Stuart M. Kaminsky

Poor Butterfly

Music is by nature remote from the tangible and visible things of life. I am hoping to intensify its mystery and eloquence and beauty.

— Leopold Stokowski


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. Romeo 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.”

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