The Stage Door

This time, knowing the name and address of the theater, and knowing
exactly what they were looking for, the girls had little trouble finding
the file set of plans for the theater, kept with the Fire Department as
a record of the seating plan, capacity, and exits.

Mason’s Starlight Theater, as the place had originally been called, had
a good working stage plan, not too wide, but with extraordinarily good
depth. It accommodated four hundred seats, which was a small auditorium
by Broadway standards, but larger than most of the off-Broadway houses.
Wing and fly space was generous, to allow for easy movement of scenery
off to the sides (or wings) or up on ropes and pulleys to the flies. The
dressing rooms were small, but they were well located. It seemed to Amy
and Peggy like the perfect jewelbox of a theater that they had dreamed
of since they had started their search.

The entrance to the theater, they found, was not through the street door
of the loft building, but down an L-shaped alley that ran alongside the
building and, when it turned, opened into a sort of courtyard. Playgoers
had been taken up to the top floor on an oversized freight elevator
which also had served for bringing in scenery and props, and which was
rated to carry fifty passengers at once. Two additional exits were
provided by fire-escapes outside the building. There was no way to enter
or leave the theater from the rest of the building, and the elevator
stopped only at the theater level. The loft floors were served by a
regular-sized passenger elevator reached through the front hall.

“Well, it looks just perfect,” Peggy said triumphantly. “Now all we have
to do is find out what it’s being used for, expose it, and move in when
the crooks move out!”

“I think you’re jumping to conclusions,” Amy said. “It seems to me that
the janitor might actually not have known about the theater. After all,
it can’t be reached through the building, and if he’s never been told
about the back elevator, or never been allowed to use it, he might not
know what’s up there.”

“Maybe,” Peggy said doubtfully, “but it seemed to me that he looked
awfully guilty about something. I’m sure he’s part of whatever’s going
on there.”

Amy protested. “That’s just the point! Maybe there’s nothing going on
there! Maybe the janitor doesn’t know about the theater, and it’s not
being used by crooks, but just sitting up there empty, gathering dust!
Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

“It sure would,” Peggy agreed, “but I don’t think we’re that lucky. Of
course we could look up the name of the owner of the building and ask
him about the theater, but if it is a crooked game, and if the owner is
in on it…. No. I don’t think that’s the way to do it.”

“How do you think we should handle it, then?” Amy asked.

“I think we ought to go back to the place right now,” Peggy said,
“before it gets dark. I want to look around that back alley and theater
entrance just to see if we can pick up any clues. Then we’ll talk it
over with the boys and listen to their ideas.”

“I can believe that you’ll talk it over with them,” Amy laughed, “but I
have my doubts about your listening to anybody’s ideas! Still, I said
I’d go theater hunting with you, and I’m not going to back out now!”

By the time they had turned in their plans and charts to the file clerk
and returned to the loft-theater building, it was almost six o’clock.
Most of the trucks that had filled the streets were gone now, not to
return until after midnight, when the produce market would open for one
more business “day.” A few of the offices, small manufacturing
businesses and printing shops that filled the surrounding lofts, were
still open, judging by the lights in their windows, but for the most
part the streets and buildings were empty in the pearly twilight.

Making every effort to be inconspicuous, the girls ducked down the alley
to the rear courtyard entrance of the Starlight Theater. A miniature
marquee bearing the name “Mason’s” overhung a short flight of stairs
that led up to a loading platform, at the back of which was a wide, high
elevator door with pillars on either side. Above it, a plaster arch was
decorated with the twin masks of Comus—comedy and tragedy.

“Do you still think that the janitor didn’t know there was a theater in
the building?” Peggy whispered. “He’d have had to be blind as well as
dumb.”

Walking very quietly, the girls ascended the steps and approached the
huge elevator door. “Look!” Peggy whispered, pointing to the metal
doorsill. Amy nodded, clearly understanding the meaning of the bright
metal.

“It’s being used regularly,” Peggy said. “You can see where the sill is
dark and rusted toward the sides, and bright in the center, where people
have been walking over it.”

“And the lock!” Amy said. She and Peggy examined the heavy padlock that
secured the door to the frame by stout hasps. It was bright and clean,
of modern design and well-oiled. Any further doubts they might have had
were dispelled by examination of the door hinges, which were coated with
a heavy layer of fresh grease.

“Not only is the theater in use,” Peggy whispered, “but whoever is using
it is being awfully careful that he doesn’t make any noise opening and
shutting these doors. Are you convinced now?”

Amy nodded, wide-eyed. “I surely am. And I’m convinced that we’d better
get out of here before the man with the keys comes along! I’d hate to be
caught snooping around!”

Feeling not in the least as calm as she hoped she looked, Peggy motioned
Amy to wait while she took a last look around to be sure that there was
nothing she had missed. Then, her heart beating wildly, she and Amy left
the alley as cautiously as they had entered it. But neither of them felt
really safe until they were blocks away, and on their way to Connie’s
for the meeting of the players.

“We seem to be practically living in alleys,” Amy said as they let
themselves in through the street gate and started down the passage to
Connie’s little house.

“Yes, but I feel a lot better in this one than in the last,” Peggy said.
“When we get the theater, we’ll have to fix up that alley like this one,
with flower borders and lights to make it cheerful. We can fix up the
courtyard, too, with a little fountain and some garden seats and—”

“You’re awfully confident about getting that theater,” Amy interrupted.
“I hope that you’re not going to be disappointed.”

“I won’t be,” Peggy said. “I know that it was just meant for us, and I
mean to make sure that we get it!”

Connie let the girls in, and while they were saying hello to her and the
others, the buzzer announced the arrival of Tom Galen and Mona Downs.

“I’m so glad everyone’s here at once!” Peggy said. “We’re so full of
news that if we had to wait for anyone, I think we’d burst!”

“Don’t tell us you’ve found a theater!” Randy exclaimed.

“I will tell you,” Peggy answered, “because we did!”

“What’s wrong with it?” Mal asked.

“Where is it?” Connie said at the same time.

“And how much is it?” Randy put in, in the same instant.

“Whoa! One at a time!” Peggy protested. “If everybody will get settled
and hold the questions for a few minutes, I’ll tell you all about it.
Now,” she said, when the players were seated in expectant attitudes,
“now I’ll tell you everything you want to know. It’s called Mason’s
Starlight Theater; it’s on the top floor of a loft in the market area
southwest of Greenwich Village; we don’t know the rent; it’s a perfect
theater, just the right size, and—.”

“I feel a _but_ coming, rather than an _and_,” Randy said.

“Well, only a small _but_,” Peggy said. “The place happens to be in use
right now.”

“Great,” Mal said sarcastically. “You can now add your name to the long
list of those among us who have located perfect theaters that happen to
be in use!”

“Wait!” Peggy said. “This is different. In the first place, nobody will
admit to using it; in the second place, we think there’s something
crooked going on there; and if we do a little bit of detective work, I
think we can find out what it is. If I’m right, and if it’s being used
by crooks, we can get the theater for ourselves by getting the crooks
out!”

Their interest aroused by this unusual statement, the players began to
question Peggy and Amy about their suspicions and about the
circumstances that surrounded their discovery of the Starlight Theater.
When the girls had told them about their interview with the janitor, and
about their later visit to the alley behind the building, everyone
seemed convinced that there was something peculiar going on at the
place.

“The polished doorsill and the greased hinges and the new lock prove
that it’s being used,” Peggy concluded. “And the janitor’s attitude
seems to indicate that it’s being used for something illegal.”

“It sounds like an airtight case to me,” Pip said. “Why don’t we just
take the facts to the police and let them investigate?”

“Because there are no facts yet,” Peggy said. “All we have are guesses.
There must be thousands of places in use in the city, and thousands of
janitors who don’t want to be friendly and tell what they’re used for,
and I don’t think that the police would be willing to agree that they’re
all run by gangsters.”

“Peggy’s right. We can’t go to the police without more evidence,” Randy
said. “Before they’ll swear out a search warrant, we have to have
something more definite for them.”

“Then let’s get it!” Pip said with enthusiasm. “What do you suggest,
Peggy?”

“I think we ought to set up a lookout post in that back alley,” she
answered decisively. “There’s a place under the fire stairs on the far
side of the building where two people could hide and see without being
seen, and it shouldn’t take more than a couple of nights of looking to
find out what’s going on.”

“Why nights?” Randy asked. “They might be doing whatever it is they do
in the daytime, too. I’m afraid we’d have to set up a twenty-four-hour
watch to be sure of finding anything out.”

“I don’t think so, Randy,” Peggy argued. “If they were using the place
by day, they probably wouldn’t have taken so much care with the hinges.
What’s more, I’m sure the janitor was sleeping when we rang the bell,
which is why he took so long in answering it. I would guess that he
works at night with the rest of the gang. Besides, that neighborhood
would be perfect for night work. The markets are practically deserted
between six and midnight. Probably after midnight, when the markets open
up, the crooks run a legitimate trucking business as a cover-up.”

“The girl’s a positive Sherlock,” Mal said fondly. “Anyway, we can try a
few nights, and if nothing shows up, we can then worry about extending
the watch during the daytime as well.”

“When do we start?” Tom Galen asked.

“Tomorrow night,” Peggy said. “It’s too late to start tonight. We’d want
to be in the alley and under the stairs before it gets really dark.
Tomorrow Amy and I will stand watch, then—”

“Oh, no, you don’t!” Randy said. “You two have done your part in this.
The lookout work will be done by men!”

“You’re probably right,” Peggy said, outwardly reluctant to give in, but
secretly happy that she wouldn’t have to spend nights crouching under
those dark stairs and waiting for heaven only knew what.

“I’ll go tomorrow,” Pip said.

“I’ll go with you,” Tom Galen said. “We’d better go two at a time, at
least for the purpose of having two witnesses to anything we see.”

“Good. Randy and I will go the next night,” Mal said. “We can alternate
from there.”

Everything arranged, Mal tried to turn the group to the original purpose
of the meeting, which was to work on further readings of the play. He
soon realized that everyone was too keyed up to concentrate, and
canceled work for the night.

“I think, in fact, that we’d better forget about rehearsals entirely,”
he said, “at least until we have this theater business settled one way
or the other. For one thing, we’re going to need all the sleep we can
get on the nights that we’re not standing watch.”

Everyone agreed, and in varying states of tension and excitement, said
good night and parted, knowing that the next few days might be very,
very busy.

School the next day seemed almost unreal to Peggy. Or was it the dark
alley and the night watch to come that was the unreal thing? Considered
carefully, nothing seemed quite real, even her home and her parents in
the neat, orderly world of Rockport. A ride on Socks around the autumn
fields of Wisconsin would clear her mind, she thought, or just an hour
alone in her favorite thinking spot in the harness room.

Her thoughts, shuttling restlessly between the friendly barn and the
now-sinister alley, were definitely not on her work, which was a lecture
session on television acting technique.

At lunch in the park, the discussion centered on the night’s work that
waited for Pip and Tom Galen. It all seemed very melodramatic.

“I’ve arranged with Tom,” Pip was saying, “to meet me downtown a little
before six. We’re both going to wear black slacks and sweaters, and
we’ll take black gloves. That way, we ought to melt into the shadows
perfectly.”

“How about your faces?” Connie giggled. “Are you going to go in
blackface like a couple of Al Jolsons?”

“We considered it,” Pip said seriously, “but we decided that it wasn’t
necessary. If anyone comes, we’ll hold our gloved hands over our faces,
and look through our fingers.”

“I must say you’ve thought of everything,” Amy said in admiration.

“Everything,” Pip echoed gloomily, “except what to do if we get caught.
We even worked out something about that, but I don’t know how good it
is.”

“What have you worked out?” Peggy asked.

“We’re supposed to call Randy at one in the morning to tell him that
we’re going off duty. If we don’t call by then, he’s supposed to call
the police. Tomorrow night, he and Mal will call me at one.”

“That sounds sensible,” Peggy commented.

“Sure. Sensible. But if they catch us, say, at ten o’clock, we could be
in some pretty bad trouble by the time the police come around after
one.”

Feeling that this line of conversation was doing them no good at all,
Peggy tried, with little success, to change the subject. By the time
lunch was over and they had returned to the Academy, all four of them
felt thoroughly depressed.

Somehow, Peggy got through the afternoon.

And somehow, she got through the night, but it was scarcely a restful
one. She lay awake until one o’clock worrying about Pip and Tom, and
finally, at one-fifteen, called Randy. He answered at the first ring,
quite awake.

“Did they call?” she asked.

“At one o’clock sharp,” he assured her. “They haven’t seen anything at
all, and they’re perfectly all right. Now get some sleep. Good night.”

Feeling relieved, Peggy went back to bed, but it was not easy to sleep.
What had seemed such a good idea yesterday was beginning to seem foolish
today. The boys were engaging in unknown risks, and nobody knew what
dangers they might encounter. Perhaps they should have gone to the
police in the first place, and tried to convince them that something was
amiss. Perhaps they should still do so….

Finally, she slept, troubled by vague, unpleasant dreams.

The next day, her doubts grew stronger. Pip appeared at school late,
looking like a molting owl. He had rings under his eyes and seemed not
to have slept at all.

“We decided to stay on until daylight,” he explained wanly, “just in
case your idea that any action would take place between six and twelve
was wrong. Nothing happened, and we left at five-thirty in the morning.”

“But, Pip!” Peggy protested. “That’s a twelve-hour watch! You shouldn’t
be in school today!”

“It’s all right,” he assured her with a weak smile. “I’m rested. Slept
from six until nearly nine.”

He tackled his work gamely, but by noon agreed with Peggy that the
wisest course would be to cut school for the afternoon and go home to
sleep.

“Remember,” she cautioned him, “you have to set your alarm clock for one
in the morning, in case you don’t get a call from Randy and Mal.”

“I’m going to do better than that,” Pip said. “I’m going to shut off the
bell on my telephone so I can sleep straight through to midnight. Then
I’ll have the alarm wake me, so I can turn the phone on, and I’ll set
the alarm for one o’clock then.”

Pip left, somewhat unsteadily, and Peggy went to her afternoon class on
Elizabethan drama. She forced herself to concentrate, knowing that she
would have more than enough time that night to worry about the mystery
of the alley, and to speculate on what troubles the second night watch
might bring.

It was five-thirty and teatime at the Gramercy Arms when the troubles
began.

“Your redheaded boy friend’s on the phone for you, Peggy,” Greta
announced from the head of the stairs. “He sounds worried.”

Hurriedly putting down her teacup, Peggy ran from the kitchen and up to
the phone in the hall.

“Randy,” she said. “Is something wrong?”

“I’m afraid so, Peggy,” he answered. “Nothing serious, but I’m afraid
that Mal and I are going to be hopelessly late for our watch tonight,
and unless you want to take a chance on missing whatever action might
take place in the alley, Pip and Tom are going to have to cover it
again. At least for the first few hours.”

“What happened?” she asked. “Where are you?”

“It’s my car,” he answered. “I had to go out to my family’s place on
Long Island to get some stuff, and Mal came along for the ride. We
thought we’d have plenty of time, but on the way back, the car broke
down. We’re in the middle of nowhere, and the trouble will take at least
another hour to fix. That means that we couldn’t possibly be at the
alley until about seven-thirty, and, to tell the truth, eight or nine
would be more like it. Will you get hold of Pip and Tom and tell them
the sad news?”

Peggy agreed, wished him good luck with the car, and hung up.

Pip’s phone didn’t answer, and after ringing for several minutes, Peggy
remembered his decision to shut off the bell until midnight. She next
tried the midtown hotel where Tom Galen lived, but he was not in his
room, and the desk clerk had not seen him for several hours.

Hurrying downstairs to the kitchen and her now cold cup of tea, she
broke the news to Amy.

“Well, maybe nothing will happen before eight or nine,” Amy said
hopefully, but not looking too convinced.

“I’m afraid that if anything is going to happen, that’s just about the
time for it,” Peggy said. “The neighborhood doesn’t really empty out
until after six, and it starts to get busy again a little before
midnight. If I wanted to do any work in that alley, I think I’d plan to
arrive by eight and leave by ten, if it could be done.”

“Nothing happened last night,” Amy said, “so maybe nothing will happen
tonight either.”

“I’m going to have to disagree again. Just because nothing happened last
night, I think that we stand a better chance of seeing something
tonight. Judging from the used condition of that doorsill, whoever’s
using the place doesn’t let too much time go by between visits.”

“But what can we do about it?” Amy said. “With Randy and Mal out on Long
Island, and Pip and Tom unreachable, that leaves only us.”

“I know,” Peggy said firmly. “And that’s who’s going to go tonight!”

“Oh, Peggy! Do you think we ought to?” Amy asked. “I mean, it might be
dangerous, and we are a couple of girls, and….”

“This is no time to play the feminine Southern belle,” Peggy said. “We
have to go. And besides, there’s no danger. It’s not as if we’ll be
seen, or as if we meant to rush out and stop the crooks if we see them!
We’ll just hide under the stairs and watch. Anyway, even if you don’t
want to go, you can’t stop me.”

“That settles it,” Amy said with conviction. “You’re not going to go to
that place alone. When do we start?”

“Right now!” Peggy said eagerly. “It’s almost six o’clock, and we
haven’t got too much time to get there before it’s dark. Come on! We
have to get dressed for the occasion!”