Forecast—Fair!

Peggy giggled uneasily as she and Amy inspected themselves in the hall
mirror before leaving the Gramercy Arms. “We look like a couple of
character actors dressed up for a skit on the Beat Generation.”

“Or like a couple of weird vampires from a horror movie,” Amy replied
with a nervous laugh.

Greta surveyed them critically. “At least you don’t have to worry about
anything,” she said acidly. “Those getups would frighten off any man in
the world. If the crooks do catch sight of you, all it’ll take is one
look before they scream and run!”

Both girls were dressed identically, having taken their cue from Pip in
the matter of appropriate clothes for playing detective in a dark alley.
They wore black skirts and sweaters, black stockings and black shoes.
They carried black gloves and black scarves. The scarf was necessary for
Amy to cover her bright, blond hair, and Peggy thought it was a good
idea for her to take one, too, as a face covering. Neither wore any
jewelry at all, so there would be nothing to rattle or jingle or catch
the light.

“If we’re not back by morning,” Peggy said wryly, “send out the
bloodhounds for us.”

“I’m waiting up for you,” Greta said. “And if you’re not back by
one-thirty, the first bloodhound to pick up your trail is going to be
me. With an appropriate police escort,” she added.

“Don’t worry,” Peggy said. “We’ll be all right. Just wish us luck, and
we’ll be on our way.”

“All right, then. Good luck,” Greta said, opening the door for them. “I
just hope the police don’t pick you up, for looking like suspicious
characters.”

Peggy and Amy left, feeling a little foolish about their costumes, but
after walking for a block or two, they realized that nobody was even
looking at them.

“That’s the wonderful thing about New York,” Peggy said. “You can wear
anything, or do anything, and nobody seems to care as long as you don’t
disturb the peace.”

Amy nodded in agreement. “The other day I noticed a man with a beard
down to his waist. He was wearing a long Biblical-looking white robe and
a pair of sandals, and nobody on the street was paying the least bit of
attention to him. Just try to picture him passing unnoticed in Pine
Hollow or in Rockport!”

“Just try to picture us passing unnoticed in Pine Hollow or in
Rockport!” Peggy laughed. “We’d probably have a crowd of people and
barking dogs and small boys throwing stones by now!”

The driver scarcely glanced at them as they boarded a bus.

“I suppose it’s nice to know that nobody bothers about you in New York,”
Peggy said when they were seated, “but in a way it’s kind of scary. I
mean, supposing something were to happen to us, do you think that anyone
would even notice it if we screamed?”

Amy shivered. “I know what you mean,” she said. “I suppose a lot of
people would notice it, and then they’d just put it out of their minds
and do nothing about it. They’d just figure it was none of their
business, after all, and go right on doing what they were doing.”

The thought was not a happy one, and both girls lapsed into a tense
silence as the bus bore them downtown into the deepening twilight.

They got off in a district of office buildings, shops, and showrooms,
all dark now. The streets were empty, save for an occasional car or taxi
and the taillights of their bus, receding in the distance. As they
turned to the west, down a narrow side street, the street lights came
on. They seemed to accentuate the darkness rather than relieve it. The
girls hurried on past closed doors and shuttered windows. Each block
they walked brought them past older and lower buildings. The smell of
the river was brought to them by an incoming mist. Somewhere in the
distance a foghorn sounded two short, mournful blasts and then was
still.

They were in the market and warehouse district now. Parked trucks stood
silently by darkened loading docks, and shadows crouched behind tall
stacks of crates and boxes. One shadow suddenly detached itself from the
rest and shot by them with a wail! Peggy’s heart leaped and she clutched
Amy’s arm before she realized it was only an alley cat.

[Illustration: One shadow suddenly detached itself from the rest]

“A cat!” she exclaimed, her voice trembling in mixed fear and relief.
“Just a cat! Oh dear, if I let that sort of thing scare me, I’m not
going to be much good tonight!”

“I … I was frightened, too,” Amy said. “It was so sudden! We’ll
probably see more of them here, chasing the rats that must live around
these food markets. We’d better get used to it.”

But the thought of rats did nothing to calm Peggy’s nerves, or Amy’s
either. What if, in the alley behind the theater, rats should come? What
if they should come at the same time as the crooks? What if, under the
fire stairs, there should come a quiet scratching…? Peggy wondered if
she would be able to keep her silence then.

But they were near the theater alley now, and Peggy resolutely put her
fear of rats out of her mind. Let’s just worry about one thing at a
time, she told herself. The street was deserted, as she had hoped it
would be, and they were able to slip into the alley unobserved.

They walked cautiously, taking care with each step. If there was any
work going on in the alley now, this would be no time to disturb it.
Before turning the corner into the back court, they paused and listened
for what seemed a very long time. Not a sound disturbed the night. The
immediate silence was so perfect that they could hear, far in the
distance, the never-ending rumble and stir of the city, the growl of
subways and motors, the far-off drone of airplanes.

They turned into the empty courtyard, darted noiselessly for the fire
stairs and crouched in the shadows, their hearts drumming loudly and the
blood roaring in their ears like the noise of the distant subways.

It was some time before they felt calm enough to take stock of their
position. The fire stair was, as Peggy had told the boys, a perfect
place to hide. Most of it mounted out of sight in an airshaft on the
side of the building opposite the entrance alley. Only the last six
steps came out into the court, having turned the corner of the building
at a landing. The space below the landing made a cramped little lean-to,
protected by the steps themselves on one side and by a latticework of
metal on the other. The space was open only in the rear, from which
direction nobody could approach them.

The steps themselves were steel, and the risers between the steps were
of the same metal grillwork as that on the side. It was almost
impossible for anyone to see into the shadowed cubbyhole behind the
grill, but quite an easy matter for the girls to see out.

“I think we’re safe enough here,” Peggy whispered, tactfully restraining
herself from adding, “as long as no rats come around.”

“It seems safe,” Amy agreed, “but I wouldn’t exactly call it
comfortable. It’s too low to stand in, and I hate the thought of sitting
down on the dirt that’s collected here. There’s a box out there in the
courtyard. Why don’t we bring it in to sit on?”

“Better not,” Peggy answered. “Someone may remember having seen it
there, and if it’s missing, it might give them the idea that somebody’s
been here. And we don’t want anyone to get ideas like that.”

Amy agreed reluctantly with the sense of Peggy’s argument, and shifted
her position. “No wonder Pip was so tired,” she whispered. “A whole
twelve hours of crouching like this must be a terrible thing to go
through! We’ve only been here for about fifteen minutes, and I’m
beginning to get pins and needles already.”

The next hour and a half, spent mostly in silence, and in trying to get
used to the cramped position beneath the stairs, passed by with terrible
slowness. Every so often, the roar of a truck would be heard in the
street, and the girls would grow tense, waiting for it to turn into the
alley. But it always went by, leaving an even deeper silence behind it.

“It’s almost time for Randy and Mal to come,” Peggy whispered. “I don’t
envy them their night, but I’ll sure be glad to get out of here!”

“So will—quiet! I hear another truck,” Amy said.

Quietly shifting into new positions of comparative comfort, the girls
held their breath and waited to hear the sound of the truck passing the
alley. But this one didn’t pass.

A bright beam of headlights swept down the alley and lighted up the
court as the truck turned in off the street.

“Those headlights!” Peggy whispered. “When they turn the corner into the
court, they’re bound to light up this whole stairway!”

“Just hope the driver doesn’t look this way!” Amy whispered in return.

But before the truck came into sight, the headlights were switched off,
and the driver came in under the soft glow of the parking lamps. The
truck was an ordinary-looking, box-body affair, a little shabby, dented,
and in need of both a washing and a paint job. Faded, once-gold letters
high up on its side read “O & O TRUCKING Co.” The forlorn appearance of
the truck was belied by the soft, powerful sound of its well-tuned
engine as it turned into the alley and was expertly backed up to the
loading platform.

Two men silently leaped out of the cab and carefully closed the doors.
Moving on rubber-soled shoes, they climbed onto the platform, unlocked
the rear doors of the truck and swung them back. A third man, holding a
rifle in his hand, stepped out of the truck.

“Okay,” he said quietly. “You get the stuff out, and I’ll keep watch.”

He jumped lightly down and stationed himself at the corner by the alley,
his rifle held ready, while the other men unlocked the elevator doors
and opened them.

They worked swiftly and quietly in the darkness, which was relieved only
by a very dim work light mounted in the truck body. By its pale glow,
Peggy and Amy saw only an anonymous series of boxes being transferred
from the truck to the elevator. There was no way to tell what they held
but, Peggy thought, it couldn’t have been anything legal—not if it had
to be loaded secretly at night and under an armed guard.

Thinking of the armed guard, she suddenly shivered with fright as a new
thought came to her. The boys! Randy and Mal! What if they should choose
this moment to make their appearance? The man with the rifle stood
motionless and poised for action. Peggy was sure he would not hesitate
to shoot anyone who walked into that alley. Biting her lip and holding
tightly to the steel support of the stair, she prayed that Randy’s
engine would give him more trouble, or that they would run into heavy
traffic or want to stop for dinner or … or anything! Anything to keep
them from coming here until the truckmen had finished their business and
gone.

At least she was not kept long in suspense. The men were quick and
efficient, and their cargo was not a very large one. In a very few
minutes, the elevator was loaded and, with a smooth whir not at all like
the Academy elevators, it ascended to the theater. It returned not long
after, emptied of its crates, and the workmen shut off the mechanism,
swung the doors closed, and clicked the lock on them.

The watchman with the rifle nodded his approval, climbed back into the
rear of the truck and once more allowed himself to be locked in. Without
a word, the truckmen took their places in the cab, soundlessly shut the
doors, and the battered truck swung smoothly into the courtyard, backed
up, and turned down the alley.

It seemed like the first time in ten minutes that Peggy had breathed.

“I was frightened to death that the boys would come!” she said.

“That’s all I could think of, too,” Amy whispered in a shaky voice.

“Now all I want is for them to come fast!” Peggy said. “We’ve got all
the evidence we need for the police, I think, and I just want to get out
of here!”

“If we do get this theater for our play,” Amy said, “I wonder if I’ll
feel good about it. I’m afraid I’ll never feel quite right about this
place after tonight!”

“Oh, we’ll make it all over,” Peggy said with enthusiasm. “We’ll put
bright lights in the little marquee, and we’ll put up lighted theater
posters on the walls, and I think we could paint the wall behind the
loading platform white with gilt trim on the pillars on each side of the
elevator. Then, if we can find a fountain for the court, the way I
suggested before, and maybe a few stone benches, we—Oh!” She gave a
start of fright as a male voice laughed close to her ear.

“Just like a woman!” Randy said. “Supposed to be keeping a lookout, and
you’re decorating an alley! But where are Pip and Tom? And what are you
doing here? And—”

“We’ll tell you everything over coffee,” Peggy said. “Oh, Randy! It’s
all over! We’ve got our crooks—and they’re crooks all right—and we’ve
got our theater, I’m sure—and I’m so glad you didn’t come ten minutes
earlier, and…. Oh, let’s get out of here!”

“Let’s,” Mal said. “This is hardly my idea of a place for a date! Amy,
take my arm. I have a feeling you need it. And Randy, get a firm grip on
Peggy, if you please.”

“Stop directing, Mal,” Randy laughed. “I think I’ve already written this
scene quite nicely, and the hero has the heroine well in hand!”

Seated at the desk in her room, Peggy selected a fresh sheet of paper.
She was on the fifth page of a letter to her friend Jean Wilson.

So you see I was right. There _were_ crooks using the theater all the
time. The next day, Amy and I told the police what we had seen in the
alley, and I think they were really pleased, even though they did bawl
us out for poking around in police affairs. At that, they admitted that
if we had come to them the first time with nothing but suspicions, they
probably wouldn’t have been able to do anything. Anyway, they put a
guard under the stairs and stationed some more policemen around, and two
nights later they caught the gang.

It seems they were hijackers, which means that they held up trucks on
the road and stole valuable cargo from them. They were using the theater
as a warehouse for the stolen goods until they could dispose of them in
whatever way crooks get rid of stolen goods. When the police searched
the place, they found thousands and thousands of dollars’ worth of furs
and silverware and liquor and appliances and all sorts of things. The
cartons that we saw them unload the night we were there turned out to
contain nylon stockings, and they were worth about twenty thousand
dollars, which is an awful lot of nylon stockings.

The police say we’re going to get a big reward from the insurance
people. The boys wanted to give it all to me, but I refused it. I’m
going to give it to the players’ group, which really means to Randy and
Mal, to rent the theater on a long-term lease and to fix it up properly.
They said once before that they didn’t want to be in the real estate
business, but I think that they’re changing their minds about that.

The police got in touch with the owner of the building, who is retired
and has been living in Florida for a long time. He didn’t know anything
about what was going on in the theater and was quite grateful that we
had gotten his crooked tenants out of the place. It seems he has been so
long away from the New York real-estate scene, that he didn’t know his
property was in demand as a theater. He says it hasn’t been used as one
for over fifty years! Of course, he could get more money renting it as a
theater than as a warehouse, but he says he doesn’t need more money, and
we need a theater. He has offered it to us on a ten-year lease for the
same rent he was getting before.

Randy says that the rent is so low that even a moderately successful
season would give him and Mal enough profit to live on comfortably, so
they’re now beginning to talk about becoming managers, doing their own
shows and, when they don’t happen to have a show for a particular
season, renting the theater to other groups.

What’s more, the rent covers the whole building, and the boys are
thinking of turning part of it into apartments for themselves, and the
rest of it into apartments for other young actors, something like a
Gramercy Arms for boys!

Incidentally, the theater is beautiful. The police let us in to take a
look at it today, and even with all those boxes and crates and fur coats
and things stacked around, we could see how nice it is. It’ll need new
seats, I’m afraid, and a new lighting system and a switchboard and a
curtain and loads of other things, but the reward money will more than
cover all that. And we even have a name for it—the Penthouse Theater.
How does that strike you? I only hope you can come to New York to see it
when it’s all ready.

Or, better than that, plan to come to New York next season when, with
luck, I might have a part in a play there. One of the things I like best
about Randy and Mal is that, even though they’re just bursting with
gratitude and they keep calling me a heroine, they haven’t tried to ‘pay
me off’ by offering me a part in the play. I’m still going to help just
by painting scenery and selling ads in the program and running errands
and things like that. This way, I know that if I ever get a part in one
of their plays, it will be because I deserve it as an actress.

Another thing I like about Randy is that he’s coming to take me out
again tonight. Which reminds me—I’d better sign off now, before Irene
and Amy install themselves in the bathrooms!

Do you suppose that’s what they mean when they say that one of the most
important things for an actress to learn is timing?