The Phantom

Chapter Three

by TT (a.m.tilmouth.s99 at cranfield.ac.uk)

"He's there, the Phantom of the Opera."

The boat came into view; it sailed across the misted water like a bird through air. Lights glinted and flickered under the surface like millions of tiny stars.

"Beware the Phantom of the Opera."

The great black figure of a man moved in time with the music as he poled the punt across the lake. Only his white mask broke the darkness of his frame as he gazed lovingly down at the girl sitting at his feet; she in turn stared with wonder into the blackness beyond the boat. "In all your fantasies..."

Mrs Lakes waved her hands madly at the figures on the stage.

"No, no, no, Roger, that's far too forceful. You're singing a love song to the girl of your dreams, not trying to blast her out of the boat." The boat stopped and the Phantom looked up from his charge; in an instant the mist and lights disappeared.

"Well, I think he's trying to scare her, Mrs Lakes. No-one in their right mind is going to go out with a psychopathic freak by choice." In the boat, Rachel shuddered.

"Well, luckily you're not the director. I am, so punt that thing back into the wings and do it properly this time." She turned as Dodger stuck his foot outside of the boat and swivelled it round, Rachel flicked her hair out of her face as it spun and glanced into the rafters of the stage.

"I'm so sorry, Mr King. They're usually so much more...photogenic."

The journalist tapped his android companion on the shoulder and smiled. "That's all right, Mrs Lakes. Old Tinny here will just have to redo the photos; not a problem at all." His Scottish accent drifted up onto the stage as Rachel prepared to go out again. She smiled as she remembered Holmes's precise English accent she had heard only a couple of days before. Who'd have thought it could be changed so dramatically?

Dodger squeezed her shoulder and put on his worse French accent. "Are you ready, my sweet Christine, to descend once again to the lair of the Opera Ghost?" Despite herself she laughed as Dodger raised her hand to his lips and pretended to give it a sloppy kiss.

"Behave, Dodger. You'll ruin your makeup."

Dodger stroked his powder-white face. "Do you think it's my colour?"

"Oh, certainly. Skull white suits you so well."

He grinned as Mrs Lakes shouted for music offstage. "Here we go again. Hold tight, Ray."

Once again the boat glided out on the lake and the sirens stuck up their warning song. "He's there, the Phantom of the Opera. Beware the Phantom of the Opera." As the two young actors began their duet, Holmes leaned over to Watson, who for once wore no facemask.

"Good, aren't they?" he whispered, pretending to line up Watson's camera at the stage.

"Excellent, I'd say, but no sign of this Phantom chap yet, though."

Holmes raised the angle of the camera. "He must be somewhere or he wouldn't be able to tip the girl on her performance. Keep shooting around the stage. I'll try and arrange a backstage tour for us a bit later."

On stage the fainting form of Christine lay on a bed of cushions while the Ghost hammered out his nightmarish music on the pipe organ. All at once the Ghost stopped playing.

The drama teacher rose from where she had been talking to the technician. "Roger, why have you stopped?"

Dodger was sitting bolt-upright, eyes looking wildly around the stage. "Someone else is playing an organ."

Mrs Lakes snorted. "Impossible. The music block's not anywhere near here." Then softly at first, but then growing louder music drifted into the room. On the bed of cushions Rachel sat up moaning and closed her eyes; she was deathly white and shaking.

Dodger listened for a minute then pointed. "It's coming from beneath the stage; listen." As they all listened transfixed, singing started up from somewhere below. Tears began to flow down Rachel's cheeks, leaving little lines in the stage makeup. The words were in French but hard and blunt in contrast to the soft lullaby of the music. By the time the song was a minute old Rachel started to sway; as the last notes of the music faded she collapsed back onto the cushions.

Dodger jumped over the stage organ and bent over her. "She's out cold."

Everyone began to pile onto the stage. Mrs Lakes fought her way through the crowd of other young actors. "Helen, run and get the nurse. Everyone else, back to your seats; this is not a circus."

A boy next to Holmes made the sign of the cross. "It's him again. I told you this play is bad news." Muttering started up among the other pupils.

"Gordon Davis, I don't want to hear another word. Everyone get off the stage, now ."

As the crowd dispelled, Holmes caught Gordon by the jacket shoulder and pulled him over to the side of the room. "Martin King, journalist. I wonder if you can tell me what you meant by that statement."

Gordon shrugged and dug his hands in his pockets. "Exactly what I said, mister. My brother was a stagehand last time they did the play; he said a boy fell to his death through a trapdoor. Ever since there's been rumours of a presence around the stage and especially under it."

Gordon paused and looked around before lowering his voice. "And it's got worse since the play started, I'm on my third year of theatre management, so I've done more than one of these plays. No one will work alone under the stage any more. Even where that girl Bell fell down there last week, everybody had to wait for the stagehands to get flashlights and form into groups before they went down, even though we could hear her screaming the whole time."

Holmes nodded and noted everything down on an electronic notepad. "Do you know why the girl didn't die this time?"

Gordon shrugged. "The lift wasn't that far down, only on the next level. She was lucky just to break a leg."

"Thank you."

The boy nodded and fled the room.

By this time the nurse had arrived, carrying a small medical bag. Rachel was lifted off the stage and carried into a back room. After a ten minutes or so Dodger came out, still in his stage makeup, and beckoned the journalist over. "Ray's asking for you, Mr King."

"Is she all right?"

"Well enough." The boy disappeared back through the door and Holmes and Watson followed.

Their charge was sitting up on an armchair that had obviously been used many times over on the stage. She was still deathly pale and rubbing her head as if to ease a headache. When she saw Holmes she reached out and hand and shook his warmly. "I am Rachel Morris, Mr King, I'm sorry if my faint upset your visit here. I have not been well recently and have perhaps overexerted myself." She smiled warmly and gripped his hand.

Holmes felt four sharp corners dig into his palm. He removed his hand from hers and casually slipped the object she had given him into his pocket. "No problem, missy. I've gone to enough of these things to know how tired the actors get just before the performance." He laughed loudly and slapped Watson on the back. "Come on, Tinny, let's see if we can't get a backstage tour."

It didn't take much persuasion to convince Mrs Lakes to show them 'round; she proudly showed them all over the stage and the drama department it backed onto. After some subtle questioning Holmes slipped in a inquiry about the death of the boy.

"I can't tell you much about that, really -- before my time. I've only been here a couple of years."

"Still, I only need enough to do a brief footnote, Mrs Lakes. You have no idea how much a bit of sensationalism pads out the circulation of a local newspaper... and ticket sales, for that matter."

Mrs Lakes smiled slightly as she lead them into the costume department. "I really know very little. A trapdoor was left open on the last scene of the play, when the Phantom disappears after Christine has left him. As the boy playing the part of the Phantom stepped onto the door to be lowered down, it gave way and he fell to his death." She paused. "Tragic, really; the teacher who was producing the play committed suicide soon after, couldn't cope with the guilt, I guess... And now here we are. The grandest costume in the entire play." She stopped in front of a dressmaker's dummy with a large sheet of fabric draped over it. The fabric bulged in weird places.

"Ten of our design students worked for over a month to get this piece done -- in their spare time, as well -- and in my opinion their dedication was well worth it. Mr King, I give you the Red Death." The fabric draped over the piece slipped off and fell to the floor to reveal... an empty manikin.

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