Author’s note: This was written to be read with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring playing in the background.
High. Haunted. Hollow.
Something about that opening string of notes sent shivers up Robert’s spine, and chills right back down. It shouldn’t – he was the one playing them, and had been since he first dug up the sheet music in his college days some 40 years ago. As a lead bassoonist in Sacramento, he had the honor of opening the premiere ballet company’s production of the Rite of Spring.
It wasn’t any unexpected dissonance or wrong notes that bothered him. This group surrounding him in the pit below the rehearsal stage were all professionals, and at least as good as himself. No, it was something else. Somehow too… perfect. He didn’t think that possible until now. The choreographer and directors of the show had been as faithful to the original as possible, making every effort to recreate the 1913 version, right down to the real cat bones used in the ritual on stage. Then why did the perfection bother him?
From his spot below the stage, he could see the closed curtain move, as if of its own accord, teased by the light-footed dancers just on the other side. The bass clarinet picked up the melody just in time for Robert to see the heavy green velvet silently slide open, revealing the handful of ballet dancers in a practice circle upstage.
“Wait – stop – cut. Enough!” The angry director stood from his place as the only audience member as the conductor in front of Robert waved his hands to silence the obedient orchestra. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? We open in four days. Count ‘em – four!”
Robert could hear the people scurrying back and forth across the stage now, rushed to fix whatever it was that the director had spotted wrong on stage.
“And why is there an amber light on there?” the director demanded, stomping on stage and into the wings.
In the pit, Robert waited silently with the rest of the orchestra, the calm center in the growing storm of swirling energy and anger. It wasn’t long before rattling could be heard above them, in the catwalks that tucked away the lights above the audience. Putting his reed in his mouth to keep it moist, Robert glanced up. The director was up there a while, no doubt taking his sudden fury out on the lighting equipment.
“If you won’t turn the amber off, then I will!” came the manic shout from above.
Mortified, but secretly curious, Robert kept his eyes upward.
Suddenly a six-foot sack of black clothing dropped from the catwalk, bouncing almost immediately, long before it would hit the ground. It wasn’t until Robert understood the quiet above that he knew what the object was, too. He nearly choked on his reed. The director. He – it – stopped bouncing after a second, instead morphing that momentum into a slow spinning.
The facts truly sank to Robert’s core when a scream from on stage alerted the rest of the ballet company to what Robert had witnessed. Chaos was soon to follow.
Robert, and the rest of the orchestra, looked to the conductor, who had paled visibly in the dim glow reflected from his music. “You’re dismissed,” he told them, punctuating the mounting terror with a slam of his music and a shallow swallow.
Robert needed no further encouragement than that – he stood up, scooping his seat strap and following the bass clarinetist up the stairs. Even as the crowd headed for the door, he glanced back up at the gradually stilling body of the director above them.
The dark form was illuminated brightly on one side by an amber light, blocking any from reaching the stage.
Glass of scotch in hand, FBI agent Jolene Serra’s eyes flicked between her gun and badge. The alcohol was a toast to her partner, Nicolai, who had been with her since Quantico. Attending his funeral had always been in the realm of possibility, but shot by a young gangster because he refused to shoot first? It was so inexplicably reckless. Whoever said karma was a thing must have lived in a deep, dark hole. Nicolai didn’t earn this. Definitely didn’t have it coming, not in a way the universe’s justice could make any sense of it.
Jolene would be lying if she said she didn’t think about joining him every day since. She had decidedly thrown herself into her work, voraciously solving that string of crimes herself. But that was over. Bad guys in cuffs and her partner in the ground.
She didn’t know what the word meant anymore.
A badge and a gun. She needed to be working, to be putting bad guys away, or she’d end up choosing between the objects in front of her soon enough.
Her phone buzzed from her hip, startling Jolene out of her dark thoughts. It was her work phone. Of course, it wasn’t like her personal line ever rang. She switched her glass to her left hand, answering the call with her right.
“Hey Jolene, it’s Ollie.” The enthusiastic new agent was smart – really smart – and the last person Jolene wanted to talk to in that moment. Useful during trivia night, but on the day of her partner’s funeral? What was he thinking? “Tim said you like the weird ones, right? You’re going to love this one, then.” A case?
Any joy that fluttered in her at the prospect of distracting herself immediately sank again. “I don’t have a partner, Ollie.” Company policy forbade her from field work alone.
“Well, you’re in luck, ‘cause guess what? Boss said I could be your partner on this one!”
Jolene swallowed her groan before it could escape across the phone lines. “Great.”
“I know, right? I’ve already booked your flight from Houston to Sacramento.” She hadn’t been to California in ages. “I’ll meet you at the airport. We leave at two.”
It took every effort to keep the sarcasm out of her voice. “See you tomorrow, then.” She thumbed the red button on her phone before she had to keep up that façade any longer. Not a minute later, the phone chimed, this time letting her know that Ollie had sent the info they’d gathered so far.
At least she had a case.
“So? Where we starting? Crime scene? Examine the body? Make a timeline? I already started there. Best I can, anyway. There’s…”
Jolene immediately regretted agreeing to fly with Ollie. “First, I’m going to sit down. Is that okay?”
“Right.” He was invested in his notes, though Jolene could tell she had hurt his fragile ego. “How about why we got called in,” she asked, hoping it came across as the peace offering she intended. It wasn’t his fault her partner had died, and she needed to get back on the horse at some point.
“The dead guy?”
“All of them.”
Huh? “All? As in more than two?”
“He was the fourth. Of this show alone.”
“Which show is it?” she asked, more curious than expecting it to be relevant to the case.
“Rite of Spring.”
She knew very little about the show. But it didn’t matter. “How’d they die?” If they were all connected by that role of “director,” there must be motive, and therefore someone committing the murders.
“Really?” That didn’t make sense.
Ollie nodded. “That’s why they called us in.”
Maybe the murders were posed to look that way? “How exactly?”
“Stepped into traffic, dove head-first into a woodchipper.” He held up a sheet of paper for her to examine. “This guy bashed his head into a window until it broke, then dragged his arms across the shards still standing.”
“No way.” “Dozen witnesses disagree with you. One described the skin on his arms as – quote – spaghetti noodles.”
Those three, if in that order, were escalating in violence. Jolene wasn’t sure what that meant, only that it was likely of interest. “You said four?”
“Yup. This guy hung himself with lighting cables from the rafters of the theater.”
Jolene put a fist under her chin, thinking as she spoke. “Seems a step backward, violence-wise.”
Ollie seemed to ponder his paperwork before responding. “I guess so. More witnesses, though. Happened during rehearsal.”
“I’m sorry, these are closed rehearsals. Show opens tomorrow – you can come back then.” The woman that addressed them looked a little too old and well-built to be a part of a ballet, at least to Jolene.
“You don’t understand, she responded, hoping to examine the cast and crew before they knew everyone in that building was a suspect, and she and Ollie FBI. “Ollie here wants to be a ballerina.”
“It’s ballerino,” Ollie corrected her swiftly before turning and smiling. “We’re here on official business, I’m afraid.” He flicked open his badge.
There went that idea. Working with anyone besides Nicolai would take some getting used to. Jolene sighed, matching Ollie’s movement. “You had your director die not two days ago, and you’re still rehearsing?” Jolene asked, putting their inquisitor on the defensive.
“He was dedicated to putting this production together. It’s what he would have wanted.” Her tone struck Jolene as bold, though she had a noticeable redness and circles under and around her eyes. It was hard to tell without knowing her if it was sleep deprivation or crying that had put them there.
“Has he been replaced, then?” Ollie asked professionally. It was a good question, and would give them a new target to protect from the killer, if there was in fact one at all.
“This late in the game? We decided not to.”
“We?” Jolene asked.
“I’m here representing the university.” She was well-dressed, in a pant suit and heels that suited her stature. “History of fine arts professor out there.”
“You seem a little young to be a professor,” Ollie commented. Was he flirting?
“You’re kind.” She nodded at him before gesturing to Jolene and leading them into the building. “They brought me on to make sure this production is as accurate to the original as possible.” Music could be heard from inside the theater itself as they passed into the lobby area.
“Minus the riots, of course,” Ollie commented offhandedly. Jolene decided she would ask him later what exactly he meant by that.
The professor seemed to see him with new eyes, this time accompanied by a smile. “Someone knows his history.”
“I know my crime,” Ollie smiled back.
“I don’t recall a criminal investigation.”
Jolene let them talk, as if in their own language, aware having an inside person as an ally would help their investigation, but equally sure that Jolene herself had nothing to contribute.
“Wouldn’t be an investigation if it were supernatural,” Ollie countered.
That was going too far. “Ollie,” Jolene cautioned, knowing his inclination for conspiracy theories. They didn’t need to make their way into the field like this, not to someone they’d just met.
The professor ignored her, however, seemingly happy to debate semantics with Ollie. “That’s an intriguing theory. There’s no evidence, however.”
“Way I figure it, most spells cast are personal. One on one. To enchant a crowd to riot like that, especially the avant-garde at that time, you’d need a crowd to cast it, right?”
Jolene wanted to interrupt – to intercept him before he made a fool of himself – but the professor was too quick to respond.
“Makes sense.” No. No, it didn’t. “A ballet would be an interesting format for a spell. Music being the language of the divine and all.”
“Angels, anyway,” Ollie corrected gently. “Biblically speaking, angels sing. As I recall, demons don’t. Demons… whisper.”
“Witches chant. Especially when casting a spell.” The professor was obviously enjoying this banter.
“That’s true. But now you’re leaping 1600 years in the future. At least.”
“Sorry to interrupt,” Jolene finally cut in, “but we have an investigation.” She said the words to Ollie as much as their host.
“Of course.” The professor pivoted from where they’d stopped in the lobby and tugged on the door to the theater. “Like I said earlier, we made every effort possible making this show as true to the original.” She was talking to Ollie again, assuming – correctly – that he’d appreciate that effort more than Jolene.
The muted music exploded in volume as they passed into the darkened hall. If it could be called music at all. It was more like chaotic orchestral sounds.
Then it shifted, violence finding a rhythm, driving the dancers from their places to a circle in the center of the stage. What little Jolene knew about ballet was shattered by the sight before her. No lithe, graceful ballerinas. No tutus. Instead, they wore long, brown tunics boasting feathers, beads, and bones. It was all very… prehistoric.
“Come on guys!” Came a shout from the only visible audience member. “Did you never learn how to count? Do you want to go back to kindergarten? Or do they have to dangle me by my coat tails to I can shout the numbers at you?”
“That’s Manfred, our choreographer. Brought him in from Arizona just for this.” The professor was clearly favoring Ollie, sitting next to him and in the row behind Jolene’s chosen seat as she explained. “There’s the Sacramento Symphony conductor down there. Many of the musicians are his players.”
“What about funding?” Jolene asked turning in her seat to face them. With all the tragedy throughout rehearsals, it was obvious someone was insistent on moving this production forward.
“Most of the board stopped attending after number two kicked the bucket.” That was a cold way to refer to a deceased director. “Just me now.” That narrowed the suspect pool, anyway.
Ollie must have been thinking similarly. “Do you suspect anyone as being involved?” Well come right out and ask, why not?
The professor eyed him strangely. “You must be misinformed. They were suicides.”
“Probably,” Jolene spoke up, not wanting to share their entire investigation with this person they’d just met. “But you have to admit there’s a trend, and one that should be looked into. That’s why we’re here.”
“Regardless,” Ollie tag-teamed off of her, “you should shut down production until we get this thing solved.”
“Not a chance.” The professor’s answer was as immediate as it was adamant.
“No – we open tomorrow.”
“I’m afraid we’re going to have to insist,” Jolene backed Ollie’s play, reminding the professor who they were without the need to flash their badges again.
The woman visibly swallowed her bitterness before answering. “Well, we can’t interrupt now.” She gestured to the stage without seeming to see it. “You may be the only audience we get. Might as well enjoy the show.”
Jolene took the opportunity to study the cast of characters – on stage and off – but quickly became absorbed in the performance. The movements of the dancers – lithe and smooth one moment, yet combative and savage the next – it was entrancing. The odd, arrhythmic yet beautiful music synchronized with the visuals exactly, so that if someone had told Jolene the melodies in fact flowed from their fingertips, she’d be half inclined to believe them.
Words snapped her out of her reverie. “What about tomorrow?” the professor whispered quietly, presumably to Ollie.
“What about it?” he whispered back.
“You’re not really going to make us cancel, are you? You just said that for her sake.” Suddenly Jolene realized she wasn’t meant to hear her. So she kept her eyes forward, though it was hard not to eavesdrop now.
“I’m sorry, but until we’re convinced there are no further threats to the performers –”
“What if you solved it by then?” the professor insisted. “Would you let the doors stay open then?”
Jolene could hear Ollie’s easy smile without looking. “Look, I’m good, but I’ve never solved a case in a day.”
“There’s always a first time.” Pushy, wasn’t she?
“I suppose there’s be no reason to cancel if the case were closed,” Ollie admitted.
Jolene could hear the seats behind her ease as the woman suddenly relaxed. “I have faith in you.”
“Is there something you want to share with us?” Jolene asked, turning around to face the professor.
Every amicable bone in the woman’s body went cold at her question. “No.” She didn’t speak again in Jolene’s presence until the intermission break.
Something was off about the rest of the show Jolene watched, though she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. It wasn’t that it was poorly done – rather it absorbed her – but if she had fur, Jolene would have told that it had been rubbed the wrong way. At first it was emotional irritation, originally attributed to the professor, but as the scenes stretched on, Jolene became emotional, fidgety, then downright itchy by the time the house lights finally came on. She stood and stretched immediately, hoping to placate her muscles by moving them more than uncramping.
“Where are you going?” Ollie asked, looking up at her without accusation. More like curiosity. He probably wanted to join her, and she’d rather not have him puppy dogging her.
“Interviews,” she reminded him. They were here on the job, not to be entertained. “You stay here and talk to any witnesses you find.” There should be plenty. “I’ll head backstage.”
“Find anything?” Jolene asked. She was sharing the back seat of the cab with her new partner, so they might as well share information, too.
“Plenty of witnesses, but no one who saw anything.” Ollie partially flipped a page in his notebook before putting it back in place. “You?”
Jolene huffed in frustration. “Costumer thinks it’s the theater ghost.”
“That makes sense.” Not this again.
She glanced sideways at him.
“The theory, not as an actual suspect,” he corrected. “Basically every theater I’ve been in has a ghost in some capacity. Most are benevolent, reminding actors of cues or feeding lines and what have you. Though I imagine the future of this theater will have decades of –”
“It’s not a ghost.”
For a moment all Jolene could hear was the tires rolling across the pavement and the cab’s engine heaving along the freeway.
“I know that.”
Again Jolene realized she’d been too hard on him. He must ramble when he got excited, which he clearly was. Now she just wanted to get him talking again. Without anything useful from the witnesses, they would have to rely on their own instincts moving forward in the investigation. “Who do you like?”
“The professor.” Well, that was obvious. The pair had clicked over their geekiness since the get-go.
“I meant as a suspect,” Jolene clarified.
Ollie looked at her strangely. “So did I.” He consulted his notes again. When he had written them, Jolene had no clue, but there they were. “She meets at least two of the magic three.” Motive, means and opportunity. The woman not only had a passion for the show as a producer, but money in the game. “Should the show fail to make a splash, she’d be out of cash. Motive. She’s been at every rehearsal, so she’d know who to target: anyone who failed to live up to the show’s reputation. Plus, she’d know everyone’s schedules. Opportunity.”
“Means?” Jolene asked.
“She strikes me as someone who’d have the know how.”
“Meaning?” Please don’t say magic. Jolene had had enough talk like that for the day.
“Drugs. Fits the victim profile. As a university professor, she probably has students she could call on for that. Psychedelics, I’d guess.”
Jolene nodded, feeling the car sway as they got off the freeway. “It’s a good theory.” Not nearly enough evidence yet to prove it, but she meant what she’d said.
“And you?” Ollie asked. “Who do you like?”
Jolene wasn’t as convinced of her answer as Ollie was his. “The choreographer. Similar motive and opportunity. But he’s new to town, and serial killers tend to be loners. Manfred is intentionally distant and demanding of the dancers, and no one seems to be comfortable around him.”
“Too bad we can’t convict on mean.”
Jolene smiled in agreement. “But many people who survived serial killers got a weird vibe from them, and I get one from him.”
Their ride slowed to a stop at the front of their hotel. They exited swiftly, Jolene stopping him once they were out by putting her hands on top of the cab. “Get some sleep,” she ordered. “Tomorrow I’ll head to the university, and you look into the choreographer’s history.” Pursuing each other’s theories minimized bias. Nicolai had taught her that.
“Sounds good.” Ollie moved to the trunk, tapping it once to open it. “Let me help you with your bags.” Annoying as he could be, Jolene had to admit he was a good kid.
Her name came across as a whisper in her own thoughts, startling her from her blank stare. Her badge and gun were in their usual place on the hotel nightstand, ice long melted and watering down the scotch in her hand.
Jolene. Listen to me.
It wasn’t real. This whole day was one psychotic, hypnotic nightmare.
Then why couldn’t she convince herself it was all in her head?
Why not just do it?
It must be the alcohol. Disgusted with herself, she dropped the glass from too high onto the nightstand. Golden liquid splashed up and spilled across the cheaply painted wood, narrowly missing her service weapon.
The gun. Free of its magazine at the moment, her now-empty hand hovered over it, begging her to obey her imagination’s demands.
“No.” Somehow she thought speaking out loud would help her gain confidence. Instead, the sound of her own voice reminded her of how weak she really was without Nicolai. “No,” she tried again. Better.
Why not? Is it because you think you’ll be missed? There’s no one left to miss you, Jolene. The reality of that persistent voice’s words struck close to home. Ollie might care? No, he was polite and sweet, but his life wouldn’t change without her in it, not really.
Lies! “That’s not true!”
Who are you trying to convince?
It was the coward’s way out. It didn’t stop the pain, just transfer it to someone else. Better to fight that herself than push that burden on someone as gentle and fragile as Ollie.
Ollie? He only cares about expired ballets and things that aren’t real. Have you ever seen him care about any person at all, Jolene?
Come to think of it, she hadn’t.
You just don’t want to remembered as a coward. Selfish, selfish Jolene.
“No.” Nicolai had died only recently, and aftershocks from that moment still sent tremors through the agency.
Nicolai was a hero, though. Suddenly the voice had moved out of her head, leaping to behind her, just out of sight. Face it, Jolene. You’re no hero. More disturbing was the fact that it wasn’t her own voice anymore, but that of her dead partner. She spun, though the place was empty.
“Stop it. Stop it, stop it!” Jolene squeezed her eyes shut and pounded her palms unsatisfactorily on the soft bed beneath her.
She needed to do something else. Anything else. The mess she made yesterday – no, it was only seconds ago – taunted her, bubbling on the waterproof wood and reflecting the cheery lamplight back at her. Eager just to move, Jolene forced herself up, aiming at the bathroom for a towel.
That’ll fix it.
“It’ll help,” Jolene retorted as she found the smallest washcloth at the top of the neatly folded pile. Bright, bleached white. It struck her as somehow false, like the material in her hand was acting.
Nicolai’s voice had followed her in there, too. Don’t try to convince me you don’t want it. I’m in your head. I’m a part of you.
The accusation made her pause as she started to return to the nightstand. Some small part had to admit that the voice was right. Not that she was ready to kill herself. But ready to die? Sure. It was part of the job: to lay down her life so that others may live. She couldn’t think of a better way to go. But not like this voice was suggesting. It was a pointless death. Useless.
Useless like you? You’re being selfish again.
The mess. Jolene practically lunged at it, pushing the liquid a small distance across the paint before the cloth absorbed it. Deftly, Jolene folded it in on itself to get a dry side at the table when an odd discoloration caught her eye.
Her hand froze mid-air managing to pinch one corner of the towel as gravity took its time unfolding the rest. Instead of the muted gray or perhaps pale amber, a bloody crimson stained the cloth in ugly, Rorschach splotches. Impossible.
Whatever you’re looking for, you’re not going to find it there.
Her eyes instinctively went to the speaker on the other side of the room, but she only found a mirror and her own reflection staring back.
Face it, Jolene. You’re alone now. Lonely Jolene. Somehow hearing the words in Nicolai’s voice made them cut all the deeper. Worse, it was true, and she knew it.
Lonely. That meant there really wasn’t anyone to mourn her. Nicolai might have once, but it was too late for that. For them. Jolene let the rest of the washcloth fall where it was, instead reaching for her gun. It had once been a comfort, and just the gesture made her hope it again.
Nicolai was right. That voice in her head was right all along. Her voice, her thoughts. Out of habit, she checked the chamber. One round there, though the magazine was still by the badge on the nightstand.
She thumbed the safety off.
A gunshot split the air, so loud that for a brief moment she thought it was her own. No, not this room. Next door.
Jolene bolted out, into the hall of the hotel. Ollie’s was the next door over. Jiggling the handle did nothing. Of course it was locked. She took a step back, ready to attempt kicking the door in, though she was sure it would be too slow to help him. Her peripheral vision caught sight of another human: a maid who was staring wide-eyed back at Jolene.
“Hey! Open this. Now.” There was no time for niceties. Jolene was suddenly aware she might look like a villain, waving her gun around the hall, badge back on the nightstand. “Please,” she amended.
Fortunately the woman hopped to obey.
“I’m coming Ollie! Just hold on.” Jolene wasn’t even sure he could hear her, but she had to do something while the older lady made her way down the hall. “Hurry,” she insisted, stepping back to watch the maid slide her master key card into the slot.
The moment the lights above the handle flicked green, Jolene burst into Ollie’s room.
Experience taught her that, had she taken a year getting into that room or teleported the instant she heard the shot, it wouldn’t have made any difference. Far too many crime scenes shut out any emotions, instead leading her eyes around the room to collect facts. Window closed. Twelfth story anyway. Door locked from the inside. Body unmoving across the bed, gun still in hand. A little extra goo made the abstract decoration on the wall look freshly painted. The whole thing was clear as day: Ollie had put his service weapon under his chin and pulled the trigger.
It was ridiculous. Absurd. But Jolene couldn’t shake the connections her mind had forged between the bits of evidence. She and Ollie had tried to stop the ballet from moving forward. She had been hearing things, and now he was dead. Anyone who stood between the show and an audience kept ending up that way.
Yet she couldn’t point out a suspect. The voices she heard were those of herself and her dead partner. She hated to even consider Ollie’s demon/spell theory before, but after last night, she was more inclined to be open-minded.
So she found herself back at the scene of the crimes – or at least some of them – the theater. It was the sole connection between the murders, at least. Jolene didn’t know how the killer was doing it, but they weren’t suicides. Couldn’t be. Ollie had been a happy man. Good, in every sense of the word. He wouldn’t have.
Jolene found an open side door and slipped in, holding the flashlight in a reverse grip as she swept the dark stage. Costumes, sets, and props all littered her sights, dormant and ghostly in the dark, as if waiting for the right puppeteer to bring them to life.
She had just about reached center stage when the world shifted around her. Stage lighting clacked on, washing her in their unnatural colors. The same instant, music burst into the room, so sudden and so loud she wouldn’t be surprised if her ears started to bleed. Or at least ring. Reflexes dropped her into a crouching position at the sudden change – there was no cover in easy reach – hand abandoning the flashlight in favor of her gun. She swept her head left and right, but she was alone.
No, not alone. Someone had to have turned everything on.
The voice – Nicolai’s voice – was audible despite the music, as if it had been whispered from just behind her ear. Just as it had last night. Only this time when she spun to face it, he was standing right there.
Breath caught in her throat as she comprehended who she was seeing. “Nicolai?” Impossible. He had died in her arms. But there he was, standing in the wings, illuminated by the weird light as it bounced off the painted stage.
Then, as she stared, he wasn’t.
No – come back! She couldn’t stand being alone, not now. Jolene swept her gun back into its place on her hip and rushed forward to where he had just been standing, unable to hear her footfalls or pounding heart over the tape playback of the orchestra.
She tried not to hear the words even as she searched for the voice. It wasn’t Nicolai. He wouldn’t say that. But it was definitely sincere.
There, halfway up the steep, tall stairs. The image of him winked out of existence just as she spotted him, flickering like an old movie, but reappearing the next moment at the top.
Alarm bells tolled in her memory as she threw herself at, then up the metal steps. This was the route the director had taken to fix the lighting moments before he died.
The moment her foot hit the top step, the world changed again, this time from that unearthly green to a bright orange and red. The steps became a catwalk, above the audience and lighting instruments, so that everything was colored from underneath, bathing her world in that hellish glow.
Someone was intentionally screwing with her head.
“Who’s there?” Jolene shouted, choking on the years of collected dust. More like decades. All still floating around, reflecting the red, like blood dripping upward around her.
Nicolai dropped into existence in front of her again. Terror battled relief in her at the sight.
Just as suddenly and inexplicably as it had begun, the music stopped, as if giving way for Nicolai’s next words. “You are,” came the answer to her nearly forgotten question. A cruel smile twisted his once-pleasant features.
No, not Nicolai. Her partner was dead. This – this thing may look like him, even sound like him, but it wasn’t. Nicolai had been her support for years, and would never have voiced those thoughts she had last night, even if it had crossed his mind in life.
“Are you ready, Jolene? Ready to take that leap of faith?” The phantasm gestured casually to the other side of the protective railing, where nothing but a 50-foot drop enticed her.
Not a chance. “What are you?” Jolene corrected her question.
“A chaos demon,” a new voice joined them from behind her. Surprise spun Jolene for her, until her eyes landed easily on the newcomer: the professor. Jolene’s path to freedom was blocked by the villain. The redness around her eyes just yesterday had deepened to black, like her veins just there had been dyed with ink.
Then she comprehended the professor’s words. Chaos demon? Was she serious? She was. It made an odd sort of sense – the unnatural movement, the evil whisperings, the compelled suicides – all chaos. Using the form of the man she trusted most.
“I wonder,” the professor continued, stepping forward. Jolene matched her, keeping distance by stepping back. “Whose form does he take for you?” Another step forward for her, back for Jolene. “Is it that sweet agent from yesterday? What’s his name?”
“Ollie,” Jolene spat back, finding comfort in her holstered gun. She unsnapped the safety latch, resting her palm against the firm grip. She wasn’t allowed to fire at the woman for being creepy, though each breath they shared convinced Jolene further that the professor was responsible for his death.
“No. Well, yes, but no. That’s not who you’re seeing.” The professor peered at Jolene, which in this light looked more like a campfire glare.
“What are you doing?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” the professor answered her question with another. “Stravinsky may have been a nut job, but he knew his stuff.”
What on earth was she talking about? Some dead composer? Where was Ollie when she needed him to interpret this useless knowledge for her? “I don’t follow,” Jolene confessed.
Step, collision. Jolene’s back landed against something soft and warm. Disturbing in this metallic environment.
“Of course you don’t.” The professor leaned in close and smiled, like a child whispering a secret. Jolene had no way to escape her now. “You’re not as smart as the other one, and definitely not as smart as me.”
An inch-thick line of black dropped from the ceiling across Jolene’s vision, landing below her chin and forcibly changing direction to yank her back. What – how?
The demon. Panicked, Jolene spun, putting her back to the rail and trying to keep both of them in her sights. The cable kept choking her, though, moving as if under its own free will. It knotted itself between her shoulder blades, then twisted around the metal rail. Before Jolene could do more than claw at her own throat, it pinned her in place, securing itself around her thighs with a latching snap. Knowing glancing down would only result in strangling her further, Jolene instead explored the tether with her hands as the professor continued.
“It’s like your friend said. A spell, darling. One that takes a hundred people and hours to cast.” The ballet? That’s what this was about? “And it must be perfect for our audience tonight.” Whatever.
Jolene’s fingers graced the cord binding her to the mad woman’s mercy. It was rubbery, grimy, and twice the thickness of her thumb. Electrical cabling of some sort, if she had to guess.
“Stravinsky – he got it so close. Even had the audience breathing as one with the cast, according to my research.” The figure of Nicolai smiled eerily again, now behind the professor’s shoulder, as his beady eyes watched Jolene fight herself from the edge of full panic. “But he was missing one simple thing.”
Jolene was barely listening, intent on collecting air and finding the knot that held the cabling in place. “And what is that?” she asked.
The professor put her hand over her shoulder, palm up, and it was promptly filled by Nicolai. An exotic knife, about the length of her forearm and curved repeatedly in a squiggle as it wound down to a deadly point. Jolene knew the moment she saw it the blade could only be meant for her.
But the professor didn’t lunge, at least not yet. Instead, she leaned close, delicately lifting Jolene’s chin with its sharpened tip. “The blood of a weeping widow.”
Jolene couldn’t help her own grin. “Good thing I never married then.”
“Oh, widow didn’t used to have such a narrow definition. It’s more what you’d call,” the professor pondered her words for a moment, “well, the opposite of a virgin. You’ve loved someone, and outlived them. Widow.”
Nicolai. They’d been together once after a particularly harrowing case, and she secretly never stopped loving him.
“That’s not true,” Jolene lied.
“Oh, I think it is,” the professor argued with silky confidence.
The knife left her chin, slicing a shallow cut as it went, flicking to point out the man over the professor’s shoulder. “Him.”
How could the woman possibly know that?
Jolene’s hands finally found the ends of the cabling, which were made of hard, flat plastic and plugged into each other. Ready to be free to fight back, she tugged on it once, twice. But it didn’t give. It was like they had been stuck together with fast-drying super glue.
Fine. Maybe she met the professor’s definition of widow, but she was far from weeping. More like ticked. She slid her hand from the latched cabling to her holster, thumbing the safety off as she pulled it.
“Enough games,” Jolene spat, barrel landing pointed at the one she saw as the bigger threat: the demon. She’d heard enough to call this a confession. Time to free herself and bring them in. “Let me go.”
“Or what?” Nicolai asked.
Wasn’t it obvious? “I’ll get out myself.” She slid her first finger from along the barrel to the trigger, ready to fire.
The demon merely winked at her, and the gun hopped to obey his command, not hers. It leapt out of her practiced grip, up a moment before clattering to the catwalk, uselessly out of reach.
Jolene nearly swore aloud. That was her last bargaining chip, and it had been swatted away more easily than a fly. She could only watch as the professor prodded it with her fashionable shoes, sending Jolene’s service weapon plummeting to the audience’s chairs below with a clatter.
“Weep for me, Agent Serra.”
“Not a chance.”
“I’ll make it quick for you, if that’s any consolation.” No, it really wasn’t.
“Didn’t we already talk about this?” the demon disguised as Nicolai asked, countering the professor’s step back with his own step forward. “You want to die. Crave it, even. At least it’ll be in the line of duty this way.” Like he had.
No. That wasn’t Nicolai! Why did she have to keep reminding herself of that? “I don’t want to die,” Jolene repeated through her teeth.
“Everybody wants to die.” His offhanded words cut her to the core. “They’re just afraid to admit it.” He stepped closer to her than he had yet come, close enough that she was forced to breath in every hot exhale he gave. “You’re not a coward, though, are you Jolene?”
“No,” she breathed. He was so near, like she’d wanted since he died.
“I’m not a coward.” Was she agreeing with a demon? His familiar square jaw flushed in that passionate scarlet light from below. Don’t cry. Jolene couldn’t escape, so she closed her eyes in a lame attempt to block him out.
Surprise shot through her like electricity as warm lips met her own. Nicolai’s lips. After that night together, they’d promised each other to keep things professional between them. But god, how she’d missed those lips. Selfishly she allowed herself to enjoy them just a moment longer.
“Don’t you want to be with me again?” Nicolai asked in a gentle whisper. “The real me, not this hologram.”
She did. Desperately, daily, she craved his presence. Jolene didn’t even open her eyes, but she could feel herself nodding in agreement to his question.
“And yet you left me to die alone.” His accusation was cold, and more distant than she had last heard him.
“You weren’t alone!” She had been right there, with him as he bled out in her arms. As helpless then as she was now.
“We all die alone.”
Like she would, mere moments from now. She’d lost two partners in the span of a month, and foolishly dove head-first into the professor’s trap at the theater. Jolene was out of options. She’d failed justice, failed Ollie. Failed Nicolai.
Lonely Jolene indeed. She deserved it.
A new, warm wetness slipped into the corner of her mouth, and for a moment she thought it was blood. No. It was salty, but not metallic.
“Thank you, Agent Serra.”
She didn’t fight the soft hand that lifted her wrist, holding her right arm aloft as the blade slid down it. She was okay with it. It’d all be over soon, and she wouldn’t have to fight it anymore. Fight herself. She’d been exhausted for weeks now in her futile attempt at pretending.
Her left arm lifted now, accepting the blade the sliced that side open too. Once the dam of tears and blood had been broken, she didn’t bother trying to stop it.
Some odd, logical part of her brain recognized she had only minutes to bleed out. The cables freed themselves without hands to unlock them, leaving Jolene to crumple to the cold, metal catwalk. One pair of feet receded down the path. When Jolene opened her eyes – that effort took more than it ever should – the demon had gone too, though she doubted he needed to use the stairs.
Dimly she became aware of music playing again. Quick, pulsing crescendos, not lasting more than a second each, synchronized with her struggling heartbeat. Blood disappeared in the light as it fell, only to reappear to hit the ground with a splat. She was dying.
The professor and her demon had abandoned her, their part in preparing the spell complete. Now all that was left was tonight’s performance, and chaos would reign in the audience. Everything would be just as the professor planned.
Jolene threw her eyes open again. She could still stop it. Not by fighting them, but by diverting their perfect performance. Adrenaline mounted, pumping through her veins and out her intricately carved arms. She didn’t have much time, but then again, she didn’t need much.
Clambering across the catwalk was difficult, but dizzy at the top of the flight of steep stairs struck her as impossible. Protect the people. Her grip slipped, slick with blood, when she was about halfway down, sending her careening feet-first almost two stories.
Both ankles snapped at once as she landed. Jolene didn’t have enough energy to scream like her body begged her to, instead awkwardly suffocating on nothing as even gasping would fail to relieve the pain that spasmed like a lake of ice cracking through her system.
Unable to shake the agony, she was losing blood, and it sapped her life force with it. If she was going to save them, she had to move now.
The prop table. It was only feet away, but it felt like a marathon. Ankles unwilling and unable to obey, Jolene had to pull herself – arms gushing in protest – to the odd assortment of knick-knacks intended for the actors.
Sheaves of wheat. Flowers – baby’s breath. Some sort of clear oil. Hair, bundled neatly in a ribbon.
Jolene’s eyes lost focus for a moment, but when they found it again, they landed on the shock of blonde hair. It wasn’t that different from her own. An insane idea floated to the surface of her mind, but insane was all she had left.
Without a knife, she was forced to chew off a chunk of her own curls, picking out a portion that was the same length and volume as the one on the prop table. Hair made her teeth into feathers in her mouth. Harder was the untying and retying of the ribbon, as her fingers refused any of their past nimbleness.
What about the piece she’d taken? Even if she could reach the trash can, there was a chance it could be recovered and the spell performed. All those unwitting victims induced to riot, or worse. The hair needed to go where the professor would never find it, but Jolene couldn’t reach past her kneecaps anymore.
Like a druggie trying to hide evidence, Jolene tossed the clump in her mouth. She inhaled a few strands into her lungs, but with a few swallows, managed to gulp the rest.
That was it. The spell was sabotaged, and the ballet would just be a ballet.
As she relaxed on the painted stage floor, pain left her body entirely. Jolene relished the sensation, knowing life would soon follow torment as they left.
She’d be seeing Nicolai – the real Nicolai – again, and soon.
The timpanist hit his last resounding note, ending opening night with a concussive, collective shudder. Conductor’s baton still in the air, Robert held his breath with the rest of the audience for that extra moment. Slowly the man’s hands came down freeing the orchestra as well as the audience of the suspense. Two claps turned into a thousand, sending the audience into a standing ovation. Robert couldn’t help his smile as he placed the butt of his bassoon onto the wooden floor of the pit. Standing as he was bidden, his head barely reached the feet of the crowd.
It was rare he gave a performance he wasn’t proud of, but this one made him beam. Every trace of tragedy that had befallen this production felt redeemed in the stellar performance. As ever, all the blood, sweat, and tears had been worth it. Gone was the unsettling feeling that had filled him with dread on his way over.
It was just another show after all.