The Ghost in the Third Row (8 page)

“It won't budge!” Chris said, interrupting my funeral. “I think it's broken.”

I think I went a little crazy right then. I remember pounding against the lid like a little kid having a tantrum.

“Hold still!” Chris yelled. “You'll knock the thing off the sawhorses. You might break it.”

“I don't care if it breaks!” I yelled. “Get me out of here!”

Chris started to say something, but she was interrupted by an angry voice yelling about “all the racket going on down there!”

It was Pop.

I stopped pounding. I knew Pop would get me out of the coffin. But I had a feeling when he did I might wish I was back inside it again.

The next few minutes were a jumble of voices and noises. Pop yelled at Chris about the trouble she was causing, and Chris yelled right back, trying to explain to him about my being trapped in the coffin.

Finally it dawned on him what she was saying. “Damn fool kids,” he muttered. He began banging at the side of the coffin. Suddenly the bottom opened up, and I came crashing down onto the floor.

“Ouch!” I yelped. “That hurt!”

“Serves you right!” said Pop gruffly. “The two of you don't have any business fooling around down here, anyway. Let me see your hands,” he added.

At first I didn't know what he was talking about. Then I realized that he had noticed what I hadn't even felt in all the excitement: my hands were scraped and bleeding from pounding on the lid of the coffin.

I held them out for his inspection. He grabbed them, turned them over roughly, then said, “We'd better take care of these. Come with me.”

Glancing at each other nervously, Chris and I followed Pop to his office, which was where we had been trying to go before we got distracted by all those props. Only we had intended to go in without Pop, so we could check things out.

Actually, I'm not sure “office” is the right word for the place. It was just a large, dingy room filled almost to overflowing with stuff most people would consider junk. A big old wooden desk stood to the right of the door, and a cluttered table stretched along the left wall. At the back of the room was another door, pulled nearly shut.

Personally, I thought it was wonderful. Most of the stuff that looked like junk was really souvenirs from all of Pop's years at the theater: posters, playbills, tattered scripts—all kinds of stuff. And the new stuff was all from the theater, too. I recognized a couple of props I knew we would be using in our show. It was clear they were only half-finished, and it dawned on me that Pop must be working on them.

But the most amazing things had to be the pictures. A few dozen of them hung on the rear wall, mounted in cheap black wooden frames. The glass had cracked in three or four of them, and a few had started to fade. Even so, they were impressive. They were all pictures of important stars—people I recognized immediately from all the old movies I had watched with my father. And every one of them was autographed.

I was dying to go over and look at them more closely. But the way Pop said, “Sit here,” when he plunked me down in the chair beside his desk made me change my mind.

So I sat and glared at Chris as she casually wandered over to the wall and began to inspect the pictures.

Pop sat down at his desk and began rummaging through the drawers. As he did I looked over the rest of the room. I was surprised to see what looked like a bed in the next room.

Did Pop live in the theater?

I made up my mind to ask around and see what I could find out.

“Here, give me your hands,” said Pop. He was holding a tube of some kind of salve he had pulled out of one of the drawers.

I stuck out my hands and let him start rubbing on the salve. As he did, I noticed a large scrapbook sitting on the far side of the desk.

It was open to a page that contained a single sheet of yellowed newspaper. It was upside down, but even from where I was sitting I could make out the huge black headline: “ACTRESS KILLED IN TRAGIC ACCIDENT AT GRAND THEATER.”

It was the article we had been trying to find in the library!

Underneath the headline there was a subhead. Because it was upside down and smaller than the headline, it was hard to make out. Squinting a bit, I leaned toward the scrapbook and let out a little gasp as the words came together for me. They were simple but shocking: “Andrew Heron Accused in Love Triangle Murder.”

Pop heard my gasp. Realizing what I was looking at, he. reached out and closed the scrapbook.

“You know what smart kids do?” he asked.

My eyes were wide as I shook my head.

“They keep their mouths shut, and their noses in their own business,” said Pop. “This is very good advice. If you have any brains, you'll take it. Understand?”

“Y-yes, sir,” I stammered.

“Good,” said Pop. “Now, beat it. Both of you!”

He didn't have to tell me twice. Chris, unaware of what I had just seen, didn't want to leave. She wanted to ask Pop some questions.

Grabbing her by the arm, I dragged her out of Pop's office and up the stairs.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Dropouts

“Well, it's Pop,” said Chris as we were riding the bus home. “He killed Lily Larkin fifty years ago, and now he's worried that the play is going to stir up all the dirt all over again. Maybe he got away before, and now he's afraid we'll find out he's really Andrew Heron and he'll get slapped in jail.”

“Slow down, will you?” I said. “All I saw was a clipping from a newspaper, and you've got the guy convicted already. If he really was Andrew Heron, why would he be hanging around the theater?”

“Guilt,” said Chris as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “The criminal always returns to the scene of the crime.”

I snorted. “That's the silliest thing I've ever heard.”

“Yeah, well, remember that he was in love with the Woman in White. He probably can't stand to leave the place. He's probably bound to her by some kind of curse.”

“Chris, will you start talking sense!”

She gave me a lopsided grin. “Just trying to bug you. I agree, we have to get more evidence. But I still think Pop's the one trying to sabotage the play. He's got to be connected with this thing in some way, or he wouldn't have that clipping.”

“Isn't it possible he just has a collection of articles about the theater?” I asked.

“OK,” said Chris, falling against me as the bus lurched over a bump, “if it's not Pop, who is it? You got any better candidates?”

“Well, not better. But certainly possible.”

“Like who?”

“Like no one. Maybe nobody's really trying to sabotage the play. Maybe Eileen just took advantage of Lydia's nervousness to get rid of that dress she hated. Or maybe Alan Bland has flipped out again and thinks he's the ghost or something.…”

It was Chris's turn to protest. “Nine! How can you say that after everything Paula told us today?”

“I'm not saying it's true,” I said. “I'm just trying to list all the possibilities.”

“Then don't forget Marilyn. She could be trying to drive Lydia out so she gets her part, like Melissa thinks.”

“Heck, it could be Melissa,” I said.

“Not a chance,” said Chris.

“Why not?”

Chris shrugged. “She's not a ghost. She's a witch!”

I was still laughing when we got to Chris's house.

I was also laughing when we left, but that was because I had plenty of fuel in between. Dinner in the Gurley household is hard to describe. The closest I can come is to say it's something like a cross between “Saturday Night Live” and feeding time at the zoo. That's mostly because Chris has a huge batch of brothers. “It's like living with a football team,” she complained to me.

It seemed like every brother had something to say about everything that came up. And they all wanted to say it at the same time as loudly as they could. And usually with their mouths full.

No wonder Chris was so tough. She had to be to survive in that household! What a contrast to my own house, where my dad and I sit down to a quiet dinner together every night and just talk about our day.

To tell you the truth, I kind of liked it. At least at Chris's house no one was ever lonely. But then, as my grandmother always said, “If two things are equally pleasant, the one you don't have will always be the one you want.” I'd probably have gone crazy if I really had to live at the Gurleys'.

I started to feel a little nervous as Chris's father drove us back to the theater. After everything that had happened there in the last few days, I wondered what would be next. Would there be more trouble? Would the ghost appear again? Would Pop still be mad at us?

But it wasn't just these questions. I also had a
feeling
that something horrible was going to happen. I couldn't have explained it to anyone. It was just something inside me that kept insisting there was real trouble on the way.

It didn't take us long to find out that things had already gone from bad to worse. As we walked into the lobby I spotted Edgar sitting on the broad stairway that led up to the mezzanine. He was clutching his head in his hands. He looked like someone whose dog had just been run over.

Chris and I made sure we took time to pat the brass elephant. Then we walked quietly over to where Edgar sat. Chris plunked herself down on one side of him. I sat on the other.

I felt a warm tingle. This was the closest I had ever gotten to Edgar!

“So,” I said. “What's wrong?”

Edgar didn't look up. “Do you want the list in alphabetical or chronological order?”

He sounded so miserable I just wanted to reach out and hug him. But then, I had been wanting to do that since the first time I met him, so I supposed it didn't count for much!

“Let's go for chronological,” said Chris. “Mostly because I don't know what it means.”

“Time order,” said Edgar. “Like this. One o'clock, Billy Klein calls to tell me he's leaving the show. One-fifteen, Lizzie Cramer calls with the same message. A little after two it was Mark Jordan. Ditto.”

“Did they say why?” asked Chris.

“Oh, sure, they gave excuses. But the real reason is they're afraid of the ghost.”

This seemed so outrageous to me I actually snorted. “What are they scared of?” I asked. “She wouldn't hurt a soul!”

Edgar shook his head. “Not everyone is as trusting as you are, Nine,” he said. He stood up. “You two go on in the theater. I have to talk to Gwendolyn for a while.”

He started up the stairs, then stopped and looked back at us.

“Thanks for listening,” he said. “I appreciate it.”

“Whooie,” said Chris, after Edgar was gone. “What a mess!”

I nodded in dismal agreement. Mark Jordan was our best dancer. Lizzie Cramer was one of the better singers. And Billy Klein had an important speaking part. All of them gone in a single day, and all because they were afraid of a ghost that wouldn't hurt a fly. No wonder Edgar was depressed!

As for me, I was more determined than ever to get to the bottom of this mess. For one thing, I couldn't stand to see what it was doing to poor Edgar. For another thing, my curiosity was driving me crazy.

Rehearsal started right on time that night. At least everyone who dropped out had called and told Edgar. No one just didn't show up.

Edgar made an announcement that there were going to be some cast changes and that we would try to work around the missing people for a while. He didn't say why the people were gone. But you could tell from the whispers that everyone had guessed.

“OK, Act One, scene four,” Edgar said. “I want to change some of the blocking. Melissa, you come up and stand here. Nine, here. And, Chris, over here.”

He paced about the stage as he talked, indicating not only where he wanted us to stand but what he wanted us to do while we were there. Soon we were into the scene and working hard. It was fun—about the first real acting I'd done since rehearsals started. Until then Edgar hadn't worked on any of my major scenes; I had spent most of my time working with Paula on my songs.

Unfortunately it was over all too soon, and we went back to our seats while Edgar moved on to the next scene. If there was one thing I learned during rehearsals, it was how much time actors spend sitting around waiting. It could drive a person crazy!

I felt sorry for Edgar as I watched him try to work around the dropouts. It seemed that there wasn't a single scene in the play that didn't use at least one or the other of them.

After about half an hour of reblocking, I felt Chris tap my arm.

When I turned to see what she wanted, she gestured toward the back of the theater. I looked in the direction she was pointing.

The ghost was standing in the aisle, about three rows behind us. When she saw me looking at her, she raised a finger to her lips as if telling me to keep quiet.

Then she held out her hand and crooked a finger. She wanted us to follow her!

I looked at Chris. She looked back and shrugged. Moving as quietly as we could, we slipped out of our seats and followed the ghost up the aisle.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Old News

Did you ever watch a ghost walk?

I can't swear they all do it the same way. But it was kind of interesting to watch the Woman in White move up the aisle.

She was wearing the same white dress I always saw her in, which of course was the costume she had been wearing the night she was killed. It was quite a bit nicer than the one Lydia had been supposed to wear. I wasn't surprised that Eileen Taggart had wanted to make something more like the real thing if her name was going to be on the program as costume designer.

Anyway, the gown went down to the floor. As she moved, I had the impression that the Woman in White was actually
walking
, not just gliding along as I would have expected. Dropping back a step, I knelt down and tipped my head sideways so it was right against the floor. I was right—she was moving her feet!

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