It's summer in the Chicago suburbs, and Jane Jeffry and her best friend, Shelley, are testing caterers on a local theater group, now ensconced in a building Shelley's husband donated to the community college. An enchanting and famous elderly actress is taking part, along with her far less pleasant actor husband. When one of the most irritating of the younger actors is found murdered, Jane, Shelley, and Jane's detective sweetie, Mel, are all swept up in the search for whodunit. What usually charms about this series is the genuine warmth between Jane and Shelley, Jane and Mel, and Jane's three adolescent children. This time there's a little too much teaching in the wobbly plot, however, as Churchill ladles on the details about local theater production and Jane's needlepoint classes.
A Midsummer Night's Scream
grocery store. It was the hottest, most awful July week anyone in the suburbs of Chicago could remember. Jane, who was driving, had a long list of things to acquire. She'd planned out a whole week of cold salads for herself and her kids Mike, Katie, and Todd. Hearty, interestingly shaped pastas, lots of good veggies, hard-boiled eggs, tuna, and chicken to pile upon huge amounts of crisp, cold lettuce, accompanied by big pitchers of iced tea, a twelve-pack of V8, and soft drinks. Frozen fruit desserts. Even Popsicles.
It would only entail one miserable early morning of boiling and sautéing and running up the air-conditioning bill. Then she wouldn't do any real cooking at all until there was a relatively cool day.
"What was wrong with that space right in front of the exit door?" Shelley complained as Jane cruised the grocery store parking lot.
"A beat-up car was next to it. That's the sort of person you don't want to park next to. They don't care about the condition of your car because they don't care about their own."
"You don't intend to park way down the street, where we have to run the carts half a mile and then bring them back, do you?"
"Nope. See the space between the Mercedes and the Land Rover? That's where we want to be — next to people who care about their automobile's well-being."
When they came out of the store, each of them had four bags in her cart. They put them in the back of Jane's Jeep, which she'd equipped with a clear plastic sheet to prevent spills staining the carpet.
"Jane, you're more protective of this Jeep than you were of your children."
"Yes," Jane admitted.
When Jane pulled into her new driveway, noting how nice it was not to have to dodge the horrible pothole anymore, Shelley asked, "What have you heard about your manuscript?"
"You're not supposed to keep asking me about it. I'll tell you later, when we've sorted out which bags belong to each of us and put away the food."
"I haven't asked about your book for a full month. I've kept track," Shelley said, then added, "I have something to talk to you about, too. A new project for us to try out."
Jane almost groaned. In a couple of years they'd be stay-at-home mothers without children at home anymore. They had tried out several jobs and hobbies they had thought would be interesting and profitable. They'd taken on knitting and gardening and took a lot of classes. They'd even attempted to be wedding planners. None of which had claimed their hearts. Jane half feared that if she sold this book and continued to write mysteries, Shelley might not have found a job she also loved.
On the other hand, she might still be able to work with Shelley — most writers probably managed to have a real life and do other things, she assumed.
They managed to sort out which bags were Jane's and which were Shelley's, and when they started taking them inside, Shelley called across their adjoining driveways, "We'll talk about your book and my project over a good dinner out."
"Why would we go out to dinner when we have three tons of food?"
"Because Paul's out of town examining the books of one of his franchised restaurants. He thinks they're fudging the numbers. And all our kids are going to the swimming pool and eating there this evening. You don't want to cook for yourself and neither do I."
"You have a good point. Chinese?"
While they nibbled on crab Rangoon and the best spring rolls in their suburb, Jane told Shelley that Felicity Roane, the nice, helpful writer whom they'd met at a mystery convention, had read her manuscript and made a few suggestions. "I fixed them in two days and sent the manuscript to Melody Johnson. That was three weeks ago." Melody Johnson was the editor whom Felicity Roane had suggested. Jane had met Melody at the same mystery conference and had had an interview with her about her book. Melody had been interested and had asked Jane to send the whole manuscript to her.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"I was afraid she wouldn't like it and I'd be back at square one."
"Have you heard back from her?"
"No, not yet. I rushed it a bit. I wanted to get it in by the middle of July. I understand publishing pretty well shuts down in August. Everybody goes to the Hamptons or Maine."
"Everybody? They turn off the lights and computers and go away?"
"Not quite. The secretaries and junior editors have to stick around, I imagine. I wanted Melody to have the manuscript before she disappeared on her vacation."
As their Mongolian beef arrived and the appetizer plates, looking as if they'd been licked clean,were taken away, Jane asked, "So what's this project you have in mind?"
"It started when Paul purchased a run-down theater, thinking he could renovate it into a place to keep food supplies for all his restaurants in the Chicago area."
"He started getting bids for cleaning it up. And it appeared to be too expensive. He's even more obsessed by cleanliness of food storage than the government agencies are. He'd have had to tear the building down and start from scratch. He didn't want to make the investment in doing that, much less waste the time it would take. So he donated it to the community college's theater department. It was a good tax break for him."
"It's not like Paul to buy property without thoroughly investigating it, is it?" Jane asked.
Shelley grinned. "That wasn't the real reason he bought it, I have to admit. But never let him know I told you this. It used to be a movie theater and it was where he saw the first film he ever watched. A black-and-white cowboy epic. He still remembers that as one of his best childhood experiences. The building was due to be leveled to make a parking lot."
"Paul is sentimental?" Jane was astonished.
"Only about a very few things and people. Thank goodness, I'm one of them," Shelley said, coming close to blushing.
"I still don't understand how this theater thing involves us," Jane said warily.
"The college is putting on a play, and we'll cater the food. The rehearsals start at six and go to nine forty-five. Most of the students and teachers involved won't have time to have dinner between their last class of the day and the rehearsal."
Jane frowned. "We're not supposed to cook anything, are we? If so, count me out right now."
"No, it's just snacky stuff for halfway through rehearsals. Sandwiches, chips, soft drinks. On paper plates. I've hired ten different caterers to try out, so it's not always the same kind of food."
"Where on earth did you find ten different caterers?"
"In the phone book. I ignored all the fast-food places that would bring stuff that anybody could drive through to eat. Then I asked twenty of the rest to send me references with the name of the organization and the name and telephone number of the person who'd hired them. Fifteen replied."
Jane should have known that Shelley was well prepared.
"How long does this go on? Ten whole days in a row?" Jane thought it sounded really boring.
"No," Shelley said. "We only do five a week. The students get out of class at noon on Saturday. And they get Sundays off to do all their homework."
"Do we have to hang around? Do we collect all the paper plates and plastic spoons?"
"No, the caterers do that. We merely supervise. And we get to sit in on the rehearsals."
"Why would we want to do that?"
"Because I've run through most of the most expensive caterers around here for Paul's annual dinner for his managers. I want to try out some new ones."
"I meant, why would we want to watch the rehearsals? Eating is fine."
"I thought it might be interesting," Shelley said. "I've never seen anything being rehearsed. Do they change things as they go along? Are there some scenes that look good on paper and just don't work—"
"I don't like amateur theater," Jane interrupted. "We don't have to sit through the whole rehearsal every evening, do we?"
"What's wrong with amateur theater?"
"The actors are — well — amateurs. They always
overact. They shout and gesture madly so they
can be heard and seen from the back row." "How do you know this?"
"I took a theater class in college," Jane admitted. "I thought it would be a slam-dunk class I could ace. Instead, I had to attend, and review, every single play and opera the school and local community produced. It was among the most annoying, stupid things I've ever done to myself."
"Don't worry. We don't have to show up early. The snacks are served around eight P.M. We can arrive at seven-thirty. I'd like to watch, though. You could take your laptop and work on your next book in the greenroom, if you'd like."
"Aren't you already thinking about another book?" Shelley asked. "You
sell this one, and the publisher will probably want another."
Jane set her fork down and said with chagrin, "You sometimes spook me out, Shelley. I
thinking of a next book. I've started making notes about other characters."
There. She'd said it. Out loud. She was going to do this. Now that she'd admitted it to Shelley, she was committed to do so.
"About Priscilla again?"
"No. I've gone as far as I can with Priscilla. I need a new heroine. And I need to make it a mystery from the first, not after I've already written and have to rewrite like I did this time. So, when do these rehearsals start?"
"Not until a week from now. And the building is air-conditioned, in case you were going to ask."
"That's good to know. That saves me from a nasty surprise."
Jane had broken down and bought herself and her younger son Todd new computers the year before. When she was researching background
material for the book about Priscilla, she had joined several Internet listservs that had to do with the time period she was using. That had led her to realize that she might get terribly backlogged if she went out of town, to visit Mike at college or just for the fun of getting away. So she bought a laptop computer as well. She told herself that it would also create a backup if her real computer went haywire or she lost the backup disk. This, she knew deep in her heart, was a silly indulgence. The truth was she thought laptops were cute and handy. Now it would finally be genuinely useful.
She brought it downstairs early the next morning and transferred the notes she'd made about the main character, who was growing in her mind.
She started the first two pots of pasta, and set a timer so she wouldn't forget and cook them to paste or let them burn to the bottom. She started pecking away at the tiny keyboard. Her character had decided on her own name.
The moment it had come to mind, Jane knew it was right. She was setting the next book in the Edwardian era, fifty years or later than the one about Priscilla. Lots of new research to do.
By the next
was used to
keyboard and had figured out a rough idea of a plot. She didn't want to spend years on this book, as she had on the first one. Finishing the first in anticipation of attending a mystery conference a few months earlier had taught her a lot.
First, and most important, was learning that she could actually finish a whole book. Second, she needed to know more about the motives, setting, characters, and clues before she started. When she'd started on the book about Priscilla, the name of the main character was really all she knew. It was no wonder it took her so many years to turn it into a novel.
She'd had no "map" that time. Worse, she'd
had no list. Jane was an obsessive list maker in
every other area of her life. Why hadn't she real-