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Authors: Elizabeth J. Duncan

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Untimely Death

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Untimely Death

Other Books by Elizabeth J. Duncan

Slated for Death

Never Laugh as a Hearse Goes By

A Small Hill to Die On

A Killer’s Christmas in Wales

A Brush with Death

The Cold Light of Mourning

Untimely Death

A Shakespeare in the Catskills Mystery

Elizabeth J. Duncan


This is a work of fiction. All of the names, characters, organizations, places, and events portrayed in this novel either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to real or actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2015 by Elizabeth J. Duncan

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Crooked Lane Books, an imprint of The Quick Brown Fox & Company LLC.

Crooked Lane Books and its logo are trademarks of The Quick Brown Fox & Company LLC.

The Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available upon request.

ISBN (hardcover): 978-1-62953-191-5

ISBN (ePub): 978-1-62953-204-2

ISBN (Kindle): 978-1-62953-652-1

ISBN (ePDF): 978-1-62953-653-8

Cover design by Stephen Gardner

Crooked Lane Books

2 Park Avenue, 10th Floor

New York, NY 10016

First Edition: November 2015

For Lucas and Riley

I fear too early, for my mind misgives

Some consequence yet hanging in the stars

Shall bitterly begin his fearful date

With this night’s revels, and expire the term

Of a despisèd life closed in my breast

By some vile forfeit of untimely death.

But he that hath the steerage of my course,

Direct my sail. On, lusty gentlemen.

Romeo and Juliet
, act 1, scene 4, lines 107–14

Chapter 1

“Rupert! Car coming! Over here, you silly dog!”

A small dog with short legs and a happy grin bounded toward the woman holding a leather leash. “Good boy!” she said as she bent over, clipped the leash to his bright-red harness, and lovingly ruffled the fur behind his upright ears.

The woman, wearing a dark-green down jacket and wooly hat against a biting March wind, stood with her dog well back from the edge of the gravel driveway as a car driven by a middle-aged blonde woman swept past. Although the man in the passenger seat had his head turned away from her, Charlotte Fairfax recognized him as someone she’d hoped never to see again.
Keep going; don’t stop
, she thought.

When the car had passed, Charlotte breathed a sigh of relief, and she and her dog continued walking up the drive toward Jacobs Grand Hotel.

Although the grandness had disappeared a decade or two ago, some faded dignity remained. The white-stuccoed main house, with its windowed gables and a large room on either side of the entrance portico, had welcomed guests in search of rest and relaxation since 1956. In the early days, couples and individuals stayed in the hotel proper, and families were booked into the bungalows that dotted the grounds. Everyone gathered in the hotel dining room for meals; entertainment was provided day and night in various function rooms. Once bursting with warm hospitality, a sense of community, and a never-ending list of indoor and outdoor activities, the hotel was now quiet and still as it shook off the last of winter and waited for summer to come around once again.

Jacobs Grand Hotel isn’t hard to find. Drive along a gently curving blacktop road about one hundred miles north-northeast of New York City, and as the woods start closing in and the majestic Catskill Mountains emerge out of the mist, you come to a series of picturesque towns and villages. One of these is Walkers Ridge, a postcard-perfect community of about three thousand souls, proud of their hometown with its charming village green and white clapboard church, adorned by the finest pointed steeple outside New England.

It was here, on rural land a little ways out of town, that Esther and Joseph Jacobs chose to build their hotel.

Jacobs Grand Hotel flourished until the late 1970s, when a younger demographic with easy access to affordable
international flights and a desire for globe-trotting independence sent it and many other all-inclusive, family-owned resorts in the Catskills into decline.

Many hotels mysteriously burned to the ground. Other properties in this land that time almost forgot were simply abandoned and reclaimed by nature, becoming eerie, overgrown reminders of long-ago afternoons filled with the excited shouts of children at tennis matches and pool parties. But the Jacobs family was one of a handful that managed to keep their business afloat.

Harvey Jacobs, grandson of Esther and Joseph and current owner of the hotel, credited his late mother with saving it. It had been her idea to hold a Shakespeare festival one summer; a large ground-floor function room near the kitchen had been converted into a small theater with a proscenium stage. Nearby storage rooms had been turned into dressing rooms, and somehow, it had all worked out.

As the festival established itself, it became the one important attraction that distinguished Jacobs Grand Hotel from all the others, and year after year, the guests kept coming, filling up the hotel bedrooms. Shakespeare, it seemed, was always in style.

There had been many lean years when it seemed doubtful they’d be able to carry on. But now, the Catskills, and Walkers Ridge in particular, were teetering on the brink of a revival, and Harvey Jacobs, third-generation hotelier, was convinced that if they could just make it through
this season—summer theater here at the hotel and then autumn performances in Albany—they would turn the corner. They’d survived the recession of the late 1980s and the bank scandals of the new century, and they were almost home and dry.

He wasn’t as involved in the theater operation as his parents and grandmother had been. In fact, while the hotel technically owned the theater company, he usually left the day-to-day running of it to theater people.

The longest-serving theater employee was Charlotte Fairfax, a slim, attractive woman in her early forties with shoulder-length brown hair, bright hazel eyes, and high cheekbones, who’d joined the Catskills Shakespeare Theater Company as head of the one-woman wardrobe and costume department about ten years ago.

As an up-and-coming costume designer with the Royal Shakespeare Company of Stratford-upon-Avon, she’d come to New York City for several months when the RSC was in town performing a play based on a Charles Dickens novel. Because the play featured so many actors, each playing several characters and thereby necessitating many costume changes, several wardrobe people were required to work as dressers to ensure that the production went smoothly.

She loved her job and considered herself fortunate to have been chosen for the Broadway assignment. But when her romance with one of the company’s leading actors fell apart in the messiest way imaginable, she decided
to remain behind in New York City when the company returned to Britain. Her career and her life had bottomed out, but she’d fought back and was grateful to Harvey Jacobs for giving her the chance to reestablish herself.

She wondered every now and then if she should have been more ambitious and worked on big Broadway productions like
The Lion King
, but she felt that her life was in a good place, and most of the time, she was content. The quiet life suited her. And besides, she’d grown up in an English village and knew that despite the outward appearance of dull tranquility, village life often hid long-held secrets and hearts of darkness.

Harvey Jacobs liked and trusted her. A few days ago, he’d told her that his nephew, Aaron, was taking a bit of time off from school and that starting next week, he would be working part-time with her in wardrobe and part-time as the stage manager under the supervision of the theater’s new director, Simon Dyer.

Charlotte and her beloved Rupert continued on their walk as the late afternoon sun washed the hotel in a gentle spring light. She loved the anticipation of this time of year, when the new cast members, most of them fresh from theater schools, arrived bursting with excitement for the season ahead, keen to start rehearsals, and all working toward the same goal of having the best opening night imaginable.

But this year was going to be different; changes were coming. She could just feel it.

Chapter 2

Death was no stranger to Charlotte. In fact, you could say she’d played a role—many times over—in twelve suicides, seven murders, and nine deaths in combat. For her, it was all in a day’s work, because it was her job to make sure villains were dressed to kill and their victims were wearing clothes to die for.

And although she’d never been part of a real-life murder, that was about to change.

Charlotte had mixed feelings about having a part-time intern dumped on her this season. At the very least, she would have liked a say in the matter, but she was willing to keep an open mind and let him show her what he could do. If he was good, she’d be glad for the extra help. But if he wasn’t, she had better things to do than find busywork to keep a New York City boy out of trouble.

“All right, Aaron, hang your jacket here, and then we’ll go over the worksheet for today.”

Charlotte crossed her arms and waited while the young man did as he was told.

Smiling, he sauntered over and stood beside her. “Okay,” he said easily, folding his arms to mirror her stance. “Where would you like me to start?” In his early twenties, with dark curly hair and friendly brown eyes, he wasn’t handsome in a traditional sense, but he was good-looking in a pleasant, contemporary way, like the actor who plays the wisecracking best friend in a romantic comedy.

“Before we get started, let’s be clear about one thing. When you’re told to be here at nine a.m., that means nine a.m., or even better, eight fifty-five so you can get your coat off and be ready to go on time. Understood?”

“Understood. My bad. Won’t happen again.” A sparkling smile underscored his sincerity.

“Good. Now the second thing you need to remember is this: costume is character. So everything we do here is critical to the success of the play. Most actors will tell you that their character isn’t complete until they’re in costume. And do you know what part of the costume really pulls everything together?”

“Their underwear?”

“The shoes. Know who told me that?”

Aaron shook his head.

“Sir Alec Guinness.”


Charlotte groaned. “Never mind. Let’s get to work. First, I’d best show you around. Follow me. We’ll start with wardrobe.”

She led him past the costume department’s worktable and a wall of shelves filled with end-of-bolt and remnant fabrics she’d bought deeply discounted or persuaded suppliers to donate to the theater company.

“Costume stock lives in here,” Charlotte said as they entered an adjacent room. Rows of clothes protected by plastic dry-cleaner bags hung from portable rails. Every hanger had a yellow tag tied to it. Aaron lifted one and read it out loud.

Merchant of Venice
. Antonio, act one.” He moved to the next tag. “
Merchant of Venice
. Bassanio, act one.”

“There are lots of ways to organize these garments. You can group by men’s and women’s and then break those groups down by age group, but I’ve found the easiest way to store them is like this, by play and act. If there’s a costume change within a scene, which happens rarely, you’ll see two costumes for the character, labeled appropriately. The costumes are alphabetical, by play and character, so if you pull one, mind you put it back in the same place. With my system, I can find any garment I need quickly.”

She placed her hand on the shoulder of a costume and adjusted its place ever so slightly on the rack.

“Our budget is small so we have to adapt existing costumes.” She shrugged. “Let out the waist, add a bit
of trim here or a ruffle there. Whatever. We’re all about ‘make do and mend’ here. We can’t design and create new costumes from scratch for each production, unfortunately. Coming as you do from fashion-design school, I hope that won’t be too much of a disappointment.” She waved a hand down a row of costumes. “You can take a closer look at these later.”

“Your accent,” Aaron said. “You’re British, aren’t you?”

“I am. English. Norfolk born and bred. I’ve lived in America for a long time, but never quite managed to lose the accent.”

“Well, I like it. It suits you.”

“I’m glad you think so, because it’s the only one I’ve got!”

They returned to the main workroom, and Charlotte pointed out an elderly black sewing machine in the corner, next to a smaller worktable. “This is handy for keeping pattern pieces on,” Charlotte said, touching the table with her fingertips. “Because we’re such a small theater, we have to do everything ourselves, including the sewing, but that could be a very good thing for you. It’s always best to know every aspect of a business, and while you’re taking a bit of time off school, working here will keep your skills sharp.” As she bent over the machine to show him how to wind a bobbin, loud voices from the hall caught their attention.

“Don’t you think for one minute you’ve heard the last of this!” shouted a female voice to the sound of a
slamming door. Charlotte and Aaron had just enough time to exchange puzzled looks before Lauren Richmond flounced into the room.

“What an idiot!” she exclaimed. Then, taking in Aaron, she said, “Oh! Who are you?”

“This is Aaron Jacobs,” said Charlotte. “Harvey’s nephew.”

Lauren leveled her arrogant brown eyes at him until he looked away.

“Lauren’s coming in at eleven for her first costume fitting,” Charlotte said to Aaron. “She’s playing Juliet. So I’d like you to—”

“Well, the thing is,” interrupted Lauren, “I wonder if we could do it now. I’m meeting someone at eleven, so it would be better for me if we could just get this over with.” She looked around the room, setting an open energy drink can on the worktable. Charlotte frowned at it but said nothing.

“Very good. Let’s get started.” Charlotte tipped her head in the direction of the wardrobe room, and understanding her unspoken instruction, Aaron trotted off. Charlotte turned to her desk and picked up a small metal box. She opened it, flipped through the contents, and pulled out a card. She set it down on the desk and folded her arms, waiting for Aaron to return with the costumes.

A few minutes later, he emerged from the wardrobe room, arms outstretched and covered with light, flimsy dresses. “I found five,” he said.

“That’ll be about right,” said Charlotte. “We won’t get to all of them today, and we’ll compare the costumes against my copy of the script later. Let’s see what you’ve got.”

She picked up the first garment and checked the tag: “
Romeo and Juliet
. Juliet, Act 1, Scene 3.”

“Hmm. Yes. This is her entrance, if I recall. As good a place to start as any.” She handed the dress to Lauren. “If you wouldn’t mind, please go behind the screen and slip into this. And then come back to us, and we’ll soon have you sorted and on your way.” She looked at Lauren’s feet. “And I’d like you to take off those high heels, so we can get an accurate idea of the length.”

She checked the accessories card she had just pulled from the box. “It comes with a little hat and a large silver cross,” she said to Aaron. “And ballet flats. Beige.” She looked at Lauren. “You’ll be wearing ballet flats. We’ll get you a pair.”

“I don’t like wearing shoes that someone else has worn. I’ll bring my own.”

“Fine, but you don’t have them here now, do you? And I’ll want to approve them to make sure they look period appropriate. So for today, we’ll do this in your bare feet.”

“I’m not going to walk around this floor in my bare feet. It’s probably filthy.”

“Keep your shoes on until you come back to us in the costume, then.” She turned to Aaron. “Look in that
cupboard over there and you’ll see a roll of pattern paper. Cut off a strip about two feet wide and bring it over here. Use the paper scissors, not the fabric scissors.” She held up a pair with black handles. “These ones. Lauren can stand on the paper whilst we fit her. Cut off just enough for her to stand on. We don’t waste anything around here, remember.” Lauren disappeared behind the screen with the dress, and Charlotte waited.

Aaron returned with a piece of brown paper and set it on the floor where Charlotte pointed. And then they both waited. Aaron leaned against the back of the worktable, a large solid block with built-in drawers and a flat surface for making and cutting patterns. An old-fashioned yardstick for measuring fabric was screwed down on one side, and two metal rulers, one L-shaped and the other a hip curve, were neatly arranged in one corner.

With a questioning glance at Charlotte and a slightly dismissive shrug of his shoulders, Aaron wandered off to explore the fabric selection. He ran his fingers along the bolts, examining the rich burgundy of the damasks and deep green of the brocades, heavy woolens, velvets, tartans, and flannels. On the lighter side, silks, satins, and taffetas in pale colors of pink, cream, and blue would be used as linings and to provide contrast through the slashing of sleeves.

“The fabric choice indicates the class or social status of the character,” Charlotte remarked. Pleased that he was showing an interest in the material, she was about to
elaborate when Lauren emerged from behind the screen and walked to the piece of brown paper laid out for her.

Even in a seventeenth-century costume paired with twenty-first-century high heels, she looked stunning.
Oh, this one is going to be a pleasure to dress, but a challenge, too
, Charlotte thought. Tall and perfectly proportioned, her dark hair falling in loose curls around her face, she looked the part of Juliet, even if she was a decade or so older than the achingly young Juliet of the play.

“How does the dress feel?” asked Charlotte.

“It’s a little tight across the back and in the chest,” Lauren replied, wriggling her shoulders. The costume consisted of a cream-colored sleeveless underdress with a gold embroidered waistband and a dusty pink overdress, open at the front.

“Take your shoes off,” said Charlotte. Lauren did as she was told, and Charlotte removed the tape measure that always hung around her neck and adjusted her dark-framed glasses. “Stand up straight, please.” She measured Lauren’s bust, hips, and back from the nape of her neck to her waist. “We’ll have to adjust the darts for allowance,” she said to Aaron. “If we can’t get that right, you can make a new top for it.”

“A new top?” said Lauren. “You must be joking! I would expect you to make me a new costume, not just put a new top on a shabby old skirt.” She pinched the overdress at the sides and lifted them up.

“I was just explaining to Aaron that it’s ‘make do and mend’ around here,” said Charlotte in a level, measured tone. “We do the best with what we’ve got. Our resources are very limited.”

“And why would he make my costume, anyway?” Lauren demanded. “Surely you would do that? You’re the costume designer and wardrobe mistress, aren’t you? He’s just your assistant! What does he know?”

“Quite a lot, actually. He’s been to Parson’s. He probably knows as much about fashion design as anyone.”

“Do you know who I am?” demanded Lauren. “I’m going to be a huge star, and you’re going to be very sorry you talked to me like that.”

“Lauren, when you’re a huge star, you can refuse to wear any costume you like. However, since huge stars like Judi Dench and Helen Mirren were happy with the stage-worn costumes I fitted for them at the Royal Shakespeare Company, I dare say these costumes will be just fine for you.”

Charlotte paused for a moment to let those names sink in and gave Lauren a practiced, professional smile. “Right, then. Ready for the next one?”

“I don’t feel like doing any more today,” said Lauren, her lips drawn down in an unbecoming, whiney pout. “You have my measurements. I can come back later. I’ve had enough of this, and I don’t want to be late for my eleven o’clock meeting.”

She put her shoes on and flounced back behind the screen. Aaron opened his mouth to say something, but Charlotte gave her head a little shake and held up a warning finger. “Aaron,” she said, “why don’t you trot along to the canteen and bring us back some tea.” She picked up a small piece of paper from her desk, wrote down a number, and handed it to him. “That’s the account number for our department. Give it to the cashier. And if you don’t like tea, get a coffee or whatever you want to drink.” He turned the piece of paper over and examined the print on the back. He raised an eyebrow.

“I make scratch paper from the messages that come in overnight on the fax machine in the office,” Charlotte explained. “I cut the page in four. With the paper scissors, not the fabric scissors.” She touched a pair of silver shears on the worktable. “Those ones are to be used only for cloth. Nothing else. Silver handles for cloth only. Black handles for paper only. Right. Off you go, and while you’re gone, I’m going to have a word with madam here.” She tipped her head in the direction of the change screen. “You can take your time coming back.”

Lauren tossed the dress over the screen and emerged from behind it in her street clothes.

“Yes, that’s perfectly all right, Lauren,” said Charlotte, with the tiniest hint of sarcasm. “Just leave the dress there, and we’ll take care of it.”

Lauren strode past her and had almost reached the door when the sound of Charlotte’s voice stopped her.

“Lauren, before you go, I’d like a word, please.”

Lauren turned. “Well? What is it? I’m in a hurry.”

“Aaron’s going to be here for the summer, working with all of us, and I’d like you to show him a bit of respect. His uncle is the owner of this hotel—and technically your employer—so you’d do well to keep that in mind. If you want to keep your job, that is.”

Lauren laughed. “Oh, I don’t think you need to worry about that. I’d say my job here is pretty secure.”

Her footsteps faded down the hall, and as she disappeared around a corner, Aaron appeared from the other direction, balancing a small tray. “They said this is how you like your tea,” he said to Charlotte as he entered the workroom.

She preferred her tea in a proper cup and saucer, but the best the canteen could do was a mug. Still, that was better than those awful disposable cups. The cup rattled a little against the tray as Aaron set it on Charlotte’s desk.

Charlotte sighed.

“What’s the matter?” asked Aaron as he picked up his paper coffee cup.

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