It’s Fourth of July in Salem, Massachusetts—and B&B owner Charlene Morris is about to witness the shot heard ’round the town . . .
Madison Boswell, a beauty recently transplanted from Boston, is starring in the Independence Day play in this New England town full of colonial history—and, of course, witchcraft. Madison may not be a Wiccan, but she does seem to have certain hypnotic powers. And she’s left some angry people in her wake, from a fellow actress beaten out for a role to a jealous betrayed wife. Now, as Charlene films the performance for her housemate, Jack—a handsome ghost who shares the Victorian bed-and-breakfast with her and her Persian cat—the drama queen takes a deadly bullet from what was supposed to be a prop gun.
With a long list of suspects and lots of backstage whispers, it looks like the investigation by Charlene and Detective Sam Holden could set off some fireworks . . .
Release date: March 30, 2021
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 304
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Mrs. Morris and the Sorceress
Charlene Morris caught her floppy red, white, and blue sun hat before it was whisked off on a summer breeze toward the historic bandstand to her right. Yellow caution tape was the odd non-patriotic color this July Fourth as the structure was in the process of refurbishment.
The annual reading of the Declaration of Independence had just finished, so Charlene gathered her bed and breakfast guests before the wooden stage that had been erected earlier on Salem Common. Metal benches fanned backward in a semicircle toward the food vendors.
“Only ten minutes until the play starts!” Charlene glanced back at the frozen lemonade kiosk, tempted by the tart refreshment on such a hot day, but it would need to wait until intermission.
Her friend Kevin strode down the aisle and hugged her hello. “Good seats, Charlene.”
“Second row. We saved you one—everybody, this is Kevin Hughes. If you’re interested in any of the paranormal tours, he’s a fantastic guide. His girlfriend, Amy Fadar, will be in the play.” Charlene introduced her guests. “This is the O’Reilly family from Dublin. Martin, Judith, Aaron, and their precocious daughter, Shannon.”
Kevin shook hands but kissed the back of Shannon’s, which made the little girl giggle.
“Tim Barker is a horse buyer from Kentucky; Angela Sanford and Jackie Shephard are from Connecticut.” Charlene gestured to the plump brunette snapping pictures with a Nikon camera. “That’s Michelle Fendi, a traveling nurse taking the scenic route to a job in Long Island.”
Michelle smiled brightly as she clicked a picture of Kevin and Charlene. “Hi!”
“At breakfast this morning I told you a little about Kevin . . . born and raised here in Salem, he knows the history much better than I. He’d suggested you might like the play, Salem’s Rebels, performed by our own theater troupe.” Charlene tucked her hands into the pockets of her sundress. “I asked him to join us so he could give detailed information about the actual events the play is based on and answer any questions.”
Kevin rubbed his chin and grinned. “I’m also the manager of Brews and Broomsticks, a popular bar here in town. Come by for a drink—half price on all beers for Charlene’s guests.”
Angela, a museum curator with the cutest dimples Charlene had ever seen, immediately engaged Kevin in conversation about Salem’s witchy past. Jackie, tall and slim in jean shorts and a T-shirt embroidered with the American flag, sat down—her sparkly cap twinkled in the sun, and her long blond ponytail flowed down her back.
A palpable excitement grew as the actors and stage crew completed the last-minute preparations before the play began. A woman in coverall shorts and a red tank top darted around with a clipboard, tweaking details, ensuring the red swooped cloths hiding the framework of the stage were just right.
Michelle dropped her camera bag to the bench and uncapped a bottle of water. “What’s Salem’s Rebels about, Kevin?”
Kevin placed one foot on the bench in front of him and started his spiel. “Okay, folks! You’re about to hear it live and direct from Salem, Massachusetts.” He lowered his voice in a theatrical manner to draw them all near. “Salem might be best known for the witch trials, but our citizens have always been very patriotic. This grass we’re standing on has been a training ground for the militia since 1637.”
The O’Reilly children fidgeted on the bench. Kevin winked at Shannon, which won him a smile. “In this play, the War of Independence hasn’t started yet. That happens in April, and this was February. The colonists—that’s us—were up in arms, chafing against British rule.”
“Seventeen seventy-six?” Angela asked. Charlene wasn’t surprised the curator knew her history.
“Yeah . . . we think the war almost started right here”—he pointed to the ground—“in Salem.”
“I thought Boston was where all the action happened,” Tim said.
“No, sir,” Kevin answered confidently. “The British mistakenly thought they could control the Province of Massachusetts Bay, as the colony was called then. The Brits planned to guard the ports and stomp out the rebellion.”
Aaron thumped his feet against the lawn.
“Exactly. But they hadn’t counted on the people from the rural areas banding together against royal oppression.” Kevin dramatically clenched his fist and shook it at the sky. His jaw was set, and he made a magnificent figure.
Shannon blinked up at him, smitten.
“Then what happened?” Michelle’s camera rested at her hip.
“Well,” Kevin continued in low tones, “the new governor, General Thomas Gage, tried to stop the colonists from meeting, which didn’t fly, and as things heated up before the war, the colonists started to collect weapons, like guns, gunpowder, and cannons.”
“Is collecting another way of saying stealing?” Charlene joked.
“Better they have it than the enemy, right?” Kevin shielded his eyes from the sun with his palm as he gazed at all their rapt faces.
“Enemy is subjective.” Tim wiped perspiration from his forehead with a paper napkin. “My ancestors are English.”
“You’re right—the term depends on which side you’re on.” Kevin leaned forward conspiratorially. “There was no doubt that we in the colony wanted to be free men. British General Gage had four brass cannons kept under guard against the rebellious colonists, but somehow”—he winked—“the weapons he needed were stolen right from underneath his nose.”
“Was it a ghost?” Shannon touched her thumb to her lower lip.
“Not a ghost,” Kevin assured her, “just very determined militiamen who had to have those cannons in order to fight the royal army and win their freedom.”
“Did the British find the cannon?” Aaron asked, perched on the edge of the bench. “Did the rebels get caught?”
Kevin’s proud grin was as if he’d been alive hundreds of years ago to be part of the colonists’ coup.
“Nope. When the three hundred British soldiers marched across Salem to search where they suspected the cannon might be, our colonists dismantled the bridge—took it apart—so the army couldn’t cross! Not a single shot was fired during the standoff, and that’s what this play is about.”
“Amazing!” Jackie sipped from an iced tea bottle. “The first peaceful protest.”
Kevin chuckled. “The rebels were stalling for time to hide the cannon in a different town . . . after a while the colonists put the bridge back together. The army crossed and searched all of Salem—but no brass cannons were ever found.”
“I’ll need to write that down later,” Angela said with excitement. “I collect historical folklore, and I’ve never heard this version before.”
To the left, the busy young woman in denim coveralls climbed the metal stairs at the side of the stage and crossed to the center. The curtains behind her remained closed. She spoke so low it was hard to hear.
Kevin whistled for the throng to quiet, and they all planted themselves on the benches facing the stage.
“Five minutes!” The woman ran off as if chasing her words, cheeks as red as her tank top. Actors in militia costumes roamed the aisles and offered programs for the play to the spectators.
Charlene set her phone on the tripod before her and hit the record button just as a beautiful woman with long brown hair appeared from between the curtains, holding a British officer’s hat. “Thank you for joining us! I’m Madison Boswell. This play, Salem’s Rebels, was written and produced by the talented Neville Hampton, who also manages our motley crew at Salem Stage Right, for a one-time-only performance.”
Lukewarm applause sounded as folks found their seats.
Charlene glanced down at her pamphlet. Madison Boswell played the lead British officer, Colonel Alexander Leslie. The attractive woman reached out a slim arm to point to the man on the grass at the left of the stage, talking heatedly with the lady in coveralls. “Neville?”
Neville Hampton lifted his hand in acknowledgment. He wore the clothes of an eighteenth-century militiaman, complete with musket at his shoulder and a tricorn hat over shaggy brown hair. His half smile smoldered sensually.
“He’s a hottie,” Jackie observed, removing her glittery cap to fan herself.
“My hopes for the play have just improved.” Angela ruffled the damp curls at the back of her neck. It was in the eighties with no breeze.
Madison’s voice was melodious, her golden-brown eyes hypnotic. She was not just beautiful, but captivating, making it difficult, even for Charlene, to look away.
Amy Fadar was playing a male rebel colonist named Nathaniel Biggs. Charlene shook the program. “Kevin, why are there more female actors than male?”
Kevin clasped his hands over his bare knee. “I don’t know. We can ask Amy later.”
Madison waved to the crowd of a hundred squeezed together on the benches, and a large emerald set in thick gold flashed from her left hand. Married? Engaged? Her charismatic gaze dazzled, and Charlene wondered why the actress wasn’t in the movies. Or at least a higher-class venue than this hokey local production.
“Enjoy the show,” the actress breathily instructed. “We’ll sign autographs after the performance in the main tent behind the stage.”
The curtains drew back with a creaking noise. Act one of Salem’s Rebels—1776 began with the power and might of a British Army being held at bay by the brave colonists. It had all the drama that Kevin had laid out for them, a thrilling tale of the rebellion. The first act ended with a bang of musket fire, followed by hearty applause and the peppery smell of fake gunpowder.
Charlene quickly turned off her phone to stop recording while the actors on stage broke for intermission. “Filming for posterity?” Kevin asked.
“To show Mom and Dad.” Charlene was really videoing for her ghostly roommate Dr. Jack Strathmore, who missed the festivities he’d once been a vital part of in Salem. Trapped by the boundaries of their home, he couldn’t leave, so she’d promised to bring some of the fun to Jack.
Kevin stood and scratched the blond scruff at his jaw, his biceps flexing. Michelle watched him with appreciation, and Charlene bit back a smile. Couldn’t blame her—Kevin was a cutie. “I’ll be back,” he said. “I want to see how Amy’s doing. The costumes are hot.”
“Tell her hello!” Charlene checked her watch. “I want to get a frozen lemonade. Can I get something for anybody else?”
The O’Reillys had already gone for ice cream, and the rest of her guests said no, so Charlene followed the grass path to the vendors near the old bandstand. This area was quaint America at its finest. Lemonade stands, kids playing tag, folks on picnic blankets with friends and family.
When her husband, Jared, had been alive, they’d watched the fireworks on Navy Pier in Chicago. Ten months had passed since she’d fled the memories to make a new home for herself in Salem.
She got in line at the kiosk that sold frozen lemonade as well as frozen Frappuccino, directly behind a man who could’ve been Leonardo DiCaprio’s twin when he’d played the lead role in Titanic. Same face shape, same piercing blue eyes. He wore white linen pants and a billowy navy-blue shirt untucked, his leather sandals designer. His Ray-Bans were nestled in his longish blond hair on the top of his head. His Rolex glinted in the sunshine.
He reached the counter, and the young girl selling drinks blushed when she saw him, he was that beautiful. “What can I get for you?”
He didn’t notice her flustered admiration. “I’d like a Frappuccino, made with almond milk, and add an extra shot of coffee.”
“We don’t have almond milk,” the girl stammered. “I can—”
“Whatever you have then.” He pocketed his phone and waited for her, impatience evident in his posture and the tap, tap, tap of his sandal against the grass.
Charlene found the man abrupt, but held her tongue.
“Sorry.” The girl’s bottom lip wobbled. She filled the cup as quickly as she could, adding the extra espresso.
He pulled a five-dollar bill from his wallet and dropped it on the counter. Without waiting for change, he swung around, cup in hand. Charlene attempted to get out of his way, but in doing so he collided with her, and cool, sticky liquid spilled on her bare arm.
“Damn—I didn’t see you.” He handed her the paper napkin from around his cup, his expression annoyed.
“It’s fine.” It wasn’t fine, but his entitled attitude bothered her more than the spill. Definitely a tourist. She stepped toward the clerk and ignored the man’s partially open mouth as he apologized.
The girl behind the counter flashed a sympathetic smile. “Need another napkin?”
“No, it’s okay. Thanks though.”
“What can I get you?”
“Frozen lemonade, please.”
The stranger dropped another five on the counter for Charlene’s drink, and before she could say anything about it, he slipped out of sight.
The clerk shrugged and put the change in the tip jar as she and Charlene exchanged a grin. People.
Charlene turned and sipped, surveying the crowd. The citrusy-tart drink eased her parched throat, and her body temperature cooled in relief. She recognized a few people she’d befriended since her move, and hoped to catch up with them after the play. Salem had a tight-knit community at the heart of the tourist town.
Silver gleamed from the last empty bench in her row, the seats saved with a beach bag. She maneuvered down the center line between the rows of benches, passing a family with all orange-red hair, faces slathered in sunscreen. A young couple held hands; a woman joked with her kids. Charlene reached her row and her phone on the tripod. Kevin stood to let her pass.
The shy woman in coveralls ascended the stage steps from the left, this time with a handheld gong instead of a clipboard. She swung a mallet, and it chimed loudly. “Five minutes,” she told anyone who was listening as she remained rooted to the platform.
Charlene sipped from her plastic cup, then put it on the ground and turned her phone on to record.
“Jane!” A statuesque woman with a voice as sharp as her cheekbones called to the timid announcer from the lawn on Charlene’s left. “You need to speak louder.”
Jane cleared her throat. “Act two, North Bridge,” she shouted to the tops of her sneakers, accidentally clanging the gong.
The bossy woman shook her head and rolled her eyes in frustration. Charlene hid her amusement at the drama offstage and shot one last video of the whole grounds, in a complete circle, to show Jack, before balancing the phone on her tripod.
“How’s Amy?” Charlene shifted on the bench to face Kevin.
“Good—the actors all spent their break in an air-conditioned tent to save their makeup from melting.”
She laughed and fanned her throat with the program. “The Stars and Stripes Forever” by John Philip Sousa played from speakers on each side of the stage.
Amy peeked around the side and blew Kevin a kiss. Her long light-brown hair was tucked out of sight beneath a tricorn hat, her musket strapped across her shoulder, brown leather boots to her knees. The costume designers had transformed the slender woman into a man in breeches.
“Who’s that guy?” Shannon asked Kevin.
“My girlfriend, Amy,” he said with a smile.
“A girl?” Shannon made a funny face. “That’s weird.”
Before Kevin could explain, the canvas curtains slid aside to reveal a bridge—cardboard painted to look like wood—lying in sections on the stage. There were eight British soldiers on one side and five militiamen on the other. Blue fabric between them was meant to be the North River. Outnumbered, the rebels in brown homespun clothes refused to back down.
Madison, as Colonel Alexander Leslie, threatened and coaxed, citing royal orders as his soldiers waved their bayonets in the faces of the rebel colonists.
Neville, the militia’s leader, defied the colonel, stalling with witty jokes. Madison seemed to physically grow taller as she tugged on the lapels of her jacket, strong with the might of the royal army at her back.
Amy (Nathaniel Biggs) paced behind Neville, as did a few other militiamen. A twitchy fellow (unnamed rebel colonist played by Hunter Elliott, Charlene read) tripped over the river, causing giggles from more than one spectator. Amy kept in character—a fierce colonist ready to fight to the death for freedom.
Neville raised his rifle at Madison, shouting that he would rather die than give in to the king’s tyranny. He wanted freedom, and it was worth dying for, by God!
Madison raised her bayonet. “Yield!” she shouted. The colonist with the attack of nerves yelled, dropped his weapon, and his musket fired.
Madison screamed and clutched her heart. She stood at the edge of the stage, surveying the crowd of faces all watching her. She pointed to someone, shouting, “Logan!” Then her mesmerizing eyes slid back in her head.
Pale, she slipped off the stage to the green grass less than ten feet from where Charlene and her guests sat, riveted.
Red stained the white on her uniform.
Amy, on stage, stared over the four-foot edge, then flung off her hat and jumped down to cradle Madison’s head in her lap.
“Madison?” Amy lifted her face and glared at the man on stage who’d dropped the musket. “Hunter—no shots were supposed to be fired!”
Charlene couldn’t move from her place on the bench. Was this all part of the show? But no, Kevin had just told the story of how the colonists had kept the royal army busy for hours without a shot fired.
Where had it come from? The stage? A man behind her stood and yelled, “I think she’s really been shot! I’m calling an ambulance.” Charlene turned to see the red-haired family and other spectators all on their feet, the beach bag knocked to the path in the crush.
Kevin leaped over the people in front of him to reach Amy. Jane, the lady in coveralls, wadded up a cape to place beneath Madison’s head. Charlene’s guests clustered around her. Michelle put her camera in the camera bag and handed it to Jackie. “I’m going to see if I can help.” The nurse darted around the benches.
“She’s been shot,” Charlene murmured in disbelief. She turned off the video function of her phone and dialed Detective Sam Holden.
The Salem Police Station wasn’t far from where Charlene huddled with her guests on the benches. The actors on stage had all gathered in groups—some horrified, some disbelieving, all confused. Neville leaned on his musket as he stared from the stage to the actress below.
Sam finally answered his phone. “Detective Holden.”
“Sam—it’s Charlene. I’m at the bandstand. There’s been a shooting!” Her voice hitched.
“Charlene.” Sam Holden’s deep tones normally calmed her, but not now as she struggled to make sense of the chaos before her—what was real and what was part of the production. “Are you hurt?”
At first she didn’t recognize Officer Bernard kneeling by Madison, as the man was out of uniform and wearing shorts and a red, white, and blue T-shirt. “I’m fine, my guests are fine.”
“I just heard a call for assistance over the scanner. Tell me what happened, Charlene.”
“We were watching the play, Salem’s Rebels—a reenactment of the scene at North Bridge.”
“I’m familiar with the story.”
“Well, a musket fired, and at first we thought it was part of the show, but it wasn’t. One of the actresses has been shot, for real. Michelle’s a nurse and is helping Officer Bernard—she’s a guest.”
Shannon buried her face in her dad’s neck, while Aaron climbed on the bench next to Charlene to get a better view.
“I’m on my way.”
“You might want to walk rather than drive—there’s a bunch of people here.” The off-duty cop had taken the cape Jane had put under Madison’s head to press against the actress’s chest. Michelle was on her knees in the grass, her fingers on the fallen woman’s wrist.
“Good idea! See you in a few.”
Sam ended the call. Charlene, phone in hand, stood on the bench with Aaron and searched for Kevin. She spotted him with his arm around Amy as he led her away from Madison, behind the stage. Neville had hopped down from the edge to hover at Madison’s head. Hunter was behind him, as were Jane and the haughty woman. Charlene discreetly took a few photos to show Jack later, noticing that she wasn’t the only one to do so.
“Where are the cops? Or security?” Tim groused with agitation.
Charlene put her phone back on the tripod to record the scene, this time thinking of Sam, who might find something of value for an investigation—especially if the actress, heaven forbid, died. Officer Bernard stood and scooted folks back. Michelle kept the homespun cape against Madison’s chest.
Charlene rubbed her damp palms together and tried to rein in her own fear as she comforted her guests. “This is tragic, but help is on the way.”
The O’Reillys exchanged concerned looks over the top of Shannon’s bowed head.
“Martin, Judith, I have to stay here and give my report to the police. Why don’t you take your children to the B and B?” She thanked her lucky stars that she’d paid extra for her housekeeper to prepare lots of snacks before the fireworks. “Minnie’s there, and I’ll follow shortly.”
“That’s a great idea,” Judith said.
Angela and Jackie whispered together, Jackie patting Angela on the shoulder. Charlene squeezed Angela’s hand. “Do you two want to join the O’Reillys and go back to the house?”
“Yeah. Won’t you come with us, Charlene?” Jackie pushed back the brim of her sparkly cap. “It could be dangerous until they catch who did this to that poor actress.”
“I know Detective Sam Holden and want to tell him what we saw.” Charlene leaned toward the artist and her friend. “Do you mind helping keep things calm until I get there? Will you be okay to hike back?” The crush of people would’ve made driving difficult, so she and her guests had all walked to the park.
“Of course.” Angela settled Michelle’s camera bag over her arm.
“I’ll go too.” Tim adjusted his hat. He’d be all right. Though nearing sixty, he’d told her earlier that he stayed fit with horseback riding.
“I’ll call Minnie to let her know to expect you.” Charlene watched her guests depart—Martin had tearful Shannon at his hip, and Aaron held hands with his mother. Angela and Jackie beelined out of the park as Tim trailed them. Michelle remained with Madison and Officer Bernard.
Charlene called Minnie and left a message on the house phone, then released a long, shuddering breath. Her battery flashed red. Darn it. The video she’d recorded had drained the power. She hoped the film would save automatically once her phone died.
The crowd thinned as the wail of police cars and the ambulance approached. Others stayed behind to watch the drama unfold. Charlene made her way through the lingering people to Kevin and Amy, near Madison.
“You all right?” Kevin asked. They’d gone through similar drills before, but it never got easier. At Halloween, they’d been on a haunted bus tour with her guests when they’d stumbled upon a witch who’d been murdered. Kevin had been at the opening of “Charlene’s,” her mansion that she’d turned into a bed and breakfast. During the party, she’d discovered Jack’s killer.
“As well as I can be.” She put a hand out to Amy. “I’m sorry about your friend,” she said gently. “It all happened so quickly that I’m still reeling.”
“You were recording, right?” Kevin asked.
“Yes, but my phone just crashed—no battery left. I’m hoping the video automatically saved.”
“It should,” he assured her.
Amy had lost her musket as well as her tricorn hat, and her long, light brown hair was loose. “How could Madison have gotten shot? Who would do such a thing? It can’t have been an accident.”
Charlene happened to agree but asked the actress, “Why not?”
“For one thing, even though we were using real muskets, the gunpowder was fake.”
Her stomach clenched at the anguish in Amy’s eyes.
Charlene pivoted toward Sam behind her. At six and a half feet tall with wide shoulders, the detective exuded strength. Intelligence shone from his brown eyes, kindness too as he smiled at her beneath a thick brow. . .
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