• The Opera Lively Serial Novel Project - Chapter 14

    Chapter 14

    Schiudendo forte,
    mi salse al viso un gelido soffio,
    quasi di morte.

    An icy chill, like an omen of death. Brushing the premonition aside, she opened the box and peered at its contents.

    From his usual spot stage right, Risi watched Francesca in the final act of Adriana Lecouvreur, playing the role created by her great-great-great grandmother, the famous actress Rachel. The role the killer would try to make her last.

    After much argument, Green had finally convinced him to set the trap. The theater management, and Francesca, had grudgingly agreed to go ahead with the plan. When word got out, the media was outraged, appalled that with all the recent murders, the performance was still going on.

    But the criticism hadn't stopped people from buying tickets in droves; the theater was packed. Had they come to see an opera—or to witness a murder before their very eyes?

    Ah! I fiore offerti in un ora d’oblio...
    Oh, crudeltà...
    L’avesse negletto, calpestato...
    Ma rimandarlo!

    The crowd was silent as the diva held up the faded flowers, a token returned by her faithless lover. The poisoned violets that would be Adriana's doom—would they be Francesca's as well?

    Risi peered across to stage left, where Green and Lindstrom watched. The past few days, he had been getting strange looks from those two—ever since the murdered tenor Philippe Duchamp had appeared on Lindstrom's doorstep. The two detectives remained vague about why Green had been there in the first place, or if the victim had said anything before he died. Since then, Risi had several times observed his partners whispering together, then ceasing abruptly when he approached. It was strange, but there was no time to worry about that now.

    Green at least was trying to make up for the Tosca debacle. He had studied the Adriana libretto carefully and taken pride in devising the most elaborate precautions. The property flowers had been specially made by only the most trusted technical staff, from factory-sealed materials, under careful supervision. The wooden box they would rest in was built from scratch to similar exacting standards. The finished items were stored in a lockbox, which was placed inside an even larger metal case, which in turn went into a safe, which was wrapped up in chains and guarded by armed police officers nonstop until the very moment they were delivered onstage. Green had smugly proclaimed that the man would have to be a Houdini to get at them.

    "I'll stake my career on it . . . he won't come anywhere near those flowers!"

    There was no denying it: Green was thorough. Nonetheless, Risi had a surprise for him.

    Aggiungere al disdegno l’oltraggio!
    E troppo! è Troppo!...

    Now Francesca moved stage left as she mourned, overwhelmed by her lover's rejection. The only other character onstage, the old stage manager who secretly loved her, went to comfort the distraught woman. The flowers were momentarily left unattended on the table, but were still in plain sight.

    Risi kept careful watch, but felt confident. The stage had been searched thoroughly at each intermission. The table on which the violets lay was uncovered, so that no one could hide underneath. There was no way anyone could approach the flowers without being blatantly visible to the police and the entire audience.

    E sia!
    Ma perchè mai discendere a tanta scortesia?

    As Risi watched the scene go on, his mind wandered to what had been learned from Linda Freeman's severed head. Along with copious amounts of her own blood, there was a second person's as well. DNA analysis showed it to be almost identical to the blood on the hair pin left behind at the kidnapping—a close family relation. Reconstructing what might have happened, Risi speculated that Linda had killed Marius Walewski, and his enraged son John had killed her in turn.

    The method of Linda's death was also troubling. The head had been severed, like in Anna Bolena, but she didn't die on stage. And the autopsy revealed that blood had stopped flowing to the brain several hours before the head was removed. Perhaps John had killed her on impulse, and only afterwards made this clumsy, theatrical attempt to follow the original plan—a belated decision to carry on his father's legacy. That's why Risi was sure John would make a move on Francesca tonight.

    Now the diva was back at the table. She picked up the violets lovingly, and the crowd was hushed as she began the famous aria.

    Poveri fiori,
    gemme de’ prati,
    pur ieri nati,
    oggi morenti,
    quai giuramenti
    d’infido cor!

    She lamented that the poor flowers, jewels of the meadow born only yesterday, must die just like the vows of a faithless heart. Risi felt a tear come to his eye, both because of her artistry, and because he couldn't help but recall their past, the vows she had broken with her own wayward desires.

    L’ultimo bacio,
    o il bacio primo,
    ecco v’imprimo,
    soave e forte,
    bacio di morte,
    bacio d’amor.
    Tutto è finito!

    "The last kiss, or the first, I press here . . . gentle and strong . . . kiss of death, kiss of love . . . all is finished . . ."

    Like the consummate performer she was, Francesca forgot all fear and brought the flowers to her lips . . .

    Risi watched intently. But nothing unusual happened. Francesca's distress was entirely in character as she threw the blossoms into the fireplace. The detective breathed a sigh of relief as the scene went on.

    The faithless lover, a portly tenor, arrived. Ecstatic reunion; then doubts, recriminations, excuses, pleas, reconciliation. A proposal of marriage; a gentle rejection. Love transfigured to a more rarified level.

    Watching the scene, Risi almost felt regret. Yes, they had protected Francesca. But by making the killer's task impossible, they had dissuaded him from the attempt and lost their best chance of catching him.

    As the lovers kissed, the diva faltered on cue, convincingly displaying the effects of poison. Adriana cursed her fate, went briefly delirious, then regained clarity and fell into her lover's arms.

    Then, as she proclaimed the bright light of love that led her to a better place, Francesca suddenly stopped singing, emitting only a gasping croak. She reeled, then toppled over, well before the blocking required.

    The crowd let out a murmur. The music trailed off to silence. Risi, unable to believe his eyes, rushed toward her, with Green and Lindtrom approaching from the other side. Soon a small group surrounded her, blocking the view of the distressed audience.

    "Francesca!" Risi said. "Are you all right?"

    "Yes," she murmured. "I was just . . . dizzy . . . for a moment. But I'm better now."

    As the stagehands continued to mill about her, an angry Green drew Risi aside.

    "What the hell just happened?"

    "She was poisoned. But she'll be all right."

    "How do you know?"

    Risi smiled.

    "Because there's a powerful anti-toxin in her lipstick. I had the head of the crime lab mix it up for her."

    "What? Why the hell didn't you tell me about this? And how did you know she'd need it?" Green was giving him that look again.

    "I didn't. But I wasn't about to take any chances. Besides, it's better this way. Now we can put out word that she died, keep her in seclusion, let the killer think he succeeded. The only question is . . . how did he come so close?"

    Lost in thought, Risi turned away and walked over to the table. He examined the smooth surface and the wooden box resting on it, but all seemed as it should be.

    Then, looking more closely, he noticed a small droplet on the table top, underneath where the violets had lain. Risi was sure it was poison. But how did it get there? It was impossible—no one had come anywhere near the flowers.

    Then it hit him. Of course. It was so simple, so easy. Yes, it probably required sneaking into the empty theater late at night to practice. But aside from that, all that would be needed were a highly concentrated clear liquid poison, a pair of binoculars or a rifle scope . . . and a cheap, dime-store eye dropper.

    Slowly, apprehensively, Risi looked straight up.

    At first it was hard to make out anything past the blinding overhead stage lights. He had to raise his hand to shield his eyes. Once they had adjusted, though, he was able to see, high above and meeting his gaze, a man in a mask with a shock of white hair. Through the darkness and distance, the detective could just make out John Walewski grinning at him.

    Risi gasped. Then he turned and ran toward the others, gesticulating wildly.

    "He's up there! On the catwalk!"

    Lindstrom watched his fevered approach, then cried out to Green in alarm.

    "Now, Joe, now!"

    Before Risi could figure out what happened, Green sprang toward him. Like his football-playing namesake, the burly detective speared and tackled the smaller man. Risi ended up face down on the stage floor, with Green kneeing his back and pulling his arms behind him.

    "Oh no you don't!" Green cried. "You're under arrest for the murder of Philippe Duchamp," he continued as he put on the cuffs. "And as an accomplice in the other crimes as well."

    "What? Are you crazy?"

    "Thought you had us fooled, didn't you? But Duchamp gave you away. Just before he died, he said that you're not who you say you are."

    Risi groaned in exasperation.

    "Listen . . . I do have a secret, OK? Something I haven't told you about myself. But it's not what you think! And while we're sorting all this out, the killer is getting away!"

    Just then a voice cried out from high above.

    "No! Please! I did what the master wanted!"

    Everyone looked up. There was the sound of a harsh clattering, like a struggle on the metal catwalk. Then a harrowing scream.

    Almost too fast for the eye to see, a body plunged straight down to the stage floor. It landed with a sickening splat, then bounced a few inches before settling into an ominous stillness. The man lay on his back, flattened against the floor in a way that only shattered bones and ruptured internal organs can produce. In the already spreading pool of blood, it was hard to make out his features. But one thing was immediately clear.

    It wasn't John Walewski.
    This article was originally published in forum thread: The Opera Lively Serial Novel Project started by Amfortas View original post

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