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The chandelier couldn't hold our weight much longer. When Vera and I had climbed onto it, plaster had fallen and something inside the ceiling had breathed a sigh as if waking from a long bad dream. I'd pushed the ladder away as hard as I could, hoping it would fall without too much noise into the shadows and onto the pile of drop cloths, paint cans, and brushes the workmen had left there for the night.
The ladder had clattered, bounced a few times, and come to rest a few feet from the wall. I couldn't see it too clearly, but then neither would he if he came into the room. What little moonlight there was came from a trio of small round windows high on the wall.
Vera shifted her weight slightly, trying to feel secure—if not comfortable—twenty feet above the floor on a chandelier that shivered, groaned, and threatened to give way. We sat across from each other like two kids sharing a swing. Her legs were draped over mine and our hands clung to the pole that served to secure the mass of tinkling glass to the ceiling.
"Don't move," I whispered. If we didn't keep still, the tinkling would give us away if he came into the room. There was no electricity in this wing of the San Francisco Metropolitan Opera Building. It had been turned off for the renovation and repairs. He had a flashlight, but I was praying he wouldn't think of turning it upward unless we gave ourselves away.
He had a gun. It might take him four or five shots to dislodge us. If the shots didn't kill us, the fall would. And if the fall didn't, he'd be waiting for us with a choice of workmen's tools. I remembered how creative he had already proven himself on more than one victim in the past two days. I was beginning to think my choice of hiding places might not be a good one.
"It won't hold us, Toby," Vera whispered.
"It'll hold," I said with confidence, ignoring the creaking sound above and the fact that we suddenly dropped about an inch as the fixture's mooring sagged. More plaster falling. More tinkling of the glass doo-dads of the chandelier. Somewhere beyond the room an echoing of footsteps.
"Don't move," I repeated. "Don't talk. Try not to breathe."
The footsteps moved closer and I could hear him singing in Italian.
"It's from Tosca," Vera informed me. "He's singing Scarpia's aria of joy at torturing people in his secret room."
"Sounds like a fun opera," I whispered. "No more talking."
I wanted to reassure her, lean over and kiss her, hold her, but ... the footsteps were drowned out by the singing; the voice was coming closer. I held my breath as the singing stopped. Silence. A long, cold silence and somewhere outside a distant car horn.
The first workmen would probably return to the room about eight or nine. I didn't know what time it was. Even if a beam of moonlight from one of the round windows hit my wrist, the watch I'd inherited from my old man would be no help. It never told the right time. It kept running, I'll give it that, but it had no interest in the time. Then I remembered the police had my watch. We were, in any case, a good three hours from the reasonable hope of any help.
The door below us burst open dramatically.
He sang something in Italian. Vera shuddered slightly, just slightly, as he stepped in. His voice, I hoped, covered the tinkling above him.
The flashlight beam touched the wall ahead. I didn't turn my head to look, just moved my eyes. The beam swept across wallpaper covered with little fat angels. Half the wall had been cleaned. Clean angels smirked at the still dirty ones. The beam moved left. His voice dropped. He was singing to himself now, with less of the confidence of the earlier aria.
I knew what he was thinking. He had to find us. The odds were in his favor. We were trapped in this wing of the old Opera building in San Francisco. The situation was simple. He had to kill us. If he didn't, we'd turn him in.
The beam kept moving. I had to turn my head slowly, slowly. The beam fell on the paint cans, brushes, and the ladder. The singing stopped as the beam went over the ladder, up and down, caressing it, considering it. And then he turned, his feet crunching fallen plaster, his beam searching the floor. I sensed he was directly below us.
He turned again, began to sing again, and moved to the door. The flashlight went out and the door closed.
Vera let out a very small sigh and took in dusty air. I did the same.
"I don't know if I can hold on till morning," she whispered.
"You won't have to." The voice came from below as a circle of light caught the thousands of pieces of glass and sent a rippling shadow over Vera's frightened face.
He laughed, a musical laugh, and I reached over to touch Vera's face as the laugh continued.
"Hold tight," I said to her.
My plan was simple, stupid, and almost certainly doomed to failure. I'd let go of the chandelier and jump toward the beam in the hope of landing on him. At this height I'd probably miss. Even if I hit him, I'd be lucky to survive even if he didn't shoot me on the way down. I had just turned forty-six years old. My back was weak and I was tired.
"Let's make a deal," I called down to him.
He laughed harder.
"You have nothing to deal with," he said. "Nothing. Niente. Nada. No."
He started to move. Whatever chance I had would be gone if he moved out from under us to where I couldn't reach him.
"Tell me a story, a lie," he said, clearly enjoying himself. "Our Miss Tenatti can help you. Operas are filled with them. You left a secret note under the third stone step in front of the building identifying me as the Phantom. You confessed to a monk, a lawyer, a nun, who upon your death will denounce me. Thou art the man," he bellowed musically.
"What have you to trade for your lives? What will you give me? What?" he went on. "Your legacy? Title? Vera, you know the convention. Why don't you offer me your undying devotion in exchange for your lover's life? Then, later, you can kill yourself. I tell you both, this should be put to music. I hope you live long enough when you fall to say something. It would be too much to hope that Vera would be in good enough shape to sing one final aria as she lies dying in my arms. Roméo et Juliette would be fine. You know it, don't you, Vera?"
"Bastard," Vera shrieked in anger, setting the chandelier into frightened vibration.
"Assassino," he responded. "Call me everything. Sing to me one last time. We'll write a new end to the last act. Pinkerton finding Cio-cio-san dead of hari-kari took his own life in remorse, and I will sing the final aria over your bodies. Don't worry. I'll make it sad, poignant. A lament. Now what would be ... Lucia. Yes. Lucia."
He shifted slightly. I'd have to jump soon. The circle of light hit the wall again. The cherubs were laughing at us. I didn't think he was close enough.
He was singing again.
"Lucia?" I asked.
"No," said Vera, "Canio's lament after he kills the lovers Nedda and Silvio."
Vera looked at me, saw me looking down, saw me let go with my left hand, sensed what I planned.
"I have one request," she said dramatically.
He stopped singing again.
"A last request," he said, intrigued.
"Come closer please," she said with a tear in her voice.
He moved closer, below us.
"Yes," he said. "You recall the last line of I Pagliacci? Canio says, 'The comedy is over.'"
"If I must die," said Vera, "let it be in silence rather than to the sound of a second-rate baritone who has neither resonance nor soul."
That did it. The flashlight beam probed through the glass, found us. The first shot shattered, sprayed. Bits of glass spewed, flew. Vera covered her eyes with one hand but she didn't scream. The bullet hit the chain of metal holding the chandelier, screamed, and thudded into the ceiling. My hand tingled from the vibration of the chain. Not much time. I took a fix on where he should be and let go.
My chest brushed the outside of the glass and played a tune as I fell. I could tell almost the instant I let go that there was no chance of my landing within two yards of the man who meant to kill us.
He bellowed with delight and the building shook.CHAPTER 2
It all started on a Friday in mid-December 1942. A woman who identified herself as Lorna Bartholomew called. Behind her a dog was yapping. The woman said, "Miguelito, be quiet," asked me if I was free to come to San Francisco immediately to take on an "assignment." The dog kept yapping.
It was raining in Los Angeles when she called. I'd been sitting in my office in the Farraday Building, looking out the window, feeling sorry for myself. Before the war I used to sail paper airplanes out the window on rainy days and watch them fight the elements on their way to the alleyway six floors below. But paper was scarce now. Kids collected it, tied it in bundles, and brought it to school in their wagons to contribute to the war effort. SAVE WASTE PAPER a khaki- uniformed soldier on a billboard told us as we drove down Wilshire. The soldier on the billboard had his arm around a little boy whose wagon was piled high with old copies of Collier's and the L.A. Times.
"Just one for old times," I told Dash the cat, who sat on my desk licking the waxed paper of the dime taco from Manny's we had just shared for early lunch. Dash was a big orange beast with a piece of his left ear missing and one eye that didn't want to work with the other one. He's been with me a few months now. I never thought of him as mine. I didn't want to own a cat. I didn't mind sharing my milk and Wheaties and cheap tacos with him, but I didn't want responsibility for his happiness. I'll give Dash credit. He didn't push me. I'd met Dash on a case. He more or less saved my life.
"Watch," I said, folding an ad I'd received the day before from a pair of optometrist brothers named Irick in Glendale who promised me better eyesight with their new lightweight glasses. I held up the work of aeronautic art for Dash's opinion.
Dash stopped licking his paw and watched me open the window, letting in the sounds of rain and traffic on Hoover. He knew something big was up. As I sailed the plane into the rain, Dash leaped to the windowsill. His head moved and at least one of his eyes was fixed on the plane, which swayed, looped, and glided down. Dash purred and watched.
"Pretty good, huh?" I said.
The plane landed somewhere beyond the junked Chevy. An alcoholic named Pettigrew usually slept in the Chevy, but he had gone south to Mexico for the winter.
Anyway, that plane going out the window was the highlight of my week till the phone call came.
Sheldon Minck, who rented me the one-window broom closet I called an office, had stuck his head in to announce the call. Sheldon was working on a little boy when the call came. Sheldon is a dentist. If I were really the civic-minded knight I want people to think I am, I would have spent my days in front of the outer door of our offices warning away the unwary, telling them to flee with their hands held tightly over their mouths to preserve whatever remained of the enamel they prized. But the rent was low, and I couldn't spend my life protecting an unwary public from the unsanitary creatures who lurked in thousands of offices throughout downtown Los Angeles with certificates on their walls claiming they were qualified to pull teeth, collect money from insurance companies, make you a star, tell your fortune, take your picture, find you an orange grove in Lompoc you could turn into a gold mine, or locate your lost grandmother.
Shelly, his bald head gleaming with sweat, his chubby cheeks bouncing, his Dr. Pepper-bottle-bottom glasses slipping on his nose, opened the door and pointed his cigar at me with one hand and reached over to hand me the phone with his other. We'd gotten rid of one phone in the office. Cutting overhead.
"For you," he said. "Long distance. Frisco."
"Thanks," I said, taking the phone and waiting for him to back out of the room.
Shelly brushed an ash from his not very white smock and stood watching as I took the receiver.
"You have a patient, Shel," I said, putting my hand over the mouthpiece.
"A kid," said Sheldon, pursing his lips. "He can wait."
Dash was still standing on the windowsill, hoping for another plane.
"I'd like some privacy, Shel," I said.
"Privacy," he said with a smirk to the cat, who ignored him. "Big deals going on here. Do I tell you not to come into my office when I'm working on a patient?"
"No," I admitted.
"Okay," he said. Behind him the kid in the chair shifted. Shelly turned, afraid that this one would get away. "I thought we were partners."
"We're not partners, Sheldon. I rent a closet from you."
"Friends, then." He pushed his glasses back and looked over his shoulder at the kid.
"Something like that," I conceded.
Sheldon nodded, accepting the concession. "Can I tell you something? I don't like the cat."
"Sheldon, I've got a long-distance phone call," I reminded him.
"I know," he said. "I answered it. I don't like any cats. I like dogs less. Can't get their teeth clean no matter what ..."
Something lit up within Sheldon Minck, D.D.S. "You know something. That gives me an idea."
"I'm pleased, Shel," I said. "Now can you ...?"
"I can't talk anymore, Toby. I've got a patient and an idea." He departed, closing the door behind him.
"Mr. Peters?" the woman's voice said. "Are you there?"
"Right," I said, looking up at the cracked ceiling. "I'm sorry. Things are busy here today."
Then she told me about the San Francisco job and asked if I could be there fast. Dash heard the dog barking and aimed a sincere hiss in the direction of the phone.
"I'll check my calendar," I said, and I did. I put the phone down and looked up at a three-year-old Sinclair Gas calendar my mechanic, No-Neck Arnie, had given me. It was turned to March 1939. Dash went for the downed phone and spat into it, at the dog. I pushed him away and picked up the phone again. "I can get away, but I'll have to do some calls and postpone a few cases. You'll have to cover all expenses and twenty-five dollars a day."
"I ..." she began.
"Make that twenty dollars a day," I amended. "I'm giving pre-Christmas discounts, but I'll need a fifty-dollar retainer."
"That will be fine," she said. "Would you like to know what this is about?"
It's about twenty a day to a guy with fourteen bucks left, a guy who's seriously been considering a security job at Lockheed, I thought.
"Of course," I said.
"When can you get here?" she asked. "Pardon me.... Miguelito, be quiet." Miguelito ignored her.
"Sunday morning," I answered. "Where is 'here'?"
"Oh," she said, and put her hand over her mouthpiece. It was my turn to wait. The rain was still coming down hard and gray. This time I looked up at the photograph of me, my brother Phil, my father, and our dog, Kaiser Wilhelm. I was ten in that picture. Phil was fifteen. My mother was dead. My father soon would be. No one knows what happened to Kaiser Wilhelm.
"The San Francisco Metropolitan Opera Building," she said. "Second floor. Main offices. Will ten o'clock be possible?"
"Inevitable," I said.
"It involves a rather delicate matter," she said softly. Someone interrupted her. There was a man's voice in the background. I couldn't make out the words. "Maestro Stokowski would like to provide the details himself when you arrive."
"Maestro Stokowski," I repeated. "Leopold Stokowski?"
"Ten, Sunday morning," I said. "I'll be there. I'd like the advance in cash when I get there. Now, give me a phone number I can check to be sure this isn't a bad joke. We get those in my business."
"Yes, of course." She gave me a number in San Francisco. I wrote it down. It's hard to write on waxed paper, but I've had experience.
I hung up first and looked at Dash.
"Want to go to San Francisco?" I asked.
He ignored me. I took it as enthusiastic agreement. I told him it might be better if he stayed home and slept.
I was back in business. I made a call to my ex-wife, Anne, to let her know I would be out of town for a while. She wasn't home. I called her at the travel agency in Beverly Hills where she'd recently gotten a job. Anne has been up and down with me, and then later with her second and now deceased husband, Ralph Howard. Howard had lived high and left her nothing much. At the age of forty Anne had pulled herself together, taken a couple of deep breaths, put on her makeup, and gone back to work. Her airline experience landed her the travel job. The woman who answered the phone said there was no Anne Peters working at the Intercontinental Travel Agency.
Excerpted from Poor Butterfly by Stuart M. Kaminsky. Copyright © 1990 Stuart M. Kaminsky. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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