WHY WOULD ANYONE want to burn down a theater?” Nancy Drew asked, peering at the road through the sheets of water that slipped down over the windshield. Her rental car crept along the dark country road, its headlights cutting through the watery dusk, the wipers battling the downpour. “Arson makes me so angry when I think of all the innocent people who could get hurt!”
“Or even die,” added Ned Nickerson, Nancy’s boyfriend. He switched on the overhead light for a second to check the directions Nancy had scribbled down, then brushed his wavy brown hair back and squinted out the passenger-side window. “Looks like we’re coming to Bridgeville. The theater is a few miles past the center of town.”
Nancy glanced at the clock on the dashboard. “It’s four-thirty. This thunderstorm has really delayed us.”
“I sure wouldn’t expect one in December,” Nancy’s friend, George Fayne, said, wiping the fog from the rear window. Her curly dark hair was tussled from the ski cap she had removed and tossed on the seat beside her. “Especially in Connecticut. If this were snow—”
A jagged streak of lightning followed instantly by a cannon shot of thunder stopped her in midsentence.
“Wow, that was close,” Nancy said. “Seems like this storm has followed us all the way from the airport.”
“I just hope lightning doesn’t hit Aunt Evelyn’s. She has enough problems,” George said.
Nancy drove past a wide green with a statue of a Revolutionary War soldier in its center. The green was bordered by a white church with a towering steeple, a town hall, a library, and ten or twelve large, comfortable homes aglow with Christmas lights. “Don’t worry, George, we’ll find out who set the fire at your aunt’s and who sent the threatening notes, too.”
Ned put his hand on her shoulder and grinned. “If Nancy Drew can’t do it, no one can.”
“I just wish we had more time,” Nancy said, shaking her head. “Opening night is Friday and
it’s already Tuesday. Ms. Caldwell will have to cancel the show if we don’t move fast.”
George leaned forward. “Dad said Aunt Evelyn can’t afford to cancel the play.”
Nancy had never actually met Evelyn Caldwell, but she knew of her, of course. She was a famous actress who’d starred in dozens of Broadway plays and Hollywood movies. She had retired from acting three years earlier to run a summer theater and try her hand at directing. She wasn’t really George’s aunt, just a close family friend. She and George’s father had grown up together, and George was extremely fond of her.
Now Evelyn Caldwell was the owner and artistic director of the Red Barn Theater, a historic little New England playhouse. Under her the theater had gained a reputation for excellence, attracting top actors from New York City and audiences from all over the state. But the theater was expensive to run.
“I know about the financial problems,” Nancy said. “She told me on the phone that when she decided to run the theater year-round this fall, the actual costs of adding insulation and a heating system turned out to be much higher than she’d been told.”
“Plus, she’s invested so much money in this play that it has to be a success,” George said. “She’s hired two stars and paid the playwright a
fortune for the rights to the premiere of Alias Angel Divine.”
“But if she does have to cancel this production,” Ned said, “can’t she make it up with proceeds from the rest of the winter season?”
“Not if someone burns down the Red Barn.” George threw herself back against the seat, frowning.
“Don’t worry,” Nancy said, reassuring her friend.
As they left the lights of Bridgeville behind, Nancy felt the surge of excitement that always accompanied the beginning of a new case. This time, for George’s sake, she was doubly determined to find out who was behind the threats.
“Hey, Nancy,” Ned said, “there’s the sign.”
As Nancy slowed the car, she caught sight of a big wooden Red Barn sign. She turned left and drove down a muddy lane with pond-size puddles. Following the directions Ms. Caldwell had given her, she went past the theater and some small buildings to turn right at a low, rambling building the actress called the Lodge. Next door was a white clapboard house. Nancy pulled up there.
“There’s Aunt Evelyn’s house!” George cried excitedly. “It’s so quaint—just the way she described it.”
“We’ll have to make a dash for it,” Ned said.
“Let’s go.” Nancy flipped the hood up on her
hot pink ski jacket, opened the car door, and ran for the shelter of the porch with her friends.
“We don’t exactly look ready to meet a major star,” Nancy said. A few damp ends of her shoulder-length reddish blond hair poked out from under her hood, and curly wisps were plastered to her forehead.
After George had rapped twice, Evelyn Caldwell opened the door. Nancy’s first thought was that she was smaller in real life than she appeared on the movie screen. Then Nancy took in her gorgeous high cheekbones and wide-set eyes and understood why she had had such presence on screen. Although the actress was now in her forties, she was lovelier than ever.
“George, dear, how good to see you. It’s been much too long.” She ignored the wet jacket and gave George a big hug. “Come in out of this awful weather.” She ushered them into a pine-paneled foyer. “You must be Nancy. How wonderful of you to come.”
Nancy shook the slim hand she was offered. “We’re happy to be here. This is my boyfriend, Ned Nickerson. He and George have helped me solve lots of cases.”
“It’s lovely to meet you,” she said, smiling at Ned. “Why don’t you hang your wet things on these pegs, then come in by the fire. I’ve made a pot of tea.”
When Nancy entered the living room, she saw
a gaily decorated Christmas tree, holly wreaths at the windows, and a fire crackling on the hearth. It was the perfect set for a holiday scene. It was all perfect except for the tension Nancy sensed in the famous actress. Evelyn Caldwell’s hands trembled slightly as she passed out teacups and carrot cake, and she kept rubbing her neck in an uneasy gesture.
She and George spent a few minutes catching up on family news, then Nancy put down her cup and took a notebook from her bag. “Would you mind filling us in on the problems you mentioned on the phone, Ms. Caldwell?”
“Oh, please call me Evelyn.” She frowned. “Let’s see—where to start. The first note appeared almost a week ago, but I didn’t take it seriously. I thought it had to be a joke.”
“What did it say?” Nancy asked.
“Exactly the same thing as the others that followed. I have them all here.” Evelyn opened a drawer in the table beside her and handed Nancy several papers. “Someone sticks them in my script and I find them at the worst possible moments.”
“ ‘When the curtain goes up, it will be in flames,’ ” Nancy read out loud. The notes were identical, with the same sentence typed in the middle of each sheet. Nancy recognized the tiny scraps left when the perforations on form-feed computer paper are carelessly removed. “This looks like a computer printout.”
“Yes,” Evelyn said. “And the typeface is the same as that on the computer printer we have in the office.”
“Who has access to it?”
Evelyn sighed. “Everyone. The office is unlocked, and people are in and out all day.”
“Who knows the word-processing program?”
“The entire crew. We’re a small group and everyone pitches in to get the job done.”
A tremendous clap of thunder shook the house after lightning lit up the room to artificial brightness. Rain streaked down the windows, closing in the living room to make it snug and warm. “Can you tell me who is here?” Nancy asked.
“Well, there are the actors, of course. We have only two, Matt Duncan and Laura James.”
George almost dropped her cake. “Matt Duncan is here? The Matt Duncan?”
Pleasure—mixed with panic—washed over George’s face. Nancy knew that her friend had a secret crush on Matt Duncan, who played Brent on their favorite soap opera, “Ventura Boulevard.” It was so unlike George to fall for a TV star that she avoided discussing it, even with Nancy.
Evelyn continued, “Then there’s Joseph Brunner, the playwright. I produced another of his plays last summer. He’s very talented, but he’s quite a character. I’m directing the play, so only those three are from outside.”
“What about the staff?” Nancy asked.
“Emily is the cook, and her husband, Ed, is the groundskeeper. In the theater, Fiona Sweeney is technical director, and she’s in charge of our six crew members and two apprentices.”
“That’s not very many,” Nancy commented.
“No, but we manage,” Evelyn replied. “They’re the ones who make the theater go—they run the box office, build the sets, do the lights—you know, all the backstage work. They’re really nice kids, and each one is invaluable.”
Evelyn leaned back in her chair, as if exhausted. “That’s the problem. I just can’t imagine who’d want to harm the theater, or this production. Everyone stands to gain if the play and the Red Barn are a success.”
Ned’s damp wavy hair glistened in the firelight as he leaned forward. “So you’re not sure if the threats are directed against you, the theater, or the play that’s about to open?”
“That’s right.” Evelyn nodded. “But no matter what, everyone would lose. If the theater burns down, the staff would be out of jobs, and if the play doesn’t open, the actors and the playwright will miss a chance to present a play I’m betting will be a hit when it moves to Broadway.”
“You mentioned a fire that you discovered in the greenroom,” Nancy said.
“Yes.” Evelyn shuddered. “Fortunately, I happened to find it before it got out of control.
Someone had left a stack of paper cups on the hot plate while it was still on.”
“Did you call the police?” Nancy asked.
“I didn’t dare. They would have reported it to the fire marshal, and if he found out about the arson threats, he would close the theater down.”
“Isn’t that a little drastic?” Ned asked.
Evelyn shook her head. “You can’t subject an audience to the chance of fire. Of course, the barn has been sprayed with fire retardant, but it won’t hold up against a really hot blaze.”
She rubbed the back of her neck again. “That’s why I called you, Nancy. I can’t afford to have the theater closed down. Yet I don’t want to endanger the lives of my audience. I’m begging you to find out who’s behind this before opening night. George says you’re the best.”
“I’ll try,” Nancy promised. “What precautions have you taken?”
“I’ve hired three security guards to work round-the-clock. They cost a fortune. This play has to pay off—a Broadway run, maybe movie rights. I’ve gambled everything I have on it.”
“May I keep these?” Nancy indicated the anonymous notes and Evelyn nodded. “Who knows about these threats?”
“No one except the guards and my friend Marla Kramer, who’s staying with me. I didn’t want to worry the cast and crew.”
“Marla Kramer,” George said. “That’s a familiar name.”
“You’ve probably seen her on TV a hundred times. We’ve been friends for twenty-five years, since we were both young actresses in New York. She had no work commitments, so she’s helping me turn the Barn into a year-round business. Until recently she had her own theater, out in California. She’s a little forgetful, but she’s a big help, especially with publicity.”
“If the company doesn’t know about the threats, how did you explain the security guards?” Nancy asked.
“I told everyone it was a new state law,” Evelyn said, smiling wryly.
“And they believed it?” Ned was astonished.
“They’re much too busy to worry about a detail like that. This show is a major undertaking.” Evelyn turned to Nancy. “My first priority is to find out who’s behind these arson threats, but at the same time, I don’t want to jeopardize the play. That’s why I’ve asked you to keep your work secret. I can’t have the cast and crew upset.”
“No problem,” Nancy said. “Ned and I have tagged along with George to visit an old family friend for the Christmas season. Just a holiday get-together, right?”
Evelyn’s answer was cut off by a flash of white light outside the windows and a tremendous crash of thunder.
“Some Christmas weather you’re having.” George grinned.
“I’ll paraphrase Mark Twain. If you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute,” Evelyn said, forcing a smile. “It could be balmy tomorrow.”
They all laughed, but then Evelyn grew serious again.
“I’m really trying to keep all this in perspective,” she said. “But I am very worried. If I take a loss on this new play, I’ll have to sell the Red Barn, probably to my new neighbor, Charles Ferguson. He’s made an offer on the property through his attorneys.”
Just then the front door crashed open and a tall, slender woman rushed in, bringing a blast of cold air with her.
She stopped when she saw Evelyn, her eyes wide with fright.
“Oh, Evelyn, hurry. There’s a fire!” she said.
Nancy jumped up and ran to the window and her heart skipped a beat.
Near the rear of the Red Barn, vicious shafts of flame were shooting up into the night sky.