Monday 22nd January 1923

Today, Dearest Diary, has been a nightmare pretty much from beginning to end. On some level we were triumphant but as I write this I feel far from victorious.

In the morning my companions and I met up for breakfast. Albert had obtained the morning newspaper and read us out the article about the ghostly singing in the night. Toscanini was keen to play down the incident but there was an intriguing quote from the prop-master, a Paulo Rischoti, about “the costumer’s curse” and how there had been a series of accident. Odd happening and illnesses plaguing the theatre. This looked like it bore some further investigation. There was a second article in the paper that had a vague connection to the opera as well; one Flavio Conte, a patron of the Opera, had returned to public life having recovered from what had thought to be a serious illness. At the time we did not pay it too much heed but that would soon change.

In rather guarded terms Darling Antonio and I told our friends about what we had found in our room last night. We tool them up-stairs and showed them the book and the hand. We had made one, rather half-hearted, attempt to get rid of the hand already but had been thwarted by an overly attentive night-porter. Detective M volunteered to make the hand disappear, he went off for a long walk and came back without it.

Once we were all back together we headed back to the opera house. The third time proved to be the charm and, by demanding to see Toscanini we managed to get through the backstage door. Backstage of the opera house tuned out to be a chaotic maze; a badly lit maze of bare wood, wires and ropes full of a constant stream of rushing people; some in costume and some in their street cloths. It was also very noisy, a clashing racket of singing, musical instruments being tuned-up, people’s footfalls and the sound of props and sets being dragged around. Everyone had somewhere to be and our requests to be shown to Toscanini were either rebuffed or out-right ignored. It looked like we had exactly two options; either press on blindly and hope for the best or turn around and leave. We chose the former and headed ever deeper in to the opera house. We had not gone too far when noticed that we had become separated from Detective M. With no idea where he was, or indeed where we were in this labyrinth we kept on going but it was becoming painfully clear that were just stumbling, blindly in the dark. I’ve never suffered from claustrophobia but it was all becoming too much for me; the darkness, the noise, the constant stream of people barging past us. I felt panic rise up inside me and then next thing I knew was that I was running, desperate to find some way out. I must have looked like a madwoman as I barged in to room demanding to bemused actors and stagehands (no of whom knew English of course) to be taken to the exit. Thank God that Darling Antonio had managed to keep up with me. He managed to get the pair of us out on to the stage itself. The Teatro alla Scala has the most magnificent stage, large and airy with rows of seating six tiers high. After being trapped in those dark, stuffy tunnels it was the most beautiful thing that I had ever seen.

We were not the first of our friends to find our way there; Detective M was sitting alone amongst the audience. We made our way over to him. I remember noticing that he had a damp towel wrapped around his ankle but I was too shaken up to ask what had happened. I really did not want to linger so Darling Antonio and I made our way back to the very welcome fresh air while Detective M waited to see if Father P or Albert turned up.

The pair of us found a café and waited. Now that I was outside the whole experience of being backstage seemed more and more like a bad dream. Darling Antonio was certain that the temporary madness that seemed to have gripped us had not been wholly natural, that there were occult forces at work. He pointed out to me that the family who had been unwitting owners of the Simulacrum’s arm all had injured or deformed arms so perhaps the Simulacrum’s head was backstage of the opera house and infecting people with madness. That made a sort of sense.

We had perhaps been waiting half an hour when we saw Father P and Albert. I guess that they had come out via the stage-door and then circled around the opera house to the front. The pair had had far, far more luck then we had. Eventually the pair had managed, by a clever rouse on Albert’s part, to get to see Toscanini. He knew nothing more about Caterina’s disappearance then we did but he was able to supply Caterina’s address and the name of her maid. The pair had also managed to talk him in to letting them interview Paulo Rischoti. The prop-manager told them the strange tale of the costumer’s curse. Over the last six years they had not been able to keep hold of a chief costumer for more than six months at a time before they had been forced to resign from ill house. Only the new chief costumer, Lousia Visconti, seemed to be immune to the curse. Intrigued by the tale Albert and Father P, guided by Rischoti, had gone to seen the costumer. Her workshop was up on the third floor. It was rather drafty as there was a fire exit door that was always coming open. Working with Louisa was none other than the three old ladies that we had met in the cathedral the previous day. It was in talking to Louisa and her three seamstresses that Father P and Albert had our biggest break of the day. Darling Antonio had been right about one of the parts of the Simulacum being in the opera house but it was not the head, it was the torso. For the last few years the seamstresses had been using it as a tailor’s dummy but they had never liked it and six months ago they had donated it to the props department to use in one of their “cast of thousands” crowd scenes, hence the reason why Lousia had escaped the curse.

We were just digesting this when we saw Detective M being escorted out of the theatre. Exactly what he had done to finally get himself removed I don’t know but now we were all back together we decided that finding Caterina should be our first priority.  

We headed to Caterina’s address. I was not surprised to see a small gathering of locals outside her home saying prayers for the missing singer.  Caterina’s maid, Yisabelle, proved to be most helpful. She told us about when she last saw Caterina, they had arrived on the OE punctually and when they had exited the station there had been a man waiting for them in an expensive car. The man, who she thought she recognised, had beckoned over Caterina. The pair had engaged in a brief conversation and Caterina had climbed into the car never too be seen again.  Yisabelle had described the man as being in his fifties or sixties and looking a pale, the phrase she used was as if he had recovered from an illness. Suspicions began to form in my mind which were soon born out when Darling Antonio asked Yisabelle if he could hypnotise her. Well this was new! Lock-picking and now mesmerism; I wonder what other tricks my favourite artist has up his sleeve. Yisabelle agreed and we watch with interest as he placed her in to a hypnotic trance. When she was completely in his power (how thrilling!) he took her back in her mind to the events had her give a far more detailed account of what had happened. At my prompting Darling Antonio had Yisabelle concentrate in her mind’s eye on the driver and where she thought she had seen him before. With Darling Antonio’s help Yisabelle had come up with a name and I was not surprised to find that it was Flavio Conti.

Thanking Yisabelle for her assistance we headed out to find Conti. We were able to learn that Flavio Conti was the owner a machine workshop, Conti Machine Parts, which was in the Portello, the more industrial part of Milan. We headed there so see what clues we could find. As we got closer to the workshop Albert was reminded of an article he had read in yesterday’s paper, the discovery of the body of a murdered car worker, Ennio Spinola. As it happened Conti Machine Parts was only two streets away from where the body had been found.

The workshop was closed up and seemed deserted. As we made our way over to the door. Detective M spotted a few drops of dried blood on the floor. Casting around he found some more and he and Father P headed off to follow the trail. Darling Antonio set to work picking the lock (you may remember, Dear Diary, that yesterday I mentioned that Darling Antonio had broken a lock-pick while trying to unlock a door on the OE but since then Albert had managed to find him a replacement). Inside was dark with stacks of boxes creating all sorts of hiding places. As we edged our way in in berated myself for not bring my pistol with me. Darling Antonio had had the foresight to bring his torch. A quick examination revealed a grizzly sight. In the centre of the workshop was a large white slab, like a table, on which were clear bloodstains. There seemed to be the outline of two separate people as far as we could tell. While my first impression of t eh slab had been of some kind of ritual alter I began to wonder if its purpose was rather medical? Could Flavio’s sudden return to health, from suspected tuberculosis of all things, have been purchased at the cost of the car worker’s life, some sort of Doctor Frankenstein-esc medical experiment?

Detective M and Father P had re-joined us by this point, having confirmed that the blood trail lead the street where the Spinola’s body had been found but beyond that had found nothing new.

We quickly searched the workshop for any more clues to the disappearance of Catarina. We found nothing of interest except some paperwork that had Flavio Conte’s home address so this became our next port of call.

Conte lived in one of the more affluent parts of Milan in a rather pretty, two storey building with an attached garage. While all the windows on the ground floor were closed tight the ones of the first floor were wide open. We decided to go for the direct approach and run the doorbell. The door was answered by a servant wrapped up tightly against the cold. I handed him my card and we asked to see Conte. When the servant returned we were escorted upstairs, with the exception of Detective M who had decided to hand around outside (in think to make sure Conte didn’t try to flee in his car). The house, while well decorated, was absolutely freezing. We were shown in to Flavio Conte’s office. It had a double aspect and the windows, as we had noted from the road, were wide open and letting in the cold January wind. Conte was behind a desk and, despite the cold, was wearing only a shirt. He was also sweating freely.

Albert had barely managed to say we had come to talk about Caterina’s disappearance when Conte levelled a gun, which he had been hiding behind the desk, at him and fire. Albert had just seen the gun in time and had thrown himself out of the firing line. I dashed forward in a desperate bid to disarm Conte but was a fraction too slow and he fired again before I reached the desk. I felt a searing pain in my arm and staggered; I had been hit! As I struggled with the pain I saw Conte line up for a second shot and I lunged to one side just in time. All hell had broken loose in the flat. I could hear heavy footsteps racing up the stairs, it could only have been Detective M. Albert was tussling with Conte and both Father P and Darling Antonio looked like they were trying to bloke the windows (in case Conte tried to escape that way I guess). Gritting my teeth I jumped in to the fray and got a few goof licks in on Conte of my own. Between the two of us Albert and I were able to knock him out.

As Detective M burst in he told us that the servants had fled, no doubt to get the police. As Darling Antonio patched up my bullet wound (I was lucky, it looked like it had gone all the way through, there was a lot of blood but it had not hit the bone) the others quickly searched the flat for any trace of Caterina. They found no trace of her but there was an OE timetable with the time of Catarina’s arrival underlined.

We brought Conte around but he proved to be stubborn, more afraid of a group he called “The Brother of the Skin” then anything we could do to him. We were well aware that time was slipping away from us, the police could arrive at any moment. While we could probably justify our actions by revealing what we had found at Conti Machine Parts it would certainly result in us getting caught up in the police investigation and probably meant that we could not leave Milan for days.

It looked like we would have to take more extreme measures to get Conti to talk but Darling Antonio proved to have the answer once again by using his talents for hypnotism to bend Conti to his will. IN a trance Conti told us that he had kidnapped Caterina on behalf of The Brothers of the Skin. As we suspected it was they who had cured him of his TB by somehow giving him the lungs Ennio Spinola. Conti has deliver Caterina to a made called Arturo Faccia because The Brotherhood had wanted her voice. The implication was a grim one and I had images of poor Caterina being the victim of some hideous surgery.

Conti could tell us no more and we had to leave so Darling Antonio placed some sort of hypnotic suggestion in Conti’s mind that he would forget our names and faces (I also recovered my calling card) and we made ourselves scarce.

We headed back to our hotel so I could change out of my bloody clothing. I took the opportunity to grab my gun as well as the knife I had acquired from one of our attackers last night. There was some debate as to what we should do next. The Opera was sue to start in about half an hour, should we go there? We knew that the mysterious Arturo Faccia was a patron of the opera and would surely be there. At the same time it meant that it was a great opportunity to burgle his house and, hopefully, rescue Caterina. After all, we said, it was not like he could take her to the Teatro alla Scala with him. Oh how wring we were.

We took a cab to Faccia’s address; an expensive detached house in its own garden with a separate garage. Our attempts to break in were such a farce that I am tempted not to mention them at all. Sufficient to say that some of my friends made such a racket while prowling about the garden that a servant came out with a gun to challenge them. Father P was able to disarm the servant by, of all things, throwing his bible at him (three Hale Marys for that one Father!) and we forced our way in. Despite this rather rock start Albert was able to talk the servants around and convince them that their master was up to no good. It transpired that they had not seen Faccia for a couple of days and they knew nothing of his connection to Caterina. As far as they knew he was at the opera. The only consolation prize that we managed to leave with was a list of the seven other properties in Milan that Faccia owned.

With a growing sense of certainty that something was going to happen on the opening night of Aida we decided that it was high time that we made our way back to the theatre. We arrived to find the Teatro alla Scala transformed. The outside was illuminated by countless lights, most notably hundreds of lamps spelling out “Aida”. Since we wanted to move about back stage to find and retrieve the torso of the Sedefkar Simulacrum we decided against going in through the front but headed up the fire escape that Father P and Albert had noticed earlier that day. We soon found ourselves in the costumers’ workshop. The three old ladies were still there but Albert was able to convince them that we needed their help to rescue Caterina and lift the curse that had plagued the opera house. The three old dames lead us down to the costume store and we outfitted ourselves in spare costumes; the boys as Egyptian soldiers and myself as a dancing girl. My disguise was a little on the brief side, I was able to conceal my pistol within my skirts but I decided to leave the knife behind. 

Now we made our way, as quickly and unobtrusively as possible, to the back of the stage. Glancing out across the foot lights we could make out that the theatre was packed out. There must have been upwards of three thousand people there that night and somewhere amongst them, we assumed, was Arturo Faccia.

The first act was drawing to a close and Caterina’s understudy was singing her first, big solo number. It was clear that she was no Caterina but she was still pretty good. There was a buzz from the audience as they started to join in. One voice, one perfect female voice, soon started to eclipse all the others, it was the voice of Caterina herself. Desperately we searched the audience with our eyes in an attempt to pin-point the source of the singing. Our gaze was drawn to a party of three men and a woman. One of the men was standing up, allowing us to get a better look at him. To my amazement I recognised the “chicken mane” from our visit to the Cathedral yesterday and it was from his mouth that the Caterina’s unmistakable voice issued. There is a whole world of difference between the idea that there was someone who could transplant the voice of one person in to another and having the actual, physical proof of it right in front of you. It made my head spin just thinking about it and Father P fainted dead away.

No sooner had this all happened then the curtain dropped to signify the end of the act. We knew that we had to act quickly. Leaving Albert and Darling Antonio to look after Father P and find the torso, detective M and I tried to make our way in to the audience. Getting in to the seats meant climbing down into the orchestra pit. In my haste I slipped and fell. I landed hard on my ankle and the jolt sent a dagger of pain through the wound in my arm but I pulled myself to my feet and headed carried on. As we closed on our objective the woman who had been sitting beside “chicken man” looked in our direction for the first time. We had both assumed that it was Caterina but when we saw her face…

It was our missing friend but she was grotesquely transformed. Her skin hung off of her in hideous folds, loose and baggy. It was almost like she had somehow shrunk on the inside but that he skin was still the same size. Her eyes were unchanged though expect now they were filled with terror, incomprehension and more than a little madness.

I am ashamed to say, Dear Diary, that I lost control then. I was confused, tired and in pain and I snapped. Somehow, for a few seconds, the man with Caterina’s stolen voice became the target of a lot of pent up fear and anger. Before I knew what I was doing I had drawn my pistol and fired. He slumped back in his seat, wounded but alive. Even as I tried to wrap my mind around what I had done I was blindsided by a punch from Detective M. It was a bit of a wild swing but it still sent me reeling. It was clear from the look in his eye that Detective M too had been momentarily unhinged by Caterina’s ghastly transformation.

The two men who had been with “chicken man” had got to their feet and were making their way towards us, drawing billy-clubs as they went. I could have fired but was hesitant; what if I missed or lost control again. So instead I ran straight at then. I planted a sold punch on the first one but both men were powerfully built and it had little effect. They swung at me with their clubs, I dodged one but the other made contact. For a few second I must have blacked out because the next thing I remember I was lying on the ground amongst the rapidly emptying seats. One of the two bodyguards was down and Detective M was trading blows with the second. With a sub-human, gurgling cry of despair Caterina was doing her best to throttle the man who had stolen her voice.

Clearing my head I grabbed hold of the legs of the remaining bodyguard and pulled him off balance leaving him open to a series of punishing blows from Detective M. As I pulled myself to my feet “Chicken man” had managed to push Caterina away and was now running through the fleeing crowd for the exit. I moved to Caterina and pulled her to her feet, it was time that we were leaving. Returning the way I had come was not an option so I started to do my best to push my way through the crowds towards the main entrance. I saw Detective M wading through the crowd after “chicken man” but he lost his footing and went down, swept over by the crush of humanity. We reached Detective M in time to help him to his feet and together the three of us ran back through the entrance hall and out through the portico.

There was no way that we could get very far dressed as we were so the three of us veered off around the theatre and headed for the fire exit. I left Caterina in the care of Detective M and dashed up the stairs. My plan was to make my way back to the costume storage room and recover our cloths but as I entered the costumers’ workshop I found Albert, bleeding from multiple wounds and clutching the broken remains of a chair, standing over the battered body of a man!

From what I managed to piece together from Darling Antonio and Albert latter on this is what had happened after Detective M and I had gone to rescue Caterina. After first tucking the senseless Father P safely away in a storage area the pair had started to check to dozens and dozens of dummies that were in the wings ready to be used.

As he searched Albert had heard a noise above him and dodged aside as a weighty sand bag crashed to the ground where he had been standing a moment before. Looking up Albert spotted a man climbing agilely through the rigging. The attacked dropped down to the stage and drew a knife. Within moments the pair were locked in a viscous knife fight. A miscalculated thrust on his part meant that Albert lost his knife. Unarmed and outclassed he did the only sensible thing and fled. The assassin drew a pistol and fired off a few shots before giving chase. Dodging and weaving Albert dashed through the theatre and found himself back in the costumer’s workshop. Here Albert grabbed the first thing that came to hand and lay in ambush for the assassin, smashing his assailant over the head with a chair as he entered.

While this was going on Darling Antonio had been desperately checking every dummy that he could find in a hopes of finding the Simulacrum’s torso. His efforts were rewarded when he found the torso, mounted on a stand and draped in a set of costume armour. With the aid of Father P, who had by now recovered from his shock, Darling Antonio was able to make off with the torso. They headed back to the costume storage room and collected our cloths before heading up to the costumers’ workshop.

The four of us reunited we headed back down to where Detective M was waiting with Caterina and the six of us slipped away back to our hotel.

As we recovered from the night’s ordeal I found Caterina a note book and pencil and we asked her for her side of the story.  She didn’t have much to say and what she did know clearly upset her greatly. She had found Flavio Conti waiting for her outside the station. She could not remember exactly what Conti had said but the next thing she knew Caterina was driving off with him (perhaps Darling Antonio was not the only hypnotist in Milan). Conti handed her over to Faccia and the Brothers of the Skin who had performed the monstrous surgery that had removed her vocal cords and transplanted them in to Faccia. That came as a bit of a shock. Given his behaviour in the cathedral yesterday I would have pegged him as nothing more than a simple-minded madman, I had not dreamed that he was the mastermind behind Caterina’s abduction. What happened after they had stolen her voice was even more grotesque. Faccia said some strange words and started to pull at Caterina’s skin. With each tug her skin became stretched and deformed until it took on its current, hideous appearance. My heart went out Caterina. Through no fault of her own, in one foul swoop, she had lost her voice, her beauty and very nearly her wits. She was alive but I doubted that she would ever recover in any meaningful way. I felt nothing but anger for the man that had done this to her. If I had my way we would not be leaving Milan until Faccia and his brotherhood were dead. 

Unsurprisingly Caterina was tire and emotional and wanted to go home. Detective M gallantly escorted her back to her house.


Emma

Topics: Horror on the Orient Express, Italy |

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