The Dancers of Phantom – Part 02
Even on a winter morning, the streets of Saubreme were busy and full of life.
A traffic officer was standing in the middle of a huge intersection, blowing his whistle as he directed shiny cars and carriages through. Shoppers filled the cobblestone pavements. Fancy shops with their gleaming display windows were already open, showing the public the latest in European fashion, from clothes to hats to shoes.
The large steel carriage carrying Victorique and Inspector Blois drove past the intersection and down the wide street for a while, before coming to a slow stop in front of a building.
Avoiding the dove, Inspector Blois kept his head away from his little sister and quickly jumped out. Then reluctantly, he reached for the suitcase. It flailed inside the carriage for a while, resisting his pull.
Victorique was sitting silently, hanging her head. Then she lifted her face, stood up firmly, and disembarked from the carriage.
An old theater built of stone stood before them, its front wall adorned with the sculpted head of a lion, huge as a sphinx. Its wide-open mouth served as the entrance to the establishment. Surrounding it were wax figures of half-naked women dancing and singing merrily. They looked like ghosts of maidens permanently frozen in time. Their wide-open eyes were looking down the street.
Victorique stared at the building in silence for quite some time. There was no expression, no emotion, in her green eyes.
“So this is the Phantom Theater,” she muttered in a voice that was a mix of sorrow and rage.
Reporters, brandishing their state-of-the-art cameras like weapons, dashed toward the lion’s mouth, pushing Victorique aside. Victorique, Inspector Blois, the dove on Victorique’s head, and even the suitcase on the ground all looked at the door, wondering what was going on.
Next to a large sign for the play “The Blue Rose of Saubreme” stood two lovely young women in stunning blue dresses, posing for the cameras. The lead actresses, it seemed. Victorique blinked at the flashing lights.
They looked so much alike, with small, round faces. Both had bright blond hair and blue eyes.
The woman on the left was wearing a dress with puffy square sleeves, delicate laces concealing her neck, and a cameo brooch. Her hair was tied up in a high bun and adorned with pearl beads, a style that was popular a while back. It was the same hairdo that Queen Coco often wore in her public photos.
The woman on the right, in contrast, let her blonde hair hang naturally down to her shoulders. Her blue organdy dress was more modern, cut generously at the chest, and her ivory skin glistened in the winter morning sun.
The women were happily answering the reporters’ questions. Inspector Blois folded his arms and listened, nodding to himself. He was gradually leaning forward, eventually joining the reporters in asking questions.
“What are your aspirations?” he asked. “You must be very nervous to be selected for the role of Queen Coco.”
The actresses smiled. “Well, yes,” one said.
“But my parents and siblings in the countryside are happy,” the other added.
“Who are you?!” a reporter snarled.
“Who do you work for? You don’t even have a press badge. Hey, stop pushing me!”
“How come there are two lead actors?” Inspector Blois asked eagerly.
“I play the older, quiet Coco, while she plays the wilder one. So we’re two people playing the same character.”
“A novel direction. Good luck with that. Hey, don’t push. I’m talking to the ladies.”
“And who are you supposed to be? Which publisher are you working for?”
“Does it matter? I’m a nobleman.”
They jostled each other for a while, until eventually the reporters’ robust buttocks pushed the inspector out of the crowd.
“Damn it,” Inspector Blois hissed. “Do they not know who I am? Ah, my hair is ruined. Let’s go, Victorique. Huh? Victorique?” He looked around, fixing his messy drill with both hands.
Shoppers, children, and businessmen with briefcases and walking sticks walked along the paved streets. A noisy crowd had gathered outside the theater.
The most powerful brain in Europe, the legendary Gray Wolf, the girl imprisoned in St. Marguerite Academy, Sauville’s secret armory, Victorique de Blois, who should never have been allowed to walk the streets of Saubreme, was nowhere to be found.
“D-Did she get away?”
Inspector Blois brought his hands to his mouth, standing still with bent legs. Then he staggered back and plopped down on the suitcase.
The suitcase moved, as though appalled that he would sit on it. The inspector bolted to his feet, then looked to the right, to the left, up, and down.
He cradled his head in his hands. His pointy drill glistened under the winter sun.
Pedestrians eyed him curiously as they passed by.
Meanwhile, Victorique was inside the Phantom Theater.
Like a ghost, she had managed to slip past the stern doorman at the entrance, perhaps because Victorique was too small, or he was distracted by the commotion caused by the actresses and journalists.
The play had not yet started, so the inside of the theater was dim and dusty, as though resting its weary body for tonight. The air was stale, and time seemed to pass slowly.
The spacious floor was covered with a glamorous, but worn-out, red velvet carpet. Upon closer look, it was frayed and a little dirty.
Victorique walked silently down the narrow corridor on the left. The dove perched on her head cooed.
Though it was not the best theater in Saubreme, it had a long history dating back to the last century. Both sides of the narrow corridors were filled with portraits of actresses and dancers from past generations. Pale lanterns dangling from the ceiling illuminated their faces.
The portraits closer the entrance were more recent, the women sharing the same hairstyles and makeup as the women outside. The deeper she went on, the more old-fashioned the ladies, with their vintage hairdos, lipsticks, costumes.
Victorique’s small face stirred ever so softly with uneasiness and hope.
She looked up at one of the photos. The woman’s name was scribbled on it, together with the year it was taken, 1920.
Victorique’s steps hastened. She started running down the narrow, dim corridor. Startled, the dove on her head flapped its wings.
1915, 1913, 1910, 1909.
Finally, she stopped in front of a portrait.
Her trembling arm cautiously reached for the photo, for the past.
The old portrait displayed in front of her was taken nearly sixteen years ago. The woman’s hair was tied in an older style, and an exotic ornament adorned her round forehead. She had almond eyes, quiet and melancholic at the same time, like those of a prehistoric creature. Glossy, cherry lips. Thick lipstick and eyeshadow, like a poor disguise to blend in the nightlife.
It was the same woman in the old photo inside the gold coin pendant that fell deep into the ravine outside the Village of the Gray Wolves.
Victorique couldn’t possibly mistake that small face.
An unfamiliar older woman’s voice came from nearby, reverberating down the corridor with both shock and fear.
A woman who looked like an ancient ghost was standing there. She had a large build, with a few streaks of gray in her once-magnificent brown hair. She was wearing heavy make-up and an antiquated dress, like she had found it in her great-grandmother’s cabinet in the attic. An extravagant tiara sat on her head.
Either she was a ghost of old, or a crazed lady who escaped from confinement.
The woman wrinkled up her freckled nose. “Ah, Cordelia!” she cried. “It’s really you!”
“You know Cordelia Gallo?”
Victorique’s voice held a note of both caution and a peculiar tenderness. Fear mixed in with familiarity.
Trembling, the woman stepped closer. “I can’t believe it! It’s been sixteen years, but you haven’t aged a bit. No, you look younger, even. Are you a ghost? So you did die that night. After you met up with the red-haired boy, you disappeared without returning to your lodging house. Now you’re a ghost wandering the theater. Ah, Cordelia.”
“Who are you?”
“Don’t you remember? It’s me, Ginger Pie. You were my closest friend. We were always together, like sisters. Oh, Cordelia. Look what you’ve become.” The strange lady, on the verge of tears, pinched Victorique’s cheek. “Huh?” She froze. Doubtful, she pulled and twisted again and again.
“You’re warm and soft for a ghost. What happened to you? You’re as soft as a child, and you smell as sweet as milk. So you’re not Cordelia? She always smelled of cigar and wine. The scent of the nightlife. But not you.”
“Sorry to disappoint you, Ginger Pie, but my name is Victorique.”
Pulling Victorique’s cheek curiously, Ginger Pie compared her face to the portrait hanging on the wall.
Displayed in the year 1908, it bore the face of Cordelia Gallo, a star dancer during her time. Her lips seemed to curve into a bigger smile, as though secretly happy to be reunited with her old friend and her beloved pup.
Ginger Pie was silent, baffled.
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