Staged for Death: Excerpt

     My acting debut (and subsequent arrest for murder) traced back to a meeting with my advisor the first day of classes at Hofstra College. Once I looked back, I realized I should have known nothing I planned that day would turn out as expected.

     I dashed from my apartment to the parking lot—late as usual—and glanced up at the overcast sky, something the weatherman missed in his forecast the night before. He also predicted light breezes. Nope, the brisk, cold wind felt slightly damp, too, which clinched the weather’s defiance of predictability.

     “No sunny skies and pleasant temperatures,” I mumbled to myself. “So much for accuracy in weather science.” I pulled my suit jacket tighter and stepped off the curb to my parked car. I stopped suddenly and stared at my little Triumph. It listed toward the front right on an extremely flat tire.

     “Blast and bother! This I do not need.”

     I unlocked the car door and yanked it open, dropped my large shoulder bag into the passenger seat, removed my jacket, and proceeded to get the jack and the spare out of the trunk. I carefully knelt on the rough, cold concrete—I was in my best suit for an interview—and went to work. I spent the next fifteen minutes in a wrestling match with several inanimate objects; they all seemed determined to thwart my efforts. The tire iron slipped off a wheel nut three times and I pinched my thumb in the jack once. I swore under my breath.

     Thunder rumbled in the distance.

     “Don’t you dare!” I grumbled, glaring upward. Another rumble provided my answer.

     I hastened to finish. In a parting gesture, the jack fell on my knee the moment I released it. I deposited it and the useless flat in the trunk, resisted the urge to slam it down, and ran back up to my apartment to call my office.

     “Boss, I know I’m late. I had to change a flat tire,” I quickly explained. “I’ll be in shortly. I have to clean up a bit first.”

     “Lauren, you have a nine-thirty appointment with the new director of the Parks and Recreation Administration,” my editor reminded me.

     “I remember.” I glanced at my watch. Nine o’clock. My morning schedule was evaporating before my eyes. “I’ll go directly from here.”

    “Good.” He hung up.

     With a sigh, I reached to pull up my hem to examine my throbbing knee.

     “Swell,” I groused. My skirt now sported a streak of dirty grease, probably acquired when the jack landed on me. My stocking looked like an application cloth for a lube job. I hurriedly changed clothes as I harbored a faint hope the day would improve.

     My interview with our new official was downtown, and I drove to the City Hall building in Northwoods Glen, adjacent to police headquarters. The sign posted at the gate of the miniscule parking lot read Full. Two blocks farther down the street, I found a space at the curb. I scrounged around in my bag for change and fed the parking meter. The clouds made good on their threat while I walked back to the hub of city government. The downpour matched my spirits. Wet and cross, I entered the building and approached the information desk.

     “I’m Lauren Kaye from the Daily Gleaner. Mr. Loesser is expecting me.” I showed the shop-worn, bottle-blonde receptionist my press card. Pre-occupied, she did not bother to glance at it or me.

     “Mr. Loesser isn’t in today,” she informed me in lackluster tones. The odor of fresh nail polish pervaded the area as she inspected her bright red fingernails. “Mr. Fredrickson said he would do the interview and he’s waiting for you. His office is in room 304.”

     I turned toward the lobby elevator, but she called to me.

     “Oh, you’ll have to take the stairs—the elevator is out of order. The stairs are down that hall.” She pointed over her shoulder while she looked at me. “Gee, is it raining outside?”

     I smiled politely with clenched teeth but refrained from speaking. I figured once I started, it would be hard to stop.

     The hike to and up the stairs did nothing for my state of mind, but I found the cluttered office. Stacks of books rested on the floor. The smell of stale cigarette butts sitting in an overflowing ashtray melded with the scent of his strong aftershave.

     The interview lasted a mere fifteen minutes instead of the scheduled thirty because the assistant to the new director answered all my questions with monosyllables. No charts, no diagrams, no recitation of plans, merely flat single words. I ran out of questions before he ran out of yeses and nos. His terse responses reminded me of the police captain who worked at headquarters. Loesser had been far more loquacious on the phone.

     I politely thanked Fredrickson for his time and departed. The rain diminished to a drizzle as I proceeded to the newspaper office.

     My bad luck continued to hound me with all the devotion of a lovesick puppy.

     My typewriter decided the day after Labor Day would be the best opportunity it would ever have to malfunction. Maybe it answered to the same source that controlled the jack and tire iron? My keys constantly jammed, and the resulting copy of my story filled up with typos my fingers did not initiate. I squelched thoughts of its mechanical destruction. I yanked the page out, crumpled it, and deposited it in my wastebasket to join the three other discarded sheets. I pulled a fresh page out of my drawer and prepared to start over.

     “This simply isn’t my day,” I mumbled to no one in particular, “and it’s not even noon yet.”

     My desk phone chose that moment to ring.

     I heaved a sigh and grabbed the receiver. “Lauren Kaye.”

     “Article ready?” My boss took it for granted we all knew his voice.

     “Request permission to use a sledgehammer on my typewriter,” I brusquely replied. “Or at least permission to toss it in the trash.”

     “Meaning no.”

     “Boss, I’ll get the pages to you as soon as I can get it typed.”

     “I want it this morning.” The connection ceased with a click. Short and sweet. I assumed part of his penchant for brevity stemmed from always being on the phone.

     I glanced at the clock on the wall. Already eleven o’clock. The other reporters in the city room ignored me and clanked along on their respective machines. The daily haze of cigarette smoke started to fill the air, drifting up to the ceiling. I took a deep breath anyway and slowly let it out in a silent whistle.

     “Okay, that’s it. No more coddling,” I threatened my Remington. “I’ll give you one more chance before I trade you for a Royal.”

     I fed the paper into the rollers and started once again.

     Twenty minutes later I approached the news nerve center of the Daily Gleaner. I looked through the large windows flanking the editor’s glass door and discovered one of my fellow reporters in what we called the hot seat. Bernie Slater, all five-feet-eight inches of him, stood behind his overly crowded desk. Palms flat on it, he leaned forward. His mouth moved without pauses, and although I could not hear words, I knew Sandy Martinson’s ears were burning. I wondered what he did or did not do, for both carried penalties, I dropped into the chair placed by the last desk in the city room, which occupied a small doorless office off the main arena.

     “Sandy is getting a real chewing out,” I murmured to Jake Savonne, whose ringside seat to the editor’s office gave him more insights than the rest of us got.

     “I think he missed a major aspect of his assignment,” Savonne replied. “Bernie isn’t happy.”

     “An understatement, from what I can see,” I acknowledged. “I hope it doesn’t carry over. I have a favor to ask him.”

     Savonne grinned. Red-haired and approaching fifty, the Gleaner’s circulation manager, fooled a lot of people. To me, he looked about eighteen. “I keep meaning to ask if I can turn my desk around. There are times the show in the office gets distracting.”

     I chuckled. “I’ll bet.”

     The door opened. Martinson trudged with his head down to his desk at the end of reporter’s row and threw himself into his chair. Slater glanced around and spotted me.

     “Lauren.” The irritated expression on his round face did not encourage me.

     “Can I have a minute?” I hesitated before adding, “Sir?”

     A look of surprise crossed his face. “Come in.”

     “Good luck,” Savonne whispered.

     I rose and walked the last few feet to the door. At the threshold, I put my free hand behind my back and crossed my fingers. Savonne chuckled as I shut the door behind me.

     “Have a seat.” My editor waved me toward the rickety wooden chair. “It may have even cooled off since Sandy vacated it.”

     The hot seat creaked when I sat. Bernie Slater, whose frame was surprisingly spare in contrast to his round face, regarded me with curiosity. Thinning brown hair surrounded the growing bald spot which threatened to take over his head. His blue eyes stared at me from behind his horn-rimmed glasses. “Well?”

     “Here’s my assignment on the new parks administration.” I handed over the sheets. “I got more out of my phone conversation with Loesser than I did the interview with Fredrickson, so I combined the information. Nothing jumped out at me, and I don’t see any need for a follow-up.”

     “You could have given me this at the door.” He sighed and let the sheets drop onto his desk.

     My two added to the scattered pages on the small open space between the ever-present stacks of file folders. Those folders broke several rules of physics by not sliding around or falling over. The desk dominated his office, and the precarious stacks dominated the desk. His blotter was visible, barely, and the phone seemed gargantuan in relation to the remaining free space.

     “I know, but I need to ask you a favor.”

     I watched while he picked up a pencil and started to doodle on his notepad. How he handled the pencil provided major clues to his state of mind. The entire staff knew the signs. His doodling told me he was relatively calm but not overly interested.

     “Go ahead.” He glanced up. “Your piece on the scandal was good, Lauren. Solid research and reporting.” The pencil became a twirling baton.

     “Thank you,” I murmured. The compliment was rare.

     “So, what’s the favor?” He went back to doodling.

     I cleared my throat. “It’s the first day of the semester at Hofstra, and I have an appointment later with my advisor to find out what my schedule is.”

     “Take as much of the afternoon as you need.” He glanced up and chuckled when my mouth fell open “You look stunned.” He stuck the pencil behind his ear.

     “Not entirely, but I’ll admit to being surprised.”

     “Your classes are important, Lauren,” he replied, serious again. “Check with me when you get back.”

     “I will.” I rose. “Thanks, Boss!”

     “Don’t call me Boss,” he admonished, but he smiled. “Go.”

     I flashed a thumbs-up at Savonne on my way out the door.

     I tried to dismiss the notion I had somehow become the living embodiment of Murphy’s Law. I considered getting the time off the easy part of my next quest. Not bothering with lunch, I headed to the Hempstead campus, about twenty minutes from the Northwoods Glen paper on Long Island. I knew the congestion at the college would get worse later in the day; it was bad enough at the moment. Campus streets crawled with cars and pedestrians; all of them would lose a race with a snail. Most of those on foot tried to follow printed maps and paid little attention to traffic. Resigned, I sighed and resisted the urge to demonstrate basic traffic safety awareness. I located a free spot in the back forty acres of the student lot. The rain gave way to feeble rays of sunshine, and I hoped the trend of my morning mishaps broke with the exiting clouds. Locking my car, I joined the slow-moving throng and aimed for my major’s building with the determination of a quarterback heading towards a goal line.

     Inside, the crowd intensified. One of the oldest in the school, the language arts building had its own, unique atmosphere. Smells of wood polish and musty books merged with the sounds of students and ringing office phones. The echoing of doors as they opened and closed punctuated the babble of the uncertain voices up and down the halls. The familiar sights and sounds made me feel like I had come home after a trip.

     I fought through the wall-to-wall crowd of mostly lost students and wormed my way down the hallway of the English Department to the chairman’s office. I turned the knob and entered. The squeaking door told me maintenance never oiled anything, but it served to announce my arrival over the clatter of typing. My professor’s secretary halted her efforts and acknowledged me.

     “Miss Kaye, welcome back.” A prim and dowdy widow, Mrs. Jacobsen functioned as the stalwart guardian of the professor’s gate. Her voice never expressed anything but boredom. She dug through an index card file and handed me my class schedule without rising, forcing me to stretch over her desk to reach it.

     “Have a seat.” Her attention returned to her typewriter.

     I sighed, dropped my bag on the floor, and took a spot on the uncomfortable wooden bench outside the courtroom-like railing of her domain. One glance at the card in my hand brought me back to my feet.

     “Excuse me,” I said, loud enough to be heard over the machine-gun noise of her attack on the keys, “there must be some mistake. I’m a night-school student and this card is for a daytime class. Besides, music appreciation has nothing to do with English or journalism.”

     “I’m afraid you’ll have to take that up with Professor McKechnie,” she automatically replied. Her eyes remained glued to her propped up copy. “He’ll call you in when he’s ready for you. Another student is with him at the moment.”

     I sank back onto the bench and prepared for a long wait. I doubted my advisor, who could stretch a three-word thought into a paragraph, knew the practical application of the words brevity and punctuality.

     Five days into September with classes not yet in session, I faced a major problem.

     To complete my degree, I switched from being a full-time student with a part-time job to working a full-time job with evening classes. I lost credits from my two-year stint at a university in the process, but I consoled myself with knowing I could whittle away at the courses I needed when I had the time and resources. Following two years of mind-numbing drudgery in a succession of dreary, impersonal offices, I landed a position with the Daily Gleaner. The schedule in my hand indicated McKechnie registered me for Music Appreciation from ten-thirty to noon on Tuesdays and Thursdays. A daytime class with a daytime job? Nope, this won’t work.

     The inner office door opened. A boy too young to shave scurried out clutching a notebook and his card. My advisor shook his head sadly as he watched the kid depart before he beckoned to me. I entered his sanctum and closed the door. The musty books lining the cases caused more than one student to sneeze during interviews.

     “Miss Kaye, do allow me to anticipate what you are going to say. However, I should warn you at the outset of this conference I am unable to envision any viable way to circumvent it.” John McKechnie, Chairman of the English Department, regarded me with what passed for his version of sympathy.

     He settled himself behind his desk, on which each item possessed its own meticulous place. I once suggested to another student McKechnie’s middle name ought to be punctilious.

     “Sir, there is a problem.” I remained standing and waited for an invitation to sit. Proper and formal manners ruled his office.

     He motioned me to sit in the chair opposite his. I took the indicated seat and reined in my frustration so I could place my case before him.

     “The situation is untenable, Professor,” I deliberately used one of his favorite words. “I work full-time at the Daily Gleaner. I’ll lose my job if I walk into my editor’s office and announce I will be gone from ten to twelve-thirty Tuesdays and Thursdays.”

     “Surely they can cover your absence. Your employment description is copy typist, is that not correct?” An absent-minded professor who gave credence to the stereotype, he did not remember what I had told him on more than one previous occasion.

     I sighed as I dug into the bag my co-workers think I use for smuggling anything from bricks to small corpses and pulled out a copy of yesterday’s edition. I folded it to a specific spot, rose, and tossed it on his desk.

     “Check the bottom of the second page,” I urged as I resumed my seat. “It’s the tag to a major story I did two weeks ago.”

     My work as a reporter for The Daily Gleaner had gained substance and a degree of prestige over the last few months. Despite a few daring souls who took glee in referring to me as the Gleaner’s ‘girl reporter,’ I never claimed to be Torchy Blane or Brenda Starr. Once I demonstrated my abilities, I landed a few features; I suspected I got those because I doubled as a photographer. In addition, recent events proved my capabilities to handle more intricate assignments than those given to the pool of want-to-be Pulitzer Prize winners. With a knack for in-depth investigations, I tackled a local politician’s suspected embezzlement and proved he accomplished his gains through the aid of an accounting firm. The resulting story netted me my first front page piece, complete with banner headline. I refused to risk my newly-won status to take music appreciation, which I considered a frivolous waste of time.

     I regarded McKechnie’s furrowed brow while he scanned the story through his rimless spectacles. Almost bald with a gray fringe of hair, even if he stood totally straight instead of his normal stooped posture, I topped him by three inches, although he outweighed me by forty pounds. Occasionally, his lips moved while he read, something I never noticed before. He kept his long straight nose in the paper until he finished.

     “Local Politician Indicted.” He gazed over the top of his glasses at me. “I remember the original story. You wrote it?”

     “Yes, sir. I investigated it and broke the story. I’ve been a reporter at the Gleaner for two years.” I sat forward on the standard wooden chair; grateful it did not creak. “Sir, I can’t take a day class.” I paused to regroup my thoughts so my words would not appear too impertinent and gestured at the paper he held. “If you require confirmation, call Bernie Slater. He’s the publisher and editor.”

     “Bernard Slater is your employer?” McKechnie paused. “He once taught in this department.”

     “He bought the paper several years ago.”

     “I understand your position, but collegiate protocol dictates the curriculum, and it necessitates a course in the fine arts, either art or music.” He shook his head and consulted my file. “Miss Kaye, we have given sway on quite a few rules for you over the course of your time with us. I regret I must convey my inability to recommend an alternate. Would you prefer art appreciation or a class on basic drawing?”

     “There’s nothing at night?” I forced myself to stay calm. Experience taught me a show of anger would make things significantly worse.

     McKechnie shook his head. “Not at the present time. It remains an oversight which hopefully shall be rectified in the near future. However, any future implementations have little bearing on your current situation.”

     “I know this is awkward, sir. I trust you can appreciate my position. It took me two years to break out of the reporters’ pool. My first major story covered Northwoods Resort and Beach Club a while back. I did the whole spread, including the photos.” I did not add that the story behind the printed version should have been locked in a vault at Fort Knox.

     “I seem to recall it.” His face remained expressionless. He would have given Keely Smith a run for her money.

     “I don’t see how I can fulfill the class requirement and keep my job. Without the job, I don’t have the money for school and without the degree, I’ll lose my job.” Well, that last might not be true now, even though it was originally a condition for my employment. The boss let me off this afternoon because he considers my schooling important. “When Mr. Slater hired me, our agreement was contingent on using my earnings to continue schooling. Isn’t there anything else I can do to fulfill this?” I pleaded.

     “Unfortunately, and here I reiterate, a fine arts class is required by collegiate protocols.”

     “Yes, sir.” I kept a scrupulous account of my credits. According to my calculations, I lacked eighteen credit-hours to accomplish the big goal. The course on my registration card was worth a measly two.

     “I comprehend the position in which you find yourself, yet I would ask for similar consideration of ours.” Professor McKechnie paused and stared out the dirty window. I waited as patiently as I could. His attention returned to me. “A thought occurs to me, nonetheless. A potential solution might conceivably be at hand. Of late, I have become aware of what may constitute a remote possibility for an alternative. However, I warn you: it will necessitate a concerted effort on my part. Additionally, I would be prepared to wager you will not find it to your liking. Thus, I am hesitant to attempt it without some assurance of your acquiescence. Are you certain you can’t manage the day class?”

     “I’m absolutely sure it would cost me my job.” I swallowed and took a deep breath, grateful he appeared willing to consider anything else. “Can you give me an idea of what you have in mind?”

     “The music department has engaged to produce an opera in conjunction with one of the local high schools. From what I’ve been able to discern, they need supernumeraries.”

    “They need what?”  My wide vocabulary missed that one.

     “Supernumeraries.” He repeated the word as if he enjoyed articulating it as he bounced it off his tongue. “Those are people on the opera stage who act as crowds or soldiers and such who don’t sing. It is my understanding these performers are generally referred to as walking scenery, or extras, if you wish to regard it in that light.”

     “Oh! I think I saw something like that in a Charlie Chan movie. Number One Son and his fraternity brothers were soldiers in Carnivale in the film Charlie Chan at the Opera.”

     “You are correct,” my advisor acknowledged with a slight nod. “Boris Karloff portrayed an opera singer, although I would not have cited that film as my primary example.” He surprised me with an honest-to-goodness chuckle, despite his solemn facial expression. “I would be amenable to undertake the role of advocate to persuade the dean to allow you to trade the class requirement for your participation in the opera as a supernumerary, if you would subscribe in advance to accept the arrangement.”

     “Would rehearsals be at night?” I asked once I translated his words into colloquial terms. I would kiss my evenings goodbye but since I haven’t had a date in months, it would not be a major loss.

     “According to what I have gleaned in conjunction with this matter while monitoring open discussions in the faculty cafeteria, you would be required to attend rehearsals three nights a week to start, in all likelihood Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. In addition, rehearsals will be increased to every night the last week prior to the performances, and of course, the two stage performances themselves.” McKechnie regarded me with hopeful resignation. “This is the singular alternative I can conceive, Miss Kaye. My hesitation to offer it remains my inability to extend my absolute assurance I can persuade the dean to allow the exchange.”

     “Professor, although it’s not something I’d ordinarily ask to do, it would be easier than trying to attend a class during the day.”

     “I feel impelled to reiterate my cautionary statement. I am not in a position to guarantee the dean will approve the notion.”

     “I understand.” I stood. “If you can arrange it for me, I would really appreciate it.”

     “If it would be acceptable for you to leisurely take some light refreshment in the student union coffee shop, I shall endeavor to speak with Dean Cranmore to procure a positive response for you this afternoon.” His suggestion made him sound almost human for a change, despite his archaic phrasing.