Tonight was the first performance of Il Muto and, though he didn't particularly care for opera (thinking it to be akin to the sound of cats fighting), Jean-Louis Gachot, Comte de Lancival, had managed to secure a place in the managers’ box. There, he swallowed his bile and made small talk with the two buffoons who ran the theatre as well as the naïve Vicomte de Chagny. The managers extolled the glorious voice of their reigning prima donna, Carlotta Guidicelli, all while ogling the ballet corps’ naked skin bared by their tutus. The Vicomte actually seemed to be there for the opera and had grown silent once the Overture began, which gave Gachot a chance to step deeper into the shadows of the box and scan the flies for his little runaway whore. When he saw that fool, Buquet, try to get his attention he excused himself to his associates and made for the one place guaranteed to be empty with such a sell-out crowd: Box Five.
It didn't take long for the drunken stagehand to reach the box, though he balked at entering. Ignoring his babbled protests of offending the so-called Opera Ghost, Gachot pulled him inside and pinned him against the closed door with a dagger at his throat.
“I will not risk being seen with you due to your ridiculous obsession with this so-called Phantom of the Opera. What have you discovered that couldn't wait until after the performance?”
“The boy never returned to work since that night I found him…her…in the chapel and now that liddle picture done gone missing too.”
“I know that, imbecile!” The knife pressed harder against the man’s flesh and a trickle of blood dripped onto his collar. “Do you know where she is?”
“No,” he swallowed audibly at the look in Gachot’s eyes and hurriedly continued, “but I know someone what might. Madame Giry, that old battleaxe of a ballet mistress, was seen buying up damn near a full wardrobe of girl’s dresses and they were all wrong for her little dancer girls. She’s also chummy with the Ghost, delivering his notes and salary and such.”
Gachot eased back on the knife and let Buquet relax slightly. With a sneer, he tossed a small pouch of coins to the floor and left the ghost’s box to plan his next move. She was near. He was getting closer; he could feel it. The smile that crossed his face was truly terrifying to behold and several patrons gave the darkly handsome man a wide berth. Slipping unnoticed into the managerial box, Gachot brooded. He was at a loss as to why he was so determined to find the girl. It certainly wasn't out of any perceived loyalty to Beauvais, a green buck straight from the country with too much money and too little sense.
Closing his eyes, he brought forth the memory of that night: the blood on her hands from murdering that young idiot, her pale skin as she lay unmoving across his bed, the silken curls in his hand as he held her in place while he plundered her young, tight body, her screams and cries when she regained consciousness and became aware of what was happening. He could feel his manhood hardening as he remembered the thrill of having so much power over another human being. The act itself was mundane but the fear, the terror, the absolute helplessness of that girl had unlocked something deep inside him, something he embraced with relish. In the privacy of the dark shadows of the box, he ran the tips of his fingers over his throbbing shaft as a feral smile crossed his lips. Eager to feel that thrill once more, he gazed at the ballet corps to choose a girl to sate his lusts. Soon, he would have her under his control once more and he would thank her properly for showing him his true nature.
Inside the hollow pillar, Erik seethed in murderous fury. Buquet would pay for his part in his angel’s torment. Once the stage hand had left his box, the ghost slipped into the dark passageway hidden by a painting to warn Angelique of Gachot’s impending visit. Once he’d made his way silently backstage, he spotted the ballet mistress and threw his voice directly into her ear so no one else could hear. Glancing over at the curtain that hid him, Madame Giry waited until the corps once more took the stage before joining him in the shadows.
“What are you doing here, Erik?” She hissed in a low whisper. “You could get caught!”
“Buquet saw you returning with my angel’s clothing, Angelique, and has passed that information on to Gachot. Watch your back, Madame; I would not see you hurt.” Erik spoke quickly and quietly as his eyes continually scanned the flies for the drunken snitch.
“I can take care of myself perfectly well, Erik, but…Erik? Erik! How does he do that?” Giry’s annoyance faded into resigned exasperation when she realized she was alone behind the curtains once more.
Like a spider, the ghost ascended the ladders and stairs that led to the upper platforms of the flies. Spotting his quarry, he eased his lasso from his sleeve and stealthily advanced. La Carlotta hit an unnatural note during her aria which caused even the tone-deaf stagehand to wince and turn away. And look directly into the glowing golden eyes of the Opera Ghost. Eyes bulging in terror, the large man moved surprisingly fast along the catwalk. Erik welcomed the chase, allowing the darkness within to embrace his predatory nature.
Like a cat playing with a mouse, he allowed Buquet to increase the distance between them before closing in once more. He would even duck out of sight to give the stagehand a moment’s respite and then appear in front of him, lasso at the ready. All the while, La Carlotta squawked on stage while the audience was blissfully ignorant of the drama occurring above the stage. It was only when he spied the Comte in the box with the managers and the young Vicomte that it occurred to Erik that his toying with Buquet left Madame Giry unprotected against the bigger threat of Gachot. It was time to remove at least one threat.
It was close to the end of Carlotta’s mangling of the song when he cornered Buquet. The acrid aroma of ammonia rent the air as a dark, wet stain appeared on the man’s filthy trousers. Erik simply smiled and approached slowly. The stage hand tried a desperate feint to left but, in his inebriated state, teetered at the edge of the platform for mere seconds before plunging down to the stage. Erik pushed the Punjab lasso back into his sleeve with a grin at the irony of it all. He’d not so much as touched the man but there he hung in the middle of the stage with a broken neck from getting tangled in the many ropes that held the sets in place. The pandemonium that followed when Buquet’s body was silhouetted against the backdrop allowed Erik an easy escape to one of his tunnels and into Angelique’s room.
It took longer than normal for the ballet mistress to return to her chambers. All the girls were screeching and squawking like frightened geese and only after she’d laced their drinks with a drop of laudanum did they settle down. She was tempted to imbibe in a drop or two herself if only to stave off the headache that comes from being in a small room full of shrilly shrieking girls. The last thing she needed was to be visited by a ghost. When Erik stepped from the shadows to make himself known, it was a fitting end to a rather horrible day and she laid her head on her desk and groaned.
“Really, Angelique, you’ll make me think you don’t want to see me.”
“Erik, what did you do?” Her words were muffled against her arms and she wondered, again, if she should take the laudanum and sleep.
“Nothing at all, Madame, ‘twas drink that brought the stage hand low. Surely you aren't mourning that pitiful excuse for a human being?”
“Erik,” with a sigh, Giry raised her head and ran a hand over her face, “the mere fact that Buquet was a human being is enough to mourn him. All life is precious.”
“It pleases me that you believe it to be so, Angelique, else you’d never have befriended the monster that haunts the opera house.” Raising his hand to stop her protests, he opened the mirror and stepped through with a final word of caution. “Go nowhere alone, Angelique, even if all you have is one of your squawking geese. Gachot is less likely to harm you when there is a witness.”
The house by the lake was filled with the sounds of domestic bliss and the tantalizing aromas of traditional Swedish food. Erik had informed Christine that he’d be away until late to check on the status of his opera house, as well as look for more information on Gachot and de Chagny, and she thought it the perfect opportunity to do something for her mysterious host for a change. He’d barely cleared the door when she’d entered the kitchen to see what was stored in the pantry so she could plan a meal. Since he had only the bare necessities, she settled on a traditional Swedish dish she’d often made for her father. As she peeled, chopped, and boiled the potatoes she’d need, Christine sang some of the folk songs she’d learned as a child, feeling at peace for the first time in two years.
While the potatoes cooked, she found a square piece of material that could be used as a tablecloth and a pair of ornate candlesticks that would keep melted wax off it. Hoping she had time, Christine searched through Erik’s desk for paper, small knives, and scissors to create paper placemats using the Scherenschnitte technique. After an hour she considered them done though she bemoaned their simplicity; she feared she’d run out of time for anything more intricate. There was nothing to be done about a centerpiece. Checking all the rooms that weren't locked, she could find nothing that would suffice and so had to admit defeat. Perhaps if she had more time…but no, the potatoes were done and the meat still needed to be chopped.
She had just placed the filled potato dumplings into the salt water to boil when she heard the front door open. Leaving the food simmering nicely, Christine stood in the doorway to the kitchen prepared to block Erik’s entry if need be. She wanted the meal to be a surprise. Her host was impeccably dressed as always, and she felt rather like a serving wench at a tavern with her hair tumbling from its bun and an apron protecting the lovely gown she was wearing.
“What is that lovely smell, mon ange? I cannot believe you could find the ingredients in Erik’s poor kitchen to fix such a succulently scented dish.”
“Your pantry was quite sufficient, Monsieur le Fantôme, never fear. If you will give me but a few minutes more, everything will be ready.” Frowning as he advanced towards the kitchen, Christine laid a hand on his chest to stop him before he could enter. “No, you don’t need to help. This is the least I could do for you, Erik, after all you've done for me.”
“If it pleases you then I shall retreat to my piano, but know this, mon ange: you owe me nothing.” Smiling happily as she watched him move gracefully into the music room, Christine returned to the kitchen and her singing.
Not more than thirty minutes had passed when she removed the apron and made a half-hearted attempt to control her curly hair. Setting the plates on the table, she lit the candles and then went to fetch her Opera Ghost. Butterflies had invaded her stomach when he entered the kitchen; she did hope he’d be pleased at her efforts. He remained silent while pulling out her chair and pouring them both a glass of the iced lemon water from the pitcher she’d placed on the table. If he didn’t say something soon, she was going to expire from nerves. Then he raised his eyes and she saw the tears that wet his cheeks.
“No one has ever done such a thing for me before, mon ange.” His beautiful voice was hoarse with emotion, and she reached for his hand to give it a light squeeze.
“I’m honored to be the first to treat you, Erik. It is but simple fare from my homeland, so I hope you enjoy it.” Noticing he was having some trouble controlling his emotions, Christine went into detail of the meat filled potato dish she called Kroppkakor, along with some of its regional variations. He asked her about her homeland and she told him what she remembered as well as regaled him with some of the more amusing stories from her travels. She knew something had happened at the opera that night—the acoustics down to this level were amazing—but she refused to let anything spoil this dinner. Erik deserved nothing less.
Gachot said all the appropriate things when the opera house fell into a panic over the death of the stagehand, even while he was cursing the loss of his drunken spy. The man may have been an idiot, but he had still been a useful idiot. Though there were cries of Opera Ghost, the Comte dismissed them as so much superstitious nonsense. He’d seen just how drunk the man had been and was only surprised it’d taken him this long to fall off a platform and kill himself. The managers attempted to calm the crowd but, even for an opera, a true death was a bit too much. With much fretting, they resigned themselves to refunding a full house. During the chaos, Gachot contemplated spiriting the ballet mistress away for a nice…chat, but she seemed to have disappeared rather quickly. No matter, he would simply take one of the younger ballet rats, a girl of perhaps no more than fifteen years. No one paid any attention to the wealthy man as he led the naïve young ballerina to his waiting carriage. It wasn't until morning that the girl was missed. Three days later, her body was found floating in the Seine, an apparent suicide.