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Goodnight Sweet Prince
weeks Walter Barnstone was sick to death of it! Six
damn weeks of listening to Sir John play
Hamlet at the St. James. Six more weeks to go! No!
He couldn't take it. If he had a minor job in the
company -- a minor role -- if he was a stage hand,
it would be different.
But Walter Barnstone was Sir John's understudy,
hoping -- hoping against hope
something would happen to Sir John so the audience
could finally see and hear the Hamlet of the
century, not the watered down Nancy assed Hamlet of
Sir John's. In those six weeks, only once did Jerry
Robbins, the producer, give him a chance to fill in
at the duel scene when Sir John had a migraine. It
was his first and only break! Not nearly enough to
make an impression. To have to stand there night
after night listening to Sir John butcher lines
like "... for murder, though it have no tongue,
will speak with most miraculous organ." Accents on
all the wrong syllables, stress in all the wrong
places. Six more weeks of that? Impossible!
He got the French dueling pistol down from the top
shelf of his closet. It was very much like the
weapon that killed Lincoln, and fired by another
frustrated actor he reminded himself. He stole the
pistol from the property department of the St.
James Theater when Sandy worked there. It nestled
in a velvet lined case -- separate compartments
held steel balls and percussion caps.
Sandy was fond of showing it off to Walter. "It's a
Lepage Fréres, forty-eight caliber. I heisted it
from Met Storage. Look at that engraving, ain't
that beautiful work?" Sandy enthused. "Fully
operational too." He showed Walter how the
percussion caps fit in the chamber. "Then they put
the ball in the muzzle end. So long as y'don't put
a ball in the barrel, all's y'got is a big flash
and a bang. Wakes up the sleepy heads in the first
row, I'll tell ya."
With a sly
grin he showed Walter a handful of steel balls.
"These are ball bearings I found, look .... I
shouldn't be tellin' you this, but they fit the
barrel like a glove, see?" He rolled one or two
down the barrel. "They wasn't made for the gun, but
that's the beauty part -- I'm holdin' here one of
the deadliest pistols in the world, and it ain't
Something about the story fascinated Walter. The
idea of a common stage prop being used as a
murder weapon .... when Sandy took sick, Walter
took the case home with him, along with
Sandy's prop inventory. When Sandy died, the St.
James couldn't find his property list and the
theater had to make their own inventory. The pistol
wasn't on it.
He thought it through for the hundredth time. He'd
wait until four o'clock. Henry the dresser would be
at the theater by then, seeing to the make-up kit
and Sir John's costumes. Walter planned to walk in
the side entrance of the hotel, that way he
wouldn't have to pass through the lobby. The
elevators were self-service and he'd wait for an
empty one, jump in and punch the "close door"
He would wear gray clothes, nothing loud or
conspicuous. He'd bring a tote bag with him. In the
bag would be the pistol, fully loaded, and a
gauntlet from the property room, one that came up
to the elbow. This would protect his arm from
powder burns and any blood that might splatter. He
would ditch them on his way back to his apartment
-- after it was over.
Sir John lived on the 23rd floor of Les Hotel des
Artistes. He remembered the layout from the opening
night party. Long blue carpet. Four apartments, two
at one end and two at the other. Two retired
actresses had the apartments on the right, Sir John
and a writer had the two on the left. The writer
was off on a book tour and wouldn't be back for a
month. He'd have to chance it that the old women
wouldn't hear him -- most likely they'd have their
TV's on and never hear the shot. One shot, that's
all. One shot with the pistol jammed up under his
chin. He was sure the noise would not be a problem.
Walter waited until the elevator door opened,
standing with his back to it, and from the sound of
the passenger's voices he knew they were headed for
the exit door to 74th Street. He turned quickly,
darted into the open elevator and pushed the
buttons for the 23rd floor and the "close door" at
the same time. It seemed an eternity before the
All was quiet on the 23rd floor. The soft sound of
music came from one of the women's
apartments. The writer's apartment next to Sir
John's was quiet. He
was sure Sir John would be resting -- mumbling his
way automatically through his lines just as a
singer does his scales. "Don't delay. Don't delay,"
he reminded himself.
Walter put his ear to the door and heard nothing.
He reached into the tote bag and withdrew the
gauntlet and the pistol then rang the bell. He
heard a stir in the apartment as he drew on the
gauntlet and he gripped the pistol firmly in his
"Who's there?" The cultured British tones of Sir
John infuriated Walter even
The door opened a crack and the sleepy face of Sir
John appeared. It was not the familiar face that
had melted the hearts of matinee ladies for a
generation, it was a wrinkled, over-the-hill face
of a has been actor.
"Oh," Sir John mumbled. "It's you. Come in."
With his left hand Walter pushed Sir John back
across the foyer and closed
the door. Startled, Sir John swore softly, "Damn!
What's going on -- what?"
Walter jammed the pistol up under his chin and
pulled the trigger. The
explosion was loud but no louder than he expected.
What he did not expect was
the simultaneous slap of brain tissue and bone on
the ceiling of the foyer.
Sir John stumbled awkwardly into the living room
and fell backwards over a
Walter shook the pistol and the gauntlet back into
the tote bag. A quick look
at the splattered ceiling and walls of the foyer
convinced him that the body
now sprawled on the sofa was headless. There was
blood on the pistol and the
gauntlet but none on him or his clothes. It came as
a shock to him that he
hadn't made a clear plan for getting away, and as
he stood in the entryway
with his hand reaching for the knob, he realized he
would leave fingerprints.
"Think ahead. Think ahead!" he reminded himself.
He wrapped a handkerchief
around his hand and opened the door. It was still
quiet outside. The soft
music still played in the apartment at the other
end of the hall. He even
recognized the tune as he stood waiting for the
elevator .... "Just picture a
penthouse way up in the sky, with hinges on
chimneys so clouds can go by ...."
When the door opened he saw a girl standing in the
rear of the elevator
reading a newspaper. Should he get on or not? It
would look suspicious if he
didn't get on -- Walter decided it would be better
to act naturally and keep
his back to the girl, she probably wouldn't raise
her eyes. He stared
intently at the door on the way down ignoring the
slow arrow as it counted
off the floors. When they reached the bottom he
moved aside for the girl, she
passed him without looking and walked into the
lobby. He was sure it would be
impossible for her to identify him if she was ever
It was getting dark when he reached the street, and
he reminded himself that
so far Sir John's was the only face he had
recognized that afternoon.
God this is New York!" he thought. "I am invisible
in a city of 7 million people."
At the corner of 74th and Amsterdam he spotted a
dumpster below street level
at a construction site. It was being loaded on a
flat bed and while no one
was watching Walter quickly threw the tote bag in
the dumpster and walked
away. That was easier than he thought, he had
visions of walking the streets
looking for an empty rubbish can. In an hour the
evidence would be in a
landfill on Staten Island.
He glanced at his watch and noticed a smear of
blood on the crystal. The
sooner he got back to his apartment and into a
shower the better off he'd
He noticed his legs were trembling -- nerves he
thought -- he forced himself
to breathe slowly and rhythmically. The picture of
Sir John stumbling
backward in his living room flashed before him ....
the blood on the ceiling
.... the bits of bone and flesh .... "Breathe
slowly," he reminded
He hailed a cab making its way up Amsterdam Avenue
and rode back to his
apartment, he told himself not to over tip --
drivers tend to remember things
It was only 4:30. So much had been accomplished in
the last half hour! He let
himself into his apartment, stripped down, and
called the cleaner to pick up
his clothes. He walked into the bathroom and turned
on the shower -- hot as
he could stand. He stood under it for ten minutes,
then wrapped himself in a
towel. The thermostat on the living room wall said
seventy degrees -- it
seemed much colder than that.
The shower relaxed him and he felt a great fatigue
steal over him as he
stretched out on the bed. He would spend the hour
or so before curtain time
going over his lines again and again, creating
nuances and subtle changes of
rhythm, things Sir John never dreamed of. He was
sure a call would come from
Jerry Robbins about seven thirty informing him of
the terrible news of Sir
John, and in the time honored tradition of the
theater, Walter Barnstone must
take his place. "There's a divinity that shapes our
ends," he smiled.
What would he do when he came to lines like, "....
for murder, though it
no tongue, will speak with most miraculous organ."
Or ".... and now how
abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at
it." Well, he was a pro,
Walter Barnstone would cross those bridges when he
came to them, he had a
show to do.
For more than an hour he dozed, practiced his lines
and dreamed of critical
acclaim. "What would come after Hamlet," he
wondered? Richard the Third
perhaps -- or maybe Hollywood. He justified his
actions of the afternoon by reminding himself --
"the Lord helps those who help themselves."
The phone rang shrilly at seven thirty. Walter
checked his watch -- "Right
cue," he smiled.
"Walter, this is Jerry Robbins."
"Yes, Jerry .... what can I do for you?"
"I tried to reach you earlier, Walter. Sir John
called me at noon. He has
laryngitis -- can barely talk. He can't possibly go
on this evening. We
going to cancel the performance but Sir john was
sure you could handle it.
Chance of a lifetime, Walter!"
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