The Ghost in the Third Row (6 page)

Gwendolyn stared at Melissa for a moment but didn't say anything else. Then she turned her attention to me. Narrowing her eyes, she asked, “And what about you, Nine?”

Well, what was I going to do? I knew Chris would never leave
me
hanging. So even though my stomach was turning flip-flops, I nodded my head, took a deep breath, and said, “I saw her.”

Gwendolyn got this incredibly strange look on her face.

“Describe her to me,” she said to Chris.

I was puzzled. If Gwendolyn didn't believe in the ghost, what difference did it make what we thought she looked like? It wasn't like that morning when I was testing Chris by checking her description against the script.

Or at least, it didn't seem that way. But as Chris described the ghost, the expression on Gwendolyn's face began to soften. “That's right,” she said, nodding her head in satisfaction. “That's right.”

I looked at her in astonishment.

“That's just the way it was when I saw her,” she said.

All three of us started to talk at once. Gwendolyn cut us off by simply talking louder than the three of us put together.

“Oh, don't look so surprised,” she snapped. “Of course I've seen the ghost. It was quite awhile ago, naturally. You do know the story, don't you? That she only appears to young women who love the theater. In fact, I'm surprised you haven't seen her, Melissa.”

I bit my cheeks so I wouldn't laugh. My opinion of Gwendolyn was flipping back and forth so fast I couldn't keep track of it. I was angry that she had lied to the rest of the cast when she told them the theater wasn't haunted. But I could have hugged her for the little zinger she had just given Melissa.

“Anyway,” said Gwendolyn, “it's been more than a little while since I qualified as a young woman. But I saw her in my day. Oh, yes, indeed. I did see her.”

She seemed to drift off for a moment.

Edgar was looking at the four of us as if we were all from another planet.

“Why didn't you say something back in the theater?” Chris asked Gwendolyn.

“Be sensible,” she answered. “Can you imagine the effect that would have had on those ninnies? You know what they say about freedom of speech: It doesn't extend to shouting ‘Fire!' in a crowded theater. My saying I've seen the ghost would have been the same thing.”

“But it's not the same,” I protested. “Of course you're not supposed to shout ‘Fire' if there isn't one. But there really was a fire—or ghost—in this case.”

The second I finished, I could have bitten my tongue. I had gotten so wrapped up in the conversation I forgot it was
Gwendolyn
I was talking to. I winced and waited for her to start yelling.

“Good point, Nine,” she said in a totally reasonable tone of voice. “Maybe I was mistaken.”

Sometimes I think that was the biggest surprise of that entire surprising night.

Chris said the same thing after we left. Actually, her exact words were, “I almost fell off my chair when the old bat admitted she was wrong.” But you get the idea.

We were feeling pretty good, despite the fact that Melissa was still with us. Once Gwendolyn was convinced we had actually seen the ghost, she was a lot less angry about the fuss we had caused. She did ask us to try to keep our mouths shut about the whole thing, since the cast was panicked enough already.

When I had asked her about Lydia's dress she got a concerned look on her face. “I don't know what that was all about,” she had said firmly. “But I do know the ghost of Lily Larkin didn't do that damage.”

I was going to bring the question up to Chris as we were walking through the lobby, but she spoke first.

“Let's cut through the theater,” she said. “My father said he wants to pick me up on Jefferson Street from now on, because the traffic's not so tricky. The side exit will take us out right where he wants to meet us.”

“Won't it be locked?” I asked.

“Nah, Pop won't be locking up for an hour or two yet. Come on.”

“Well,
my
father is picking me up out front,” said Melissa, as if that were somehow more respectable. She flounced off through the lobby.

“Come on,” said Chris, taking me by the arm. I wasn't really sure I wanted to go back into the theater. But since I was riding home with Chris, I didn't have much choice.

Besides, I had a feeling I knew what was really going through her mind when she suggested the detour: she was hoping we might have a chance to see the ghost again. I could tell she was beginning to feel the way I did about the ghost, that she was almost like a friend.

We pulled open the big brass and glass doors and stepped into the theater. It seemed much spookier than earlier in the evening, when everyone else had been in it. A single worklight was burning on the stage. Other than that it was dark. Very dark.

“Let's go out the front way,” I said nervously.

“Don't be a wimp,” whispered Chris. “Come on!”

“Why are we speaking in whispers?” I asked—speaking in a whisper myself.

Chris shrugged. I knew what she meant. There wasn't any logical reason. It just seemed the right thing to do.

We began tiptoeing down the aisle. Suddenly Chris put her hand on my arm. “What's that?” she hissed.

I stopped dead in my tracks. It took a moment for me to locate the sound. Finally I realized it was coming from the front of the theater.

But it wasn't the ghost. It was Pop. He was sitting in the third row, crying his eyes out.

CHAPTER TEN

More Costumes

It was almost eleven by the time Chris and her father dropped me off. I found my dad in the kitchen, stirring something in a big bowl.

“Hi, babe,” he said cheerfully as I walked in. “How'd rehearsal go?”

“Don't ask,” I sighed, poking my finger into the bowl. I took out a glob of something kind of purple and stuck it in my mouth. “Not bad,” I said. “What is it?”

“Slopnuggets.”

Slopnuggets are my father's own invention. They're something he came up with after my mother left. Basically, he takes the biggest bowl he can find and throws in anything he thinks might make a good cookie that night. Then he stirs it all up and bakes it. They never come out the same twice, but he's never made a batch I didn't like, either. He claims the trick is to avoid things like pickles and sauerkraut. Sometimes we make them together. It can get a little hysterical when we do.

My father knew that I knew he was making slopnuggets. What I really wanted to know was what made them purple. I raised an eyebrow and stared at him.

“The secret ingredient of the night is black raspberry Jell-O,” he said, without my having to ask again. “Except now it's not a secret anymore. So much for surprises. Anyway, I repeat—but only because you told me not to, so I'm assuming it must be really interesting—how did rehearsal go tonight?”

“Well, somebody tore Lydia's main costume to shreds; the whole cast got scared because they thought the ghost did it; Gwendolyn had a screaming fit; and Chris and I almost caused a panic in the theater when the ghost sat down behind us.”

“You're right,” he said, dumping some baking soda into the bowl. “I shouldn't have asked. But since we've gone this far, you have to tell me what happened next. I'm fascinated.”

So I told him about the meeting in Gwendolyn's office and about how we had decided to walk out through the theater when it was over. I told him about hearing Pop crying.

“What did you do?” he asked.

“We turned around and went out the other way. I don't think he even knew we were there. I figured he wanted to be alone.”

“Good move,” my dad said, shoving Sidney out of the way with his foot so he could get a cookie sheet out of the cupboard. “What are you going to do next?”

“Go to bed!” I said, trying to keep down a yawn. “I'm exhausted.”

“That's two good moves,” he said. “Then what?”

“I'm going to get up.”

“And then?” he persisted.

“And then I'm going to find out what's going on in that theater!” I said emphatically.

He nodded. “That's what I figured.”

“You don't mind?” I asked cautiously.

“Of course I mind!” he said. “You're probably going to get in as much trouble as people usually do when they stick their noses in other people's business, though I suppose I should be used to that by now. The real reason I mind is that I'm jealous.”

“Jealous?”

“Sure. I've never even seen a ghost. But if this one keeps appearing to you, odds are she wants your help for some reason. I suppose you'd better give it to her.”

I still don't know if he really meant that, or if he said it just to scare me.

“Scare you,” said Chris the next day when I met her at the theater. “Definitely. But not enough to get you to leave things alone. Just enough to get you to be careful. Your father is incredibly cool. You want to trade?”

“Not really,” I said. “Losing one parent was enough to last me forever.”

“Divorce?” asked Chris sympathetically.

I shrugged. “Not yet. But they've been separated for two years.”

Chris shook her head. “I'm sorry,” she said. “Want to talk about it?”

“No. At least, not right now.”

Chris didn't push. I knew she wouldn't. “Some other time,” she said. “We've got work to do anyway. Let's get busy.”

We began walking toward the theater, which was one long block up from where the bus let me off. We hadn't gone more than halfway when Chris grabbed my arm and dragged me into a store entryway.

I was getting better at this detective business. I managed to beat down my first reaction, which was to yell, “What do you think you're doing?” and replace it with a very quietly hissed, “What's up?”

“Look down there,” said Chris, gesturing with her thumb.

Poking my head around the corner of the entryway, I spotted Alan Bland and Lydia Crane stepping into a restaurant called the Brass Elephant, which was a hangout for most of the adult members of the cast. Lydia was holding Alan's arm and leaning against him in a very possessive way.

“Are they going out?” Chris asked gleefully.

“I don't know,” I said. “Alan's a nice guy. But he doesn't seem like the type a beautiful woman like Lydia would be interested in.”

Chris shrugged. “Some women just go nuts for skinny intellectuals.”

I wondered if Chris was trying to tease me about my crush on Edgar. He could certainly be classified as a skinny intellectual, even if he was about ten times as gorgeous as Alan.

We had to walk past the Brass Elephant to get to the theater, and we wanted to look inside without making it seem obvious. We decided that just as we reached the restaurant's window, I would bend down to tie the laces of my sneakers. As I bent over, Chris stood there tapping her foot impatiently, just as we had planned. I took enough time doing my laces for her to get a good look through the window.

“Well?” I asked, when I was ready to move on. “Could you see them?”

“Could I ever,” said Chris. “They were sitting in a little booth near the front, with their hands on the table and their fingertips
almost
touching. I couldn't see Alan's face, but Lydia was looking at him like she thought he was wonderful. A real romance! I love it.”

“If that's a romance, I'll eat my sneakers,” I said, as we walked through the big front doors of the theater. I looked up at the giant mural on the wall and touched the brass elephant, just as I always did. The place seemed so bright and cheerful in the daytime it was hard to believe such strange things were going on at night.

“Well, where do we start?” said Chris.

Before I could answer, Eileen Taggart, the costume designer, swooped down on us. “Just the two I wanted to see!” she shrieked joyfully. “I can't believe you're here just when I need you.”

“It's a knack we have,” said Chris dryly as Eileen led us off to her fitting room at the back of the theater. There she stood me up on a hassock and started trying different ratty old dresses on me, babbling along merrily as she did.

“You're awfully cheerful today,” said Chris. “Aren't you upset about Lydia's costume? It must have been an awful lot of work for you.”

“Not hardly!” said Eileen, jabbing a pin through several layers of fabric. “It was something they had hanging around from a show they did three years ago. I hated the thing myself. I kept telling Gwendolyn that if she let Lydia wear it in the show I wasn't going to have my name on the program! Oh, dear, this looks like poop, don't it, love,” she added, tearing off the last skirt she had wrapped around me.

I glanced at Chris, who nodded her head in response. All of a sudden we had someone with a motive for destroying the costume!

Eileen chattered on, totally unaware of what we were thinking. “'Course, I don't know why I'm doing this show, anyway,” she said as she dove into a box filled with stuff that looked like it had been rejected by the Salvation Army. “I told Edgar I didn't think he ought to do a show by a looney bird.”

She gasped and put her hand to her mouth. “I wasn't supposed to say anything about that. Oh, well, it's no big secret anyhow.”

“What isn't?” asked Chris innocently.

“Oh, about that Alan Bland,” replied Eileen, perfectly happy to spread some gossip. “They packed him away for a few months last year, you know. Nutty as a fruitcake, though you wouldn't know it to look at him now. Not that he's normal, or anything. But he doesn't give you the idea that there are little bats flying around in his head anymore, if you know what I mean.”

I could feel my mind spinning. If Alan Bland had mental problems, was it possible he was crazy enough to be sabotaging his own show? It didn't seem logical. But then, crazy people aren't supposed to be logical. Anyway, now we had to add Alan to our list of suspects.

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