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Brian and Sean investigate a series of suspicious accidents at a theater waiting to be torn down.
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Brian and Sean investigate a series of suspicious accidents at a theater waiting to be torn down.
As Brian and Sean Quinn locked their bikes to the rusty railing outside the old Culbertson Theater, Sam Miyako, Brian's best friend, rode up and jumped off his bike. He jerked a thumb toward the ambulance and police car that were parked at the curb behind the handful of curious onlookers who had gathered in front of the theater.
"I came as soon as you called me," Sam said breathlessly. "What's going on?"
A paramedic trotted out of the theater and flung open the ambulance doors. The crowd leaned forward expectantly.
Brian asked Sam, "Do you remember reading about Clyde Marconi? He's the developer who wants to tear down this block of buildings and build a supermall."
The Culbertson Theater was located at the end of a row of old brick buildings that had been boarded up for nearly ten years. The area had been deserted when shoppers and sightseers became drawn to the more modern and convenient malls and restaurants on the other side of Redoaks. A recent editorial in the local Redoaks newspaper had complained that the buildings were an eyesore and demanded that something be done to revitalize the old part of town.
"About fifteen minutes ago," Brian explained, "Mr. Marconi telephoned Dad. One of Mr. Marconi's inspectors was onstage in the Culbertson Theater when a sandbag fell and hit his shoulder."
"Your dad told you that?" Sam asked.
Brian smiled. "Well, not exactly. Dad wrote down the facts of what Mr. Marconi said on a pad of paper. The pen he used left an imprint in the soft paper. After he left, I rubbed a pencil over the paper and was able to reproduce the message."
"Cool," said Sam. "But why did Mr. Marconi call your dad?"
Sean broke in. "Last week he hired Dad to investigate some accidents in the theater."
"Accidents?" Sam said. "Like what?"
"A stair railing suddenly broke," Sean answered, "and Mr. Marconi fell. Later he nearly got squashed by a large stage flat that had been propped against the wall, only he jumped out of the way in time."
"What's a stage flat?" asked Sam.
"You remember that school play we were in last year?" Brian said. "Well, a flat's a piece of scenery that's fastened to a wooden frame."
"Yeah," said Sean, grinning. "Like that door that got stuck and wouldn't open when it was supposed to."
Brian nodded. "Well, in this case Mr. Marconi didn't think the broken rail and the falling flat were unrelated accidents, and he doesn't think the falling sandbag was, either. He's sure that somebody's doing this stuff on purpose, and he's worried about the safety of his crew if he gets approval from the city council to tear down the building."
Sam narrowed his eyes and made his voice sound scary. "Mr. Marconi is right. They weren't accidents. Everybody knows the theater's haunted, so you can blame the ghost."
Sean stiffened. "Ghost? What ghost?"
"Cut it out, Sam," Brian said. "Sean and I are here to help Dad with his investigation. We haven't got time to listen to another one of your ridiculous stories."
"Yeah," Sean added. "We're not little kids anymore, you know. I'm nine now. Anyway, nobody believes in ghosts." The fact is, Sean did believe in ghosts, especially the kinds of ghosts that always appeared in Sam's stories. Sean couldn't help it. The scarier the story, the more he believed it.
Sam grinned. "It isn't a story. It's true. The ghost suddenly appears onstage, and he has claws for hands and eyes that burn like fire and ... Ouch!"
A tiny elderly woman who had been standing nearby rapped Sam sharply on the shoulder with the handle of her umbrella. "Nonsense," she declared. "Horatio was always a gentleman, and his spirit is an inspiring presence."
The boys all turned and stared at her openmouthed.
"Horatio?" Sean asked. "The ghost's name is Horatio?"
"That's correct," the woman said. "The ghost of the actor, Horatio Hamilton. Horatio was in very poor health during one of our productions back in 1940. Or was it '41? But he was quite considerate about waiting to die until after the final curtain."
"I am Miss Nora Ann Beezly," the woman declared. The faded red silk poppies on her straw hat bobbed up and down as she nodded. "I'm a former actress, director, and occasional playwright."
Brian, Sean, and Sam introduced themselves to Miss Beezly.
"Hey, look!" said Sean suddenly. The paramedics were wheeling a man with a heavily bandaged shoulder out of the theater and loading him into the ambulance.
"Cool!" shouted Sam as he watched the ambulance speed away with lights flashing and siren blaring.
Then the bystanders began drifting away. Miss Beezly sighed. "I'm sure all this frightful commotion at the theater has quite unnerved poor Horatio." She turned to Brian. "You know, of course, that some perfectly dreadful man is planning to tear down the theater? Horatio is awfully upset."
Brian whipped out his notebook and pen. "Miss Beezly," he said, "are you saying you actually believe in this Horatio?"
"Why, of course, dear."
"You've actually seen him?" asked Sean.
Miss Beezly shook her head. "No. Not seen. But I've felt his presence many times. I regret not visiting the theater to pay my respects to Horatio. I'll try to find a nice quiet time soon to come by and chat."
"You probably won't be able to get in," Brian said. "They must keep these old buildings locked."
"Oh, yes. I know they do," Miss Beezly answered, "but that doesn't matter. I still have the key I was given years ago when I worked day and night on our wonderful productions."
Sam said, "Our junior high drama teacher told us that actors believe all theaters are haunted by ghosts."
"Most theaters," Miss Beezly corrected. "By the way," she said, frowning at Sam. "Young man, that description you gave of Horatio having claws and burning eyes is utterly ridiculous! The truth is that a ghost who is in residence in a theater is considered by actors to bring good luck."
"Why would a ghost bring good luck?" Sean asked.
"It's like having someone on hand to watch over the performers," she explained, "to keep them from coming onstage at the wrong cues, or flubbing their lines, or tripping over the scenery." She shook her head. "Theater ghosts certainly don't cause accidents," she said. "If you ask me, that terrible man who wants to demolish the theater is responsible."
"Mr. Marconi?" asked Brian. "Why do you think that?"
"Yeah," added Sean. "He's the one who hired our dad to investigate all the accidents."
"Accidents, smackcidents ..." Miss Beezly blurted out. "I don't trust that Mr. Marconi one bit."
"Why not?" asked Brian.
"He didn't tell the truth when he informed the city council and the press that the theater building is unsound," she said. "The Culbertson was built to last forever. Just like me. You tell your father not to trust him, either.
"And would you be so kind as to ask him to please be considerate of Horatio," she added. "If he's treated with respect, dear Horatio might even lead your father to whoever is responsible for the accident."
"How would he do that?" asked Sean.
"Why, through a ghostly message, of course."
"We'll tell my dad," Brian said politely.
Miss Beezly smiled. "I live just two blocks away in the Tinsley apartments," she said. "Why don't you boys come to visit sometime? I'll make lemonade and tell you lots of stories about the Culbertson Theater."
"About Horatio, too, I hope?" Sean asked.
"Oh, yes. I have many stories about dear Horatio."
"Cool!" Sam and Sean said together.
Brian wrote down Miss Beezly's address and phone number in his notebook. After the old woman had gone, Brian looked over his notes. Much of what she had said sounded like nonsense, Brian thought, except for the stuff about Mr. Marconi and the city council. He would have to check that out later.
"My mom knows Miss Beezly," Sam said. "She goes to our church. Mom says she's real nice but kind of dramatic, and she's always forgetting things." He saw Brian frowning over his notebook. "I don't know why you bothered to write down all that junk she told us. You don't believe what she said about Horatio?"
"Of course not," he said. "But a good investigator checks out everything. Among other things, I want to find out as much as I can about the history of the theater and its current condition. Miss Beezly could be a valuable resource for that."
Sam grinned. "You mean like, is a ghost living in the attic?"
Brian smiled as he tucked his notebook into the pocket of his jeans. "Why not?" he said. He and Sean had learned from their father that a good investigator doesn't rule out any information without checking it first—even if that means tracking down a ghost.
"Okay," said Brian finally. "It's time to meet Horatio." He began walking toward the theater door.
"Won't your dad be mad if we show up?" asked Sam as they walked toward the theater.
"Heck no," said Sean. "We've helped him out on a bunch of cases before. He'll be happy to see us." Then Sean had second thoughts. "I hope so, anyway."CHAPTER 2
"Neat," whispered Sam. The boys were standing at the top of the main aisle that led down to the stage. It was dark except for thin slivers of light that came through the broken shutters that partially covered the theater's many windows.
"I bet that a long time ago those windows were used to let in fresh air between performances," Brian pointed out.
Sean could make out the outlines of the dark stage. It reminded him of a giant yawning mouth. Suddenly he heard low, mumbling voices. Sean moved closer to Brian.
"Brian, I think I heard something."
"Me, too," said Brian.
"It's not Horatio, is it?" Sean asked.
"No," said Brian. "Not unless Horatio is one of Dad's clients. Look."
A man walked onstage carrying a flashlight.
"That's Mr. Marconi," Brian whispered to Sean. Mr. Marconi was followed by Mr. Quinn and a police officer.
"The city inspector may have classified this building as sound, but I don't think that it is," Mr. Marconi announced.
"We've examined the rope that held the sandbag," the policewoman said. "It's old, dirty, and badly frayed. You were right to call us, but there's nothing to indicate that the falling sandbag was anything more than an accident."
"Well, I disagree," Mr. Marconi said, "and I've hired Mr. Quinn here to investigate."
There was some more conversation the boys couldn't hear, then the policewoman left, and Mr. Marconi and Mr. Quinn disappeared backstage.
Suddenly a hand clamped down on Sean's shoulder. "What are you boys doing in here?" the voice angrily demanded.
Brian, Sean, and Sam whirled to face two well-dressed women, both with scowls on their faces.
"This is not a playground," the short, plump woman said severely. "What if you break something? Children are always breaking something. Isn't that right, Dolores?"
The tall one nodded deeply.
Break what? Sean wondered as he tried to wriggle free. The whole theater already looked pretty broken down to him. Here and there, throughout the sagging rows of seats, clumps of padding spilled through rips in the faded red velvet upholstery.
"We're not here looking to break anything," Sean began to explain, but the two women would not listen.
"Please leave," the tall woman said. "Right now. You don't belong in here."
"Yes we do," Brian answered politely. "Our father is John Quinn, a private investigator, and we're helping him in his investigation of the accidents that are taking place here in the theater."
"Accidents?" the short woman said. "We've only heard of the one accident that took place earlier today."
"There were two others," Sean said.
The women looked curiously at each other with raised eyebrows, then nodded knowingly. "In any case," the tall woman said finally, "you're just children. How could you possibly help?"
"The theater's supposed to be haunted," Sean blurted out without thinking, "so we're going to try to find the ghost who might be causing the accidents."
Brian was about to explain when Mr. Marconi, Mr. Quinn, and a third man appeared onstage.
"Clyde Marconi!" the short woman shouted. "Come down here, please! We have something to say to you!"
Sean almost giggled. The woman reminded him of one of his old teachers at Redoaks Elementary School. She was always scolding him in that same tone of voice.
The three men climbed down from the stage and walked up the aisle. When Mr. Quinn saw Brian and Sean he frowned, then shook his head. "Mr. Marconi," he said, "I'd like you to meet—"
The tall woman angrily interrupted. "You have undoubtedly forgotten, Mr. Marconi, but we were supposed to have had an appointment with you thirty minutes ago. Your secretary told us you were here in the theater."
The short woman broke in. "Although we were previously introduced, Mr. Marconi," she began, "I'll refresh your memory. I'm Mrs. Helen Hemsley, president of the Redoaks Historical Society, and this is Mrs. Dolores Rodriguez, our secretary-treasurer."
"Yes, I remember you," sighed Mr. Marconi wearily.
"Just what are you doing now that is so important that you could not make our meeting?" demanded Mrs. Hemsley.
"Our scheduled meeting," added Mrs. Rodriguez with emphasis.
"I'm sorry," said Mr. Marconi. "I had an emergency."
"I see," said Mrs. Rodriguez. "And may I ask what business you and your crew have in this theater?"
"My inspector and I have been going through all the buildings in this block," Mr. Marconi explained. "When we tear them down, we want to know what will be involved and how much it's going to cost."
"Hmmmph!" Mrs. Hemsley said. "You're never going to tear down the Culbertson!"
Mr. Quinn stepped in. "Mrs. Hemsley and Mrs. Rodriguez, I'd like you to meet Al Duggan, a reporter for the Redoaks News. I'm John Quinn, a private investigator who—"
"How do you do, Mr. Duggan," Mrs. Hemsley snapped. "Mr. Quinn, there's no need to tell us why Mr. Marconi has hired you. We already know. You're here looking for ghosts."
"I'm ... I'm what?" Mr. Quinn asked in astonishment. He looked at Mr. Duggan.
Al Duggan, looking equally surprised, jotted down something in his notebook. "Ghosts?" he said. "This is one police call I'm glad I listened to."
Mrs. Rodriguez gave a loud sniff. "We also know that Mr. Marconi is responsible for these alleged accidents in this theater, not a ghost."
"Exactly," concluded Mrs. Hemsley. "He's trying to make it appear that this building is unsound when it isn't. He'll do anything to get his plan approved by the city council. He warned us he was going to get his way."
"Those were your words, as I remember," responded Mr. Marconi. "You told me I was in for a fight I couldn't win!"
"Oh, come now," scoffed Mrs. Rodriguez. "Imagine anyone in his right mind wanting to tear down this beautiful old historical building and build a mall!"
"Indeed," added Mrs. Hemsley. "The fact is you can't claim that the building is structurally unsound because it isn't! So you stage accidents to try to prove that the building is dangerous."
"Your tricks won't work, Mr. Marconi!" thundered Mrs. Rodriguez. "We'll fight you in city council meetings to preserve this building!"
"Now just a minute!" shouted Mr. Marconi, who was so angry he looked like a red balloon ready to pop. "Your accusations are false! I'd never stage an accident! The lives of my employees are at stake!"
Al Duggan broke in. "Let's get back to what you said about a ghost," he suggested. "What did you mean, Mrs. Hemsley, about looking for ghosts?"
"The theater's haunted," Sean answered without thinking. Everyone turned to stare. "The ghost's name is Horatio Hamilton. Only Horatio didn't cause the accident."
"How do you know, kid?" asked Mr. Duggan excitedly.
"Miss Nora Ann Beezly said so," said Sean. "And my name isn't kid. It's—"
"Sean," Mr. Quinn said, "I think you've said more than enough already." He sighed and turned to Mr. Duggan. "I'd like to set matters straight once and for all about this ridiculous idea of ghosts."
Excerpted from Backstage with a Ghost by Joan Lowery Nixon, Kathleen Collins Howell. Copyright © 1995 Joan Lowery Nixon. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted July 1, 2014