Prologue

 

 

I LOVE this theater. Sure, it’s not in such a hot neighborhood. You have to fight off the junkies and whores just to get in the door, but it has history. The guy who built it was hot for an ancient movie called The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Well, I guess it was a new movie when this baby was built. Anyway, the star of that movie was Charles Laughton, hence the name of the theater: the Laughton.

I can almost hear a hiss-s-s-s as I push the stage door shut. This old gal—as my friend Zach calls the place—has a bunch of hideous medieval monstrosities, a gaggle of gargoyles, lining the walls of the auditorium. They used to scare the crap out of me when I came in. I’d throw the deadbolt on the stage door, then flip the switch next to the door. The stage would flood with light, but the seating area would glow dimly in the spill. That’s when the gargoyles shine.

You see, someone washed ’em with bright-colored paint. It’s always been that way, I was told. When I first started working here, I’d forget, and then I’d turn around and just about jump out of my skin because those things were glaring at me.

Fat chance that anyone else would be staring at me. You see, at the time this happened, I was that rare seventeen-year-old guy who couldn’t seem to make a connection—by that I mean get a date. As much as I love theater, I probably volunteered here at the Laughton because I didn’t have anything else to do. It’s not like someone was knocking down my door to whisk me away for a romantic evening of fun and frolic.

No, I could count my friends on one hand—and most were the “at school” kind, not the “let’s go to a movie” kind or “let’s kick it at Mickey D’s” kind. You know, you’re friendly at school, but as soon as the final bell rings, no one ever calls you. And that just makes it harder for you to call them.

Made me a loner. Or maybe that should read loser. Alone with no one knocking on my door begging me to be their friend.

I suppose you might say that the only true friends I had, I met at this theater. None of ’em my age, but friends nonetheless. They make me feel like… like I’ve got some special talent. And maybe I do. Working here takes me out of that lost place, that place where I just try to get through the day. That place called school. Here, I just kick back, do my job, and enjoy being with my true friends.

Until recently, though, none of those had offered me the least bit of romantic inclination.

I’m Nick, by the way… Nick Fortunati. Ironic name, huh? That’s Italian for lucky people. You may have figured that out, or at least knew it has something to do with good luck. But fortune had never smiled on me. Yes, I come from this big Italian family—how my folks got away with having only one kid, I’ll never understand—who are always surrounded by other family members, friends of family members, and friends of friends. And believe me, they are all—at least, the ones who are my age or older—either married, engaged, or dating. That left me… the loner. It was like I was adopted from some hermit couple. But, you see, there was a reason why I couldn’t seem to find someone. And it is a reason that will become clear very soon in this story I need to tell. And lest you think this is a depressing tale, let me spell it out for you right up front. Before this, I was one of those people who is on the outside looking in, never really living life. But this, this experience, taught me. I’ve learned a lot during the course of all this. So be patient.

Because this is one strange story. I’d bet you’ve never heard anything like it. And I’d also bet you won’t believe it. I sure wouldn’t if it hadn’t happened to me. But let me tell you, this creepy old place is the perfect setting for what I’m about to relate.

It all began one Saturday morning….

 

 

Chapter 1

 

 

“HEY, NICK! You already here? When I said Saturday morning, I didn’t mean the crack of dawn, son.”

Zach Provost came down the aisle of the theater. Zach is about the coolest guy I know: by day, one of our city’s leading architects; by night, a wizard who creates dazzling lighting effects for the Streetwise Players, one of the best community theaters in our state. And I, my friends, am the assistant to this genius.

“There’s no overtime pay here for being early,” Zach quipped.

“Har-de-har-har-har,” I shot back, doing my best Three Stooges imitation. “I haven’t seen a paycheck yet, and I’ve been working here about a year now, Dad.”

“That’s why they call it community theater, son. And don’t call me Dad.”

“Why not? You call me son all the time.” I shook his hand as he came on the stage.

“Yeah, well, that’s one of my bad habits. The wife says I do it just because I can’t remember the names of my four sons, but that’s not true. There’s Sammy, Jimmy, Trent, and… uh-h-h—” He put his finger to his nose, scrunched his eyes, and nodded his head rapidly, like some thought was trying desperately to break into his consciousness. “—what’s his name… the little one with the bad cowlick.”

“Good one, Zach, good one,” I said, laughing.

That’s what I like about Zach. He has a wicked sense of humor. You’re probably thinking, Zach is just a substitute for my own, abusive, wigged-out, absent father. Not true. I’ve got the best dad anybody could ever have. Even if we don’t always see eye to eye.

But I have to admit, Zach sees something in me that my dad doesn’t see. My dad has a plan for my life. He’s blinded by his grandiose scheme. Doesn’t know or care about what I want. I love him, but geez. Sometimes I feel like my dad is no different from all those kids at school who see right through me like I’m invisible.

“So,” Zach said, “you ready to work? I’ve got the light plot right here. Let’s sit, and I’ll walk you through it.”

We went down the three steps off the stage and settled into a couple of choice seats. Zach pulled a folded sheet of paper from a folder he’d been carrying and flipped it out in front of me.

“Impressive,” I said.

“Yeah, that’s what you adoring apprentices always say.” Zach nudged me with his shoulder. “You guys always want to kiss up to us important people.”

I just shook my head. “Delusional.” I sighed.

What? You don’t think the Streetwise Players is lucky to have me?” He laughed.

“Yes, I do,” I said, seriously. “But enough of this… talk me through this plot.”

Zach had drawn a detailed diagram of what lighting instruments we would be using and where each one would hang. It was a fairly standard plot for the set—an English drawing room. The show was one of those “Colonel Mustard in the drawing room with the candlestick” type of murder mysteries. The only unusual thing was the last scene, where the ghost of the victim rose up to heaven, having been avenged.

Yeah, I know, what a crock, you say. But the Streetwise audience would eat it up. They come here in their Beemers, Jags, and Benzes for a night of mindless entertainment, and that’s what we give ’em. In return, the glitterati of our fair city have made this one of the most successful community theaters in the nation. We may provide the talent, but they provide the capital… shows are almost always sold out.

Too bad they don’t do more than buy tickets. Yes, the ticket sales keep us afloat, or so I’m told, but if more of them would donate some of their millions, we could fix up this old place. The Players got the Laughton for a song, and it’s pretty much stayed the same in the ten years they’ve had it.

Proceeds from ticket sales are plowed right back into production, which means the shows are great, and—more important to our audience—security in the parking lot is super tight. We take care of our patrons.

“The plot is just general lighting,” Zach said, pointing to his diagram. “You’ll need six Fresnels on the first batten, six on the second, six on the third. The scoops are already hung from the last show. And, here”—he jabbed at the drawing—“you’ll need a Leko with a blue gel.”

Now, before you get all weirded out with the theater lingo, all you really need to know is that Fresnels blend, scoops flood, and Lekos spot. Lights, get it? But we call ’em lamps, and don’t get ’em confused with the lamp on your mom’s living room table. Oh—it’s important to this show that you know a Leko is like a special spotlight.

“You want the Leko on the first pipe or the second?” I asked, staring up at the battens—pipes where we hung the lamps.

“It’s all here in the plot, son.” Zach grabbed my head, pulled it down, and pushed it to the diagram.

“You mind if I breathe while I look at this?” I fake-gasped.

He released his hand from the back of my head.

“Oh yeah, now I see… the first pipe.”

“Yep,” he said, “if we focus it right and use the special effect I’ve concocted, it will look just like a wisp of gray smoke rising to heaven. I’m hoping for a collective gasp from the audience as that ghost meets his reward.”

“You da man, man.” I punched him on the shoulder.

“Thank yew. Thank yew very much.” He used his best Elvis impersonation.

“Elvis has left the building, Provost. Let’s keep him that way.” I bopped him one, and he laughed. It’s fun to joke around, like equals. After all, I graduate soon. My dad still treats me like I’m thirteen. Zach, though, he’s different.

“Man, it’s been a crazy week,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “My job has kept me jumping; plus I had to do this brilliant plot here.”

“Poor wittle Zach, him’s all tired from workin’ so hard,” I teased.

“Yeah, well, you just try to work, do all this stuff here, and keep up an active social life, thanks to my lovely social-butterfly wife.”

“Well, I do have full-time school, and I work here all the time, so I could use a little sympathy too, you know.”

“Right, son,” he said. Then he held up his fingers and wiggled them at me, chanting, “Sympathy, sympathy, sympathy.”

“You’re a cruel man, Zach Provost.”

“But you know you love me.” He laughed again. “So you mentioned school and work here, but you left out the third element. How’s your love life?”

I almost choked. Zach really did think he was my dad or something. Only my dad would never have come up with that question. I don’t think he even gives a thought to the fact that I don’t date. Maybe it’s because I’m never home. I’m always here at the Laughton.

“We-e-e-l-l,” I drawled as I searched for an answer. Oh sure, I could have spilled my guts to him, but really? Wouldn’t that be disgusting and degrading? Finally I blurted out, “Pretty much nonexistent. How’s yours?”

“You may have heard—I’m off the market, son… prized wife and four utterly charming rug rats. I’m taken, but you—you’re young and virile. There must be someone you have your eye on.”

“Uh-uh. No one I’m eyeing, and no one eyeing me. Simple truth.”

“Well, you just keep your options open. Someone’ll fall in your lap. You’re a catch, son, a real catch.”

Now, if any other person my parents’ age had said that to me, I would have felt weird, icky all over, you know what I mean? But Zach? He’s different. It’s like he cares about me and wants me to find someone.

He laughed. “Okay, now, you think you can pull all these and get ’em hung?”

“Aren’t you going to help me?” I whined—but he knew I was quite happy working by myself.

“Nah, son, you’re on your own. Robbie has a soccer game, and Diane’ll kill me if I miss it.” He stood, and I did too.

Diane is the aforementioned wife, and Robbie is that son he’d pretended not to remember.

“Well,” I said, “head on out, because I don’t want your boys having to spend their inheritance on a lawyer for their mom’s defense.”

Zach smiled as he pointed at me. “That’s a good one. See ya.”

And he vanished into the lobby.

I spent a few minutes studying the plot Zach’d left. Then I headed to the storage room stage left, thinking of Zach. He really was brilliant when it came to stage lighting. And he really meant it when he asked me those personal questions. He cared. If only I could come clean with him. I’d bet he’d understand, but it would be a risk. A big risk.

Someone had piled a bunch of paint cans right in front of the door to our storage. That’s the thing about community theater. We’re all volunteers, and some of us aren’t the brightest lights in the galaxy. I would have thought hey, somebody might need to get in this storage room before I get back for more painting, but that’s just me.

I pulled out my master key—I’m one of the few volunteers around here who has one—and slipped it in the lock. After I turned it, I pulled on the door, dragging the paint cans along with it. I know, you’re most likely thinking why not move the cans? Well, that would just take time and energy, which I could better spend on the job at hand.

While I slid the key into my pocket, I smiled as I remembered what Zach had said when he’d given it to me: “Look, son, not many of our workers are trusted with one of these—especially not the ones like you, of the teenage persuasion. You better not lose it and make me look bad.”

Like I would ever do that. That’s the last thing I would want to do to Zach. And, besides, I’m nothing if not trustworthy. Or anal, if you want to think of it that way. When I’m here, I’m constantly worried about where the key is; when I’m not here, I keep it hidden in my car. Anal? Paranoid? Trustworthy? Maybe all three. Or maybe just afraid of disappointing Zach.

I pulled the door open only enough for me to get through. I reached for the light switch and flipped it. Nothing happened. I shuddered. Why can’t they keep a working lightbulb in here? It seemed like every time I needed something out of this storage room, the bulb was burned out. I guess it must be the old wiring in this place. Well, I would just have to do this in the semidarkness, I decided. Thank God, I could figure out Fresnels from Lekos in the dark. And thank Dionysius, I’m not afraid of the dark. It can get pretty creepy around here. And, in case you’re wondering, Dionysius is the god of the theater. I’m a theater nerd, what can I say?

I stepped over to the pipe where the Fresnels were usually hung. I reached for the wrench I had slipped into my back pocket and started to loosen the bolt around the pipe.

“Need some help?”

I whipped around, jumping at this voice out of nowhere. What was that I said about not being afraid of the dark? I about jumped out of my skin. I’d thought I was alone.

A shadowy figure blocked the doorway.

“Who the hell are you?” I spat.