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The Usual Ten

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For as long as she could remember, Cassandra had danced. Her mother would say she’d done high-kicks in the womb, and sat bouncing in time to music before she could walk, so no one was surprised when she at age 22 was hired to be part of the corps de ballet of the Opera Premiere. It had taken years of training in freezing cold studios and hundreds of pairs of beribboned slippers. She had said no to anything less fun than amazing. Cassie Gherardi was not about to waste her best years of dancing on spur-of-the-moment bad decisions, oh no, she had it figured out. It was immensely comforting, knowing exactly what she wanted to do. Her favourite perfume was the smell of dusty velvet curtains, the sweat-ingrained changing rooms and the spilled champagne on red carpet. Her favourite sound was the low, scattered tones of the orchestra beginning to play. Balancing on pointe she could see her future ahead of her, hopefully dancing for twenty more years before her body chose for her to stop. She tried not to think too much about that harrowing ‘after’.

“You have a brain too, sweetie,” her mother would say. “You know you could fall back on that.”

And Cassie knew that, technically, that was true. But dancing was all she had ever wanted to do, and she couldn’t help thinking that there might not be much of a point to life if she couldn’t do it. She could handle the seven-hour rehearsal, the frayed tendons, the bloodied feet. This was still the best life she could have. She liked the other people involved with it too, singers and musicians, because they understood the world. Her best friend at the opera house was Rose, who danced without true passion and thus was absolutely no threat to her because they were never in competition. Rose’s mother had paid for her entire education, with the agreement that the education would be classical ballet, and Rose was focused enough to dance on command but not obligated to love it. To Cassie it was pure insanity, but Rose seemed to be fine with the arrangement. Sometimes Cassie caught her gazing thoughtfully into nothing, as if she too could see a future somewhere far away.

But Cassie had made her choice. Rose sometimes went out, enjoyed life to the fullest, met boys and was thus often surrounded by admirers even though she was just in the chorus. Cassie wasn’t jealous of that. She’d decided a long time ago, she would have a boyfriend after she was done dancing, and she would never be done dancing. She would happily flutter into the arms of Franz, of Solor, of the Nutcracker Prince, and be perfectly content.

Until she met Ben. She had no idea where he came from or why he was suddenly at the opera house. One day he was just there, and the world acted as if he had always been there when that was decidedly not true.

“Sure,” said Rose when Cassie mentioned the boy with the scraped knuckles, who had been giving the chandelier weird looks earlier. “He’s a stagehand, right? He’s always around! You really haven’t noticed?”

“He wasn’t always around!” protested Cassie. “And I’ve met all the stagehands, Gabe is the one that’s always around. I saw him yesterday!”

Rose laughed. Rose could laugh in harmonies.

“He’s Gabe’s nephew or something,” she said, waving a hand dismissively. “I’m sure I heard someone say that. He’s been here ages. You’ve spoken to him before!”

Cassie didn’t speak to guys unless they were other dancers, and she would definitely remember having spoken to Ben.

It wasn’t true, that was the thing. Gabe didn’t have siblings. He couldn’t have a nephew. He was a man in his sixties, still wiry and strong, who carried things and hoisted things, and he didn’t have a nephew that was also a stagehand. But suddenly everyone, Gabe included, acted as if Ben had been there for years, just a character in the background, when there was something about him that set him apart from anyone else.

Sometimes he smiled at Cassie. It made her feel like she was alone on an empty stage.

His appearance at the opera house made her really insecure. The dance studio had always calmed her, even when Monsieur Henri was being his usual appalling self about her turn-out, and now it always felt like she was being watched. There was a presence in empty rooms that hadn’t been there before.

Cassie wasn’t sure about the company he kept, either. She never saw him with anyone (and Cassie looked at Ben far more often than she was willing to admit) but he always seemed to be getting into fights while off-duty. He always had a bruise of some sort, and moved like his muscles ached. One day he sported a glorious black eye, and that was when she couldn’t stop herself from speaking to him. She knew a fair amount about treating injuries after all.

“That needs a cold pack,” she said, nodding to his eye.

Ben looked up, and she saw that he also had a swollen lip that made her lick her own in silent contemplation.

“What?” he replied.

“A cold pack,” she repeated, unable to keep the impatience out of her voice. “It’ll lessen the swelling.”

They kept a few reusable gel cold packs in a mini fridge by the First Aid kit in the dance studio. Cassie quickly grabbed one, reforming it a little to make it fit against his eye, and pressed it carefully to his shiner. His brow was furrowed, but he put his hand on the pack to secure it.

“Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

“You’re a ballerina, right?”

She raised her eyebrows and gestured at the pale pink leotard. “What gave it away?”

“I would have known anyway. You always move like you’re dancing.” He paused, giving her time to let the blush bloom and fade. “You haven’t... noticed anything weird lately, have you?”

“Apart from you, appearing out of nowhere? No.”

Ben grinned, and she was not prepared for it at all.

“Ask anyone here. They’d tell you I’ve worked here ages.”

“I know. That’s not true though, is it? I’ve been here 18 months and you only started a few weeks ago.”

“But if everyone else tells you how it is, maybe you just haven’t noticed me before? I can be really subtle.”

Cassie snorted. “I don’t think you could be subtle if you tried. Whatever it is you’re doing, it’s not working on me. Why?”

“That is a very interesting question. Looking forward to solving that one.” He paused for a brief moment. “Well... if you notice anything else that’s strange, I’ll want to know about it. You’re friends with her, right? The one who can sing but doesn’t show off.”

“Rose.” Cassie crossed her arms. “Yeah. Why?”

“Nothing particular. She might start... acting weird. So she’ll need a friend to keep an eye on her.”

“Is that a threat?”

Ben paused, considered the question for far too long, before saying: “Why would I threaten her?”

“I don’t know,” she growled. “But if you are...”

“I’m not. I’m a concerned citizen.”

“You know way more than you let on.”

He smirked. “Yes. Don’t you?”

Cassie said nothing. He was talking about something else, like he was making a joke on her behalf, and she was actively seething about not getting it.

“I’m just saying,” continued Ben. “Keep an eye on your friend. She’ll need someone to talk to. Make sure you are that someone.”

“She’s my best friend. She’ll definitely talk to me. And if I find out you’ve been bothering her...”

“Yes, yes. “ Ben pressed his hand more firmly on the cold pack. “Thanks for this, little dove. We’ll talk again.”

He left before she could even tell him she hated the nickname.

 

* * *

 

A few days passed. Cassie kept an eye out for strange things, and was loathe to admit Ben was right. There definitely was some sort of weird... energy around. Performers were wound pretty tight at the best of times, but this was the kind of vibe she usually only noticed on premiere nights. A sort of frantic buzz that made everyone snappy and overly dramatic. Three couples broke up over the course of a few hours, and made up through tearful declarations of love. Several dancers complained of strange noises around the stage; one of them even claimed she’d heard singing coming from behind the mirror in the studio.

Right in the middle of hour two of Friday’s practice there was an ear-piercing scream from the dressing room. It wasn’t really the kind of scream to be ignored, made by one with enough skill to absolutely deliver on the diaphragm support. Cassie was one of the first on the scene, still dressed in her rehearsal tutu. The dressing room was small. It could only fit about fifteen lockers or so, and with the olive tiles and murky brown flooring it was not a place where many dancers lingered after they were changed. There were a handful of them gathered here now though, and they were all focused on the closed and evidently locked door to the bathroom. Someone was on the other side of it, and she must have had some friends in the crowd.

“Charlotte, sweetie?” cajoled one of them, a dancer who Cassie was pretty sure was named Sasha. “You okay?”

“No! I cannot come out!” came the wailing reply. “He hates me! He sent me a letter! Tonight’s performance is cursed!”

Of course. Cassie sighed and looked around the room. Clearly Sasha had this part under control. On a bench laid a partly folded piece of paper, next to an envelope addressed to Primadonna Charlotte Devere. The handwriting was elegant, in swirling curves of black ink with plenty of flourishes, and the envelope had been sealed with red wax. Drawn to it as if by a strange force, Cassie took the letter and read it.

Signora Devere,

Your days at the Opera Premiere are numbered. Tonight, Mademoiselle Rosalinda Garcia shall sing on your behalf. If you attempt to take her place, a disaster beyond your comprehension shall occur.

The letter had not been signed. But that looked pretty horrid. Cassie looked up at the closed door, where the muffled yet unmistakeable hysterical sobs of the operas main soprano could be heard.

Charlotte Devere was probably the most beautiful woman Cassie had ever met, with hair so light it was nearly white and a composed, regal bearing. She sang like an angel, had the gentlest smile in the world, and usually put little girls into awestruck silence before they asked if she was Elsa from Frozen. Cassie had to admit, if she’d had to pick someone to lock themselves into the bathroom on a Friday morning, it would not have been Charlotte Devere.

She knocked. “Charlotte? It’s going to be okay. Obviously we’re calling the police.” Cassie glanced at the crowd. “Someone is calling the police, right?”

They had all started to whisper, and young teens from the the ballet academy had immensely widened eyes. They looked like frightened cartoon characters.

“What could the police do against the Ghost?” asked a janitor.

Cassie was completely lost.

“What ghost?” she automatically asked.

“He cannot die!” shrieked Charlotte through the door.

It made the crowd whisper more loudly.

“It is starting again!” hissed Sasha.

“The ghost of a man, haunting us all...”

“Only a matter of time before he kills!”

Cassie raised a hand. “Um, what are you talking about? What the hell is this? Is there a murderer going around?”

“I saw him just the other day!” said Sasha. Her voice had taken on a slightly higher pitch than normal. She did sound a little... bonkers. “It was horrid!”

“You saw a ghost?” asked Cassie, just trying to keep up with the nonsense.

“Cassie, you have to know about the Opera Ghost! It’s an old legend! It’s been around forever!”

“It’s the first time I’ve heard of it,” Cassie protested. “Literally, no one has ever mentioned an Opera Ghost here before, ever.”

“You’re just not paying attention! I swear, it’s been all we’ve talked about forever!”

“They say he has two holes where his eyes should be!” came an agreeing voice from the other side of the door.

“Oh, okay, sure!” Cassie rolled her eyes. “Let’s come out here and talk about it, okay?”

“I cannot come out! He said there would be an accident! Beyond my comprehension!”

Cassie considered her options as the only sane person left. Play along, or keep calling for common sense to pop in and make a quick cameo? The latter would probably not go down so well. Everyone seemed really into their little story. So much so they were barely taking in anything she was saying that called it into question.

Someone was moving in her peripheral vision. Her lower belly recognised Ben immediately, even if the sensation was spiced with instant fury. He was leaning against a wall, unnoticed by absolutely everyone but her. He was bleeding from a cut through his eyebrow, and had his arms crossed over his chest as he surveilled the scene.

“You!” She threw out an accusatory finger at him. “You’re doing this, aren’t you?”

Ben looked surprised, and then he grinned. “Me? Of course not. Why would I be doing any of this?”

“I don’t know! You have some sort of kink for messing with people’s heads! And why are you always covered in blood whenever we meet?”

“I’m a complicated guy.”

“You don’t have to be complicated to be a lurky piece of something or other. What is happening to everyone?”

A little droplet of blood had formed in his eyebrow, and it was almost but not quite large enough to drip. It must have tickled, for Ben found a dirty handkerchief in his pocket and pressed it against his brow.

“It’s a long story, little dove.”

Cassie was about to launch herself into a long rant on how demeaning that name was, when there was a sudden tapping of high heels on linoleum flooring, and Rose appeared. The first thing she did was throw her arms around Cassie in a relieved hug. That was odd in and of itself. They’d bumped into each other just a few hours ago, before going to their respective rehearsal rooms, and Rose had been more or less herself then. She had been wearing black leggings and a grey, wool minidress then, and looked stylish as hell. Now she wore a flowing, white dressing gown that Cassie had never seen before, and a diadem of pearls in her hair. Her eyes also looked huge. She was barely blinking.

“Cassandra, did you hear?”she said in a dramatic whisper. “Oh, I am so worried! All day and night, I am so terrified!”

So, definitely just as weird as the others, then. Cassie sighed.

“Let me guess. It’s the Ghost?”

She was immeditely shushed.

“Don’t speak of such things, dear Cassandra! Oh, I am so deeply frightened! Words cannot describe my concern!”

It was kind of impressive, how she managed to put exclamation points on whispers. Somehow you could just hear the shrill urgency. Yet there was something... melodic about it. Like Rose’s voice had been altered somehow, run through several filters that had cleaned it up, removed any false note and made it ring true and full.

“But I mean, it’s the Ghost, right?” said Cassie with raised eyebrows. “He’s been talking to you through a mirror? He seems to be doing that a lot.”

“It is a wicked thing to call that spirit a ghost, when his voice is that of an angel! Yes, he speaks to me. To me he speaks, and I shall surely die of fright!” Rose blinked a couple of times in a row.

“Yeah, okay.” Cassie pressed her lips together, closing her eyes to get a brief moment of respite. Then she turned to Ben, “Long story, huh? Tell it to me. This is all nonsense.”

He tood up and gave her a nod. “Alright. Not here, though. We’ll go across the street. I can still keep track of the place from there.”

“Okay then. Doesn’t seem like anybody will get any actual rehearsing done tonight anyway. Seems like they’ll have some sort of hilarious drama in getting Charlotte out of the bathroom and I can’t wait to not be part of it.”

Cassie grabbed her boots from the dressing room and then followed him downstairs. Her slippers went through enough wear and tear without having to add pavement to the mix, but she kept the tutu on with her big winter coat on top. She looked a little silly, but the coffee shop staff across the street were used to dancers, even though they weren’t usually treated to the whole ballerina getup. She did get a wolf-whistle as they crossed the street, but that one was abruptly interrupted due to a death stare from Ben. He did look pretty terrifying with the bloodied eyebrow.

It was clear the staff at the coffee shop knew Ben. They gave him a nod of recognition, and started preparing an order for him. From what Cassie could tell, it looked like the strongest red-eye she’d ever seen, in a take-out mug.

Ben tilted his head Cassie’s way. “And whatever she’s having.”

“Chai latte,” said Cassie. “If you can make it the size of a bathtub, that would be great.”

The barista nodded. He was writing something down on Ben’s mug. It started with ‘Bri’ and then became an unrecognisable scribble.

“Is Ben your real name?” Cassie asked as they took a window seat. The entrance of the opera house loomed, too extravagant to fit in with the dusky stoplights and blazing adverts by the bus stop outside it.

He smiled slightly. “It works just fine for my purposes.”

“Alright. So what are your purposes? What’s happening at the Opera Premiere?”

“A story is unravelling. It happens sometimes.” Ben leaned back in his creaky plastic chair and sipped his coffee. “If you get everything gathered in a place like that, and the circumstances are just right, then that’s a sort of... summoning.”

“Is this about that ridiculous Ghost? Are you saying that’s real?”

“Kind of yes and kind of no. A week ago, it was not real. There had never been an Opera Ghost, and your friend the singer would have laughed at the idea of one. But right now it’s real, because the story made it real.”

Cassie laughed. “Are you saying a story wrote Charlotte a letter?”

“No, the Opera Ghost wrote the letter. The Opera Ghost is just there because of a story.”

“You are gonna need to start a bit further back than that. Why the hell are stories real?”

“I don’t have to explain that bit to you, Cassie,” said Ben.

“The hell you...” She bit her lip. “Why?”

“Because you work at a theatre! You know very well the power of stories. It is literally your job to be in the middle of one every night, move an audience to laughter or tears...”

Cassie thought about it. The waiting in the wings, the anxious energy that melted away as soon as she was on stage. She had always loved dancing. Had loved to be seen to dance. Even in the chorus, she shone and she knew it. There didn’t have to be words to tell a story. She could speak with gestures, every movement was vital. She was the story, or at least the tool used to tell it.

“Exactly,” added Ben with a nod. “It’s powerful stuff.”

“That’s different, though,” she protested. “I know I’m playing a part. And the audience, they know it’s a show. Here it’s happening anyway, no audience or anything.”

Ben nodded again. “Sometimes, there’s a certain energy that taps into it. I usually think of it as a neutral chaotic force. It gets into the fabric of things. Molds people into what it needs. At the theatre, people know they’re actors, so the story is controlled. But when a story is loose, actors become characters.”

“Like Rose. She isn’t usually like that. All...” Cassie vaguely waved her hands. “I don’t know. Ingénue-y. Babbling about how scared she was and absolutely refusing to say what the hell she's so scared of. If that’s a character, she’s pretty poorly written.”

“Probably someone’s idea of a joke,” said Ben. “But she is genuinely scared of the Ghost. He’s talking to her through the mirror and he’s telling her to sing. Been giving her lessons, actually. You can tell by her voice.”

“Yeah, and he sent a letter to Charlotte so she won’t sing tonight.” Cassie sipped her drink, feeling the spicy sweetness filling her mouth. “She seemed pretty freaked by it.”

Ben shrugged. “Yes. It is a death threat. I’d be scared too.”

Cassie watched him over the edge of her mug. He looked relaxed right now. The explanation was effortless to him, and he was smiling at her whenever she spoke. Like he was enjoying himself.

“Say I believe you,” she said after a moment’s pause. “About the whole... loose story explanation. That still doesn’t explain you. What’s your part in all of this?”

“My part... Alright.” He sat up straight. “I am part of a... group of people. Some call us the Usual Ten. This group of people, we sense when a story is about to unfold, and we... insert ourselves into it. Never as a main character or anything. We’re just there to watch. Sometimes you need a character that knows it’s a character, to guide the story along.”

So, an audience member and an actor in one. Cassie nodded. It did seem like it would fit him. He had the air of someone moving between worlds.

“Right,” she said. “Is that why you are constantly in fights?”

He sighed. “Well, yes. Unfortunately, my character is not slipping by as quietly as I’d hoped. I thought a stagehand would be a good fit for me, since they can move about unnoticed and I’m good at carrying things around. It might be why you’re not fooled by me like the others are. The story is against me. I wasn’t expecting that.”

“The story is... against you?”

“Yes.” Ben made a face. “It’s trying to kill me.”

An ice-cold hand punched Cassie in the gut. She could feel the blood draining from her face.

Kill you?” she wheezed out. “Why?”

“Story reasons.” He waved a hand vaguely. “Complicated reasons. The story wants a dead stagehand. It’s how it goes. So I’ve been fighting it off.”

He paused at the sight of her face. She must have looked scared to death, because then he put his hand gently on hers.

“Don’t worry about me, little dove. It hasn’t gotten to me yet, and it won’t get the chance to. The story is still chugging along nicely without my corpse in the mix.”

His hand was incredibly warm on hers. It did absolutely nothing to calm her down. The idea of something out there gunning for him was horrifying, and she didn’t even know what the threat really looked like.

“Is it the Ghost?” she asked. “Is that what’s after you?”

“It’s what the story is using to get rid of me, yes.” He sighed. “I really should have researched it better. Then I would have made a smarter choice. But here we are. I am here to control the story, so no one has to die.”

“How do you control the story?” Maybe she could help. Maybe she could do one right thing, and save him.

“It takes... practice. Mostly it’s just watching. Be in the right place at the right time, and say something that makes a character take the step they need to take. Distract someone who needs distracting. Supporting cast. You know how stories work.”

“Right, right... Yes.”

Cassie’s mind was working overtime. How would she know? He seemed to know what he was talking about. She didn’t have any experience. But maybe there was something she could do.

“Rose is... a character now,” she said. “She’ll snap out of that, right?”

“Oh yes. When the story is over, she’ll be back to normal. You don’t have to worry about her. She comes out of this in one piece.”

That was a relief, at least. Cassie hadn’t really been worried about Rose. Did that mean she knew the story? Maybe... This definitely didn’t have the feeling of a story where the wide-eyed innocent bit the dust.

“Okay.” Cassie took a deep breath. “Good.”

“If I can stay alive until she’s engaged, I should be in the clear.”

Cassie nearly spat out her chai latte. “Engaged? Rose is getting engaged?”

“Yes. Childhood friend.” Ben grinned. “Don’t worry. He seems like a nice guy. Little dull, but maybe she’s into that. And he keeps her safe, and he loves her.”

“I haven’t heard anything about her being engaged! Or even seeing anyone!”

“Of course not. It’s happening away from you. The story is still progressing, even though we’re not there.”

“What if something important is happening right now and we’re missing it?”

Ben rolled his eyes. “Oh, I’m sure we’ll get a recap. A little dancer will come rushing in and explain it in detail. The business with the prima donna in the bathroom seems like a problem that will last a couple of hours, and frankly I’m having enough trouble keeping me alive without me actually starting to wish for death. That would really start complicating my motivation.”

“But will Rose sing tonight? That would be something. She has an amazing voice.” Cassie thought about it. “She deserves to be on stage. Just for one perfomance, anyway.”

“I suppose we’ll see. But keep an eye out for an engagement ring, would you? Then I might actually start to relax.”

Cassie nodded. “Sure. Still. Stay careful.”

“I will.”

His hand was still on hers. He removed it to finish the last of his coffee.

“Alright. The story doesn’t wait forever. Let’s get back in to see what’s going on. Hey Cassie?”

She looked at him. “Yeah?”

“You’re a good supporting character.”

His smile was devestating. She had no idea what to respond. But it was embarrassing, how warm her chest felt.

 

* * *

 

It took three days for the guy to appear. Rose did end up singing instead of Charlotte Devere, and it had been a completely different experience from hearing her sing before. Cassie had done so many times, of course. But Rose’s voice this time was different, clear and pure like a bell, and the applause would never stop. She received countless bouquets, orchids and roses, stunning displays and at least a dozen chocolate boxes. Cassie almost thought she’d be betrothed by next week. The guy though, he did make himself known after the show, coming backstage to talk to Rose. His name was Marco Rudlin, and he really did seem to have been a childhood friend of Rose’s in real life. As he proclaimed his admiration of Rose, Cassie did a customary bit of Facebook stalking. As it turned out, Marco Rudlin was also a pretty prolific Instagrammer, and his posts were all injured baby rabbits and chicks, sometimes with himself in animal handler clothes feeding them by hand.

Rose agreed to go out to dinner with him, and disappeared into the changing room that was apparently hers now. Cassie watched the whole exchange and couldn’t find anything particularly proposal-like about it, but hey, it was progress.

“No ring yet,” she reported to a stationary Ben, who had made it into his thing to casually linger near where main characters were hanging out.

Or maybe he had always been doing that, and she just knew why this time.

“It’ll be a while,” he replied. “They need to flirt a little bit first. Work up a witty reparté. Or in their case, in true Innamorati fashion, gaze longingly into each others’ eyes and woefully proclaim the futility of their romance. But still, it’s getting there.”

“He seems like he’s a sweetheart. His posts have a bit of a filthy streak to them, and I reckon that’s not part of this character, but it would totally be Rose’s thing in real life.”

“Well, how about that... This story knows what it’s doing.”

Ben moved, and winced. He walked with a limp today. Apparently the Ghost had been whooshing around above the stage, and it was quite good at fencing. Ben was not bad at it himself, but had still received a rather nasty kick straight to the knee, and it was slowing him down. Cassie tried not to worry about him. He was a pro at character work, after all. But she couldn’t help herself. As good as he was, with a busted knee he couldn’t move as swiftly, and that made him more vulnerable to further ghost attacks.

He must have noticed her crush. It was pathetically obvious. But still, he was being kinda nice about it, so he didn’t mention it.

Even if he survived the Ghost, he couldn’t stay at the Opera Premiere. That was just a foregone conclusion. And Cassie had to stay. She was a dancer, and she still danced as gracefully as ever, and this was the place to keep doing it. But where would Ben go? She wasn’t sure she could even ask the question without feeling like she might burst into tears.

“By the way,” said Ben. “Something has to happen first, and I don’t want you to worry about it. It’s just something that happens without us being there, and it will mean that Rose will go missing for a little bit. But I promise, she will be safe. The story wants her to be okay.”

Cassie groaned. “Don’t tell me. It’s that ghost, isn’t it? It’s obsessed with her.”

“Pretty much. It’ll take her to its lair, it’ll sing to her, and there will be some drama, but at the end of it she will be returned. She can do that on her own. The story is chugging along fine, so we’re best needed up here where we can make sure her boyfriend doesn’t hurt himself or the owners get any bright ideas.”

Ben was right. Rose did disappear, and she was gone for 18 full hours. The opera house was in a tizzy about it, but absolutely no one called the police or even suggested a complete search of the building. She had disappeared from a locked room with no real windows, so that was a trick. Cassie was pretty sure there were no secret doors anywhere at the opera, but who knew? Maybe the story had decided there ought to be.

In any case, she wasn’t worried about Rose. Her friend was delivered the next morning, a little extra wide-eyed but no worse for wear. Clearly she had performed whatever it was she was supposed to have done, but her disappearance had had some unforeseen consequences. It was decided that she would not be performing again. Sopranos that disappeared after the show were not appreciated, and she had just been a stand-in for Charlotte anyway. So despite her success and the audience adoration, Rose was back in the chorus. Charlotte had been talked back into performing, and she was currently deeply into the role of the diva. Essentially, she was making herself extremely unpopular with everyone.

“Ghost’s not gonna be happy,” muttered Cassie after Charlotte had reduced a poor dancer to tears. “Can’t say I am either. Rose deserves to be on stage.”

She was dabbing antiseptic to Ben’s bruised knuckles.

“Don’t meddle in the story’s ideas, little dove,” said Ben, hissing from the sting. “It won’t end well. It has its own plans and will fight you.”

“I don’t like that nickname,” she said.

“Really?” He raised an eyebrow. “It’s very you. The little dove is good stock. She’s down to earth and sees things for what they are. She’s usually the only clever one in the ensemble. The rest may think they’re clever, but Colombina knows she is, and she can trick the others.”

Cassie carefully blew on his knuckles. “So it’s a compliment?”

“Absolutely. I wouldn’t dare risking insult to you.”

She blushed. Maybe it wasn’t the worst nickname ever, then. If it was a compliment.

“Okay, then.” She moved away from his hands, to avoid the blush spreading until she was bright pink all over. “You’re all done. Will you try being more careful?”

“I am. The Ghost is really gunning for me. It’s getting harder and harder to avoid. If anything happens to me...”

There was that cold feeling again. Cassie shook her head.

“Don’t even say that.”

“No, little dove, this is important. If anything happens to me, promise me you’ll be careful. Listen to the story. There’s a part for you to play. If you do that, it will still end right.”

“The Ghost won’t be coming for me?”

“You are discussing the Ghost?!”

Sasha was passing by. She was dressed in her tutu, like all the ballerinas these days were all the time. It was like they had forgotten anything other than being ballerinas and being constantly terrified.

Ben raised a hand. “Yes, but there’s nothing to worry about.”

“I heard he has no nose! And a mask like a skull, that is sometimes aflame with the very fires of hell!”

“Yes, that is what I heard,” sighed Ben, and leaned in to murmur in Cassie’s ear. “Doesn’t matter what we say. This is one of those one-sided conversations.”

“You have seen him, then?” gasped Sasha.

“Oh yes. Sure. He is more of a cloud of concentrated chaos, smells kind of like rotten eggs. So essentially the Opera Ghost is a semi-conscious, semi-sentient fart that flies around, stinking up the place.”

Sasha was very prettily shocked. They were gathering a crowd. People liked to congregate these days and share fun little anecdotes called ‘One Time I Saw the Opera Ghost’. Cassie had a pretty good idea of what he looked like in people’s minds. A dark figure, wearing some sort of black, operatic cloak, and of course a white mask. Dark or possibly even no eyes, and the face of death itself.

But yeah, according to Ben, apparently another interpretation was a chaos fart.

“Are you sure you should be saying things like that?” asked Cassie, shaking her head.

Ben took her hand carefully. “It won’t make a difference. The Ghost won’t come for you anyway, not even if it does away with me. You’re not a target in this story, but other people might be. Listen to the story. Keep the characters safe. Alright?”

“And...” She had to pause to swallow. “What about you?”

“Don’t worry about me. It’ll be alright.”

It didn’t feel alright. The story was far from over, even if Rose had gone from whispering anxiously about being scared to wide-eyed and in love, there was still no engagement ring in sight, and therefore no end.

Everyone was completely wired and slightly mental. The production and rehearsal was moving very quickly. Hadn’t they just had a premiere of a completely different show? Now they were putting on another one, and it seemed like time was rushing past. Charlotte was back as lead soprano, and people were whispering about what repercussions that might have on the opera house. Everyone was extremely aware of the Ghost’s demands, but there was nothing they could do to prevent what was to come to pass.

The story was in full control.

The night of the premiere came quickly. Cassie was jumping at her own shadow, and she hated it. The nervous energy was really starting to get to her. She had no reason to fear the Ghost. Ben had promised her. But there were countless other things to fear, and at the top of the list was something happening to him. She danced the best she could in the opening act, without really completely remembering how she had learned all the steps. All rehearsal was hazy. But still here she was, dancing perfectly.

Charlotte received applause as she entered the stage, dolled up like an 18th century noblewoman. Overpowdered, in a massive pink dress with hips so puffed up she had to walk sideways through doors, she was more of a parody of a noble than anything, but the audience seemed to enjoy the laugh. Rose was dressed as a page boy, a mute character, the exact opposite of what the Opera Ghost had demanded.

This could only end in disaster.

Cassie knew it without Ben having to tell her. There was a dark cusp on this evening, a knife’s edge it was balancing on. She danced in fear and watched the celiing, and the chandelier. And soon the voice rang out, rich and powerful and echoing.

“DID I NOT INSTRUCT THAT BOX FIVE WAS TO BE KEPT EMPTY?”

The theatre froze. Each crystal in the chandelier tinkled from the strength of the voice. Cassie’s eyes went further up, behind the light fixture, and the dark shadow she saw there. A man, or a cloud? She couldn’t be sure. But the Ghost stood there, impossible to ignore, terrifying and powerful.

“He’s there,” she heard someone say. “The Phantom of the Opera.”

It was her own voice. But the words echoed among the dancers, until they reached Rose.

“It’s him,” Rose whispered.

Charlotte shot her a venomous look and hissed, “Your part is silent, little toad.”

And by that she sealed her fate. Cassie could feel the story turn. The Phantom radiated energy that changed things. Suddenly Charlotte tried to sing again, and only a horrid, distorted croak came out. She tried again, tears filling her eyes, and another wretched sound came out, to the audience’s laughter. Charlotte abruptly turned and ran off the stage.

Absolute pandemonium errupted. The owners, who in real life were probably representatives of the board of directors that owned the opera house, came up on stage and stumbled their way through terrified apologies, assuring the still laughing audience that the opera would commence shortly, after a quick change where Mademoiselle Rosalinda Garcia would play the main character. In the meantime, the ballet chorus were scrambling to put on a dancing performance to entertain the audience.

Cassie danced in her sweet little shepherdess costume decorated with paper roses, with dread pooling in her stomach. The evening wasn’t over. She could feel it.The Ghost was still furious. Above them, tangled topes and weights moved slightly without anyone she could see touching them. Cassie turned up on pointe, pirouetting through her fear. Soon it would be over. Soon she would be able to discuss this with Ben, and he would calm her. He always knew what was happening, and it always made sense.

Then a heavy weight fell from the overstage scenery, there was a crack as something snapped, and a bloodcurdling scream. Cassie turned, at first thinking that a sack of counterweight sand had dropped on stage, and then that it was a dummy of some sort. But then it became obvious. Ben’s body was twitching, as it turned slowly on the edge of the rope twined around his neck. He was staring blindly in front of him, and then fell limp to the stage as someone cut the rope from above.

All dancers screamed in hysterics. Cassie noticed that she had pressed her hands so tightly against her mouth that she must have left imprints on her own skin, and she could not stop staring.

It was Ben. Not some horrid trick. The Opera Ghost had got to him. The story was progressing. He’d warned her this might happen. He was dead. Ben was dead? This couldn’t be right.

Cassie forced herself to take a breath. No one was paying any attention to her. The owners were back on stage, but they were terrified as well. The audience was shouting, ladies were fainting, there was a frantic scramble for control. And there was Ben, calm, still staring at nothing.

She hurried up to him. All common sense told her it was too late of course. She had heard his neck snap, or something snap at least. There was no coming back from that. But this wasn’t how things worked. His story couldn’t end here. She put a hand on his neck, trying for a pulse. Nothing. There was no use calling his name. Did she even know his real name? It wouldn’t have helped anyway. He was still warm, but there were no signs of life at all.

Cassie blinked away tears. No time for this. What had he told her? Listen to the story. Keep the characters safe. How did she do that without him? Was anyone else supposed to die? Maybe that person didn’t have to. Maybe it could end with this, if the Ghost was captured. Could he even be captured? Everyone believed him to be a spirit in the shape of a man. Ben had just called him a cloud of concentrated chaos. Those didn’t go to prison. But he would go away, if the story played itself out.

Ben was holding something in a clenched fist. It looked like a piece of paper, sticking out between his fingers. Something was drawn on it... A wing? Cassie sniffled, wiping her eyes, and pulled herself together enough to carefully pry it out.

It was a wing. There was a drawn dove on the crumpled paper, holding an olive branch. Beside it were a few words, and she recognised Ben’s scribbly handwriting.

WAIT FOR CURTAIN CALL

She read it over and over. Curtain call? From what she could tell, the curtain had already fallen on this absolute mayhem of a show. Didn’t look like there would be an official curtain call on this one. So what did it mean?

Cassie tucked the note into the clevage of her dress. She could think about it later. She had made a promise. Listen to the story, keep the characters safe. Then everything would be alright.

She hurried backstage, scanning for someone to look after. Instantly, she spotted Rose, who was pulling Marco with her up the steps. Rose had something haunted in her eyes, and she was trembling. Marco was clutching a bouquet of red roses. In the crowd it was impossible for Cassie to follow them, but maybe this was a point in the story where they had to talk alone. She felt pretty confident that Rose was playing her part to the letter.

Instead Cassie tried to console some hysterical dancers, and focused on getting them to change into their ordinary clothes. Maybe if she got them out of the opera house, they would be safe. As many people as possible that she could get to leave this haunt, the fewer there would be for the Ghost to try and hurt.

Who would be on his hit list next? Cassie had her suspicions Marco Rudlin was not terribly popular. Rose was looking more in love by the hour, and it was clear Marco was very taken with her. The engagement couldn’t be far off. Still, it didn’t feel quite right. Someone else was on that list, and it had nothing to do with the engagement.

Cassie swallowed. Things were not any stiller on stage. The police would be summoned of course, now there was a corpse involved, and people were walking back and forth in increased stages of panic. Ben was the only quiet one. Everyone else was shouting.

“Really shouldn’t have called him a fart,” Cassie mumbled, and let out a slightly shrill giggle.

Oh, was she still crying? Apparently. She pulled a sleeve under her eyes, not caring that she was smearing her mascara.

When the chandelier fell, she was in prime position to watch it crash.

 

* * *

 

And then time had passed. Cassie had a memory of six months of peace, but the details were fuzzy. There must have been damage to the opera house. There must have been people hurt. But she couldn’t remember any of that, because suddenly they were having a masquerade ball, and Rose and Marco were dancing. Rose had confessed to their engagement in a not terribly secret stage whisper, and Cassie had congratulated them with all the sincerity she could muster. She still felt Ben’s absence keenly, and kept his last note beside her as she slept. But what did it mean? Wait for curtain call... Which one? They were putting on new performances left and right. Cassie waited patiently after each one, to no avail. There were still no answers, and no arrests.

The police had been involved, but it was clear they were also affected by the story and therefore largely incompetent. They were now a regular fixture at every show, as well as at the ball.

Still, they did absolutely nothing when the Opera Ghost appeared, dressed all in red, and tossed the managers his finished opus. Don Juan Triumphant, he called it, and of course he demanded Rose played the lead. He got up quite close to the trembling soprano, and asked her to return to him as his student.

Then he noted the engagement ring on a chain around her neck, snatched it from her, and disappeared in a cloud of smoke and flame.

Cassie sighed. Still as dramatic and possessive as ever. She was having some trouble taking him seriously at times, despite what he had done to Ben. Still, the engagement of his object of obsession would defintiely not lead to anywhere good. It was definitely clear to Cassie that the Ghost was planning something. He had abducted Rose once before, who was to say he wouldn’t try again?

“Especially,” she said out loud to other dancers, making sure that Marco heard her, “especially since he could have her alone on stage, and knows she loves another. Seems to me like we could easily set him up.”

Definitely wouldn’t hurt anyway, for people to be prepared. The story was whispering to her now. Was this how it felt, knowing the script? Was this how Ben had felt? She could dance from person to person, and say what they needed to hear in order to do what they needed to do. The story wasn’t chaos. The story had an order and logic to it. Maybe it was here due to chaos, but once here it had only one way of playing out. It was following its own set of rules.

The night of the Ghost’s premiere arrived. And that was when Cassie understood who was next on the list.

Poor Henry Callot was the lead male singer of the Opera Premiere. He had been a background character, distinguished but prone to hedonism and a slightly overblown ego, essentially harmless. Now Cassie could feel the clock ticking down for him, as he was going to play opposite Rose as the great Don Juan. Something would have to be done about him, to make him less of a target.

It seemed like an easy fix. What was it Ben had said? Sometimes you had to say the right thing, and sometimes you needed to distract those that needed distracting. So Cassie went across the street to the coffee shop, purchasing a decaf coffee for Henry, and dosed it with a mild sedative. All she had to do was keep him busy for a short while, and the Ghost would have no reason to eliminate him. It worked like a charm. She left Callot’s dressing room to change, returning just in time to watch the Ghostly cloud leave the room with the tenor’s cloak and mask, and Henry still breathing in his chair.

“Piece of cake,” she murmured, and headed for the stage.

Her dancing was an afterthought now. She barely had to practice anymore. The story took care of it. As a matter of fact, she didn’t even feel her feet anymore as she danced. Her eyes were focused on the story. It was flowing all around her.

She kept herself hidden, watching as the Ghost, wearing Henry’s costume, snuck up on stage to sing to Rose. She looked stricken. Did she really believe that the Ghost was Henry? Not that she seemed the brightest, but still. The two men were completly different, even though to Cassie, the Ghost definitely was more of a cloud than a man these days.

The audience was stirring. Cassie could spot Marco at the balcony, watching his fiancée and often motioning towards a policeman. But he wasn’t moving. Why wasn’t he moving? Urgh, was Cassie really gonna need to do something? She bit her lip.

Rose sang back, responding with such affection and pity, sweetly touching his face and looking deep into his eyes. It came to Cassie’s surprise as well, when with a sweep of her hand, Rose ripped the mask off the Ghost.

Cassie let out a piercing scream, because she felt the story really needed one. She resisted the urge to scream out his title again, and confirm his identity. Seemed a bit superfluous really. It was obvious to everyone watching that the Ghost was on stage.

Her scream called to action. Marco was hurling himself towards the stage, and the gathered police were gathering their weapons. The Opera Ghost looked around for an escape, and grabbed hold of Rose, before throwing them both in an open stage door, and disappeared.

Cassie watched as Marco helplessly banged the locked door as his love was lost. She steepled her fingers. Alright. Here goes. She ran up to the defeated man.

“Marco,” she said, holding out a hand for his. “Come with me. Hurry, there is still time.”

He frowned at her. “You are her friend, are you not?”

“Yes. I am Cassie. I do not know where she is now, but I can help you find her. But you have to come with me.”

The story was at its peak. That meant there would be a way. Rose had disappeared without a trace before, and that was from her own dressing room. There was only one conclusion to be drawn: there had to be a secret entrance there. Cassie hurried up the stairs, with Marco in tow. His face was drawn and focused. He was playing the part of the dashing hero quite well, she must admit.

Rose’s dressing room was filled with flowers. Clearly, many gifts had already been delivered. Amongst them, lying on its own on a velvet pillow, was a single red rose tied with a black silk ribbon. Cassie ignored everything, instead focusing on the large mirror. It was set in the wall, covered most of it in fact, and was surrounded by a gaudy goldleaf frame. Cassie searched around it to find what she just assumed would have to be there. Eventually her fingers snagged on a little lever, and as it was flicked, the mirrored glass swung inward on hinges. The sounds of the Ghost and Rose, singing to each other, floated up through the dusty corridor on the other side.

“Folllow this,” she said to Marco. “It will take you to her. The police will come after you, but she needs you there first. No time to argue! Go!”

He nodded hastily, and dashed off.

“And keep your hand at the level of your eyes!” she shouted after him, sighing. “Alright.”

She nodded once herself, and turned on pointe to hurry back downstairs. The police were there, and people were in an uproar now. They had seen the Ghost unmasked. They knew he was just a man. So they were already forming a nice little angry mob, and they looked like they meant business. Despite all the trouble, the story didn’t call for a Ghost that had been ripped in pieces. Cassie organised the whole thing a little more, murmuring suggestions to the police, and let them focus on breaking the door down to follow the kidnapper the way he had disappeared.

Seemed like it would take a minute. Cassie took the opportunity to change out of her tutu. She’d spent way too much time wearing it as it was. She plaited her hair down her back. With the way things were going, she would be able to blend in with the mob and be there to witness the finale.

She rejoined them half an hour later, just as the door sprung open. They flowed down through hidden corridors and forgotten areas behind the walls. Everything was lit up by flickering torches, banishing Ghosts and spirits from everyone’s minds. Yes, the man was dangerous, he had already proven that. But he was nothing more than a man, and as a man, he would die.

They headed steadily downwards, through places Cassie had never thought possible. Deep, dark caverns, a vast underground lake, only sparsely lit by dripping candles. Sound travelled easily cross the surface of the lake, though. Cassie ony had to close her eyes and focus, and she was able to hear the conversation between Rose, the Ghost and Marco.

...don’t throw your life away for my sake...

...you try my patience, make your choice...

...pitiful creature of darkness...

She felt the story surge. There was a heartbeat to it, an unbearable point of sweetness, and a moment of pure silence.

It was ending. She was approaching the moment. Had she done all she could?

Cassie reached the lair first. It was over by then. The lovers had left it together, and the Ghost was nowhere do be seen. All she saw were forgotten trinkets, a large organ, and smashed mirrors. On a dusty throne lay the cape of the Phantom, still warm from his skin. On top of it was a mask.

She stood there for a moment or two. Then she reached out and raised the mask.

“It’s over,” she whispered.

She felt it end. There was a tremble in the air, a final note fading. Cassie exhaled. She should go and find Rose. Make sure she was okay. Would she still be engaged after this? Who knew. Would she remember enough to be confused? What would happen to the opera house? There were a hundred questions, but as the story ended, Cassie knew less and less. There had been a comfort in following a script. Now there was only uncertainty, and grief.

She took out the note from Ben. Wait for curtain call. Wait..?

There were steps behind her.

“Here’s the difference between dying on stage and dying in real life,” said Ben casually. “I get to take a bow at curtain call.”

Cassie turned. He was exactly himself, except for once he didn’t have one of his countless injuries. He looked relaxed, dressed casually in modern jeans, and she threw her arms around him. He hugged her back.

“What, you’re just alive again?” she laughed. “How is this possible?”

“I told you,” he grinned. “I know I’m playing a part. Even if I die, I bow at the end. Just to show everyone it was a play. But you have done amazingly well, little dove! I’m impressed.”

Cassie blushed happily, not even caring that she was still keeping her arms around him. He really was alive! Warm and alive! And he was holding her too, like it was the most normal thing in the world.

“I wasn’t sure what the message meant,” she admitted. “But I was hoping...”

“You don’t get rid of me that easy. Plus, you did fine on your own. Especially considering your first time...” He paused, eying her curiously. “Have you ever considered a career change?”

Cassie laughed again. It felt wonderful to do so.

“Not until now. It was nice to know the story.”

“Not only did you know it, you saved a man’s life.”

She shrugged. “But Henry would have come back to life.”

“Not characters like that. Die in the play, you die in real life. Unless you know you’re a character.”

Cassie let out a little gasp. “You never told me that!”

“The stakes are always very high in the Usual Ten. Still, we need a Colombina like you.”

“Will it be dangerous?”

“Oh yes. Sometimes. But you’ll experience personal growth, probably learn important lessons here and there. Just keep being clever.”

Cassie smiled. “Alright then, maestro. Lead on.”

 

Fin.