Applause rolled through the high school auditorium like thunder, after Anna, alone on the stage, spoke the last line of Little Willie. But before I had a chance to revel in the success of the play, two things occurred almost simultaneously. The lights went out, as scheduled, and a muffled bang sounded backstage.
I wasn’t sure whether anyone in the audience heard the bang, or thought anything of it if they did, but I heard it from my position in the orchestra pit, and my director’s sensitivity told me immediately that it was out of place. And just before darkness blotted out the stage I thought I saw Anna’s legs start to buckle.
Panic gripped me. I placed both hands on the rim of the orchestra pit and simultaneously jumped and kicked one leg up. Clawing with my arms and leg, I managed to lift the rest of my body out of the pit and onto the stage without falling back. Then I dove through the curtains, which had just been closed, and yelled, “Lights.”
As the lights came on the curtains started to open. The stage manager obviously thought it was time for the curtain call. “Shut the curtains,” I screamed as I saw Anna lying in front of me, a rivulet of blood starting to wend its way across the stage from beneath her still body.
# # # #
“Little Willie took a notion
And threw himself into the ocean.
Said the whale, ‘Perhaps I’m silly,
But I’d rather dine on Willie.’”
“Cool it, Anna,” I said, in my sternest teacher voice. Save it for the play. “All right, places for the first warehouse scene.”
Anna looked innocent and turned away from Bill, who looked hurt, but tried not to show it. The three actors took their positions on the almost-bare stage. Anna, the redheaded bombshell, played Dora, the sexy secretary. Josh, the All-American boy, played Joe, the macho warehouse foreman. Bill, the bumbler, played Willie, the inept warehouse employee. Typecasting. Sure it was, but they were so perfect for their roles. All they had to do was be themselves.
“Willie is stacking heavy boxes,” I said. Willie started stacking imaginary boxes as if they were filled with air. “Remember, Willie, the temperature is 90 and the humidity is 100 percent.” Willie slowed down his movements and put a fatigued expression on his face. “Dora enters the warehouse from the air-conditioned office, carrying an order for Joe.”
Dora came from stage left, cool and fresh, and swished her way across the stage in her miniskirt. She looked like a seductress except for one thing. Since the top she was wearing had spaghetti straps her bra straps showed. That might be the epitome of fashion for high school girls, but that kind of sloppiness wouldn’t work in the play. She had to either change her top or lose the bra. I made a note.
Willie spotted Dora and paused in his work, ogling her and wiping imaginary sweat from his forehead with his arm. So far so good.
Dora stopped in front of Willie and put her hands on her hips. She recited:
“Little Willie in the gayest of sashes
Fell into the fire and burned to ashes.
Autumn came and the days grew chilly,
But they hated to stir up Willie.”
“Cut,” I said. “Anna, why is it that when you recite those Little Willie poems offstage you put real bite into them but when you do it onstage you make them sound like the weather report?”
Anna looked at me and pouted. “I don’t know, Mr. Winkler. It’s just that I’m not sure of my motivation.”
Maybe it was a mistake for me to tie up most of my vacation directing the summer play for the Drama Club. After all, I was trying to recover from teaching six periods of high school English every day for the whole school year. But I really needed what little money this gig paid.
I mustered my patience and said, “You’re trying to steam Willie up. You’re trying to get a rise out of him.” I thought of saying, “Just do what comes naturally,” but decided that was stepping over the limit of what a teacher could say to a female student. We went through it again and Anna did a better job of reciting the poem. There was still hope for the play.
Joe came out of his make-believe office as Dora and Willie exchanged some edgy banter. Joe said, in what was supposed to be a provocative voice, “Hey, Dora, baby, you got something for me?”
Even when I had been in high school, which wasn’t that long ago, this material would have been too risqué for high school students. Times had changed. And these three had just graduated so they were no longer high school students.
“Why, Joe, what is it that you want?” Dora asked, with almost the right degree of seductiveness. The fact that the play took place in the South and Anna was putting on a southern accent helped make her character believable.
“You know what I want,” Joe said. “Come into my office and I’ll show you. I may not have air conditioning, but my fan will cool that hot place between your legs. Or maybe I’ll have to do that, personally.”
Willie, who had been listening to this exchange and getting more and more lathered up, reached the breaking point and confronted Joe. He said, “You can’t talk to her like that.”
“Okay,” I said, interrupting. “Willie, you’ve got to remember two things. You’re secretly in love with Dora and for you to speak to your boss like that is almost a capital offense. You could be fired for it. Your emotions have to be running high before you will go this far. So put some feeling into it. Then we’ll go through the fight sequence. But be careful because I don’t want anybody getting hurt. Willie, give me your glasses so they won’t get broken. You won’t be able to wear them during the live performances, anyway.”
“But I always wear my glasses,” Bill said, reluctantly taking them off.
“By the time we open you’ll have memorized where everything is,” I said, heartlessly. I went to the edge of the stage, took his glasses and put them into my shirt pocket. “All right, Willie, repeat your line.”
Willie repeated his line. Joe scowled at him and said, “Why, you little worm, I ought to stomp on you.”
“You sound as if you’re going to hug him, not stomp on him,” I said, laughing. “You’re mad, Joe. You’ve got to feel like your father felt in April when the thieves broke into his factory and stole a million dollars.”
“It was the last day of March,” Josh said, “and it was closer to half a million than a million. And my father was insured.”
“Whatever. You get my point. Let’s do the fight sequence.”
They needed no prompting for that. Willie took a swing at Joe. We had choreographed the fight, so there shouldn’t be any problem. They pulled their first few punches in a satisfactory manner. At least Bill could see well enough not to really hit Josh. During the actual production I would be in the orchestra pit, smacking my fist against my palm to simulate the sounds of punches landing.
Then the two boys grabbed each other, fell to the floor and wrestled. They rolled over a few times and really went at it. It looked real. Too real.
“Cut.” I said. They didn’t release their grips on each other. I shouted ‘cut’ a few more times but they kept fighting. I finally had to vault up onto the stage and separate them by force.
“Okay,” I said, panting. Both of them sat on the stage, also panting, looking disheveled and sheepish. I decided not to make a big deal out of it. “That’s enough for today. See you tomorrow, same time, same station.”
They got up. After running a hand through his hair and straightening his clothes, Josh grabbed Anna’s hand—they were boyfriend and girlfriend in real life—and said, “Let’s blow this joint, Babe.”
Anna hung back, pulling against his hand. Looking at Bill, she said:
“Little Willie licked the back of the mirror off,
Hoping it would cure the whooping cough.
‘Ha-ha-ha,’ laughed Willie’s mother;
‘Ha-ha-ha,’ laughed Mrs. Brown.
‘Twas a chilly day for Willie when the mercury went down.”
She said it with just the right kind of taunting voice I wanted her to use in the play. Then she and Josh left. I was wondering what I should say to Bill when I gave him his glasses, but he took them and left before the right words came to me.
# # # #
“Do you know why anybody in the cast or crew would have a reason to kill Anna?” the detective asked me.
We were sitting in the front row of the auditorium. The other members of the cast and crew and their parents were scattered among the seats. Officers were questioning some; others awaited their turn. I couldn’t remember how I had persuaded the audience to leave without revealing what had happened.
I remembered asking the audience if there was a doctor present. Two doctors had come up onto the stage. One of them had a cell phone and called for an ambulance. I heard sirens before the last person filed out.
Of course the parents hadn’t left. I had been forced to apprise them of the situation. Anna’s parents had become almost hysterical and, thankfully, were now being looked after by a member of the police department.
I experienced immediate regrets about letting the audience leave. What if the fatal shot had come from the audience? But surely someone would have seen the gun. And the noise of the shot would have been loud, not muffled, and heard by everyone. Also, the wound was in the left side of Anna’s head. It was much more likely that the shot had come from offstage right. Only two people were supposed to be offstage right at the end of the play: Josh and Bill. Waiting for their curtain calls. I told the detective that.
He repeated his question, this time narrowing it down to Josh and Bill.
What should I tell him? That life had imitated art? That Anna had taunted Bill offstage as well as on? Was that a motive for murder? Perhaps if Bill cared enough about what Anna thought of him. I mumbled something indecisive.
The detective picked up a clear plastic bag containing a piece of white paper. That piece of paper had been sitting on the stage near Anna’s body, but in the confusion nobody had touched it until the police had arrived. The detective asked me to read it. It looked as if it had been printed on a computer.
Little Willie shot his sister
And she died before they missed her.
Little Willie’s full of tricks;
Ain’t he cute, he’s only six.
“There are a number of Little Willie poems in the play,” I said. “This is one of them.”
“Whoever shot her apparently put this beside the victim,” the detective said.
I replayed the seconds after the sound of the shot in my mind, during which I had struggled to climb onto the stage. “Either Josh or Bill would have had plenty of time to run to center-stage, drop the piece of paper and then run back into the wings. The stage had been dark and the noise of the applause would have masked the sounds of their feet.”
Which of them did the poem implicate? My brain wasn’t working well enough to figure that out. I asked, “But what did the…murderer do with the weapon?”
“We’re searching for that now.”
The curtains were closed so I couldn’t see what was going on behind them. However, the auditorium swarmed with official-looking people. There were lots of nooks and crannies and I wasn’t confident they would find the weapon.
I couldn’t see Anna’s body, which was still lying on the stage. Thank God I didn’t have to look at her. Anna had been eighteen and full of life. Maybe not always the kind of life that older people approved of, but then, what adults unconditionally approved of everything teenagers did?
Another officer came over and asked the detective questioning me to talk with him in private. They walked a few feet away and conferred for several minutes. Then both of them came back to me.
The detective who had been questioning me said, “Bill and Josh are telling pretty much the same story. They couldn’t see each other because of a side curtain in between them. Both say they heard the shot and then the lights went out. Both say they heard running footsteps. They heard you yell to turn on the lights and then saw you and Anna on the stage when the lights came back on.”
“So either one of them could have done it,” I said, wondering who I hoped it was.
“Bill says he can’t see very well without his glasses,” the second detective said. “He says you have his glasses.”
Relief rippled through me as I instinctively moved my hand to my shirt pocket. I had forgotten that Bill had given his glasses to me for the duration of the play, but I was glad to hear he had an alibi. The glasses weren’t there. I said, “They must have fallen out of my pocket when I climbed out of the orchestra pit.”
“We’ve already searched the orchestra pit,” the second detective said. I remembered seeing them do it. “We didn’t find them.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“Probably that somebody picked them up,” the first detective said.
He didn’t have to be sarcastic. “Maybe Bill,” I said.
“Maybe. Which is interesting because Josh says that Bill doesn’t really need glasses. He says that he wears them as some sort of pretence and that the lenses are just plain glass.”
# # # #
I was running errands on foot along the main street of our village when I spotted Bill, walking toward me on the sidewalk. At least I thought it was Bill. As he came closer I verified his identity.
“Hi Bill,” I said. “Hot enough for you?” Nothing like an English teacher coming up with original lines.
“Oh, hello, Mr. Winkler. Yeah, it’s hot.”
“Can I buy you a root beer?” When Bill hesitated, I said, “I’d like to talk to you for a minute.”
He acquiesced and we walked into the café and sat in a booth.
I ordered two root beers and then said, “I’m directing the summer play for the Drama Club.” That didn’t provoke a response so I added, “It’s named after the lead character—Little Willie.”
Bill gave me a look that asked why I was telling him this.
“I was going to give you a call. There’s a perfect role for you in it.” That of a clod. What could be better than a clod playing a clod? But it should help bring Bill out of himself. “In fact, it’s the title role—that of Willie. You’d be the star.”
He stiffened and said, “I’m not a member of the Drama Club. And I’ve never done any acting.”
“You can’t start any younger. I don’t think there’s a member of the club who’s suited for this particular role.” How could I entice him? “Josh is going to be in it.”
His eyebrows went up. “Josh is my cousin.”
“I didn’t know that.” I had never seen Bill and Josh talk to each other.
“Well, actually I think he’s my third cousin.”
“Do you guys do anything together?”
“Most of the time he pretends he doesn’t know me.”
Josh had been the captain of the football team and, presumably, would have hurt his image by being seen with Bill.
“But he comes to my folks’ farm,” Bill continued, “and we go hunting together.”
“Yeah, and shotguns. And we shoot pistols. My dad has a gun collection. Josh likes to shoot.”
“More about the play. Anna is going to be in it too.”
Bill tried to hide his reaction, but he couldn’t. I had gotten to him. I didn’t know whether this was good or bad.
After going through a series of facial expressions Bill said, “I think I might like to be in the play.”
It suddenly occurred to me why I hadn’t been sure it was Bill when I first saw him. He wasn’t wearing his glasses.
# # # #
The detectives had been talking to the members of the cast and crew. As they appeared to be wrapping up the questioning, the detective who had originally questioned me came back and asked, “Is there anything else you can tell us about Josh and Bill?”
“They both like to shoot,” I said. “They can both shoot pistols. Isn’t there a test you can give them to find out whether they’ve fired a weapon recently?”
“Yes, but Bill told us they were both shooting at his farm this afternoon.”
“Maybe you’d better check with Bill’s father to see if one of his guns is missing. He’s got a gun collection.”
“We’re going to do that.”
If he already knew all the answers, why was he asking me questions?
# # # #
The rain had begun again. Even though I was dressed for rain that didn’t mean I had to like it. Not cold rain, anyway, a rain that froze your innards. And that was the kind we got in April. But after a long winter I was too restless to stay inside when the weather was even halfway decent. I had to take my Sunday tramp through the woods.
I watched the waterfall of drops cascade down my sleeves and felt the spreading wetness penetrate my shoes and socks and soak my feet. I remembered I had an extra pair of socks deep in my interior pocket. I could stop in the deserted shed and at least dry my feet temporarily.
In ten minutes I approached the shed, with its unpainted wooden siding as gray as the weather. I could hear the door creaking, telling a long forgotten history, even over the noise of the rain, as the breeze rocked it on its hinges. As I came up to the door I heard something more: voices. Inside the shed.
I stopped in my tracks, preparing to flee. Whoever these people were they definitely weren’t expecting visitors. I was about to walk away when I heard a female voice raised in—anger? Fear? I moved quietly around to the side where the window was, its glass long blown away—by the wind or shots from passing hunters.
I listened. I heard the creaking door and splattering rain. Then a soothing male voice said, “Everything is under control. We maintain a low profile. We do what’s expected of us. We keep our commitments. We graduate. We…”
“What about Little Willie?”
“We do the play.”
We had been reading the play in Drama Club. Josh and Anna had already agreed to be in it.
“What about Little Willie?”
Why was she asking again? He had already answered that question.
“I’ve got it covered. Trust me. Little Willie won’t be a problem.”
“And then what? After the play? I’m nervous. I don’t think I can wait that long.”
“Don’t be. After the play we take a vacation. We just happen to get married while we’re gone. Maybe we forget to come back. I love you; that’s what counts.”
“What about the stash?”
“It’ll be safe here. Nobody comes here except an occasional hunter. And they’re not going to go digging around under the boards in the corner.”
I walked quickly away from the shed. I had already heard more than I wanted to hear. I would forget it immediately. Teacher or no teacher, I would not be a party to busting two teenagers for marijuana possession. It was not the government’s business if they smoked a few joints. And if they wanted to elope, that was fine with me too—as long as they did it after the run of the play.
# # # #
The police had completed their questioning. The members of the cast and crew were free to go, but it was hard for them to leave. We milled around, crying and hugging each other. Finally, their parents started to drag them away.
Two police officers were going to the farm of Bill’s parents, along with Josh and Bill and both sets of parents. They would check the gun collection of Bill’s father to see if a gun was missing. They hadn’t found the murder weapon.
All I could do was to go home and try to get some sleep. I walked to my car in the parking lot at the same time as the families of Bill and Josh. I noticed that Bill got into the car with his parents and Josh got into the car with his parents. I was glad they were separated. The police drove a third car.
As we exited the parking lot I found myself behind the three other cars. We drove in a procession for a couple of miles. I could see all three sets of taillights. Then the taillights turned left toward the farm. My apartment was straight ahead. To my surprise, I turned left instead of going straight.
The old shed in the woods wasn’t far from here. My mind went back to the conversation I had heard between Josh and Anna in the shed last April. They had talked about a stash. I had assumed they had been talking about marijuana because young people usually meant drugs when they talked about a stash. Probably a small amount for their personal use. Not worth a lot of money. Not worth killing for.
That incident had occurred about a week after the theft of the money from the factory of Josh’s father. Money intended to pay seasonal workers who preferred to be paid in cash. A theft that had looked like an inside job because nothing had been broken or broken into, not even the safe. Somebody had keys and combinations. And Josh worked for his father during the summers.
A stash of more than half-a-million dollars might be worth killing for if you didn’t want to share your loot with your girlfriend because you were tired of her. And if you could blame it on someone else, so much the better.
Now I knew why I was following the parade. I had to lead the police to the shed in the woods.
Something else about that conversation was bugging me—the mention of Little Willie. I had assumed Josh and Anna were referring to the play, and the terminology certainly came from the name of the play, but what if they had seen the resemblance between Little Willie and Bill, as I had? Maybe Little Willie was a code name for Bill. Maybe Bill had found out about the theft and demanded a piece of the action in exchange for his silence.
If Josh didn’t want to share the money with Anna, why would he want to share it with Bill? Josh had told Anna he had the problem of Little Willie covered.
As we approached the farm I dropped back so it wouldn’t be obvious I was following the others. I turned off my headlights and parked my car 100 yards short of the driveway to the house. The other three cars drove up the driveway until the house hid them. I walked to the front of the house and then over to the corner beside the driveway. Nobody was in sight. They had gone in the back door.
I stood in the shadow of the house near the cars, wondering what to do next. I should probably just tell my story to the police and let them handle it from here. I would as soon as they came out of the house. I didn’t have long to wait; I soon heard voices approaching from the back of the house. As a precaution I ducked behind the brick chimney. I strained my ears, trying to recognize who was speaking.
“… take this any longer,” one voice said, softly. “I-I have to confess.”
“I knew it. I knew it was you. That was a terrible thing to do. I…really did love her.”
“She was a bitch.”
“And I was going to split with you. But where did you hide the gun?”
“I thought that part was ingenious. You know the backdrop for the warehouse set that gets raised after the final curtain so we take our bows on a bare stage?”
“I was standing right beside that. As soon as I fired I shoved the gun into a small box I had constructed on the rear of the backdrop when we were building the sets. As you know, at that point Steve simultaneously kills the lights, closes the curtains and raises the backdrop from his control panel. So the gun ended up in the rafters.”
“So it’s still there.”
“No. Remember that after we were searched I suggested to Mr. Winkler that we lower the backdrops to make the search of the catwalk area easier. I positioned myself so that when the warehouse backdrop came down I could slip the gun out of the box and into my pocket without anybody noticing.”
“So where is it now?”
I poked my head around the chimney. Bill had the gun in his hand and he was holding it against Josh’s forehead. With his other hand Bill gripped Josh’s shoulder and backed him up against one of the cars so he couldn’t move. Bill was as big as Josh and he was strong from doing farm-work.
Bill said, “There’s just one loose end. You have to commit suicide. That will seal your guilt. Then I get the money.”
“Too late, Bill,” I said. “I heard everything.”
Bill turned his head to look at me; I was still partially protected by the chimney and the night and was ready to pull myself back completely behind the chimney if he aimed the gun at me.
I distracted Bill enough to allow Josh to knock the gun barrel away from his head while simultaneously twisting his body free of Bill. The gun fired harmlessly into the air, but I jumped, nevertheless. Josh ran out of firing range and I backed away in the opposite direction. I had been a sprinter in my day and could still outrun Bill if I had to.
He looked from one of us to the other and then at the police car, which was the last car in the driveway. I realized that the keys might be in it and decided that I would not try to be a hero and prevent him from taking it.
But Bill stood undecided just long enough for the two policemen to run out of the house and get the drop on him. After he surrendered I started breathing.
Little Willie in a rage
Shot down Anna on the stage.
Little Willie’s off to jail;
Won’t somebody go his bail?