A week later George was playing Ophelia in a benefit performance of the River Heights Repertory Players. She had wanted to play King Lear, and had worked up a riveting mad scene for that role. The director, however, pointed out that last time she looked King Lear did not appear in Hamlet, the play they were doing. George then asked for the Danish Prince, who though not entirely mad was clearly not all there. Unfortunately her imitation of full-blown insanity at the rehearsal had been far too convincing. She was accordingly saddled with the much smaller, though very mad, part of Polonius' daughter.
"I'll be dead in Act Four!" George moaned. "And I die offstage!"
"But you get to sing," comforted Bess.
"You know that I don't know one note from another!"
"I'll coach you. And, then, if you make a mistake and go off key just a bit, it will be just the right touch. Don't worry, I'll make you look beautiful." Bess was George's personal costume and makeup advisor.
George was not entirely reassured. "Come, you spirits," she intoned, "That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here . . ."
"George! You are not to mix yourself up by remembering the lines of Lady Macbeth!"
"Come to my woman's breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers . . ."
"Hold, hold!" screamed Bess, who though scientific was also religious in her way and couldn't abide the thought of murdering ministers. "Let's get you back into your real part."
But George, though she knew Bess's sensibilities, could not be stopped, only deflected. "If I quench thee, thou flaming minister . . ." she recited in her best Ronald Colman voice. Bess eventually had to ignore George in order to gather her thoughts. More important than George's histrionics, Bess realized, was the effect she would project by the proper déshabille in her costume. She would require just the right wildflowers, cunningly woven into her hair. And the perfect place for gathering such flowers, she remembered, was along the hilly roadside near the High Road Inn. She could check in on waitress Joni at the same time. And it would give her a chance to try the mock-pineapple pie she had noticed on the menu, but had not dared to consume in front of George.
Mere hours before the performance, while George was soaking in a bath to get herself in the mood for offstage drowning, Bess motored up the old highway and parked in front of the inn. The flowers, just as she remembered them, spread invitingly around the dilapidated establishment. But Bess deferred her theatrical floral commission in order to attend to the duties she owed both her stomach and her curiosity.
To her dismay Bess was not greeted by the expected Joni, but by a woman who, to her youthful eyes looked elderly and decayed. The woman was short, and not corpulent for her age, but she had a large, menacing presence that filled every corner of the room, and her cruel eyes exerted on Bess the same effect that a border collie has on a sheep. She wore a chef's dress that must have once been white, but through much spillage and many washings had become a mottled grayish-beige. The clothes, and the large napkin that she sported on her arm, looked greasy to the touch. Her aesthetic and hygienic sensibilities nearly ablaze with panic, dainty Bess barely resisted the almost overwhelming impulse to flee to her roadster, drive home at reckless speed, and jump into the bath at once.
(Not the tub with George in it, of course. The cousins did not live together. They lived with their respective related families who lived a good block-and-a-half apart. They were so often visiting together, however, that they had learned to brush their teeth simultaneously in the same sink.)
As she coolly sat down Bess casually inquired after the girl who had served her and George two weeks before.
"She left me last week. Quite suddenly it was," was the reply. The voice, at once grating and oleaginous, had a strange rhythm and delivered a peculiar syntax. "And now I have my work and hers as well to perform."
Glancing around her, Bess wondered how much work it was to serve no customers, but forbore comment. She had no desire to alienate the only person who could give her a clue to Joni's whereabouts. And she was also deeply afraid of the harridan. She avoided eye contact-as if she were Perseus, and the waitress, Medusa.
The unpleasant woman pointed to a small sign in the window that Bess had not noticed when she had come in. It said 'Help Wanted-Waiting Tables.'
"That sign I put up, but there is not much good it will do. In the summer we have only a few weeks remaining. For such a short interval I'm sure no one will even apply. It's quite discouraged I am."
Bess could sympathize with the predicament of Mrs. White-for by now she had gathered that this was the person to whom she was talking.
"You must be Mrs. White," Bess ingratiated. "Joni told me so many nice things about you."
Bess was aware that she was not good at being insincere, but could think of no more ready approach. "Can you tell me why she left so early, and where she went? I would like to see her again," she pleaded.
"She didn't say," stonewalled the proprietor. "She just up and went. I really don't at all care where she has gotten to. An ungrateful and mendacious chit she was."
Mrs. White paused, then appeared to get an idea. "Tell me what your name and number are," she asked as temptingly as she could manage, "and if Joni does ever come by, you can be sure that I'll call."
Not feeling that she could pull off an outright refusal, Bess started to supply her name, but then realized that she had better dissemble.
"Bess . . . Bess Myerson," she lamely offered the first thing that came to mind, hoping that Mrs. White would not spot that it was the name of a minor celebrity. The phone number she recited was plausible for River Heights and also an obscure segment of the Fibonnaci series. The elderly waitress appeared to take down Bess's fibs on her dog-eared order pad.
Given Mrs. White's at first unhelpful then sycophantic demeanor, and the aura of venom the woman exuded from every pore, Bess felt that she had no alternative but to order her dessert without latte and to bolt the pie down so that she could flee the premises. While eating she tried not to think of the fingers that might have touched her food while it was in preparation. The mental image of Mrs. White in her kitchen-a location that would probably be of consuming interest to the local board of health-could not be suppressed from Bess's vivid imagination. Although the food was, to give the establishment credit, extremely delicious, the ever-hungry girl began to retch by the third bite. Not wishing to insult the culinary art of even a Typhoid Mary, Bess pulled out an evidence baggie from her purse and deposited the offending remains therein. The mock-pineapple dessert accompanied her as far as the roadside where it no doubt fertilized and nourished a generation of wildflowers together with their associated fauna.
Feeling Mrs. White's eyes driving red-hot rivets into her back from behind every gloomy window, Bess decided to gather flowers out of sight of the desolate inn. She also hoped that, by pulling away from the building quickly, the woman wouldn't be able to spot her license plate number.
Her theatrical errand took Bess longer than she expected, as down the road the wildflowers were far less profuse and varied. She thought that it would have been more natural, at least more appropriate, for the heath around the inn to be blasted and poisoned as if it had been infected by the deadly upas tree of Java. But no, the ground-zero of evil had been overgrown and lush. After some reflection, the scientist in Bess remembered that where there is death, there is also decay, and where there is decay, there is fertilization and new life. It is like the greening of the land shortly after a forest fire, she surmised.
Back at home Bess took a shower to cleanse her body and a bath to soothe her spirit. Feeling refreshed, she phoned George and inquired after the effect of her pre-thespian ablutions. "I'm still soaking," said George, her voice reverberant with echoes bouncing off porcelain.
"Get out, you silly goose!" commanded Bess, "You can't go on stage looking like a prune!"
"I'll look so much more like Lear this way, and the director will have to relent."
Bess was having none of that. "I picked you some charming flowers. They will make you look delicate and crazed. You won't even have to open your mouth or make a single gesture, and on your very entrance you will bring the house down. But if you look drowned already . . ."
"All right, all right," acquiesced George. "Hold on." Bess could hear the sounds of splashing as George got into a wading position. Hearing the gurgle of water swirling down the drain, Bess no longer wondered why the whirlpool always swirled in the same direction-every time and in every location, at George's house, at Nancy's house, at her house, and presumably at the High Road Inn-for she could do the math in her head. Then she heard something like a sizzle and the line went dead. George, she knew, had dropped the receiver into the bath.
As she hung up Bess remembered the mystery of Joni. It would be better if she cleared it up before she went over to gather up George for the play. She extracted a bit of note paper from her purse and dialed the number of Joni's family.
A matronly voice came on the line. "Hello?"
"Hello. My name is Bess Marvin. Could I speak to Joni Masterson please?"
"I'm sorry," was the response. "Joni is away from home at present."
"I'm a friend of Joni's," explained Bess. "Not of long standing, we met only a few weeks ago at the High Road Inn where she was working. But I am sure that she would like to talk to me. Can you please tell me how to reach her?"
"Joni is still working at the inn. We don't expect her back home for at least another week," the woman Bess guessed to be her mother confided.
Bess was taken aback by this unexpected revelation. The rattle in her voice during the subsequent conversation revealed only a modicum of her dismay.
"Have . . . have y-you talked to her, l-lately?" she inquired stutteringly. As her vocal skills ground to a halt, her mathematical mind shifted into high gear. In an instant, with geometric logic, Bess had the whole case solved. And the solution was far from her liking. She was virtually certain now that Joni was a prisoner-and a slave-in Carbon City.
"I haven't spoken to my daughter for over a week," admitted Mrs. Masterson. "The times I have called the inn the last few days, there has been trouble on the phone line. I'm sure she will call as soon as she can. Perhaps you can visit her again at the inn. I would appreciate any news that you can bring."
Bess was uncertain how to break the news. She knew that she shouldn't share her conclusion, sound as it was, with this poor lady. But she had to be informed at least of the superficial particulars.
"I did go to the inn today," informed Bess, speaking slowly as if gathering the words one by one. "She was not there. The proprietress, Mrs. White, informed me that she left suddenly a week ago. So I thought that she might be home . . . with you."
There was a silence on the line, pregnant with as yet unacknowledged calamity. Then, at once, all of Mrs. Masterson's wits simultaneously shifted, skipping beyond concerned and frantic, and landing in panic mode.
"Oh my God! My baby, my baby! What have they done with my baby!"
"Mrs. Masterson," implored Bess. "Stay calm." She then made a series of statements she didn't truly believe, but hoped were sufficiently convincing to pass muster with a person whose antennae were understandably frazzled. "There is probably nothing amiss. There will very likely turn out to be a good explanation. Joni, I'm sure, will soon be in touch."
Although deep inside the upset mother probably appreciated the soothing tone of Bess's voice, she paid very little heed to the futile words.
"I must call the police at once!" the distraught lady announced.
"No!" interposed Bess, without thinking. "Don't do that-yet."
"In the name of God, why not?" she asked, quite reasonably, given the extremity of her situation.
"Because," and Bess dredged up her thoughts and words just in time, "there is someone else that I think you should call first. Carson Drew, the lawyer. He will know how to advise you on this case."
"But the police should be moving right away to find my girl!" protested the lady.
"Mrs. Masterson, I assure you," Bess explained, "time is not that much of the essence. I don't believe Joni is in any immediate danger. Mr. Drew often works with the police, and he has other resources that he will, I am sure, put immediately into effect. And, in his hands, you and your family will be protected from unwanted publicity. Call him first. It will take only a few minutes. And if you are not satisfied, by all means alert the police."
Bess's words were beginning to wear down the lady's resistance. Mrs. Masterson asked for the lawyer's number, which Bess helpfully provided.
After Joni's mother had rung off Bess counted ten and called the Drew & Drew business line. When she got the busy signal Bess was relieved. Next she called George to briefly advise her of developments and to let her know that she would be on her own in preparing for the early scenes of Hamlet that night.
"I will be there with bells on before the fourth act to arrange the flowers in your hair and to disarrange your garb," assured Bess.
George, who had been prepared to be irate with Bess for calling someone else after the little bathtime accident with the phone, was all concern for Joni and her family and wished that there was something she could do to help.
"There's nothing that you could do better now than to go through with Ophelia. We'll all get on the case tomorrow."
Ever the trooper, theatrical and otherwise, George said that she was prepared to gird her loins for all the struggles ahead.
"Good girl," commended Bess. "I'll see you later. And don't upstage the prince too much, it will throw off the balance of the play."
"Don't worry, my dear delinquent dresser," assured George. "Your news has distracted me so much, that my lines are all gone. I will make up a few modest murmurings, and it will be safe for our young Olivier to tread the boards. Ta ta."
Bess next called Nancy on the Drews' private number and told her the whole story from the beginning. Nancy listened attentively, thanked Bess for her cool-headed handling of the panicked Mrs. Masterson, and invited both cousins to meet with her and her father the following afternoon.
"By then we should have a plan," Nancy predicted.
At the theater that night George was quietly splendid. Sublimating the crisis into the proper degree of tension, she gave a performance that was at once ennervating, pathetic, disorganized, and the essence of the "art that conceals art." The director was so surprised that she gathered Bess's left-over flowers into a bunch and presented them to her as a bouquet. As she basked in her momentary glory and curtsied in appreciation of the rafter-resonating applause, George was surprised and momentarily hurt to note that Nancy's normal front row seat was empty. Recalling the reason for her friend's absence, she immediately forgave her chum. But, along with her pique, Shakespeare also was forgotten. The product of the Bard's airy imagination had to make way in her mind for consideration of a tragedy unpleasantly concrete.