I hated her too. I wanted her dead. And I know I’m not the only one. But now that leading lady Vanessa Hargreaves, celebrity starlet, lies spent and lifeless on the stage of the glorious Royal Ruby Theatre, I have to ask myself: How did it come to this?
I know one thing for sure: I didn’t kill Vanessa. But if I didn’t do it, who did?
The audience is confused. I can hear them whispering in their seats. What’s going on? Why is the star of the show dead in the very first scene?
They don’t realize this isn’t part of the play. And who can blame them? At the Royal Ruby, we’re known for our stage illusions, for a show that changes with every performance, that adds wild, death-defying effects, and where it turns out to be a different killer every night. It’s because of this that audiences return over and over again to watch The Fox Hunt, the longest-running murder mystery in Broadway history and the most unpredictable too.
I am just an usher, no one special, at least not yet. But mark my words: one day, I’m going to be a star. I have seen this show literally hundreds of times from the safety of my usher’s stool, tucked discreetly in the back corner of the main- floor rows. Nestled in the dark like a mushroom, I mouth along to every line of the script. I know all the actors’ parts by heart, every bit of stage business, every prop and illusion that appear from the rise of the curtain to its fall. It’s because I know every beat of this play that I’m keenly aware of when things go wrong. And things have just gone very, very wrong.
Moments ago, the curtain went up. Vanessa—gorgeous, flawless it-girl—pranced onto the stage in her formfitting emerald gown. She stood under the antler chandelier and pronounced the opening line of the play: “What a perfect day for a fox hunt.”
I heard an unusual creaking sound in the catwalk far above, and then, out of nowhere, the chandelier came crashing down onto the stage. One of its decorative antlers, honed to a razor point, skewered our celebrity starlet right in the jugular and rendered her immobile, affixed to the very boards she’s walked on six nights a week for the last two years.
I ran down the center aisle and jumped onto the stage. Now, I’m kneeling beside Vanessa as the cast and crew members slowly trickle out from the wings, dumbstruck with shock. It’s as though everything is happening in slow motion. I’ve dreamed of being a leading lady for my entire life, but I didn’t want it to happen like this. I’m just an usher, but I find myself under the spotlight for the very first time, and yet this is no act. This is not a performance—it’s real.
“Vanessa, hold on!” I say, grabbing her perfectly manicured hand. “Call emergency!” I yell out to the crowd. “Quick!”
Vanessa’s grip is weak. Her lips are moving. I bend closer to her mouth as she struggles to speak. That’s when I hear them—her last words. They gurgle out of her mouth with a frothy, blood-tinged foam. “The ghost of the Royal Ruby . . . did this,” she says.
She looks away from me then, out at her adoring audience, the hundreds of fans who’ve paid an exorbitant ticket price just for a live glimpse of her. I follow her gaze to where it lands in the mezzanine above. When I look back at Vanessa, her eyes are glazed and vacant. She’s dead.
It’s funny, isn’t it? How you can look at someone a thousand times and never really see them—until suddenly, one day, you do. I gaze back up to where Vanessa was staring in the mezzanine. There. Front-row center, a figure looks down on us from above.
That’s when I know who did it and that Vanessa was right. The ghost of the Royal Ruby killed her.
Earlier that day . . .
I don’t believe in ghosts. Or magic. Or superstition. Never have. But let me just say that whatever puts bums in seats is good for everyone. The rumors about there being a ghost in the theater started up again a couple of months ago after a series of weird accidents.
First, Scooter, our fun-loving stagehand, got tangled in the ropes backstage and broke his leg in three places. We all figured he was goofing around in the dark, but he insists that’s not the case, that someone pushed him. Then it was Stuart, the props master of the show. He was burned while handling one of the show’s pyrotechnic props. And more recently, there was the incident of urine magically appearing in Donald’s cup during the banquet scene.
Obviously, something’s up at the Royal Ruby, and whatever’s going on, it will all become clear eventually. That’s the way it works in the theater—wait long enough, and the truth steps into the spotlight.
I’ve worked here as an usher for over two years as part of a mentorship program for young upcoming talent. I love this theater. The Royal Ruby is an Edwardian-era beauty built in honor of the maven of mystery herself, the most popular female playwright of all time, Eleanor Ruby. The marquee out front says as much about the theater as it does about its deceased namesake—pitch-black letters in Baskerville font, lit by a single bulb, the edges cast in shadow. The Ruby knows everything and yet divulges nothing. That’s what draws people in, keeps them coming back to our show year after year.
As for my actual job, being an usher is pretty easy. I hand out playbills; I help patrons find their seats. During performances, I make sure no house doors are opened. It’s up to me to minimize interruptions, to preserve the careful illusions conjured onstage—because that’s what the theater is all about, isn’t it? Shadows, magic, and mystery.
Being an usher isn’t exactly a dream job, but it is a stepping stone to becoming a performer. There are cool perks to being in the mentorship program too. I get to liaise with the actors. I get to know them personally, hear their tips and tricks of the trade. For the last four years, I’ve been taking private acting classes—and not just the cattle-call kind led by Mr. Community Theater Nobody, but private one-on-ones with coaches recommended to me by cast members from The Fox Hunt. This is how you learn the craft. This is how you get ahead.
I’ll tell you right now: one day, you’re going to see my name in lights. And this face of mine? Yes, this one, with the giant purple birthmark on my cheek the size and shape of Australia—one day, this unlikely face is going to be world famous. I may not be beautiful like Vanessa Hargreaves, but I’m going to be a star.
A few years ago, when I told my parents I wanted to study acting after high school, my dad nearly spat out his dinner at the table. “That’s impossible,” he said. “Not with . . . that.” He pointed his fork at the blemish on my face, as if I didn’t know exactly where it was, as if I didn’t suffer it every day of my life.
My mother stepped in, smoothing things over. “A girl has a right to dream,” she said as she poked at the peas on her plate.
“Not with my money,” my father replied, thereby ending the conversation.
After graduating from high school, I enrolled in university in a “proper program,” as my father called it, prep for law school, but I barely went to class. My father found out at midterm and disowned me.
Now, I live in a closet-size room in a shared apartment near the theater. I survive on ramen noodles and rice. Every few weeks, my mother calls me to check in, but I haven’t talked to my father since my Great Educational Defection. I’m alone in this city, working overtime at the theater to pay for rent and acting classes . . . and you know what? I’m happier than I’ve ever been before.
I’ve even managed to squirrel away some of my usher’s money. It’s in a savings fund I’ll use to pay for tuition to the Ruby Acting Academy, the best theater school in the country, one that’s affiliated with the Royal Ruby Theater mentorship program.
I’ve now made it through three rounds of auditions for the Academy, competed against countless other hopefuls vying for a coveted spot in the elite performance school. There’s only one step left before I’m officially accepted—getting written endorsements from all four lead actors in The Fox Hunt. It’s an old-school rule that comes from the times before theater schools, when acting was a pure apprenticeship, an art form passed from one performer to the next. Anyone can do one good audition piece, but a true actor has to inhabit the full range of human experience, and who better to judge who has that ability than actors themselves?
If all four lead cast members in The Fox Hunt say I have “it” and I’ve paid my dues behind the scenes, I’m in, accepted into the Academy. I’ve done everything I can to ingratiate myself with the cast. I’ve been their gofer. I’ve fetched them coffee and bobby pins and Ativan. I’ve devoured their advice, hung off their every word, and I’ve learned so much about what it takes to make it as an actor.
Maureen Withers plays the elderly dowager in The Fox Hunt. When I asked her to sign for me, she did so instantly, though she was quick to challenge my career choice. “If the screen doesn’t kill you, the stage will. But if this is what you want, I support you.”
Next, I approached Dirk Cleeves, the impossibly good- looking TV star with a face that looks chiseled from marble. “Is this your way of getting my autograph?” he asked, then winked at me and signed my letter. The wink meant nothing. Dirk would flirt with a one-eyed chicken if it were his only option, which it’s definitely not. Every now and then, a girl in the audience faints when he takes the stage. As an usher, it’s my job to text a “Code Cleeves” to the stagehands, who haul the starstruck fan out to the lobby to recover.
I was never worried about approaching Donald Kingsley for his endorsement—yes, that Donald Kingsley, two-time Oscar winner, seven-time Tony winner, and one of the nation’s most beloved older stars. It’s Donald who helped me prepare my audition for the Academy. Dressed in his trademark velvet waistcoat and black cravat, he watched me perform my monologue over and over again in the privacy of his dressing room.
“Stop flapping about. You lose all your power that way,” he advised.
“I don’t know what you mean,” I said, my hands gesticulating wildly.
“Containment—an old actors’ trick. Arms by your sides. Put all that energy into your voice and eyes. Don’t move a muscle.”
It took me a while, but eventually, I could feel it—how stillness distills everything, how feelings and motivations can lie in wait, supercharged under the surface. The sensation was incredible—like being superhuman.
“There,” Donald said, clapping slowly at the end of my monologue. “That’s it. That’s the ghost. It moved in you. Master that one skill, and you’ll be a star.”
He signed my letter after that. His sweeping, elegant signature was the best endorsement I could ever hope for.
But it isn’t the last one I require. I still need superdiva Vanessa to sign for me. Vanessa, the grade A bitch. Sometimes I think she’s the grandest illusion of our show—beautiful on the outside yet rotten to the core. No one in the cast and crew likes her. She’s vicious and cruel, a stage hog in every possible way. She’s gotten to the top of the industry by pushing everyone to the bottom and then rubbing their faces in the mud. Not that her fans realize this. They worship the ground she walks on. Vanessa proves what Hamlet always knew: you really can smile and smile and still be a villain.
Do you know Vanessa once threw scalding coffee at our stagehand Scooter because he was “staring at her cleavage”? Here’s the thing: Scooter can’t see shit without his glasses on, and he’d lost them earlier that day.
Then there was the time she threw a hissy fit because Donald got a standing ovation at the end of the show. “It’s only because he’s old,” she said in the wings after the show, loud enough for everyone to hear. The next night, during the banquet scene, Donald’s goblet was mysteriously filled with piss. “Must have been the ghost of the Royal Ruby,” Vanessa said afterward with a shrug. But we all know exactly who was behind the piss in the goblet. Only Vanessa would stoop so low.
Once, I worked up the nerve to ask her if she could recommend an acting coach. “For who?” she asked as she looked over my shoulder.
“For me,” I said.
She stared at me then, her feline eyes ice cold. “I can think of no one I’d recommend. No one at all,” she said, spitting out the words.
I was shocked. I couldn’t speak or move. Why is she always so mean? Eventually, I stumbled my way out of the greenroom and vowed never to approach her again. But here’s the thing: I need her signature. And I swear, I’ll do just about anything to get it. If I had to kill for it, I wouldn’t think twice.
But there is good news. A few days ago, I made progress. I wrote Vanessa a gushing fangirl letter and asked her if she’d sign for me. I delivered the note to her dressing room with a bouquet of white lilies, her favorite flower. Vanessa reluctantly agreed to talk to me today about lending her endorsement for the Academy. I’m to meet her in her dressing room before the show, which is why I’m on my way to the theater early today. If I’m successful in getting her to sign, I’ll be the first aspiring actor to win her over.
I push through the gleaming brass doors of the Royal Ruby Theater. God, I love the smell of this place, the mineral crispness emanating from the antique marble floors, the hints of metallic tang from the brass details, and that other scent, too, a mix of perfumes and colognes and anticipation from the decades of theatergoers who’ve visited this hallowed place. I head through the lobby and stand below the winding marble staircase that leads to the mezzanine. On the wall in front of me in a gilded frame is the famous portrait in oil of the theater’s namesake, world-renowned playwright Eleanor Ruby.
Her silver hair is pinned up, with just a few wild tendrils loosely framing her face. She wears a scarlet V-neck dress that shows off her cleavage. A strand of pearls loosely encircles her neck, and in her hands she holds a plain black notebook. I love to amaze new theatergoers by shining my flashlight on that notebook. Underneath the first layer of paint is a hidden message written in Latin that’s magically revealed under bright light—Homicidium meum secretum. “Murder is my secret.” It is said that when Eleanor didn’t like certain actors, they’d mysteriously drop dead midseason. To this day, the question remains: Did Eleanor have something to do with it?
Many people believe Eleanor’s ghost haunts the theater, that she appears exactly as she does in this portrait, walking the boards at night. What a load of superstitious crap, just another tall tale to attract tourists. Still, I’ve never liked the way Eleanor’s eyes in this portrait follow you around the lobby, like she’s watching your every move, like she knows something you don’t.
“Talking to the ghost again?” I hear, right in my ear. I jump and turn around.
Alice, our stage manager, is standing behind me. In her late fifties, she’s worked here for decades, seen stars and audiences come and go. Her gray hair is piled high on her head, held together by bobby pins and a mechanical pencil. She wears the same red sweater over her outfit every day. From time to time, she plucks the pencil from her head to write notes in the black binder she calls her Stage Bible. I swear I’ve never seen it leave her hands. Now, she dons her glasses, which she wears on a beaded string around her neck, to admire the portrait in front of us.
“She wasn’t a beauty, but Eleanor was a force of nature,” Alice says. “She reminds me of you.” Alice eyes me over her glasses, a grin forming on her lips. “Big day today, Grace. The final signature.”
“I can’t stop shaking,” I say. “What if Vanessa refuses to sign?”
“Then the cast and crew will strangle her. Do you know she once told me I should follow her juice diet to help me lose weight and achieve the ‘Hargreaves glow’? And repair my cellulite, too, according to her. Nice, right?”
“Classic Vanessa,” I reply.
“This stage needs a young actor like you, Grace, someone different. We’ve had enough Vanessas over the years, all those pretty nitwits with an overweening sense of entitlement. It’s your turn to shine.”
She reaches out and touches a hand to my cheek. I know it’s no accident that her palm rests against the purple blot on my face. I’m grateful when she takes it away because if she held it any longer, I’d burst into tears.
“Is it true you once wanted to be an actor?” I ask Alice. “It is,” she replies. “But I apparently lacked ‘star quality.’” “Ah. The famous euphemism for ‘not pretty enough,’” I say.
Alice nods. “I’m used to it now, being behind the scenes,
I mean. And I’m a bit of a control freak, as you know, so this job suits me.” She raps her knuckles against her black book. “I was honored when the board gave me a vote over which students to admit into the Academy. It felt like they finally valued the opinion of someone in the backstage crew. But that’s over now.”
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“Vanessa objected,” she replies. “She said crew members aren’t qualified to be voting members of the board because we don’t understand performers. The board revoked my vote shortly after.”
“Unbelievable,” I say.
“Remember,” Alice says as she lays a hand on my arm, “the whole crew wants this for you, more than you can possibly know. I better get going.” She pulls away from me. “I’ve got to talk to Stuart about the wonky fog machine. And the chandelier pulleys are squeaking again. Must fix those.” She turns to leave but then stops. “If you’re heading backstage, beware that Eleanor’s ghost is up to her tricks again.”
“What happened this time?”
“The gold star on Vanessa’s dressing room door has ‘magically disappeared.’ Let’s just say she’s not happy about it. Proceed with caution.”
I sigh. “She’s going to be in a worse mood than usual.” “Stop fretting,” Alice says. “Also, Scooter’s looking for
you. Says he has something of yours.” “Where is he?” I ask.
“Catwalk.” She turns and walks away. “Break a leg today, Grace,” she calls over her shoulder, “preferably one of Vanessa’s!”
It’s the last I hear before she disappears into the box office in the lobby. Once she’s gone, I touch the gilded frame of Eleanor’s portrait to make a silent wish for good luck—not that I believe in good luck charms or ghosts. But at this point, I need all the help I can get.
Excerpted from MURDER AT THE ROYAL RUBY by Nita Prose with permission from the publisher, Amazon Original Stories. Copyright © 2023 by Nita Prose Inc. All rights reserved.
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