal last night, right?” I asked in a deceptively mild voice. Toby made the casting change sound so simple. It was anything but. This was turning into a headache I did not need.

“Yes. I have to say, I didn’t think a theatre could do justice to Night of the Living Dead. What a surprise! When all those zombies started through the audience in the final scene, it looked so real it made me want to run for my life.”

While the compliment was appreciated, I had a point to make. “Let me show you something.”

Standing up, I circled the big metal desk and led Toby to the doorway of my office. I was in luck. The guy who delivered our bottled water was finishing up some paperwork at the reception desk.

“Say, Robbie,” I called out, “act like a zombie for me.”

“Sure thing, Mr. Hamilton.”

I liked Robbie. He was a good kid. He worked hard and had a nice touch with his customers. Robbie stuck his arms straight out in front of him, put a grimace on his face, and walked towards me like a cartoon Frankenstein’s monster. I couldn’t have gotten a better demonstration if I had staged it myself.

“Thanks, Robbie,” I said, and then gave the kid a grateful smile. He had no idea how much easier he had just made my job.

“No problem, Mr. H. Hey, Jessica gave me tickets to opening night. I can’t wait to see the show.”

My secretary was a kind woman. Robbie didn’t make the kind of money that let pricey theatre tickets be a priority, but he was good to the office and deserved our thanks. I should have thought of giving him the tickets myself, but I’d had a lot on my plate with this production. Jessica was a clever and observant assistant. She never has to worry about job security…I don’t know what I’d do without her.

“That’s great, Robbie,” I said, meaning every word. “We’ll see you there.”

As Toby and I went back to my office, Robbie headed for the elevator which would take him to street level and out of the downtown building holding our business offices. After closing the door, I sat behind my desk. This situation was going to be difficult; there was no way around it now. Whatever deal Toby had made was going to cause me trouble. I would take advantage of every outward sign of my authority to get through this conversation. My desk is large and shiny on purpose. When someone sits on the other side of it, they know they are talking to the boss.

“Toby, you saw our zombie horde last night. Did a single one of them act like Robbie?”

“No, of course not. That’s what Zombie University was for, wasn’t it? To teach the folks from the community how to act like zombies?”

No theatre outside of Broadway can afford to cast thirty actors as extras in a play. As was traditional with this production, Actors Theatre had enrolled people from the community in an evening workshop affectionately named “Zombie U.” The townies paid an enrollment fee which helped offset costs of the production and bought them a small theatrical makeup kit. We even had some angels in the city who’d paid tuition for those who couldn’t afford it. It was a good system, and it had been fun as hell to do. If Toby’s cast change had come a month ago instead of during tech week, it would have been dead easy to add two more zombies to the show. They could have attended Zombie University like everyone else.

“Each one of our zombies spent three nights a week for a month learning how to become a zombie. It’s why the show is so creepy. That’s why it looks real. Now, what’s going to happen if I stick two yahoos into the horde who act like Robbie did?”

“They’re going to stick out like a sore thumb, aren’t they?” Toby admitted.

“Ya’ think?” I asked, my tone of voice giving Toby a not-so-subtle hint as to how unhappy I was with this entire idea.

“But Andrew, we have to do it. Bradford and Wendy are local television celebrities. Their involvement will give us so much free publicity we can’t say no. Pre-opening sales have been good, but something like this will sell us out. Both stations have already agreed to some TV spots for the show, as well as a human interest piece with the celebrities themselves. They’ll send cameras to final dress and get some footage of the celebrities at work. We need this.”

Without even thinking about it, my elbow found the edge of my desk and my face found my palm. Television celebrities. TV personalities invading our zombie horde. Nothing against news anchors and the like, they are good at their jobs, but they aren’t often trained as actors. I’d have a harder time whipping them into undead shape than your average person off the street, what with their smooth talk and predisposition to look attractive. Toby was right. We couldn’t say no to this kind of publicity, but I’d be damned before I let these people ruin the play.

“Fine,” I muttered into my hand before lifting my face to look at the ghoul seated across from me. “But these are my conditions. First, you get to go speak to the Rotary Club tomorrow afternoon instead of me, so you better get home and write a speech. Make it a good one…they’re one of our biggest community funders.”

“But Andrew,” Toby began, the stage fright already apparent in his face, “you’re the artistic director. They want to hear you talk.”

“Too bad. Sucks to be you, but I’m going to be busy. I’ve got two new zombies to train and only tomorrow to do it. Which brings me to my second point… if I can’t get two to three hours with these celebrities tomorrow before final dress, they aren’t going on. I don’t care what kind of publicity we are giving up. Set it up and tell me when. Right before dress rehearsal would be preferable.”

“I’ll do my best. But shouldn’t Leslie train them? She’s the director.”

“She’s got too much on her plate already. I helped with Zombie U, if they can be trained at all, I can do it. And now for point three, you get to be the one to break this news to Leslie and Randall. Expect Randall to be pissed, as well he should be. The costume shop has been underwater all week working overtime to get this giant show ready for opening. They’re tired and grumpy, which is understandable with how hard they’ve been working. They’ll be so happy to hear they have to pull two more costumes out of their asses before final dress tomorrow. Speaking of which, better get those people’s measurements to them ASAP.”

“God, Andrew, I’ll talk to Leslie, but please don’t make me talk to Randall.”

I must be pissed off. The fear in my marketing director’s voice was cheering me up. It was the best part of this entire depressing conversation.

“No. This is a good idea for publicity, Toby, but it should have been conceived weeks ago. If you are going to pull last minute stunts like this, I want you to know exactly how much trouble it causes the departments of this theatre.”

Toby was a good man and passionate about his work. With a few more years under his belt, he’d be an asset to our team. However, he came to us from outside the theatre world. The sooner he learned how show business worked, the better off we all would be. Ideas like his sound good on the surface, but they cost time and money to pull off. Time and money we didn’t have when it was the day before final dress rehearsal and two days from opening night.

After Toby left, looking much less enthusiastic about his publicity idea than he did when he opened my office door, I buckled down to do some paperwork. The title of artistic director sounds fancy– I am the driving force behind what direction the theatre takes–but if people knew how much of my work involved fundraising and paperwork, they wouldn’t be jealous. Today, I was hammering out the final negotiations for the royalty rights to the plays we wanted to produce next year.

I’d been hoping we could do Chimerica, but the play was too new and the royalties more than we could afford for that slot in the season. It would have been a fresh piece, but our yearly Festival of New American Plays gained us enough world premieres to cover new shows. If they couldn’t cut us a better deal, Chimerica was off the table. I fashioned an email to that aim and sent it off to NHB. Maybe we would get lucky. If not, I could substitute the older, but still fresh, Boy Meets Girl.

Email sent, I picked up the phone and dialed the costume shop. Toby should have had enough time to break the bad news. Frances Ehrendreich, the shop supervisor, answered on the first ring.

“Has Toby lost his fucking mind?” she asked in lieu of a greeting. I missed the days before caller ID when people would say hello before they yelled at you. I don’t get yelled at often, but this was an unusual situation.

“Is Randall there?”

“Of course he’s here. He’s the designer. Where else would he be two days before we open?”

“Better give him the phone.”

I heard background chatter in the busy costume shop and then the bump of the phone changing hands.

“If Toby pulls another trick like this on me, I’m going to slap his pretty face,” Randall growled. “Cuteness only gets you so far in life.”

“I know this sucks. Toby already got a verbal face slapping from me. His idea is good, hell, it’s more than good, but his timing is rotten.”

“Rotten? We’ve been breaking our backs to get this show finished. At the exact moment that we see the light at the end of the tunnel, we get told it’s a damn train!”

Ah, theatre people. So delightfully dramatic.

“What can I do to help?” I asked. I can’t sew to save my life, but costuming isn’t all about sewing.

“We need two more makeup kits, and I’m busy trying to pull costumes from stock for those television people.”

“I can get them. Tell me what you need.”

“Just stop by the shop on your way out. I’ll write it down,” Randall said. His anger was fading, which let me hear exactly how exhausted he was.

“What else do you need?” I asked, wanting to help as much as I could. I’ve met artistic directors who don’t leap into the fray; people who are content to stay in their posh offices and don’t even know all of their employees names. I’ve never been a member of that club.

“Another pair of hands. Any hands. We have to get the new clothes distressed, and I don’t have a single person to do it. I can show them an example. It’s not hard.”

The zombies’ costumes were heavily distressed, ripped and painted to look tattered and dirty. It was amazing what one could do with paint and scissors.

“I’ll find you someone. You want them today or tomorrow?”

“Better be today, mein Capitan. The paint has to be dry before opening. If you can get someone here fast, we might get it dry in time for dress rehearsal tomorrow.”

Ready for dress would be preferable. We have an audience for final dress, and I didn’t want to ruin their experience by having two zombies wandering around looking like they arrived fresh from the country club. We were lucky our costume storage was in the building’s basement rather than in a warehouse across town as some theatres had to deal with. It would save time. Time was quickly becoming our most precious commodity.

After hanging up the phone, I left my office to talk to Jessica. If I was going to be out shopping for makeup, I could manage without my assistant for a few hours.

“How would you like to do me a favor?” I said in a cheerful voice, gleefully rubbing my hands together.

“You can’t fool me with the chipper act.” Jessica raised one of her eyebrows at me. “What fresh hell do you have planned for me now?”

A flair for the dramatic was not found solely in the production studio. My assistant had it in spades. She also had the questionable ability to find a song about whatever the subject at hand was, and gleefully sing it. She’d cheerfully disrupted many a dry staff meeting by doing exactly that. I never minded, as those meetings could drag on and on. I suspect she pulls this prank just to keep me in good spirits, and I secretly enjoyed it. I don’t tell her, though. She really doesn’t need any encouragement.

“Thanks to our intrepid new marketing director, Randall has to add two costumes to the show. He needs a pair of hands to distress them. He said it wasn’t hard to do and he’ll show you the basics.”

“That sounds rather fun,” Jessica said thoughtfully. “It certainly isn’t as bad as the last time you asked me to help a shop out.”

It had been a stupid decision on my part. While we have talented women who work in sets and props, Jessica and power tools don’t get along. She glared at me for a week after she took the skin off of her fingertip with a belt sander.

Jessica packed up for the day and walked a flight down with me to the costume shop. While the sets and props shop was located in an old warehouse so they had more room to build, the costume shop was in the same building as the business offices and rehearsal halls. It was a sensible placement. While sets can be built away from the stage and trucked in, costumers needed ready access to the actors to make certain the costumes fit properly.

Dropping Jessica at the shop to get her hands-on lesson in distressing clothes, I picked up the list of makeup needed from a harried-looking costume designer and then headed to the parking garage. Caufield’s would have everything we needed and it was down the road at the corner of Main and Tenth. A local novelty and ready-made costume shop, Caufield’s did big business every Halloween. It was also one of the only places in Louisville to get theatrical makeup.

Traffic was a nightmare, but the crisp fall day was pleasant. I found I didn’t mind that it took twice as long to get to the store as I had expected. With the sun shining and a little Mumford and Sons on the radio, even the traffic couldn’t get me down.

I’ve only been to Caufield’s a handful of times, to get gag gifts for bachelor parties or accessories for Halloween costumes. Walking into the corner shop always made me feel like a little kid again. They had everything from Marti Gras beads to plastic vomit, from Santa suits to fake lottery tickets. Now there was an idea. Maybe I should get Toby a fake lottery ticket as a special thank you for his belated publicity fiasco. Seems like his birthday is coming up soon. I’ll have to ask Jessica.

The salesclerk did not recognize me, but she recognized the organization on the tax exempt form.

“You don’t usually shop for Actors,” she said, checking my name against the computer records to make certain I was authorized to use the company’s purchase order. “Everything all right with Frances?”

“She’s fine, just busy. We open Friday night, so she has her hands full.”

Taking my shopping list, the clerk began retrieving the items from the large glass case that did double duty as a service counter. Looking over some of the prices, I could see why they kept these things close to the register. Theatrical makeup does not come cheap.

“I don’t have any more of the Ben Nye bruise color wheels,” the clerk said. “But I can substitute the Mehron. They are a bit cheaper, and honestly, the yellow is better. It’s not as bright and acidic.”

Mehron was a professional brand, so I didn’t mind the change. The bruise color wheels had been Frances’ idea. It was a way to get our zombies some good colors all in one package without it costing us an arm and a leg. The wheels were traditionally used for making an actor look like they had a bruise, but worked equally well for zombie effects. It was just the thing to make sunken eyes and haggard cheeks. The Mehron wheel had black, a dark reddish purple, green, blood red, and a yellow which was indeed less intense than the Ben Nye wheels I had seen. The only real difference was there was no blue, but it shouldn’t be a problem.

“They’ll be fine,” I told the clerk.

She finished gathering what I needed. Tubes of gray and a sickly green base, eye pencils, stipple sponges, and the like. The grand total was pricey, but such is the cost of doing business. I paid for the purchase with a company credit card. Then I used my own money to buy a fake lottery ticket.

Toby had it coming.

By the time I had dropped the makeup off for Randall and headed for my office, it was after six o’clock. An hour past quitting time. I’d have a busy day tomorrow trying to whip two new zombies into shape. I might as well call it a night. Walking into my office to grab my suit jacket, I noticed a cardboard delivery box on my desk. I wasn’t expecting anything, but maybe the scripts for the third show had come in. Since Jessica wasn’t at her desk, the delivery person may have dropped it into the first office he came across.

The package was addressed to me personally, so it wasn’t the scripts. There was no return address and the postmark was local. Curious, I grabbed a letter opener to slit the tape.

A moment later, I dropped the package on the desk with a thump as I took a step back in shock. Creeping back to peek through the flaps again, I found I had not been imagining things. The only item in the box was a dead cat.

 

Two

“Why do you think it isn’t a real postmark?” I asked one of the police officers.

“The color is off and they misspelled the name of our fine city. They must have been in a hurry if they didn’t run a spell check before printing a fake label.”

One of the theatre’s security guards, Carl, leaned in with me to take another look at the fake mailing label. Sure enough, it read “Loisville.” Carl had to peer at the package for a moment as his eyesight isn’t what it used to be. He’s an older gentleman, like most of our security staff from Brinks. It’s not their job to accost hooligans directly, but to keep an eye on things and phone the police when necessary. Carl had taken one glance at my unpleasant gift and called in the authorities.

“Did you notice anyone suspicious come into the building?” I asked Carl.

“No, I was doing rounds. The new receptionist was at the entrance on the ground level. To be honest, anyone with a clipboard and a delivery hat could walk right in by acting like they know where they’re going. This isn’t the most secure building and that’s a fact.”

He was right. While many parts of the theater building had doors with keypads which required access codes, during office hours, all one had to do was walk through the main entrance and hop on the elevator to access the business offices. I was not in the habit of locking my office during the day. Maybe I should be.

“Any idea who might have done this, Sir?” One of the officers waved a hand at the box on my desk.

“I have an idea,” I admitted. “But it’s a hunch. I have no proof at all.”

“Even if it’s just a hunch, you’d better tell us.” The taller officer made a note on his smartphone. “We can put it in the report, so if they try something funny, there will be a record of past issues.”

Issues. Such a civilized word for a dead cat.

“There was a woman I went on a date with last month,” I began to explain.

“It’s always a woman, isn’t it?” The tall policeman waggled his eyebrows at me and then chuckled.

I did not care for the sexist comment, but I decided not to argue the point with an officer of the law who was trying to help me. One must choose one’s battles. The same woman that instilled in me a respect for other people, regardless of race or gender, also taught me about choosing battles. My mother was an exceptional person.

“The woman I went on a date with goes by the name of Raven Starlight,” I continued. “She’s odd. Dresses like a cosplay witch from Harry Potter. Has a fake British accent. Talked all night about being a witch and doing magic.”

“One of them Wiccans?” Officer Sexist said, rolling his eyes.

“I don’t think so. I have had several employees who are pagan, and all of them are quite sensible people.”

The officer had confused me. I don’t understand what religion has to do with any of this. Being an atheist, I don’t understand why people both turn to and hide behind religion at all. It seems like a bunch of excuses to me. My life depends on me, not some dude standing on a cloud behind pearly gates. My mind was wandering. Well, finding a dead cat on one’s desk will do that to a person.

“If you don’t mind my asking,” the shorter officer gestured at me with the hand holding his cell phone, “why did you ask the woman out if she was so weird?”

“I didn’t. She won a date with me at the theatre’s fundraiser at the beginning of the season.”

I’m still pissed at Toby for the auction. Yes, the fundraiser was a breadwinner, but the hour I spent at dinner in a nice restaurant with Raven-the-faux-witch was hell. Sticking my hand in my right trouser pocket, I touched the fake lottery ticket and had to suppress a smile. Your time will come, Toby. Oh, yes it will.

Perhaps I was a bit overly dramatic myself. Working in the theatre does that to a person.

“And why do you think this woman might be behind the package?” the shorter officer asked.

“She caused me trouble here at work after the date. Called me at least twenty times a day…my assistant had to screen my calls. Then Raven showed up in person twice.”

“I had to ask her to leave the last time she was here,” Carl added. “She started spouting some nonsense about her and the boss here being soul mates. Got angry when the boss explained it was just a charity thing, and he wasn’t looking for a girlfriend.”

While I actually am in the market for a girlfriend, the Raven option was not even on the table. The woman acted as if she had serious mental delusions. Not the sort of thing I was looking for in a relationship. My life as an theatrical artistic director was fantastical enough.

“Some people would have called the police at that point,” Officer Sexist said.

“She left when Carl arrived. The phone calls stopped. To be honest, I thought the situation with her was over. Then the cat showed up. I can’t prove it was her, but she is the only person in my life who seems unstable enough to leave a dead cat here addressed to me.”

“There’s isn’t much we can do in this situation other than write up a report.” The short policeman with the phone made a few more notes on it. “If anything else out of the ordinary happens, or if the woman shows up again, call the police. If that Raven woman did this, then she’s gone from stalking behavior to violence, and she could be dangerous. In the meantime, don’t take chances. Lock your doors at night and so forth.”

“Excellent advice,” I said, mentally hoping the situation wouldn’t come to that. “I’ll be sure to call if I have any further trouble.”

The police officers left soon after, and Carl kindly took the grisly package to the dumpster to dispose of it. A glance at the clock showed me it was after eight. Time to go home, grab some dinner, and make sure my windows and doors were all locked. Good times.

It had been a long and difficult day. Once home, I felt too tired to do much of anything about dinner. Peanut butter sandwiches and a cold beer. Welcome to the bachelor life. I think what had most bothered me about the entire Raven situation was that I would love to have someone to share my life with. Not her, of course. Never her. I’ve been single for three years now. The problem isn’t the will, it’s the time. Being the senior person of a business takes time and work. At the end of the day, there isn’t much opportunity for meeting new people. I scowled at my second peanut butter sandwich, wondering what it would be like to have a nice dinner waiting for me when I got home. I’m not looking for a woman to be my house slave, my mom taught me better than that. It’s the partnership that entices me. Having someone at home to take care of you when you have to work late, and then being the person who does the same when the tables are turned. Someone you can count on, who would miss you and worry about you if you didn’t show up on time. If you were delayed, for example, by someone leaving a dead cat on your desk.

My melancholy mood was interrupted by the ringing of my cell phone. Fumbling it out of my pocket, I flung it to the floor before I could answer it. A peek at the caller ID told me Jessica was calling.

“Sorry, Jessica,” I said when I answered. I may not like caller ID, but it doesn’t keep me from using it to my advantage. “I dropped the phone.”

“I’m sorry to call you at home at this hour,” Jessica began. “I wanted you to know I’m going to be late in the morning. Mr. Darcy is missing, and I want to put up some fliers. He’s gotten out before, so I’m not too worried. But I’ll feel better if I do the fliers.”

It took me a long moment to remember who Mr. Darcy was. He wasn’t a person…he was Jessica’s cat. A friendly cat that was the same smoky gray as the one I found dead in a cardboard box. I was now convinced this entire situation was Raven’s work. Jessica had been the one who protected me from the onslaught of telephone calls after my faux date with the madwoman, a fact that may have angered Raven to the point of retaliation.

“Jessica, are you alone, or is your son still visiting?”

“Jay? No, he was only here for last weekend. He’s gone back to school now.”

“Do me a favor, check and make sure all of your doors and windows are locked, and then wait for me. Don’t open the door for anyone else. I’m coming over.”

“Andrew, what’s going on?” she asked, her voice resonant with fresh worry.

“I’ll explain when I get there. Lock the doors.”

After her promise to check the locks, I put my second sandwich in the trash and poured out my half-finished beer. Double checking my own locks, I peered around the dimly lit street as I walked to my car. The Germantown area of Louisville has a few houses with driveways, but mine is not one of them. I have never before felt afraid in my quiet neighborhood. Thanks to a crazy stalker, I was worried now. At five foot ten and fairly fit, I could handle myself in a crisis. Despite this, my pace quickened as I neared the car and hurried to get inside, locking the doors almost as soon as my butt hit the car seat.

Finding a dead cat and delivering it was one thing. Breaking into my assistant’s house, killing her cat, and boxing it up was an entirely different level of crazy. One I did not want to meet alone in the middle of the night, no matter how manly I was.

The drive to Jessica’s house in Butchertown was a short one. I didn’t have much time to worry about how I was going to break the news. I knew it would hit her hard. Jessica has two photographs on her desk in matching frames. One was of her son who studied pre-law at Indiana University. The other was Mr. Darcy.

Her face was pale as she let me in the door and locked it behind me.

“Andrew, what’s going on?”

“Come sit down with me,” I said, taking her hand and leading her over to the sofa. There were already tears in her eyes waiting to fall. She was a smart woman. She knew I had only bad news to share.

“Just tell me.” Her voice was strong despite the unshed tears.

I took both her hands in mine before I began. “When I got back from Caufield’s, there was a package on my desk. I don’t know how or why, but it had a dead cat in it. I didn’t make the connection to how much it looked like Mr. Darcy until you called me.”

“It was that crazy bitch, wasn’t it?” Jessica demanded, the moisture in her eyes beginning to run down her cheeks. “That Harry Potter bitch who keeps bothering you.”

Jessica began weeping in earnest. I gathered her into a hug and held her while she cried. A single mom with her only child gone to college, she had adopted the cat for company. She doted on it like a mother with a new baby. I might not be a cat person, but I can understand why my coworker and friend would grieve for her pet as if it were a lost child. Hell, I had liked the cat as well. He was such a friendly thing, always coming to me for a snuggle and a belly rub when Jessica had me over for dinner now and again. I hated having to bring her this news and, at this moment, I hated Raven Starlight.

“I’m so sorry, Jessica,” I said when she, at last, stopped crying and slipped from my arms. “I know how much Mr. Darcy meant to you.”

“He was such a good boy…so gentle and funny. I don’t understand people. I don’t understand how anyone could hurt such a helpless baby.”

Tears started in her eyes again, but she blinked them away. For my sake, I’m certain. I expect she’d have a long cry when she could get rid of me, but I wasn’t willing to leave her alone when a crazy woman had killed her pet.

“About coming in late tomorrow–”

“Obviously I don’t need to put up fliers,” she interrupted. “I can come to work on time. Are you sure it was Mr. Darcy?”

“I know Mr. Darcy, Jessica. It had the same white spot under its chin and the same white front foot. But you misunderstood me. I don’t want you to come in tomorrow at all. In fact, I want you to take a week off.”

“Andrew, I’m going to miss my sweet boy, but I don’t have to take a whole week off of work. It’s almost opening night. You’re going to need help.”

“It’s not about Mr. Darcy. I think you were right. I think that woman, Raven Starlight, did this. The police can’t be much help unless she tries to hurt one of us, but I’m not willing to wait. I’d like you to take a week off and get out of this house. Go to Bloomington to see your son, or up to Indy to visit your dad. If that woman is brazen enough to steal and kill your cat, we can’t imagine what else she’s capable of. I want you out of the line of fire for a week. I’ll manage without you.”

“That Raven woman must be pissed about me not letting her talk to you on the phone.”

“Probably so. But you were doing your job, brilliantly I might add. It’s not your fault a crazy woman took offense to us. I’ve spoken to the police. If she tries anything else, I’ll speak to them again. Hopefully, this will blow over by the time you get back.”

I didn’t want to leave until Jessica was packed and in her car–not with the threat of a crazy cat-killing woman hanging over us. While she threw a bag together, I sat on the sofa with my phone. The cell phone wielding officer had left me his phone number, and encouraged me to contact him if I discovered anything else. By the time I had sent a text message to mention the dead cat belonged to a friend and coworker, Jessica was ready to go.

I carried her bag to the car and waved to her as she drove away. Back in my own car, I sent a text to Carl the security guy as well. Jessica had left as I suggested, but I knew she would not want a beloved pet thrown out in a dumpster. Carl assured me he would retrieve Mr. Darcy, wrap him up, and keep him refrigerated until Jessica returned to town. I wasn’t too happy about having a dead cat in one of the theatre’s refrigerators, but it was the best I could do. I thanked Carl, and then I headed back home to get some sleep.

The text message alert on my phone went off as I locked my front door. It was Toby rather than the police officer. The only time he could get our celebrities in for a crash course in zombie acting was at seven o’clock in the morning. There’s nothing like having to go to work early after a hellishly long day. I guess it sucks to be me.

Three

“I don’t understand why we have to go through this rigmarole,” Bradford complained in a voice that was both loud and smooth. “I mean, it’s not like Wendy and I aren’t already actors.”

I was having trouble taking the man seriously. His voice sounded like a dead ringer for Will Ferrell in Anchorman, only this guy was serious. At least zombies don’t talk. There’s no way I could fit this dude into the cast if he had a speaking role in the play.

“Even a seasoned veteran has to brush up on their skills from time to time,” I said, trying to hide my weariness and frustration. “Our other zombies have spent weeks training for this, but I told Toby that two talented people like you and Wendy could pick it up in a couple of hours.”

Don’t mess with me. I talk rich people out of their money for a living. Mr. Ferrell here doesn’t stand a chance.

“Can we start again?” Wendy asked, blinking at me. “I think I’m starting to get the hang of it.”

Wendy was my star pupil of the day. She was cooperative and focused–everything Bradford was not. I’d be happier about her involvement if I didn’t suspect she was only trying to get into my pants. Her blinking coy act was annoying. I was in Louisville Magazine last year as one of the top ten bachelors in the city. I was surprised, but Jessica reminded me I make good money and I’m a successful playwright with a Tony award. Ever since then, an array of women has been batting their eyes at me. I didn’t let it turn my head. I prefer a woman who is more interested in me than my wallet. I certainly could be wrong, but Wendy was showing all the signs of a status chaser…the last thing I need in my life.

“All right then,” I said, rubbing my hands briskly together. “Start walking around in a circle. Imagine it’s a bright and sunny day, and you are taking a walk by the river.”

Both of my new students began walking in a circle around me. Wendy showed promise, looking around herself as if she was seeing a view, and shading her face with one hand against sunlight that didn’t exist in the rehearsal hall we worked in. Bradford trudged along, not doing anything with the direction he was given. The exercise was to get a person thinking about how they moved. It was the easiest way to transform people into zombies.

“Now it’s starting to rain,” I said. “You’re far from your car, and you don’t want to be caught in a thunderstorm. What does that look like?”

Bradford continued to trudge for a moment. Then Wendy passed him as she mimed hurrying to her car. I might not like the shallow flirting, but I had to admit the newswoman was doing a good job. She even had her hands over her hair to protect it from the rain. Bradford took one look at Wendy and began making more of an effort. He walked faster and hunched his shoulders. Ah, so the man was competitive. I could use his ambition to my advantage.

“Excellent work, Wendy,” I praised. “I can almost see the rain.”

Bradford looked mulish for a moment and then mimed hailing a taxi.

“That’s the spirit, Bradford, well done. Unfortunately, there are no taxis in sight…you’ll have to keep walking.”

The man looked ridiculously smug at this, but he kept walking. We’d now gone farther in the exercise than we had managed in our first two interrupted attempts.

“It’s raining so hard that you can hardly see,” I narrated. “You don’t fall down, but you slip on a wet curb and sprain your left ankle. What does that look like? You can hear the thunder from the storm, you have to keep going, but your ankle hurts so much you fear it might be broken. How does that look?”

Wendy and Bradford were both stepping forward with their right foot and then dragging their left. Their pace had slowed, and Wendy had a pained expression on her face.

“In the driving rain, you can’t see a telephone pole on your right, and you slam your elbow into it so hard that your entire arm goes numb.”

Wendy was smart as a whip. Her right arm immediately went slack, and it swung back and forth as she struggled to keep walking. Bradford hunched forward again and cradled his right arm in his left. Not as flashy a choice as Wendy’s, but a valid one. This was the magic moment. One minute they were people walking, now they both looked like the creeping undead. I slipped my phone out of my pocket and shot a short video.

“Well done,” I praised in my best pleased-teacher voice. I didn’t have to fake the tone. This precise moment when all the elements click and everything works was why I got into theatre in the first place. “You can stop and take a break. Grab a cup of coffee if you want, and join me at the table.”

They smiled and laughed like schoolchildren let out for recess. Bradford headed for the coffee maker and Wendy got a bottle of water from her tote bag. When they joined me at the table, they were still grinning, and I smiled back at them.

“Excellent work. Now I want to show you both something.”

Holding my phone so we could all see the screen, I played the video I had taken at the beginning of our rehearsal. I’d asked them flat out to act like zombies, and they had both reacted in Robbie fashion with raised arms and slow walks. When the clip ended, I started the video of the two celebrities walking at the end of the rain exercise.

“Do you see the difference?” I looked at both their faces and was rewarded with expressions that looked like the light of understanding turning on.

“Say, we look like zombies straight out of a movie in the second clip,” Bradford said, and then grinned.

Good. I was tired, and this would go much easier without half of my class fighting me at every turn.

“I had no idea this was what you were doing,” Wendy said, blinking at me again.

Ignoring the flirting, I slipped into lecture mode. “The way to make a zombie portrayal look real is to have a back story of some sort. I fed you a back story in the exercise we just ran, and you both gave me a realistic portrayal. In a play, we don’t want all the zombies to walk around like sleepwalkers, but we also don’t want them all walking around with broken left ankles and numb right arms. It wouldn’t look realistic. Our next exercise is to build back stories which are individual to each of you. My first question for both of you is how did you die?”

“What do you mean how did I die?” Bradford had an almost comical look of puzzlement on his face. He might be cooperating, but he remained thick. “Didn’t my zombie just crawl out of a grave somewhere?”

“Not in Night of the Living Dead,” I began to explain. “Each zombie movie has its own set of rules. Its own mythology, if you will. In Living Dead, corpses don’t rise from the grave, only people who recently died or were killed by the zombies become undead. For example, your zombie might have been killed by another zombie. Or you may have swerved off the road to avoid a zombie and crashed into a tree, or had a heart attack from fright. Does that make sense?”

“I get it,” Wendy said immediately. “Say I was in the hospital with a heart attack and I coded. Then I would reanimate even though my death had nothing to do with the zombies at all. Right?”

“Exactly.” She really was clever. If she didn’t keep looking at me like I was a piece of meat in the butcher’s case, I might be tempted to ask her to dinner. “Now, here’s a worksheet the other zombies have filled out about their back story. Take a few minutes to complete them from your zombie’s point of view, and I’ll be right back. Remember, keeping it simple is a good way to begin. For example, it’s fine to be Bradford who is a news anchor. Then you only have to decide how you died.”

That said, I left them busily writing in the rehearsal hall and stepped out for a quick break. I nodded to the workers I passed and then barricaded myself in my office. Now, who was being dramatic? I left the lights off and shut the door. It was the only barricade I needed from my coworkers. A little light filtered through the blinds on the window and it was enough to see by. All I wanted to do was lean back in my comfy chair and not think about zombies for a few minutes.

I ended up thinking about Raven Starlight instead, which was hardly restful. I’m a problem solver. It’s one of the reasons I’m excellent at my job. Raven was a problem I couldn’t solve by myself. The woman was insane and she had fixated on me based on one dinner she won at a fundraising auction. I didn’t know how to even think about that situation, let alone solve it. It was ridiculous to sit around waiting for her to do something I could take to the police, but I didn’t have a choice. I had no fear of her personally. She was a small woman. When I took her to dinner, she had come across as flaky but harmless. I have spent my entire career around actors and theatre enthusiasts. A woman who enjoyed dressing in costume every day was odd, but not shocking to me. I’ve met people who embraced the Goth life, and even a few who went about day to day dressed as pirates. The constant chatter about doing magic is what made me think Raven was unhinged. She had no grasp of reality, but I hadn’t thought her dangerous. Shows what I know.

Opening the middle drawer of my desk, I automatically reached for an energy shot to keep me going through a long day with little sleep the night before. I almost put my hand on the thing before I saw it. Snatching my hand back, I stared into the drawer for a long moment. It appeared that Jessica’s dead cat was not the only gift Raven had left for me when she visited my office the day before.

I wasn’t sure what it was at first. I turned on my desk lamp and gingerly grabbed the bottom edge of the drawer to pull it out farther, careful not to touch the object. It looked like a ball made of vines, similar to those grapevine wreaths you see at craft stores only it was spherical. Most of it had been smeared in mud or clay, but there were a few open places in the weave. There was something inside the ball, glinting dully. Rocks maybe. It looked harmless enough, but I refrained from touching it for another reason.

It smelled like shit. No, less like shit and more like something dead, or rotten eggs. Sulfur. That was it. My brother and I used to make cannons out of tin cans and sulfur when we were little. It smelled exactly like this. The stench from my desk drawer was overpowering. So much so, that I should have smelled it the moment I walked into my office. In fact, I should have smelled it yesterday. Did she leave it here yesterday, or had she gotten into my office again?

I considered contacting the police, but what would I tell them? Hello, Officer, someone left a stink bomb made of twigs inside my desk. Not going to happen. As much as I didn’t want to touch the damned thing, I had to get it out of my office. My nose was threatening to rebel. Picking up the small trash can next to my desk, I used a pen to try to fish the ball out of my drawer and into the can.

Instead of a clean shot, the reeking stick ball thing rolled off the edge of the drawer and brushed my left hand as it fell into the trashcan. My bad luck continued as the brief contact was enough to give me a splinter from the vines. It stung so much I almost stuck my finger in my mouth before I remembered that I had no idea what this thing was made of.

Tying the top of the plastic bag into a knot cut off most of the stench. I took the bag to the break room and tossed it in the garbage can there. The break room trash was emptied daily because of leftover food being dumped in it, so the stink ball would be disposed of in a timely manner. I then went to the restroom to wash my hands. The stinging stopped, but I didn’t find a splinter. Strange.

By the time I returned to the rehearsal hall, Wendy and Bradford were done with their worksheets and chatting amiably. They did not seem to mind that I had been gone longer than expected, but I didn’t want to waste their time or mine by drawing this out more than necessary.

“Let’s take a look and see what we have,” I said as I sat down and gathered their worksheets. “Bradford, I see here that you were killed when a bus ran over your legs. Now, this could certainly work, but it would entail you dragging yourself across the stage just using your arms. Did you want to do something so physical?”

“Oh, I hadn’t thought of that. I work out. I could do it easy.”

“We could use you on the stage proper if that’s what you want to do. But you wouldn’t be able to go through the audience like a lot of the horde does. It seems a shame to have a celebrity in the horde and not have them go through the audience.”

“Yeah. I want to go through the audience. So, what can we do?”

I considered this a moment before I spoke. “How about this. Say you died by getting hit by a car. Instead of smashing your legs, it hit your torso and threw you into the air. How about a spine injury? It would look good, but keep you where the audience can see you.”

Standing up, I demonstrated what I meant. I walked slowly, and let my upper torso sway and jerk around with the movement.

“Oh, I like that,” Bradford said, his voice louder with excitement.

Getting to his feet, he joined me in a short walk, mimicking what I was doing. He wasn’t half bad. He could follow direction well when he understood the why behind the what. Bradford might have had a chance at being my star pupil if he hadn’t been so stubborn in the beginning.

When we had finished, I sat back down and took a look at Wendy’s worksheet. She had been thorough, and detailed both a specific cause of death as well as the physical outcome.

“Looks good to me,” I said. “Let’s see it in action.”

There was much to be said for a good back story. The meteorologist walked slowly and bumped into things as if she could not see well. Her head flopped on her broken neck and her hands continued the act she had been doing at the time of death, a jerking parody of washing.

“No advice for you, Wendy. It looks excellent. Now, do you have a fitting scheduled with the costume shop?”

“A fitting?” Bradford remained a bit slow on the uptake.

“Yes, a costume fitting. So you can try your costume on and make sure it fits.”

“We do, but not until right before final dress,” Wendy said. “Randall said they’d need until then for the paint to dry.”

“But we’re to go down to the shop when we finish here, so we can see what we’re wearing.” Bradford sounded pleased to have something to add to the conversation.

“Good, good. You two should do fine. I’ll speak to the stage manager, and we’ll find you other zombies to follow tonight. That way, you just stick with them and you don’t have to memorize blocking.”

“What’s blobking?” Bradford looked puzzled again. He really wasn’t the smartest man I have ever met, but he had a good attitude once he understood what was going on. I’m not usually so judgmental, but I hadn’t gotten nearly enough sleep the day before. I shouldn’t be so hard on the guy.

Blocking refers to the physical direction in the play. The director decides who will stand where and what they will physically be doing during the play.”

“I didn’t realize it was so complicated,” Bradford admitted.

“It can be, depending on the needs of the show. This show is complicated. There are the main actors, a zombie horde, stage fighting…it’s a show that is fairly physically demanding. In addition to finding you a fellow zombie to follow, one of the dressers for the show is going to help you with your makeup. We will make everything as easy for you as possible.”

“Isn’t Randall going to do it?” Bradford was literally scratching his head by this time. “I thought he did the costumes.”

“Randall designed the costumes, but he doesn’t help backstage. The dressers for the show stay backstage during a performance and help people with fast changes, wigs, and makeup. It’s their job, and they excel at it. You’ll be in good hands.”

I guided them to the costume shop shortly after this, content they would fit into the zombie horde well enough. They were only doing final dress and opening night performances. It was more a publicity stunt than anything. After opening night, the horde could go back to normal. Though I had to admit, our local celebrities had risen to the occasion. They could have managed the rest of the run with little trouble. Despite the bad timing, this publicity stunt had been a good idea. There might be ways we could take advantage of it in other productions. We had a silent auction as a fundraiser in October. Maybe we could auction off one of the smaller roles in A Christmas Carol. The poulterer is a small role with only a couple of lines, but they get tons of attention when they sell the turkey to Scrooge. Getting a chance to go onstage in an actual production might appeal to the people bidding at the auction. Or maybe we could find a spot for another local television personality in one of the other shows.

A glance at my watch, and I saw I had little time to get to my lunch meeting. Toby is on the hook for the speech to the Rotary Club, but I still have to meet the head of the Louisville Fund for the Arts. At least my parking space is at the bottom of the parking garage and I don’t have to spend ten minutes winding down the narrow old building. Being the artistic director has its privileges as well as its headaches.

I was nearly late to my meeting. I walked up to the door of Toast seconds before Conny. She’s the wife of a friend I knew back when he was an actor and I was a playwright for the Humana Festival. Meetings with the previous head of the Fund for the Arts used to be a drag, but since she took over the chair, they have been pleasant as well as effective.

We chatted as we looked over the menu. Toast on Market is one of my favorite Louisville eateries. I love any restaurant slinging breakfast at all times, and this place had good breakfast. It’s mostly your usual fare, but they’ve got a talented chef and it’s a bit more upscale than your average breakfast joint. A young man with a plaid tie and a fin haircut took our order. Once he brought our drinks and left, we got down to business, discussing the upcoming season and the theatre’s funding needs for the next year. Conny is easy to talk to, and we joked and laughed as we worked. After lunch, we parted ways and I walked to where I’d parked my car.

Only my car, my beautiful navy blue Audi, was gone.

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