It was only a high school play - until death walked on stage.
Rindy and Clyde are the golden couple of Careville High. Clyde is star quarterback on the football team and Rindy is his rich, beautiful girlfriend. One night at a drunken party they spend a little too much time pondering where the hell the ducks really did go in winter in The Catcher in the Rye. Rindy wants to go to the local Careville reservoir, known for its ducks and skinny-dipping teenagers, and see if the ducks are there in the winter time. Yada, yada, icy roads, and the car Rindy is driving and Clyde is seatbeltless passengering flies over a cliff. Rindy is unhurt, but Clyde is paralyzed from the waist down. Clyde’s injury shocks the school, so much so that his best friend and teammate Marc quits the football team, never to play again. Clyde moves out of town to the Teller Home for Invalids, so he won’t have to bear his classmates' sympathetic stares.
A year and some later, Melanie Martin is the new girl at Careville High. She moved to Careville, Iowa from San Francisco. Careville is so lame compared to San Francisco! It has one movie theatre, one pizza place, no Tanners... and a population of only 21,867. What the hell? You call yourself a “’ville” with those numbers?! Melanie arrived in Careville a few weeks before the end of the school year, and didn't have time to make any friends. Her only peer interaction took place when Rindy Carpenter, the richest girl in school, smashed into her car, and then blamed Melanie for it.
After spending a lame summer alone, school is back in session, but Mel still doesn’t have any friends. One day in trig class, she notices the girl sitting beside her struggling with her equations. The girl is Susan Trels, a popular girl known for being the best actress in school. Melanie writes the answers down and tosses the paper onto Susan’s desk. After class, Susan is all buddy-buddy with Melanie to thank her. Of course the Sadie Hawkins dance is coming up, so that’s what girls have to talk about. Susan suggests that Melanie might like to meet her friend Marc. Marc? Marc Hall? He's Melanie’s crush!! Marc is a little standoffish. He quit the football team after Clyde’s accident, and hasn’t been the same since.
In exchange for agreeing to play the starring role in the drama teacher’s big production later in the school year, Susan is going to direct a play of her own choosing: Final Chance by Stan Russel (copyright 1949). Auditions will be taking place next week. Once Susan finds out that Melanie had acted in her previous school’s plays, she pressures Melanie into coming to auditions. Final Chance is set in 1940s wartime, and follows a group of friends during a difficult situation. Charles and Ronda are married, but Melissa secretly loves Charles and secretly hates Ronda. Robert is Charles’s friend who returns home from war with him. Charles has a sister, Mary, but she doesn’t seem to do much in the play. Melissa shoots and kills Ronda, but no one knows who did it.
Some of the roles have already been assigned: Marc is playing Charles; Rindy will play Ronda, Clyde’s sister Tracy is playing Mary. Susan’s friend Jeramie is playing Robert. Melanie auditions for the role of Melissa. It comes down to her, and a fat girl with acne, but who is a good actress, named Heidi. Melanie wins the role, which really pisses off Heidi. She goes off on Susan, who placates her with a promise of 10 free tickets to opening night. Susan tells Melanie that her character, Melissa, comes to a bad end. An end worse than murder!
At the audition, Melanie met a strange young man who introduced himself as Rodney Rosenberg, and seemed like a bit of a jerk. Later, Susan tells Melanie that it was really Jeramie Waters, one of her oldest and closest friends. Jeramie actually found Final Chance in a used bookshop in Kansas City and suggested that Susan direct it. Jeramie’s a little bit odd, what with his hobby of hanging a camera around his neck and shooting photos at random, except no one knows when/if there’s film in the camera. Susan tells Melanie that only Jeramie has a full copy of the script; everyone else will receive a copy of the last act at a later date.
Rindy’s brother Carl is the techie for the production. When Melanie shows up early for the first rehearsal, Carl gives her a tour of the set and shows her a bunch of electrical stuff that she obviously doesn’t care about. One interesting thing he points out is that the emergency exit behind must never be opened. It sends an alarm straight to the fire department. And they will show up and ruin your rehearsal/opening night/clumsy backstage nookie. And they will charge you $500 for a false alarm.
Melanie is an avid cyclist (because she has no vehicle). After rehearsal, Marc (OMGOMG!) asks her if she’d like a lift home. Her bike can go in the bed of his truck. Yeah, I know something else Mel’d like to put in his bed, you know what I’m sayin’? Uh huh. She totally digs this guy. Instead, they go to Pizza Hut for some stuffed crust. Melanie has heard a few people mention Clyde, and she tries to pry Marc for some information. He only says that Clyde graduated, that’s why he’s not around anymore. She asks Marc if he likes to dance, to which he says “no”. She takes that as a good sign to invite him to Sadie Hawkins. He agrees. YES!!
The night of the dance, Susan and Melanie get ready at Mel’s house. The freakin’ tickets were $10 each! Do they cost that much for a regular dance, or are they just trying to gouge the girls? Susan wears a red and black Pendleton, which I thought would be an old-fashioned dress of some sort, but is actually a freaking long-sleeved, collared plaid shirt with what appear to be snaps up the front and on the breast pockets. Well, color me informed. Melanie got matching shiny techno-plaid shirts for herself and Marc.
The school gym has been transformed into a barn, hay bales and live hog included. Marc is left-handed, which Melanie finds very sexy. He coulda been an axe murderer! He coulda been a cannibal! I'm not sure Mel could NOT find him sexy. Marc wants to show Melanie a good time, so he insists on dancing a bunch of songs in a row. Except he’s really bad. So bad he’s throwing Mel off, and she’s usually an above average dancer. Rumour has it that Jeramie spiked the punch, and now the chaperones are looking for him to banish him from the premises. They were tipped off when one of the football players ended up puking on the dance floor. Susan, Jeramie, Marc, and Mel leave in Marc’s truck before Jeramie has to clean it up or something.
Susan suggests that the group spend the rest of the evening at the reservoir. Marc is obviously agitated by this idea. Jeramie laments that he has no bread to feed the ducks. He’s got to fatten them up. Last year, he killed one to donate to the Careville Food Bank Christmas food drive. When they get to the reservoir, Marc is in a foul mood. He and Melanie go on a walk down a deserted path. Melanie spazzes out, asking whether Marc ever went out with Rindy. She asks repeatedly, forcing him to kiss her to shut her up. When they separate, she immediately asks about Rindy some more. Marc tells her to cut it out and they head back to the truck. Once they’re out of the woods, Marc says that he had seen Rindy sitting in the woods, smoking, a few feet off the path. L'il creepy.
Marc drops Melanie off first, which really stings. As she exits the truck, Susan hands her a manila envelope containing the last act of Final Chance. The scene takes place three weeks after the end of Act II. Charles has called together everyone who was there when Ronda was shot. He lies and says that Ronda didn’t die, and now she’s conscious and can pinpoint her killer. Melissa confesses, and when Charles admits he was lying and says the he never has, or could, or would love her, she shoots herself in the head and dies.
Three weeks later, on opening night, Rindy and Melanie get into costume and make up together. During the rehearsals, the awkwardness from the accident last spring had slipped away and they had become not quite friends, but definitely two people who could tolerate each other for the duration of rehearsing and performing a school play.
Rindy's brother, Carl Carpenter, shows up in the dressing room with a dozen roses for Rindy. He asks if she would mind a bouquet of eleven, then takes one to give to Melanie. Heidi, the fat actress, busts in with a bone to pick with Susan. She didn't get her ten free tickets in exchange for keeping her fat mouth shut and not annoying Susan on the day of auditions. Susan gives her 4 tickets, and tells her to leave. Heidi elbows past Susan on the way out, knocking the box of blanks she had been holding out of her hands. Heidi, Susan, and Melanie start picking up the scattered bullets. Melanie had bought a spare box of her own, and tells Susan this, to save them the trouble of crawling around on the floor for them. Susan agrees to use Mel's instead.
Clyde's sister, Tracy, is messing around with the bottles of booze that Rindy's character Ronda is supposed to drink. She puts real whiskey in the mini fridge on the stage. The curtain rises, and Act I proceeds. Everything goes well.
Between acts, Melanie sees Marc backstage. Since the smooching at the reservoir the night of Sadie Hawkins, nothing else has happened between them... oh, until now: he kisses her in his dressing room. I don't think our Mel needs this kind of excitement before she goes back on stage.
During Act II, there's a brief curtain-down while costumes are changed. The murder scene has arrived. Melanie fires the pistol, as they had rehearsed many times. Rindy seems genuinely scared as she yells: "No!". Her body hits the floor differently than other times. Marc, as Charles, rushes out to check the body. "She's dead," he says, as Marc.
The next chapter begins with Melanie in a jail cell. Her father is on a sales trip, so her negligent, San Francisco-residin', no-custody-not-even-Christmas-and-summer-holidays mother had to post bail long distance. Captain Crosser tells Melanie that a wad cutter, not a blank, had been loaded into the gun, and had caused Rindy's death. Melanie's fingerprints were on the wad cutter. Crosser spends some time questioning Mel, then she is free to go... for now.
At home, her mother calls. She's very pissed about the $10,000 bail fee, and about the expensive retainer she had to pay Melanie’s lawyer, Claudia (Kishi Dawn) Schaefer. The mother has the impolite guts to say that it’s good that Mel’s father has full custody; if Rindy’s family sues, there’s nothing to take. The lawyer, referred to as Ms. Schaefer (yes, Ms. was italic-worthy in 1988), is a loud talkin’, chain smokin’, big, strong, New York broad.
Rindy’s funeral takes place on the morning of Melanie’s preliminary hearing. Mel isn’t invited to the service, but she hides in the cemetery bushes with binoculars. Afterwards, Carl Carpenter takes a walk and Melanie follows him. Carl tells Melanie about Rindy and Clyde’s accident. One of the three things I remember most about Last Act is when Carl remembers his sister, telling Melanie how when he's away from Careville, he makes sure to show off the photo of Rindy in his wallet. People ask if it's his girlfriend, and he says no, it it’s his sister. Girlfriends come and go, but sisters are forever. I love that. I have a sibling who I’m very close to and proud of, and I can relate to Carl’s feelings. No more mush. Moving on…
Melanie’s hearing starts off promising, but goes awry when a letter she had written to her ex-boyfriend in San Francisco turns up in evidence. She had written about being cast in the play, and said that she got to kill that awful girl who hit her car last spring. Yikes.
Back at school, no one will talk to Melanie. Susan invites her to meet privately in her car at lunch. They list all the suspects who could have planted the wad cutter and planned to kill Rindy. Melanie gets busy conducting her investigation. She talks to Heidi, Tracy, and Steve, the guy who sold her the box of blanks. Then she adds a new suspect to her list
- ALL OF THEM WORKING TOGETHER!
Melanie takes her dad's crappy Pinto and finds Marc at his job at the freight loading terminal in nearby Barters, Iowa, where they have a conversation about nothing that goes nowhere. From there, she visits Jeramie. He doesn’t come to the door, so she goes right in. Upstairs in his room she finds two VCRs and sees a tape case labeled Final Chance. Melanie remembers that Jeramie was going to video the opening night performance. She presses play. Jeramie appears, sitting on the floor behind her. They watch the play together, fast-forwarding parts to get to the murder scene. Melanie realizes that the video is of opening night performance until the shooting. Then it was dubbed over with dress rehearsal footage.
Leaving Jeramie’s house, Mel drives to the Teller Home to visit Clyde. The nurse on duty calls Clyde’s room, but he won’t see a visitor who he doesn’t know. Mel writes a note to convince him to help her solve Rindy’s murder. But Clyde didn’t know Rindy was dead and goes ballistic and has to be sedated, after which Melanie is not-so-kindly asked to leave.
Road trip time: Melanie drives to Poems and Pages in Kansas City, where Jeramie and Susan had found the script for Final Chance. She finds another copy of the play, a new-looking photocopy, on the shelf for $2.00. Mel calls the copyright office in D.C. and finds out that Stan Russel has no registered published works.
Later at home, Melanie calls up Captain Crosser. Together, they go over the suspect list, which is everyone who was in the play. Melanie suggests that the cast re-perform the play to help them find the killer.
A week and a half later, they go ahead with one final performance. The only difference is, with Rindy dead, Melanie will play Ronda and Susan will play Melissa. On stage, Melanie wonders if Rindy had possibly planted the wad cutter herself in a suicide-type attempt. After Melanie's character is killed, Mel watches the third act from backstage. During this part, there's a bit that I really like. Mel, watching the 1940s-set play take place onstage, "shifted her gaze four decades" by turning her view to the audience. That's clever, eh?
That night, Melanie has a dream about a beautiful girl in a basement playing Scrabble. The girl gives Melanie ten tiles. Mel knows you play Scrabble with seven. The girl tells Melanie to use the tiles to create two names. Mel realizes the girl is Rindy. She starts to form STAN RUSSEL out of the tiles, but the telephone wakes her up before she can figure out the other name.
Captain Crosser wants to see Melanie at the station at 1 PM. It's 9 AM now, so Mel has the morning to kill. Whoops, that's a little insensitive of me. Susan calls; Marc wants to take down the sets and stuff in the gym. He needs a couple people to help. Since it's Marc's request, Melanie jumps. After Susan picks Melanie up, they arrive at the school. Marc isn't there yet, so they go inside to get started.
Mel gets blabby, telling Susan that she thinks Rindy planted the wad cutter herself. She tells Susan how depressed Rindy seemed. She probably felt guilty about Clyde, and no one in school liked her. Naturally she would want to get shot to death. As they work along, sorting out props and stuff, Melanie thinks back to her dream from that morning. The one that had been interrupted by the phone.
Being such a great actress, Susan can't help but play the evil villain. She pulls a gun on Melanie and starts to explain her masterful plan. Susan loved Clyde. She loved Clyde enough that she needed to kill Rindy. Rindy's extra fear on opening night wasn't because she'd planted a wad cutter and knew she would die. It was because Susan stood behind Melanie, hidden in the wings, and shot her at the same time that Melanie, as Melissa, fired her gun.
Susan turns out the lights and she and Melanie struggle for the gun. There's a extra prop gun hidden in the couch cushions. It's loaded with blanks, but that could still cause some damage close-range. The two girls fumble around for the two guns.
The lights come back on, and Clyde wheels into the gym. Susan confesses that she killed Rindy because she ruined him. But Clyde has a story for her: Rindy wasn't the one driving that night. After the crash, Rindy switched places with Clyde so his family could sue her. That way Clyde's poor family wouldn't be burdened by him, and her rich family would never miss the money. Susan pretends to shoot herself in the head, as Captain Crosser and the force burst into the gym.
We last see the gang a few weeks later. Clyde has returned to school. Jeramie admits that he had his suspicions from the beginning, based on how much the play imitated real life. On his video, a flash of orange had appeared behind Melanie, and Jeramie knew there had been a second shot fired. The kids visit the reservoir to find a local diner owner taking all the ducks away in a boat for the winter. Jeramie takes some goofy photos with his Polaroid, and Carl Carpenter wants one of Melanie to put in his wallet.
I mentioned earlier that there were 3 major things that I remembered from Last Act. One was Carl and the photo in his wallet. The others were 2) the anagrammed names, and 3) wad cutter.
What I didn't remember is that the first half of the book is just setting up the characters, all of whom are very mysterious and don't really do much. And that the second half is Melanie visiting suspects in various locations. It's a really great YA book, but not quite as awesome as I remember it being.