Authors: Bruce Coville
The Ghost in the Third Row
The Nina Tanleven Mysteries, Book One
WHO TAKES MY WORDS
AND TURNS THEM INTO SONGS
“Pat the elephant,” said my father as we walked through the doors of the Grand Theater. “It'll bring you luck.”
I looked at him like he was crazy. Not because I don't believe in doing things for luck. I do them all the time. But my dad usually makes fun of me when I tell him about them.
father speaking?” I asked.
He grinned. “It's something we did when I was a kid.” He walked over to the big brass elephant that stood at the side of the lobby and patted its trunk. “Like that,” he said.
I copied him. I figured if I was going to survive this audition, I needed all the luck I could get.
To tell you the truth, the elephant didn't look all that lucky. Most of the brass had been rubbed awayâprobably by kids like me patting it for luck. Actually, the whole theater looked kind of worn down. But I could tell it had been really gorgeous when it was new. The lobby alone had more decorations than any place I'd ever seen. On the wall behind the elephant, for example, was a huge mural about twenty feet high. It looked like something from the
, with princes and genies, elephants and dancing girls. It was cracked and peeling, but I could easily imagine how beautiful it had been when it was new.
The red carpeting that covered the lobby floor was stained and worn, too, but I was sure it used to be spectacular. It swept up a big curved staircase that looked wonderful despite the chips in the gold paint and the plaster decorations. There were mirrors and chandeliers all over the place.
I found myself falling in love with the Grand, in spite of its shabbiness. Of course, it didn't hurt that my father had been raving about it for the last several weeksâever since his architectural firm had been hired to help with a big restoration project being planned for the theater in the winter.
We walked past the staircase to a small folding table, where a girl was passing out audition forms. I took one from her, and we went into the theater itself.
It was huge.
My father told me that when he was a kid, it was the best place in Syracuse to go to the movies.
I told him I didn't think movies had been invented when he was a kid.
He said he loved me, but if I didn't shut up and fill out my audition form, he'd probably kill me.
I told him if he really felt that way he should give me a pen.
He did, and I went to work.
The form was pretty simple, really. It asked for my name (Nina Tanleven); my height (four feet, ten inches); my weight (I thought this was kind of nosy); my hair color (dark brown); and my experience (almost none, which was embarrassing).
It also asked which part I was trying out for. I didn't know, so I left that blank.
I took the form to a cranky-looking woman in the front row. She wrote a number on it, then sent me to sit with a bunch of girls at the side of the stage.
“Good luck,” my dad whispered, giving me a little hug. I smiled. We had gotten pretty close since my mother left two years before. I watched fondly as he walked back a couple of rows to sit down.
I thought briefly about asking him to take me home before I made a fool of myself. I'd even promise to find something else to do for the summer. But it was too late for that now. So I took my place with the others and tried to study my music.
Another girl came and sat down beside me. She nudged me in the ribs. “Have you ever done this before?” she whispered.
I shook my head.
“Me neither,” she said. “I'm so scared I could puke.”
That made me feel better. I introduced myself, and she told me her name was Chris. We compared notes on how nervous we were, tore apart the other kids as they tried out, and decided the director was just too gorgeous to be real.
It didn't seem like that much time had gone by before the woman in the front row called, “Next!” and Chris was digging her elbow into my ribs and hissing, “That's you!”
I stood up and looked out at the stage.
I don't know how it did it, but I swear the thing had grown while I was waiting. It had been a normal-size stage just a little while before. Now it looked about the size of a football field!
I swallowed hard and thought about running for the door. Maybe if I was lucky, no one would remember what I looked like. My stomach tried to crawl its way into my throat, and I decided this audition was the dumbest idea I had had in years.
Then I spotted my father sitting in the third row. He smiled and gave me the thumbs-up sign.
I couldn't leave. I'd rather have hot needles stuck under my fingernails than let him down.
I took a deep breath and walked out on the stage.
“Name?” the director said.
The director was tall and slim, with tousled black hair. I was working hard on not developing an instant crush on him. Developing crushes was this stupid thing that had started happening to me in the last year.
I wasn't having much luck.
He raised one eyebrow. He came close to making an actual question mark out of it.
“Well, it's really Nina. But everyone calls me Nine, because my last name is Tanleven.”
He didn't say anything.
“Get it?” I asked hopefully. “Nine Tan-Leven?”
Inside me a little voice was yelling, “Shut up, stupid.”
As usual, I ignored it and just babbled on. “See, I've been stuck with it since first grade andâ”
Mr. Director (I found out later his name was Edgar, so I don't know what he thought was so bad about Nine anyway) held up his hand to stop me. “What are you going to sing for usâNine?”
I bit my lip and wished I were dead. I had brought the music for “Tomorrow,” from
. So had almost every other girl who had sung before me.
I told him. He was very nice. The corners of his mouth twitched a little, but that was about the only sign he gave of what he must have been thinking.
I handed the music to the pianist, who probably knew it by heart by then anyway, and took my place to sing.
Once I started, I didn't care how many times Cute Edgar had heard the song that day. I loved singing it.
And I was good.
I'm not claiming I'll be the next Julie Andrews. But I do have two things I can do well. Sing and run. (Nina Tanleven, the singing sprinter, that's me.) I think they're connectedâstrong lungs, if you know what I mean.
As I started the second verse I looked out at my father to see how I was doing. I almost choked on a high note.
There was a woman sitting next to him.
Yeah, I know, that's not all that strange. He's thirty-six, and not bad looking for a father. But the woman was wearing a dress that belonged somewhere around the turn of the century.
Even that's not so strange. She might have been in costume for another show. But here's the really amazing thing: it seemed like I could see right through her!
Now that was strange.
I dropped a note, forced myself to concentrate on the song, and when I looked back she was gone.
I hoped I would find her later. It wasn't fair to startle me like that when I was auditioning. My song had been going great until then, and I wanted to tell her off.
“Thank you,” Edgar said. “That's enough!”
And I was just getting warmed up! I figured I must have really blown it. You can imagine how surprised I was a week later when I got the call telling me I had a part in the show.
I thought my troubles were over.
Boy, was I wrong!
The Woman in White
I had another attack of nerves when my father dropped me off for the first rehearsal. I considered just going to the coffee shop down the street and hanging out until it was time for him to pick me up. But I was pretty sure that after a while someone would call my house to find out where I was, and I'd end up in trouble.
So I took a deep breath and walked in.
The cast members were being sent to a group of rickety wooden chairs that had been set in a half-circle on the stage, facing the audience. Only there wasn't any audienceâjust a long table at the edge of the stage where the production crew sat facing us. Cute Edgar was sitting in the center. To his right was the cranky-looking woman who had taken my audition form. Her name was Gwendolyn Meyer, and it turned out she was our producer. To Edgar's left was the girl who had handed me the audition form. She was going to be our stage manager. Her name was Heidi, and I wanted to kill her.
It wasn't that Heidi had actually done anything to me. It was just that she was beautiful, and I didn't care to have anyone that pretty sitting next to Edgar.
At the end of the table sat a kind of nice-looking guy with big brown eyes. Next to him was a very pretty red-haired woman. The man turned out to be Alan Blandâyuck, what an awful nameâwho had written the script and lyrics for the show we were going to do. The lady was his partner, Paula Geller. She had written the music and would also be coaching the singers and conducting the orchestra for the performances.
At that moment Cute Edgar was going on about how lucky we were to be able to present the world premiere of this play, which was called
The Woman in White
and was based on an event that had taken place in the very theater where we were going to perform it!
“Lucky,” said a husky voice next to me.
I glanced to my right, where a golden-haired girl named Melissa Clayton was sitting. Melissa was a year or two older than me. But since the audition notice had specifically called for “three girls in the ten to thirteen age group,” I had a feeling we were going to end up working together.
“If this dog is any good, why are they premiering it here instead of in a real theater?” Melissa continued.
I wanted to tell her that the Grand
a real theater. But I knew what she meant. Who was there in Syracuse, New York, who could see our show and make any difference?
So I kept my mouth shut.
That didn't stop Melissa. All the time Edgar was talking, she whispered on and on about how stupid everything was. I wanted to reach over and pinch her lips together and then ask her why she was there if she didn't like it.
I found out later there were two reasons: one, Melissa wanted to be a star; and two, Melissa's mother
wanted her to be a star.
It was clear she was going to be a royal pain. The good news was that the third girl was none other than Chris Gurley, who I had been talking to at auditions. She had come in lateâI learned later it was a habit with herâand she was sitting on the other side of me.
Edgar had finished talking and was just about to pass out the scripts when an old man appeared at the edge of the stage.
“Hey, Pop!” cried Edgar, jumping to his feet.
I was confused for a moment. This guy seemed way too old to be Edgar's father.