The line began to form in front of the great double doors of the Milky Way Ballroom at just after six in the morning. By ten, when the rain started to fall, it went to the end of the block and around the corner and to the end of the block again and around the corner again. It was at least four women across. Nobody could pass through any of those stretches of sidewalk except by walking half in the gutter.
Olivia Dahl was standing at the window of the third-floor office when the lightning first lit up the sky. She had been in the office since six herself, but not always in the window.
CLIPBOARDS, she had written across her steno pad, and BALLPOINT PENS, as if she were about to forget, either. This was the first day of the new season, the day without which the season could not happen, and Olivia, as always, had had a perfect memory for details.
The phone buzzed on the desk behind her. Sheila Dunham’s voice came into the room like battery acid over a bullhorn. That was a metaphor that made no sense. Olivia didn’t care. It fit exactly.
“I don’t know where the hell my blue dress is,” Sheila said. “What the hell did you do to my blue dress? And I don’t care if Oprah is God, she’s a fat pig and I don’t want her near the auditions. Why the woman thinks she has to make a statement about everything on the planet is beyond me. Find my blue dress, for God’s sake, or I’m going to fire you.”
Sheila wouldn’t fire a stock boy on audition day. She would not fire Olivia ever. Olivia knew it. She stayed where she was at the window, watching the rain come down in sheets and the women hold newspapers over their heads for protection. There would be at least another forty-five minutes before the doors opened. Even then, only a few of the women would be let inside at a time. You’d think some of them would have watched a weather forecast before they’d come out this morning.
“Olivia,” Sheila’s voice said.
Olivia turned her back to the window and leaned against the sill. It was impossible to see faces that far down, anyway. She straightened her skirt and put her hands in her hair. She was fifty years old, but she was as rail thin as she had been in the second grade.
“Stupid cow,” she said. She said it, looking straight at the intercom on the desk. “Somebody really ought to slit your throat.”
Back home, Janice Ledbedder had promised herself that she would not let herself get caught in The Midwestern Thing. “The Midwestern Thing” was what she called the need to be nice all the time, even if being nice meant losing out on something for herself. She had been nice about her boyfriend going out with her very best friend. Now she didn’t have a boyfriend or a best friend, and she spent a lot of her time thinking about ways to kill people. She had started to worry herself. Maybe she was exhibiting red flags. “Red flags” was what they called it when somebody started behaving very weirdly, right before they got a 30.06, and shot up everybody they’d ever known in school.
The rain was very thick, but Janice had an umbrella. Very few other people did. Janice was nervous about being in Philadelphia. She didn’t think it as bad as New York, but it was a city. Black people lived here, and people who didn’t speak English. It was nothing at all like her little town in South Dakota. That was another part of The Midwestern Thing. She couldn’t help feeling out of place.
Next to her there was a girl in a green raincoat with no umbrella, and with nothing else, either, not even the newspapers so many of the girls were holding over their heads. The girl in the green raincoat was a blonde and very thin, and she looked oddly familiar. The rain had plastered her hair to the sides of her head. There were rivers of water coursing down her cheekbones into her neck.
“Here,” Janice said, shoving the umbrella sideways so that it covered the other girl’s head. “You can’t stand out here like that. You’re going to die.”
“Thank you,” the blond girl said.
Janice looked around to the front of the line. The doors were still closed, but they weren’t too far back, only three or four rows from the front. Janice looked at her watch. It was a Timex watch. Everybody in Marshall, South Dakota, got a Timex watch when they graduated from junior high school.
“It’s quarter to eleven,” Janice said. “That’s not too much longer to wait. Aren’t you glad you came out early? The girls at the back are going to be a mess by the time they get inside. You should be all right, though. I mean, you know, you need to dry off a little, but you’ve got the raincoat, and it’s like I said, it won’t be much longer. Of course, I’ve been here all night. It took everything I had just to get the bus ticket down here. I had a little money left over, but when I saw what the hotels cost I nearly died. Who’s got that kind of money to stay in a hotel room? I’m Janice, by the way. Janice Ledbedder. I’m from Marshall, South Dakota. You’ve probably never heard of it.”
Janice took a deep breath. This was yet another part of The Midwestern Thing. You started talking and you couldn’t stop.
The blond girl seemed to have shrunk into her raincoat. She didn’t look at all familiar anymore.
Janice started to feel a little worried. “Are you all right? You look sort of sick. Do you need to sit down? I could save your place in line if you needed to go somewhere and sit down.”
The blond girl shook her head and stood up a little straighter. “No,” she said. “No, I’m all right. Sorry. I’m a little tired. I’m Emily.”
“Oh, I like the name Emily,” Janice said. “It’s so old-fashioned. It reminds me of Little Women. Not that there was anybody in Little Women named Emily, because there wasn’t, but it’s that kind of name. Old-fashioned. And New England. You don’t happen to be from New England, do you?”
“I’m from Merion,” the blond girl said.
“Merion, Pennsylvania,” the blond girl said. “You’re in Merion. We are. This is Merion, not Philadelphia proper.”
“Oh,” Janice said.
“It’s—the townships all sort of bleed together.”
The blond girl was making an effort. Janice understood that. She herself was making an effort, too. She was so nervous, she was ready to burst.
“Isn’t it awesome, the way people come from all over the country to take part in these things?” Janice said. “They’ve had girls from every state in the Union be on America’s Next Superstar. And there have been girls from other countries. Well, you know, not right from other countries. I mean people from other countries who live here now. Look at all the girls here. I mean, just look at them. I didn’t know there would be so many trying out.”
Janice paused. People should talk, she thought. People should say things and not make other people uncomfortable.
“There are only thirty places,” Janice said. She had begun to feel desperate. Emily was standing right up against her shoulder. Janice could feel Emily’s breath in her hair. “And thirty is just the first round. If you get picked for the thirty there’s another round where they take it down to twenty, and then another where they take it down to fourteen, and it’s only fourteen that actually get to be on the show. Well, you know what I mean. They always show some of the losers for the thirty and the twenty to—I guess—make it dramatic, but it’s only the fourteen who get to live in the house. I’ll just die if I don’t make it into the house. I really mean it. I came all the way down here from South Dakota, and everybody I know back home knows I did it, too, and if I just get dumped back out with nothing they’ll all laugh at me. I won’t be able to show my face. And I can’t hardly show my face now, considering. It’s terrible.”
“Excuse me,” Emily said. She stepped out from under the umbrella and turned a little away. The rain came down on her hair again.
I’m talking too much, Janice thought. Easterners didn’t like it when you talked too much.
Emily turned her back to her and put her hands in her pockets.
That was when the crowd surged for the first time. The wave coming from behind pushed Janice almost off her feet and into the back of a girl in a pink vinyl motorcycle jacket.
Andra Gayle was not a fool, and she was not a hick from the sticks, either. She was from New York. She knew, as the girls around her didn’t—she could tell, because she was listening—that being on a reality show was not going to turn her into a superstar. Nothing was going to turn her into a superstar. She was not pretty, and she had none of the usual talents. Her great blooming Afro of red hair shot out from her skull like an animated cloud. Sometimes she looked in the mirror and imagined the cloud could talk.
The rain was coming down very steadily. The drops were so thick, they were less like drops than like the stream that comes from a faucet whose drip has been neglected for years. Some of the girls had taken off their coats and put them around their heads. Others were using those huge pocketbooks that everybody had thought were hot about two and a half years ago. Andra had neither. She had bought a copy of The Philadelphia Inquirer from a little mechanized kiosk instead. She had a picture of the latest mayor of Philadelphia on her head, along with a thick tall headline that made it sound as if the entire state of Pennsylvania was mad at him.
Andra hated the state of Pennsylvania. She hadn’t seen that much of it. She’d come in on Amtrak just the day before, and stayed at a Holiday Inn for an amount of money that made her stomach hurt. Still, she couldn’t imagine that the rest of the state would be any better, even if it was different. There was no point in a city that wasn’t New York. Even Los Angeles only existed because of the movies.
“And the government,” Andra said.
The girl next to her turned and stared, but there wasn’t any time to do anything about it. A wave of energy seemed to ripple through the crowd around them and everybody was shoved suddenly forward. Andra wobbled on her ankles. Then she stumbled first forward and then to the side. Somebody far in the back started screaming. It didn’t sound frightening, or pitiful. It just sounded stupid.
“For God’s sake,” the girl who had looked at Andra said. “What are they doing back there?”
“Screwing around,” Andra said.
“I don’t think they should be screwing around,” the girl said. She was wearing a light windbreaker jacket and a very odd hat. It had a brim like a baseball cap, and a band that went around the head, but nothing that went over the top. What the hell use was that going to be? It was raining. The girl’s hair was getting wet.
“They ought to open the doors,” the girl said. “It’s ridiculous out here. Somebody’s going to get sick and end up suing.”
“I think it’s only a couple of minutes,” Andra said.
“I think they should let everybody into the building as soon as they open the doors. They won’t, of course, because they enjoy the ritual of it. It’s part of what sells the television program. It’s still a damned stupid thing to do. I’m Grace Alsop, by the way. I’m from Connecticut.”
“I’m Andra Gayle.”
This was not true. Andra was no more “Andra Gayle” than she was a natural redhead. She took the hand that was not holding the newspaper on her head, and turned it over and over in the rain. The girl beside her made her very nervous. It was the way she talked, and the way she held her body, and the clothes she wore. It was an atmosphere. Andra looked down at the ground. Grace Alsop was wearing plain little ballet flat shoes that looked more expensive than Andra’s mother’s last phone bill.
Of course, Andra’s mother hadn’t paid the last phone bill. Andra’s mother never paid bills, and never had paid bills, in all the time Andra had known her. Andra had started to pay the bills when she was old enough to quit school and go to work. This month, she hadn’t paid them because she’d needed the money to come here. Her mother was back there in Morris Heights, living without electricity and shooting up heroin in the dark.
“You’ve got to wonder, don’t you?” Grace said.
“Wonder what?” Andra said. She knew, now, what bothered her about Grace. Grace Alsop smelled like money.
“Why people come to audition for something like this,” Grace said. “Look at how many there are. I hadn’t expected there to be this many. There has to be a couple of hundred girls just on this part of the block alone.”
“There were more than that,” Andra said. “There were tens of thousands of audition tapes. Didn’t you send an audition tape?”
“Well, yes, of course I did,” Grace said. “But I thought that was just—”
“Well, you know, just to weed out the people with mental health problems, or things like that,” Grace said. “They must get a lot of crazies, don’t you think? I mean, on American Idol you have to be able to sing, or something. And on America’s Next Top Model you at least have to look like a model. But with this. Well. You don’t have to be anything, do you?”
“You have to be female,” Andra said.
“Yes, you do. Did you ever wonder why that was? My friends back at school say that they’re just trying to pick the next Paris Hilton, or something like that, the next person who’s just famous for being famous. Which is pretty funny, if you think about it.”
“I think it is,” Grace said. “I mean, the Hilton sisters are famous because they have lots of money. I’ll bet nobody here has lots of money. Do they really think they’re going to make a career out of having people pay them to go to parties?”
“I don’t know,” Andra said.
Grace stepped away a little. Andra was suddenly aware that this other girl was looking her up and down, really looking at her, and for the first time. There was a light in those pale blue eyes that was not very pleasant.
“I’m just here on a dare,” Grace said. “I’m going to law school next year. Lawyers actually do make lots of money, if that’s the kind of thing you’re into.”
Grace turned her back to Andra and eased off a little into the crowd, and Andra wrapped her one free arm around her waist.
Grace was right, she thought. There were hundreds of girls here. There were too many girls. Andra had thought that the audition tapes would be the thing that weeded out most of the competition, so that when she showed up at the Milky Way Ballroom there might be fifty or sixty other girls, and then a fast whittling down to the thirty and the twenty and the fourteen. Instead, there were girls everywhere, and some of them were pretty, and some of them could probably do something other than just stand there and look cute.
She took the newspaper off her head and looked at it. The mayor of Philadelphia was black. The president of the United States was black. All around her there were black people doing things, but none of them were the black people she knew. Back in Morris Heights, there was a limited number of options. You could sell drugs. You could take drugs. You could run numbers. You could go on welfare if you had a baby or got very old. You could have the kind of job where you took the bus into Manhattan, and cleaned offices or worked in dry-cleaning places or did something else nobody could see you doing. You couldn’t even go to Manhattan to be a waitress, because in Manhattan all the waitresses were white college girls who wanted to go into acting.
Andra put the paper up over her head again. She was soaked through and shivering. She wished she could afford a cell phone. But then, there was no point in calling her mother. Her mother would have found a way to get high. She’d be lying on the living room floor because she’d just sold all the furniture again. Or she’d be five blocks away at somebody’s house. Or she’d be staggering along the street as if she were one of the living dead. She’d be somewhere.
Even so, Andra thought, it would be good to have a phone, so that she could check in, or ask somebody else to check. Assuming she knew anybody with a working phone.
Up at the head of the line, the doors began to open.
Mary-Louise Verdt had been the first person to stand in line this morning, at just after six o’clock, and she would have been earlier if she had been easy in her mind about staying out on the street here after dark. She’d heard the girls behind her talking. She’d even talked to some of them. By now, she knew she wasn’t even in the city of Philadelphia proper. It felt wrong to her for the producers of the show to be doing what they were doing. If the show was going to be called America’s Next Superstar—Philadelphia, then it ought to be in Philadelphia, and not someplace else, no matter how close.
When the doors opened, Mary-Louise was still first in line, in spite of the doubling up and the pushing and shoving and rain. There had been a lot of rain. Mary-Louise was glad to be out of it, stepping through the doors into a wide lobby with what looked like velour on the floor and the walls. It reminded her of the lobby in that movie theater in the Jim Carrey movie, The Majestic. She hadn’t much liked that movie. She liked movies where people went through a lot of funny troubles and then got married.
There was a long table right in the middle of everything. There were four women at the table, each holding a clipboard, with little signs in front of them that said A TO D, E TO H. Mary-Louise found the one at the very end, U TO Z, and went there. The woman at the clipboard looked a little hassled. The lobby was dark and damp and humid. Mary-Louise put on her brightest smile, but the woman with the clipboard didn’t notice it.
“Your name is . . . ,” the woman said.
“Verdt,” Mary-Louise said. “Mary-Louise Verdt.”
“And you’re from?”
The woman with the clipboard didn’t react. It made Mary-Louise a little annoyed. Almost everybody reacted to that “Holcomb, Kansas,” or at least everyone at home did. One of the most famous murders in the history of America had happened there. People still talked about it.
“Do you have your letter?” the woman with the clipboard said.
Mary-Louise reached into her oversized purse and got the letter, still in its envelope, from the little side compartment where she always kept her phone. She handed it over, and then she couldn’t help herself.
“This is the biggest thing, back home where I’m from,” she said. “I mean, it was even in the paper. Just my getting the chance to come in and interview. But I just knew I’d get the chance to come in and interview. I know I’m going to get to be on the show, too. You’ve got to really want things, do you know what I mean? You’ve got to really want them. That’s the only way anybody ever gets anywhere. And I really want this.”
She might as well have been talking to a statue. The woman with the clipboard was not paying attention. She read through the letter for, what felt like to Mary-Louise, the third time. Then she handed the letter back and pointed to the right.
“Through those doors,” she said, “you’ll find a corridor and a series of rooms. You go to the blue one. It’s painted blue. It won’t be hard to find.”
“Yes, of course,” Mary-Louise said. “I’m sure I won’t have any trouble.”
“Someone will come in and call you when it’s time for your interview. If you’re off in the bathroom or somewhere when they call you, they’ll come back in five minutes and call a second time. If you don’t answer then, either, then too bad. You go home.”
“Yes, of course,” Mary-Louise said. “I’m sure I won’t have any trouble.”
“That way.” The woman with the clipboard pointed right again.
Mary-Louise stepped away from the table. Girls were crowding in, pushing each other, but they were stopping well back from the tables. There was something intimidating about the tables. Mary-Louise had to admit it: There was something intimidating about a lot of the girls, too. She was sure she was dressed all wrong, but she couldn’t quite put a finger on why.
She went to the doors on the right. She looked across the lobby and saw that there were also doors on the left. This place was called a ballroom. Maybe they held dances here. Maybe there were dressing rooms. She had no idea.
Excerpted from Wanting Sheila Dead by Jane Haddam.
Copyright © 2010 by Jane Haddam.
Published in St. Martin's Press by Minotaur Books.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.