Cassandra's Last Spotlightbyolivias©
"I have a son. He's going to come and get me someday. Maybe you'll be here when he does."
The head of a man in a wheelchair nearby snapped up. In his day he'd written many a gangster movie script, and the phrase "get me someday" that the old movie star, Cassandra, had spoken to her visitor hit him a bit differently than perhaps it was meant. Suddenly he was all ears, which meant he needed to move a bit closer, because all ears in his case required the help of hearing aids.
Cassandra looked up into eyes of the man who hovered over her where she sat in the sunlight streaming in the window, its light concentrated in that one beam, and only momentarily there, because snow clouds were scudding over the sky outside the retirement home. Cassandra Carlisle had always basked in the spotlight whenever she could manage it, and she wasn't so confused today not to be able to find the light. It would take a lot of confusion to negate that instinct in the woman.
The man she spoke to made his best attempt at a smile. "Yes, I might just do that, Mother," he said.
From his nearby position, Karl Dickson cast a penetrating look at the man hovering over Cassandra. Did his expression reveal a sinister edge to his agreement that he might come back and "get" the old woman? Cassandra was reported to be loaded with money. And she certainly was an unpleasant old biddy. Karl would be willing to rub her out himself if he knew his name was mentioned in her will.
But then the man had to look away from his mother, because there was no recognition of what he was to her in her eyes at all. His eyes focused on the decorated Christmas tree they were sitting beside, and he scrutinized a couple of the ornaments to try to keep from forming tears.
They were sitting in the dayroom of the Curtain Call retirement home for retired movie industry folks. The belabored, nonconnecting conversation between Cassandra and her visiting son, Harold Snoddy, was being punctuated by the sound of hammering coming from across the room, where two men were on ladders, erecting a wintery backdrop surround scene for a small raised stage. The hearing limitations of the other resident in the room, Karl Dickson, who had been a script writer on some of the most unmemorable films of the 1970s, required him to lean forward in his wheelchair, not too inconspicuously, to tune into the conversation.
Karl was always tuning in to Cassandra Carlisle's conversations in the home. As a genuine leading lady of film throughout the 1960s, she swept around the retirement community like she was a queen—and all the rest of the residents were her servants. Karl liked to pick up bits and pieces of her imperial dictums and exchanges with her victims and contagonists, movie folks not known to be shrinking violets, and then feed them back in gossip to get the other residents to grant him a modicum of respect and camaraderie. He was quite aware that most of the residents didn't like him any better than they liked Cassandra and tolerated both mostly because they all were trapped within these cushy walls in one big "let's all pretend we're happy" performance script.
Because of the intermittent hammering, Harold had to lean in real close now and was rewarded with Cassandra making a broad gesture with her arms and, in a majestic voice that was undeniably hers and known to any theater-goer in his or her seventies or older, pronounced the phrase, "for there was no room in the inn."
Looking confused, Harold murmured, "Your room here is very nice, very nice indeed, Mother. I'm sure there will always be room for you here. And you are fortunate to be among friends from your Hollywood days, all gathered here in this wonderful setting on a river in Maryland. I was just in Washington for business and came to see how you were settling in. I'll bring Annette and the children back to see the Christmas production. The children can't wait to see you on the stage again."
"The children!" Cassandra called out dramatically, with it coming out as a shriek and her arms lifting to the heavens. The hammering stopped and the two men working on the backdrop snapped their heads around to face where Cassandra and the man were sitting, Cassandra continuing to exhibit some theatrical agitation and her son showing discomfort.
A formidable-looking black woman, Geneva Tindle, the head nurse of the retirement home, appeared in the doorway from the main corridor. But rather than charge directly into the fray, she just stood there, surveying the room, looking not the least perturbed. Nothing strange to her was happening here. Cassandra was Cassandra and would increasingly act out like this. Geneva had seen and experienced and worked with it all.
Cassandra continued speaking, in hushed tones, with both her son and Karl leaning in to her to hear. Harold was confused by what he heard. Karl, however, became agitated himself. He dropped the four-pound weight on the floor that he was doing curls with in his wheelchair, turned to Mrs. Tindle, and started waving his hands, trying to draw her into the dayroom.
She just smiled at him. Still nothing strange to her was happening here. No one could be so dramatic about so little as these movie people could.
Harold Snoddy mumbled something to Cassandra and stood. He patted her on the back, but she shrank away from him.
Karl, turning a wild eye on Mrs. Tindle again, blurted out a "See? See?" in probably what was meant to be a hushed tone but that came out more like a stage whisper that bounced off all four walls of the room.
Snoddy walked to the door and stopped beside Mrs. Tindle.
"She . . ." he started to say to the nurse, but didn't seem to know what he should say.
"She has her good days and her bad days," the nurse said in a low, sympathetic voice. "You told me that you'd come again for the program they're doing for the community on Christmas Eve. She has a starring role in that. I'm sure it will be one of her good days."
"One of her good days on Christmas Eve? That would be a blessing. I'll be bringing her grandchildren. But how can you know?"
"She's movie folk," answered Mrs. Tindle. Geneva had been a bit actress herself at one time, which had made her a shoe-in for the job at this special retirement home in the small town of Hopewell-on-the-Choptank, located here because this was the hometown of the facility's benefactor, the top box-office movie star, Brenda Brandon.
"Why does that—?"
"She's the star of the program. She'll be at the top of her game, come hell or high water, for that. Just you wait and see. She may be down, but she isn't out yet."
"I certainly hope so," Snoddy said in a somewhat depressed voice. "Today, well . . ."
"You need to brace yourself," Mrs. Tindle said. "She might sink fast from here. Christmas might be the last time she has good days. If there are any other—"
"There's a stepson, but he lives overseas. They are estranged, and he . . . umm . . . would find it a bit difficult to come back into the States. I saw some letters addressed to her from him in her room, though."
"Well, you just might let him know, in case he would want to visit her before she sinks too far."
"I'm afraid all he's looking forward to is a check when it's all over." Snoddy inclined his head and walked out of the room. He was barely out of sight before Karl was frantically wheeling his chair toward Mrs. Tindle.
"Hisss. Is he gone?"
"He who? Mr. Snoddy?" Geneva asked. She knew perfectly well who Karl was referring to, but she wasn't in the mood for Karl's shenanigans today.
"Mr. Snoddy? Is that his name? Cassandra's real last name might be Snoddy? Like in Snotty? What a hoot. Wait until . . . but that's not important now."
He was tugging at the sleeve of the uniform Mrs. Tindle was stuffed into that couldn't help but look institutional even though there was an effort here for the staff to look casual. She dutifully leaned down to him and took on a conspiratorial look, resigned to the fact that Karl wasn't going to be deterred. She'd had years of experience in geriatrics and knew when and how to give the residents here their head.
"Didn't you hear what Cassandra said to him? She's in danger."
"In danger? Do tell."
"Yes, her son—that was her son, wasn't it?—has murdered children and is on the lam in the Middle East when he hasn't managed to slip back into the States. And he's going to come again and get her too—there probably were just too many people around here today for him to get it done today."
"Murdered children, and going to do it to her too? And he's slipping into the States from hiding in the Middle East? You really can write them. I don't really think, Mr. Dickson—"
"His name is Harold, isn't it?"
"Yes, yes it is, but—"
"Well, that's it, then. She said so herself. Didn't you hear her? Harold killed those children and he's going to get her too."
"Now, Mr. Dickson, I'm sure there's something . . . why would her son? . . . he seems such a nice man."
"Why else? For money. The woman's loaded and he's afraid she's going to change her will before he can get his hands on her money. Or maybe he's afraid she'll spill the beans about the murdered children now that her mind is going. Who the shit knows? He had shifty eyes, though. Didn't you see them?" Karl was truly panicked now, pulling insistently on the nurse's sleeve. "We must do something. She's in danger."
"I don't think . . . you shouldn't become excited, Mr. Dickson. Maybe we should go back to your room and get you some pills."
"Don't need no pills, woman. Bah. Out of my way. Where's Mrs. Clagett? Got to find Mrs. Clagett. She'll know what to do. She always knows what to do."
He wheeled past Mrs. Tindle and tooled down the hall toward the administrative offices. Geneva watched him go. He had his flights of fancy—he'd been a movie script writer of very bad films, after all—she knew, but she'd never known him to be this agitated before. She should follow him and get him calmed down. But she also saw that Cassandra was fidgeting and was standing at the Christmas tree and poking at it. The choice between keeping Cassandra from pulling the tree to the floor or tracking Karl down before he found the retirement home's executive director, Evonne Clagett, was won out by Cassandra. The tree was already swaying and the two men working on the backdrop had noticed and were moving off their ladders and in Cassandra's direction. Evonne could take care of Karl Dickson. She was the resident superwoman.
* * * *
"The son of God fled into Egypt, and the slaughter of the children by Herod began."
"The words are so common to our understanding at Christmas time, but the way Brenda delivers them . . ."
"I know," Charlotte Diamond said, as she watched her precious "other" standing on the stage in Curtain Call's dayroom in the evening of December 23rd, delivering lines during the dress rehearsal for the Christmas program. "I don't think there are lines so simple and common that Brenda couldn't make them magical."
"It's almost too bad that they are Cassandra Carlisle's lines rather than hers," Geneva Tindle said.
The program was little more than the singing of Christmas carols interspersed with recitations from the stage. What was magical was that they were delivered by the voices of some pretty famous movie stars of yesteryear. The entertainers were sitting in a semicircle around the stage, waiting their turns to deliver their lines or sing their solos or duets. Cassandra was sitting there too. But this wasn't one of her good days. Brenda, who was directing the program, was delivering her lines from the stage for her—and was prepared to go on the next evening if Cassandra wasn't able to.
Charlotte Diamond, the mayor of Hopewell and a retired senior FBI investigator, who was cosponsor of the Curtain Call retirement home and lived with her spouse, Brenda, in Brenda's ancestral plantation house farther along the shoreline of the Choptank River from the rest home complex, was sitting at a table at the back of the room. Sitting with her were Geneva Tindle; Evonne Clagett, the whirlwind "gets-everything-done" director of the facility; and Don Dunkel, the pastor of the town's Episcopal church. Dunkel had just come down from the stage where he and young Billy Zirkel, the proprietor of the town's gas station, located on the same street as the Episcopal church, had been working for days on the stage backdrop. Billy was still there, perched on a ladder and putting final touches to the scene of Bethlehem on a snowy night.
Charlotte and Brenda's two dogs, the Siberian husky Sam, and the boxer Rocket, were mingling with the retirement home residents, who were stroking and murmuring to the dogs as the two canines worked the room. Sam and Rocket were frequent visitors to the rest home and were favorites of the residents. Rocket was doing most of the roaming. Sam mostly remained plastered to Cassandra's side, almost as if he knew she needed the extra attention, and Cassandra was stroking him almost absentmindedly, a little, vacant smile on her lips.
Cassandra hadn't been as "out of it" earlier in the day as she was now, but she had withdrawn into herself after the incident that morning with Karl Dickson, and Brenda had had to take her place in the program dress rehearsal. The incident had happened when Karl had seen Cassandra's son, Harold Snoddy, talking with Cassandra outside her room. Karl had become agitated and pushed himself between Harold and Cassandra. He had screamed something about Harold trying to murder Cassandra. By the time the staff had sorted that out, Cassandra had disappeared within herself, the son had disappeared, and Karl was being wheeled back to his room for pills and, everyone hoped, a nap behind a closed door.
By the time the dress rehearsal had started, life at Curtain Call had pretty much settled down again. The four sitting at the table at the back of the room felt separated enough from the production being rehearsed on stage that they conversed with each other in whispers, only occasionally redirecting their attention to the rehearsal.
"Brenda says that she has her hands full with directing the program," Charlotte said.
"But we all know that it's just Brenda making sure that Cassandra has one last moment in the spotlight," Evonne said. "Which is wonderful of her considering how hard Cassandra has worked since she came here to seem more important than Brenda."
"Which will never happen," Geneva murmured. "Cassandra was a star of the moment. Brenda is a star for all time."
"Yes, she is," Charlotte agreed—with the thought that Brenda wasn't just a movie star. She was the star of Charlotte's life. The two had married earlier that year, taking quick advantage of the changes in Maryland law on same-sex marriage.
Both had been with men before—and both were pursued by men still—but Charlotte had never been as happy and contented in her life as she had been since retiring from the FBI to Hopewell and meeting Brenda, who also was attempting to retire from the movies to her girlhood home. That both were being periodically pulled back into their former elements—Charlotte to solving crimes and Brenda to dabbling still in movies—had been the major threat to a stable life together. Working together on this retirement community for movie folks, however, was giving them common cause, and the nine months of peaceful pottering about in Hopewell since their marriage and "horrid honeymoon," as Charlotte insisted on calling it, which had started with a stolen limousine and a dead body and nearly ended in piracy at sea, had been the best nine months of Charlotte's life. Brenda frequently said it was the same for her. Sam and Rocket certainly were pleased to have their mistresses home for such a long period.
"The program is going to be great," Evonne said, with satisfaction. "The dramatic readings provide perfect punctuation to the singing. Those attending will be astounded to learn that so many of their favorite movie actors are also accomplished singers."
"And dancers too," Geneva added. "Most don't realize that to have made it on stage in years past required the full complement of talent—singing and dancing as well as acting. Although I hope none of our residents attempt the dancing tomorrow night. We don't need to be overseeing any hip replacements on Christmas morning."
"The program is going to be great, yes," Dr. Dunkel said, "But I remain a little worried about it meeting its primary goal."
"You mean in better melding the people of the town with the residents of Curtain Call?" Charlotte asked.
"Yes," the pastor answered. "I was so hoping that more would come out to help set it up. When we planned this, the residents were to provide the program and the townspeople were to provide the stage set. We were encouraging the mixing of the two. I'm embarrassed that only Billy Zirkel showed up to help me with the set. We barely finished it in time. And ticket sales in the community have been slow."
"Perhaps we shouldn't have charged admission," Geneva said. "But I think it's a shame that only you and Billy have shown up to work on the set. It's beautiful, though."
"People don't value what they get completely for free," Evonne said, her jaw setting. "And we made clear that the proceeds would go to Christmas decorations for the town. The townspeople should appreciate that. Maybe we'll sell most of the seats at the door."
"I'll lean on Mary and Walt Miller," Charlotte said. "If they come, others will feel obligated to show up." Mary Miller was the town clerk and the owner of the beauty salon, and her husband, Walt, ran the barber shop. Both had tripled their business since Curtain Call had opened. Walt had also recently opened up a hardware store. Curtain Call residents didn't shop there much, but their presence had increased the number of houses being built in the town for Curtain Call staffers and, thus, the shopping needs of the town across the board, and his business was doing well.
"We don't want them to feel obligated to come. We want the townspeople and the home residents to want to mingle." Brenda had vacated the stage and come back to the table.
"I want to see Bonny Levitt come through those doors tomorrow night," Geneva said with a snort. "She told me when I first met her in town that she'd never set foot in the place—that old people made her nervous. And then I found that she's older than more than half of the residents here."
They all gave a little chuckle at that. Bonny proclaimed herself as the oldest village resident and was wheelchair bound. But she had a biting sarcastic humor, acquired from outliving three husbands, that livened up town council meetings as she did battle with her nemesis, Hannah Helgerson, who rivaled her in the claim to village longevity and memory of what happened when.
"You sounded great up there," Geneva went on to say to Brenda.
"Thank you. I think I should speak to Cassandra, though, and assure her," Brenda answered. "Have you seen her?"
"She's just over there," Don Dunkel said, swiveling around to his side and extending his arm.
But Cassandra wasn't "just over there" anymore. And Sam wasn't there either. Neither of them was anywhere in the room.
"Oh, dear, I should have kept an eye on her," Geneva said, as she stood up from the table. "This turned out not to be a good day for her, and when she's confused she goes on the prowl."
As quietly as possible, the five of them started rounding up staff members and, as unobtrusively as they could manage, started searching the rambling complex for the wayward actress.
The jig was up, though, some minutes later, when Karl Dickson overheard that a search was on. He started wheeling himself through the corridors and, eventually, into the dayroom, disrupting the dress rehearsal, and hollering out, "I knew it. The man has murdered Cassandra and buried her out in the yard. I told you all this was going to happen—and none of you paid a bit of attention to me. Well, the old girl's dead now, not thanks to you lot."