Edmonton mystery author Janice MacDonald is back with Condemned to Repeat, the latest instalment in the Randy Craig Mystery series. For anyone other than Randy Craig, a contract to do archival research and web development for Alberta’s famed Rutherford House should have been a quiet gig. But when she discovers an unsolved mystery linked to Rutherford House in the Alberta Archives and the bodies begin to pile up, Randy can’t help but wonder if her modern-day troubles are linked to the intrigues of the past...
Stephen Dafoe was not really what I had expected from what Marni had told me about him. First off, since he had been such a child prodigy and local icon, I sort of expected more ego to be emanating from the man. Instead, when I went out to the curb to see if I could help him with his equipment, he introduced himself with a bright smile and a firm handshake.
“I’d love some help. You know, most magicians have assistants just to help schlep equipment. Fishnets and a Vanna White presentation arm are incidental.”
We propped the front door open with one of the bins and began hauling the rest in, straight to the kitchen hall. We were going to have to close one of the public doors for this event, which had already been agreed to when they were negotiating Dafoe da Fantabulist. The mystery event actors had been a bit miffed that they wouldn’t be able to lead participants up the maid’s stairs at the rear of the House, but I figured they’d find a way to get by.
By this time, Marni had arrived to introduce herself and determine what extras Mr. Dafoe was going to require. Luckily, he provided for his own animals, so water and a plate of food kept warm till after his show was all the sustenance required. The mystery players would eat with the group of participants, jollying them into the fiction of the evening. Dafoe would be entertaining prior to dinner taking place, then would recuse himself and the dinner theatre would begin.
The gist of the evening was that a group of magicians were having a reunion, ten years after the terrible accident that had killed the Great Guilfoyle’s assistant. Guilfoyle had taken to drink and was now a mere shell of himself. Three other magicians had returned, ostensibly to have an intervention, to keep him from tipping over the edge, but there were various hidden agendas. Two of them were hoping to steal his greatest trick, The Disappearing Dame. One of them wanted the Great Guilfoyle’s patronage, because his name was still a known factor in Las Vegas, and his protégé would have more doors open to him. One of the other magicians’ assistants still carried a torch for Guilfoyle and there was a hint that they’d possibly had an affair. Another assistant was certain that Guilfoyle’s late assistant had had an affair with her husband. And finally, a writer hoping to write a sensational true crime book had insinuated himself into the gathering.
I was impressed with Marni’s foresight to hire an actual magician to set the scene and create the aura for the evening. This way, the audience would be buzzing with that “how’d he do that” mind tilt that always happened to me after a good magic show.
This event was completely booked, which was totally a tribute to the actors hired. In the relatively short time I’d been working around the House, one thing I had realized was that the level of promotion of events was pretty paltry. Secretly, I had a feeling Roxanne, Marni’s counterpart with the province who oversaw the historic site aspects, was willing these things to fail. Her view was that people should just appreciate the fact that we had these lovely resources being preserved for us. Marni would knock herself out to get events organized, to help promote the House. But for some reason, all the energy went into the creation of the event; putting out advertising became almost an afterthought. As a result, the board of directors for Rutherford House were seriously considering pulling special events from the roster and focusing their energies entirely on the tea house and tours.
Marni had something to prove with this event. Two or three of the board members had apparently signed up for the mystery dinner. Luckily, thanks to Marni’s decision to hire actors from the talented crew who populated the Die-Nasty Live Soap Opera, the improvisational theatre that had flourished for over two decades in town, word was getting around and tickets were selling.
Once it was learned that Die-Nasty actors were involved in a mystery dinner theatre, the phone had rung off the hook and tickets were gone within a day. With any luck, the theatre lovers would become House patrons and this would be exactly the sort of cross-pollination that Marni had been hoping for all along. If she could prove that these events promoted the House, her programming would live to serve another term.
There is just nothing like a little job-on-the-line pressure to bring up the pitch in someone’s voice. Today, as everything came to a head, she was beginning to sound like Topo Gigio. Already, I was regretting agreeing to help her with the set-up. Another couple of hours of shrill was going to send me to the ibuprofen bottle. Pasting a plastic smile on my face, I nodded and agreed to bring up more chairs from the basement, and then to set out the candelabra table centres for the tea room, to match the set-up in the Rutherfords’ dining room. The mystery elements at the dinner could be stymied by the popularity of the event, since the guests would be eating in three separate areas, the dining room, the glassed-in sun porch, and the inner room of the tea house. Still, savvy actors could create events in each room to bring out the necessary information.
I love mystery dinners. The aspect of having to listen carefully to each actor, who was salting his or her dialogue with hints or clues, then setting everything you had heard against what was on the clue board and coming up with a solution, has always appealed to me. I had treated Steve to one once, though, and he hated it. Although the steak dinner had been terrific, he had felt the entertainment to be more like work than play. Personally, I think it was because he guessed wrong and didn’t win. His defence was that, since they were actors, they all seemed to be lying to him.
Marni didn’t think it was necessary for me to be at the rehearsal process for the actors, so I wasn’t altogether certain how the evening was going to progress. The only thing I knew for certain was that the victim was going to be played by Tanya Rivera, because she had to be across town at the Mayfield Dinner Theatre for an eight o’clock curtain. The concept was that Miriam Stewart, playing one of the magicians’ assistants, would lead people upstairs to the Rutherfords’ bedroom and discover Tanya’s body in the long walk-in closet. They would cover her in a sheet and lead people downstairs to wait for the “police detective,” who I was certain would be dressed in a trench coat and homburg.
Once everyone was downstairs, I was to give Tanya the high sign and she would sneak down the maid’s staircase and out to the side driveway, where her car was parked. From there on in, photos that had been already posed and shot would be used on the clue board.
In movies, time is often treated in a montage format, so that before you know it, days or hours have passed and all the people have arrived and put on running shoes, or built a barn, or got into the shape required to box for glory. While it never quite rings true to viewers, I swear sometimes it just happens in real life. Although I don’t recall hearing an Oscar-worthy song playing, between bringing in Stephen Dafoe’s plastic totes and being given the final pep talk as a group by Marni before the doors were opened on the evening’s event, time seemed to fly by in a blur. People arrived, props were placed where required, a bulletin board was set up in Mr. Rutherford’s study, and the dining tables were set and ready. Dafoe was organized to perform at the west end of the front parlour, to a standing audience. After his half-hour show, the patrons would disperse to their tables. Two actors would eat in the dining room, one at each table in the inner part of the tea room, and two more in the sunroom addition. Those places were marked reserved. The rest of the seats were up for grabs.
Marni looked us all over. The actors playing erstwhile magicians and assistants were dressed in various combinations of tuxedos and fishnets and satin. Dafoe, in contrast, was wearing a loose corduroy suit, looking more like a junior high social studies teacher than a magician. The three of us assigned the tasks of keeping visitors out of restricted areas and away from artifacts were in the standard white shirt, dark skirt, and tights.
Once the play logistics were all satisfactorily organized to Marni’s specifications, I was sent back to help Stephen Dafoe as best I could. From what I could tell, he had everything under control, but he didn’t seem to be intent on shooing me away, so I hung around.
He had set up a tripod table at the end of the room, centred so he could stand to either side or behind it. With Marni’s permission, he had drawn the west curtains. I guess it wouldn’t do to have some anthropology student from the Tory Building wandering over and peering through the window to steal a trick. To be generous, it might have had something to do with sun glare.
Dafoe himself had changed from his corduroy outfit into tuxedo trousers and a swirling jacket that was almost a cape; it was fitted at the front, but swung from the shoulders into a wide back. The collar stood up, and shone with a satin finish. The reflection from the satin highlighted the arch to his eyebrows and made his eyes seem blacker. Perhaps it really was true that clothes made the man.
He noticed me staring at him and smiled, which really didn’t do all that much to put me at ease. It was a carnival smile, half-amused, half-cruel. It was a smile that was looking for the next sucker.
“Magic is what people want it to be, Randy. I may call you Randy?” I nodded, once again ruing the fact that my face was, as my boyfriend Steve would say, more transparent than glass. “If we hope to deliver illusions to the masses, we must dress the part, which is danger. No one trusts what they cannot explain, and what you cannot trust, you fear. Ergo, if we open the door to fear just a bit from the beginning, we have set the stage for the audience to buy into the whole experience.”
“Maybe you could just get a rabbit with fangs,” I suggested, trying to lighten the mood. The chill in the room couldn’t entirely be the fault of the ancient boiler. Dafoe laughed, and with that the illusion disappeared. He once again seemed like the nice man whose rubber storage boxes I’d help schlep in a couple of hours ago. Almost done his preparations, he pointed out a few things. On a hat stand to the right was hung a wizard’s cape, a top hat, a furled umbrella, and a cane. To the left was a purple box on wheels with green and blue and gold question marks painted all over it. These, he said, contained his illusions. From the table in the centre, he would perform what he called “close magic,” which used cards and water.
As he said “water,” he pulled a goldfish bowl, complete with placid orange fish, out from under his coat and set it on the table. Startled, I laughed and clapped, and Dafoe produced a short Prussian bow.
“That was wonderful! Marni actually wanted to know if you needed me for anything—to hand you things or make sure people are standing in a certain formation, that sort of thing.”
“I’m not sure I brought along the sequined costume,” he began, and then laughed again at the horror of my reaction. “Relax, I was only joking. I appreciate the offer, but,” and he swirled his cape around for effect and turned his face once more into the devilish mask, “I work alone.”
If that wasn’t a curtain line, I had never heard one. I did my best heel-clicking bow to him in return and left the room.
Janice MacDonald's Randy Craig Mysteries were the first detective series to be set in Edmonton, Alberta. Janice was a long-time reviewer of mystery novels for the Edmonton Journal and an on-air "crime fiction expert" for the Canadian television series Booked.