Of course, Christine knew who he was before she saw him.
Large cold brew, two shots of espresso, black, light ice. That was his order. And considering the orders the Little Latte got, it was fairly tame. They were competing with the big national companies that had other coffee shops on every corner, and had to out shine them with creativity. And in New Jersey there were a lot of corners. The LL had two shops, but did good business, had good workers, fair prices and were a Mom and Pop alternative for those who cared deeply about that kind of thing. They survived on two things: regulars and technology. Because they were small they were able to update their tech faster than broad national corporations.
Online orders were the hot thing, and his was always an online order. She never knew his name: on the app you could have a name or screen name and Music Angel was all that popped up on his tag. But she knew his drink and that he only ever came to the drive thru. His black Jaguar would pull up and a quiet voice would tell them which order he was coming for. And while she was certain his windows worked, he would open his door, and a gloved hand would come out for the drink, and to place a five dollar bill in the tip jar. He always tipped 100%, which made him a favorite among the baristas.
But she never once saw his face until October.
She was working the bar, making drinks, and dealing with the public. Christine was told by Meg's mother she had the sweetest face this side of the country, so she was always shoved front and center. It was half way through the month, and still he ordered the same iced drink even if a freakishly early snow was threatened every day. She placed it by the drive thru counter and thought no more about it.
"Here Detective." She handed out the cappuccino to the cop, another regular. Detective Khan, who always took patrol no matter what the weather, was a kind man, with an easy smile. He'd hang around the hand off plane, chatting even after he got his drink. He knew all their names too, and made horrible jokes that were a blessed break between the impatient sighs and snide corrections of retail.
"Thank you Miss Daae." He popped the top and took a sip humming. "Wonderful, perfection, sensational."
"Standard," she said, giggling, wiping off the milk steamer.
"You mean you didn't make this special with love and care?"
"Always for you," she vollied back as the bell above the door rang. With a cold gust of chill wind, a dark figure stepped into the shop, hood up, hands stuffed into their pockets and slipped towards the hand off. Christine's stomach clenched ready as always to guard against the possibility of a robbery, but she told herself that it was October, and that masks were not totally uncommon. Maybe he was going to an early Halloween event? After all she had seen weirder, especially in the summer when the Renaissance Faire was in full swing.
"My, you're inside," Detective Kahn murmured, watching the stranger. Apparently he knew him. He moved a little to the side to make room for the dark figure.
"My car is broken," came the soft, deep baritone that tickled Christine's memory. He observed the online orders and sighed softly, almost as if he were in pain. He lifted his face and Christine saw pure gold eyes. Ah! Of course he must be wearing stage contacts! Though they were very good, one was less colorful than the other, almost unsaturated. "Did an order for Music Angel come?"
"Oh!" This was Music Angel, the Great Tipper? "You have legs!"
It was a joke most baristas said when drive thru regulars came through their cafe. She said it with flippant ease, and a large smile as she hurried over to collect his drink. When she returned, his eyes had gone as round as coins, and Christine felt her stomach drop. Had she misspoken? Been too familiar? Had she just coast the store a regular and tips? People had ripped them online for less. "I-mean you're usually..."
Then Detective Khan leaned back and spoke in another language looking Music Angel over. It sounded a bit like Farsi. The masked man finally blinked. His whole demeanor changed. He became easy looking at his friend, or easier as his eyes narrowed and his head cocked to the side, voice sardonic as he spoke back in the same language. It made the detective laugh heartily.
Music Angel took his drink and made to hand her the five dollar bill. "Oh here!" She tapped the little mason jar for tips that was in front of him. His shoulders hunched and his head ducked as he quickly shoved the money inside and made for the door.
"Wait," Khan said, following quickly. "I'll give you a ride. Did you walk here?"
"From the garage, yes. I don't mind the cold."
"Then you can come and shovel my driveway. Come on."
"Lights and sirens?"
"Of course. I'll even cuff you, Be like old times." The office turned and winked at Christine before placed a hand on Music Angel's shoulder and led him out of the shop.
The next time she saw him was a similar situation. It was Christmas time, and Detective Khan was waiting for his drink. Christine was wiping down the tables, humming along to the music with him. He had complimented their playlist and was joining Sorelli in a soft and only slightly off key rendition of "Last Christmas." She heard the bell, and instinctively turned around. Again a black figure stepped in, a black mask covering his face from hair to upper lip. Immediately she leaned over the counter and called, "Meg, can you hand me that large cold brew?"
The blonde hurried over with it and gave the men her best retail smile. She had been the first one of them to notice the amount given by Angel. She could guess with almost perfect accuracy who and how much a customer was going to tip. "Thank you," the man murmured. He reached for the straws only to find the bin empty.
"I'll get it," Meg chirped heading to the back. Angel frowned and his shoulders seemed to hunch again, and Christine wondered if it was from embarrassment. He had done the same thing when he had been corrected where to put his money.
"This year to save me from tears I'll give it to someone special," The cop teased his friend with the lyrics of the song.
Angel tilted his head, smirking. Or at least Christine thought he did, it was hard to see his mouth. "Je ne savais pas que vous et votre proctologue etaient si proches," he murmured reaching for the newly replenished straws.
Khan's laugh however was accompanied by Christine. Though hers was more of shock. While she couldn't claim to know Angel outside of his fine overcoat and drink, he didn't seem to be a man to make such a joke. The man spun to look at her, his eyes wide again. This time it was more comical than scary, as he had the straw between his teeth sliding the wrapper off. But, then again he stood more than a head taller than her...
"You speak French," Khan asked, still grinning.
"I learned it in college."
"In the conservatory?
"Yes, we had to know it to really sing opera well. But I only know enough to recognize, not really to speak with any kind of..." She waved a hand, trying to think of the word. "Mastery. And I prefer Italian."
"You sing opera," Angel said softly. He was giving her his full rather intense attention. Christine straightened a little, as if in front of a professor again. He was so tall and imposing, with his soft voice and finely made clothes. She saw under his wool overcoat that he was wearing a black on black suit, and spied the gold chain of a pocket watch.
"I did," Christine corrected.
"No more? Why?"
"I had to leave school."
"Erik," Khan murmured finally taking his drink, and continued softly in Farsi. Angel-Erik, ducked his head, eyes sweeping over Christine as if suddenly seeing her for the first time, then turned towards the door again, hurrying out.
"It was okay," Christine said, embarrassed for the man. "He wasn't bothering me."
"All the same, he doesn't really know when to stop. Better early than too late."
"He seems...jumpy? If he doesn't like this place why does he order everyday?"
"It's not this lovely store," he assured. "Or the lovely baristas. He doesn't do so well in company."
"You're good friends?"
Khan nodded, sipping his espresso. "Old friends, I don't know if that counts as good."
"Well...tell him thank you for the money. And that he doesn't have to be so nervous. We don't bite."
"Yeah," Meg said turning off the steamer. "It costs extra."
"Meg," Christine cried, her cheeks blooming red. "I'm sorry, detective."
"Don't worry. I'm used to Meg. Here." He stuffed a dollar in the jar, and winked at Sorelli. "Pass on the bite. Merry Christmas!"
After that, Christine didn't think much on it. She had her apartment to pay for, hours to pick up to pay the bills. She sometimes felt bad that the store keeper, Meg's mom Mrs. Giry, always favored her with hours. But she put her best foot forward and did work hard. Anything else that needed coverage was paid by her side business, taking commissions as a makeup artist. She was glad that some classes from her theater degree hadn't gone to waste. Though it had taken practise to take it down from stage make up to something that would look pleasing in the sun. And up close.
Safe to say she was busy enough as it was.
Therefore, when An-Erik showed up again in mid August, she was surprised. More so because he appeared quite suddenly behind her as she swept the cafe floor. She squeaked and pressed a hand to her chest. He was so tall and dark behind her! And who on earth wore an overcoat in the summer? At least his hood was no longer up. She could see that he had thick black hair, combed back and tied tightly at the base of his head, locks escaping to fall over his eyes. Maybe those weren't contacts after all...?
"You scared me," she said trying to laugh it off even as her heart pounded in her chest. More than that, she was a little embarrassed. Phil Collins was playing and she had been singing to herself.
"I did...cough," he said, so softly she had to lean closer to hear him. He took a quick step back when she did, and lifted his hand to his face, adjusting his mask, as some who wore glasses did with their spectacles. Definitely a nervous habit. Then he stuck out his arm. In his hand was an envelope.
"Ah, is this a-"
"This is not a tip for everyone. This is for you."
"O-oh. Thank you." She took the envelope, but before she could say another word he turned and swept from the cafe. "H-hey did you get your...? Meg!" Dragging the broom behind her she went to the hand off. "Did he get his order?"
"He didn't make one," she said consulting the touch screen computer.
"Yeah, no. Nothing today. What did he give you?"
She shrugged. Tucking the wooden handle of the broom under her arm she peered into the envelope. "Holy Moses!"
"What? Is it a hundred? Lemmie see!"
"It's not money Meg, yeesh."
"Listen if it's not green I ain't seen'."
"It's opera tickets!"
"Opera!" She leaned her whole body over the counter now, the red apron soaking up the condensation left by hundreds of iced drinks that had been placed there before. "Whoa Nelly!"
"I can't keep this!"
"What do you mean you can't keep that? He's asking you out!"
"No-there's only one ticket." She took it out and showed it to Meg. They were box seats to boot!
"Then they're a gift. Why can't you take it?"
"Meg, do you know how much these coast? I can't accept these tickets from a man I don't know!"
She snorted. Meg was a good friend, and a pure opportunist. She was always one to push Christine when she as too timid to do anything. When her father died and she dropped out of the college, she had pushed for her to go back. When that had failed, she had been the one to take Christine out to find an apartment, convinced her to take the shift manager position at the Little Latte, and to use what skill she had learned as a theater major to do freelancing. With out Meg and her mother(who was like a beloved aunt to Christine) she didn't know where she would be now, orphaned and alone in the world.
But sometimes she was a bit much.
"Your choice. But if you're not going to take them I'll give them to Mom."
Christine drew back, pressing the paper to her chest. "No. Listen, if Detective Khan comes in, will you call for me in the back?"
She was on her lunch break when Meg called her. Brushing crumbs from her shirt, she used the back door and hurried out into the parking lot, catching Khan before he slid into his patrol car. "Detective! Detective Khan?"
He stopped and turned, grinning. "Hello there, Miss Daae. It's not often I have a pretty girl calling my name. At least not for years."
"Detective..." She raised a finger to ask him to wait as she gasped for breath. "Erik...he..."
"Erik what," he said, his voice growing concerned in the space of a second. He was standing straighter now, his dark brows knit, turning his usual warm brown face hard. "Erik what?"
"He gave me these." She pulled the envelope from her pocket.
He took it and peered inside. He seemed to calm immediately, but then looked uncomfortable. "Oh. I see."
"Can you please tell him I can't accept. That's way to expensive a gift to give to your usual barista."
"I wouldn't call it that," he murmured. "Erik has certain connections. I've been getting free tickets for me and my dates for years."
"Still, pulling big favors like that, I can't accept. It wouldn't feel right."
Detective Kahn seemed to be weighing the possibilities, dark eyes darting between the ticket and Christine, then to the establishment. "Normally I would agree but..."
"But?" She frowned. "It's...Meg said he was asking me on a date. He's not, is he?"
The detective let out a loud short laugh, that ended in a cough. "Ha! No-ah, no he is certainly not. Not that-" He pressed his knuckles to his forehead. "I'm sure you have plenty young men on your dance card. But Erik, I told you he's not used to company. He's also not used to showing gratitude or most...emotions. I think this is just the only way he knows how to show it."
"He tips well."
"Yes, but that's for the store. I think he appreciates how kind you are. After all you didn't gawk."
"The mask? Well starring is rude, but why does h-"
The Detective interrupted her by handing the ticket back. "Not everyone has your tact. In fact most don't." Now the detective sounded bitter, a frown pulling at the ends of his mouth. He handed the envelope back. "Think about it. If you really feel that uncomfortable I will of course tell him, and remind him how to act. But I do think it's no more than him just trying to give what he has to give, since you both share an interest. Surely other patrons give you little things here and there?"
"Well...yes." There was a professor that gave them some of his drawings when they showed interest, a woman starting her own company gave each of the girls a tester of liquid lipstick, and an older man who came into the store for company at Christmas gave the store a fifty dollar tip, then a little extra for Christine and Meg and a few others he favored in little red envelopes. But all of the didn't amount to the dollar sum in this particular gift!
"Erik is nothing if not...extravagant, shall we say. And there are not many that have an affection for opera, so much so that they go to school for it. It's a lonely hobby."
Christine remembered his over coat, and the gentle way he spoke as if he was afraid of scaring her off with a few decibels difference. He acted like a skittish cat, from what she saw, as if everyone were about to reprimand him.
She peeked again into the envelope. Turandot. She loved that opera to death. Her father would play it on his violin for her, and it was the one of the only operas she studied with a happy ending. And she had to admit she missed the theater. The dressing up, the luxurious velvet seats, the curtain call, the orchestra tuning up, the excitement of overtures. She longed to go back to that happy time when it was her life, home and beyond.
"Think about it," Khan repeated, softer this time. "I promise this isn't a bad gesture. When he found out you sang he wanted to ask you a million questions. That's why I stopped him. I think he feels you need encouragement," he said. But he looked a little perturbed behind his smile.
"I...I will. Thank you detective."
At home in her little apartment, she turned the the ticket over in her fingers. Booting up her rather chunky laptop, she looked up the theater in Jersey City. The Mazenderan Theater, was an interesting name. It was a beautiful building, lovingly designed, she could see that; when she went to google maps, her mouth fell open at how...gorgeous it was. It rejected the usual Greco-Roman styles that modern theaters in America tried, as if architects couldn't get away from the stately vision that government monuments possessed. It really did look like some Persian palace plopped into the middle of the lot.
The website boasted Trundot and the rest of their listings for the season as well as some photos inside. It was gorgeous, all red and gold and old-world charm. And when she looked up the price of her ticket she turned white. "Holy..." she murmured. That was it, she wasn't going.
Unfortunately it wasn't so easy. She kept thinking on how lovely that theater was. She had been in plenty when her father went on tour with the orchestra, and in school. But none that breath stoppingly beautiful. She could imagine herself, as she washed dishes, putting on a pretty dress, sweeping into the theater, feeling lovely in heels and her makeup, for a night of sophisticated entertainment. To feel her heart beat again in time to the beat of the music, to let her whole sense of self go with the sway of music.
To be transported away to that place that wasn't very far, but certainly wasn't reality, where music played with her imagination, conjuring up pictures and people and scenes in her mind's eye, letting her live somewhere that wasn't her apartment, or the drudgery of life, that wasn't really Christine anymore. In place she could be anything, from milk maid to queen. To capture that feeling that only came now when she was tired and her to-sleep playlist was particularly good. And only then it was only or a few moments, until she was asleep or jarred by some alarm, rousing her to complete some task or another.
After all, it's the only ticket. She had looked up her seat online, box five, and found that it only had one seat assigned to it. Odd but it also meant that if Erik was trying to trick her into a date, or anything else, he wouldn't be sitting with her. She could avoid him.
She winced. That was a mean thought. But she didn't know the man. And Detective Khan was good and she trusted him in a way most trust the police, but this masked man didn't exactly endear himself.
And she could pawn off her hours onto someone else who wanted them. What else was she going to do on Saturday night? She glanced around her apartment the day before the performance. It was rather cluttered, she had taken all she could from her parent's house before the bank took it and auctioned off everything inside. But despite the things crowding it, it was as empty as a tomb. Bare walls, only staples in the kitchen. No flowers, not even a pet. Or a bookshelf! All her novels piled up on the floor.
She had no friends besides Meg, having gone mute on all the people she had met at the conservatory. The grief had been too much, and the thought of associating with people steeped in music like her father who would never ever play another note had been too much. She had shut down, numb to the world except for the seering hours of pain that shot through her like an arrow when she least expected it. Anything could bring it on, from eating breakfast to hearing a certain note on a string.
She had not only lost a parent. She'd lost her passion. Oh she still loved music, as her bloated MP3 player could prove. But she sectioned it away For sleep and for the store, that as all. Now silenced reigned in this tiny place. No more singing, no more shows, no more stories.
She missed it, as dearly as she missed Daddy. It was the pain she was afraid of. When the song ended, and she was alone again.
Well...it was just a night. And what if he came back and asked how the show was? That would be embarrassing. And worse off they might lose their best tipper.
Turning back to the desk, she picked up her phone and quickly swiped the screen open. "Hey! Hey Meg. Do you still have those black suede heels? Can I borrow them?"
The drive to Jersey City was treacherous. It was the part of Jersey that was swamped with New Yorkers who drove like it was still New York. And in her father's old car, it was a bit of an ordeal. In the end Christine had pulled over, pulled off her stockings and heels, and drove barefoot in case aggressive maneuvering was needed. When she got to the parking lot, she redressed her legs and headed towards the building. Her ticket was scanned by a very nice young man who called her ma'am and gave her a little bow.
The inside of the theater was just as spectacular as the pictures showed. The candelabras looked like real gas lamps, but gave off no heat behind their glittering cage. The cut of the covers sent splendid light throughout the room, and she spent a few moments observing it, to figure out the illusion. How did the bulb flicker so convincingly? And that was just the lighting!
All at once the old rushes came back to her, the feeling of being oh so proper and lovely just by being here among the other finely dressed people. She hoped her tea length dress wasn't too plain. She had dressed it up with her mother's diamond pendant, and even a pair of lace gloves. Though the heels were a bit of a trick. They fit fine enough, she and Meg were only a half size different. But after years rocking differently styled sneakers it was a bit treacherous. She bought a program to add to her collection that had had no additions besides dust for years. As she marveled over the pretty picture they used for the glossy cover, she stepped in line for the queue to enter the main theater.
Handing her ticket to the usher he frowned. "Ma'am this can't be right."
Her heart skipped a beat. "I'm sorry?"
"Box five doesn't have tickets."
Christine would have happily disappeared into smoke right there. Had that masked lunatic played a horrible prank on her. "I-I don't understand? It was a gift."
"Give me one moment," he said, giving her a smile and the usual customer service platitude: "And I'll see if I can't clear this up, okay?"
Standing there, blushing horribly, she felt like everyone could see and would know that she had tried to enter with a bogus ticket. She kept her head down and waited by the stairs, well out of the way. In a another few minutes she was going to run from the building and call Meg for a good cry. Maybe Detective Khan to demand he give a very colorful message to Erik. Or maybe she would wait and drop cleaner tablets in his cold brew. There was an idea...
The usher returned with a short middle aged man in tow. "Forgive me, Ma'am. There's been a mix up."
"No it's okay. I'll just go," she said, her mortification complete. But the man quickly stepped in her path.
"On our part. I apologize for your discomfort. I'm the usher manager and I apologize for our mistake. You see, box five is always subscribed to, it has a season pass. But I was alerted that the pass holder had given up his ticket for this opera tonight."
"Oh." Christine felt relief flood her, and lifted her eyes heavenward for a moment. I'm sorry for mentally calling Erik a bean pole bastard in my mind. And for contemplating poisoning. It also made her feel a bit better that he had given her his ticket from a subscription, rather than buy it special. A second hand seat he didn't want was better than a full priced seat he was gifting. "No, it's totally fine. Don't worry about it Mr...?"
"Jules." He shook her hand, and gestured for her to climb the stairs. "Please allow me to personally show you to your seat."
Now she really did feel like a proper lady. The last time she had been in a theater was as a student and it hadn't been at all glamorous. They had sat up nearly in the rafters, and most of the time she and the other students were listening for technicalities rather than for beauty. Before then it was as a child, and she had always loved the feeling of tradition and ceremony dressing up to listen to her father play in the orchestra, with her frills, clinging to her mother's satin gown skirts.
Carefully they ascended the stars to the box, Christine practically clinging to the railing. Three years and some living in sneakers made these things feel like stilts. Mr. Jules took out a key for the door to box five. Leaning back, Christine saw that all of the other boxes had curtains that sectioned them off from the light of the hall. No doors but this one.
The heavy door swung open, and Jules entered first, making sure it was all prepared for her: a large chair with a gilt footstool. Christine felt unease again, because what box had its own lovely chair, instead of the standard theater seats? Or maybe she had never been to this nice a theater before...
She smiled and rifled through her purse for a tip. Jules stopped her with a little laugh. "My pleasure. Please sit, Miss Christine."
"Oh-" But he was gone before she could ask how he knew her name. Erik must have called a head, she rationalized, taking her seat. She nearly sunk into the plush velvet and sighed, happy to get off her already aching feet. After a moment she propped them up on the foot stool and grinned.
The box was practically on the stage, and while it wasn't the best for being totally immersed in the story, it was excellent for observing the stage craft and skill. He reached forward and moved back the heavy red curtain that seemed to cover most of the box. Someone must have forgotten to tie it back. As she searched for the gold rope to keep it to the side she saw a little shelf on the wall behind her chair. On it, where patrons might store their bags, was a little piece of paper that said "Christine".
Taking it, she flipped the-was this parchment?-leaf over and read the message.
Please enjoy the show. I would like to know your thoughts afterwards.
She raised her brows. Her thoughts? She had only mentioned she sung in school once. This was a lot for a passing comment. Then again, she was sitting in a seat gifted by a man wearing a mask. If there was time to question the oddity of the situation it was long passed. Just sit back and enjoy the free show, Meg's voice murmured in her head. Free show!
The lights gently twinkled signalling the beginning of the first act. Tucking the note in her purse, she returned to her seat.
The thunderous applause jarred Christine. She sat up, her body lethargic and heavy, as if the beauty of the show still wrapped her in it's warm embrace, unwilling to let her go. And she was unwilling to go. As suspected, from up close she could see every detail of stagecraft, the makeup and costumes, the scene changes (with the sets somehow looking like they melted from one set to another how did that happen?), and every step of the actors. She had watched with a learned eye, but so starved of music was she that the melodies had quite swept her up in it's spell.
Instead of watching like a teacher ready to grade, she had leaned forward and placed her arms on the box's edge, chin on her hands and watched. She hadn't even gotten up for intermission, not that she wanted to be stuffed into the crowded looking ballroom with the East Coast glitterati.
It was just as good as she remembered, the experience and the show. Though the soprano, the princess, had been rather screetchy. It was the only thing that had snapped her out of the experience from time to time. But other than that she had felt like...
Like she was home again.
She got up and stretched, smiling. She hummed a few lines of music, her favorite from the third act, and sighed. She heard the sigh echo behind her, and jumped a little. Even the box had good acoustics. Ah, that must have been it! She snapped her fingers, happy to have figured it out. This box was special because of the sound, that's why it was so expensive!
That mystery solved, she headed out to do battle once more in the streets of the city.
"So how was it," was Meg's first question when she opened the door.
"Thanks, yeah it was hard driving in the city but I'm okay. How are you," Christine said, raising a brow and offering up the borrowed shoes. The girls entered the blissfully cool house, and Meg whistled over Christine's choice of dress.
"I bet you knocked his socks off!"
"I didn't see him. It wasn't a date Meg. He gave up his ticket for the night, from his subscription that's all. He did leave me a note though-"
"A romantic note?" Meg waggled her eyebrows.
Christine turned and flopped down on the couch, snorting. "Hardly. He wanted to know what I thought of the show. Basic polite note, don't get excited."
"I'm not, especially not until I see his face. Or his bank account. But if he's got an opera subscription-"
"Marguerite Giry," Christine cried throwing her hands up. "You are a gold digger!"
"Hell yeah," she laughed. "You think I want to work at the shop all my life?"
"You're going to inherit! You have a business degree!"
"That's worse case scenario, incase a millionaire doesn't show up" she said waving a hand. "So. The show?"
"It was wonderful." Christine picked at invisible fluff on her skirt. Here it comes.
"Make you wanna go back to it?"
"Yes." It was the honest answer. But... "I can't Meg. I can't go back and learn all the stuff Daddy did for a living, and hear them talk about timing and structure and dissect it until it's nothing but notes on paper when Dad made it so much more. I can't."
At least, in this one tiny area, Meg didn't push anymore. Instead she tossed the heels into the corner of the living room and flopped down beside her. "...Did you eat?"
"Pizza and Sixteen Candles?"
Christine grinned. She may be crass, she may be a little shallow, but Meg always knew just how to end a night.
"Hey, Sarah Brightman!"
Christine jumped, and spun to peer through the shelves of coffee bags and supplies, the industrial spray she was using to clean dishes splashing her. "Yeah Sorelli?" Her cheeks were bright red. She couldn't help but hum Turandot for the rest of the week. The music lived again in her, melodies to match any mood she was in, any conversation she had. She heard it in the back of her head, and sometimes it was too loud, too beautiful, she had to hum!
"Music Angel is in the drive, Meg said you'd want to know."
"Oh yeah! Yeah! Hold on! Is there a line?"
"No just him."
"Hold him there!" She dried off her hands and hurried out onto the floor. She flung the window of the drive thru back, and practically tipped out of it, tripping over Meg in her haste. The Jag's door was open, and the gloved hand came out, almost as if to catch her. Opening the door a little more, she was able to see Erik. Still masked, his hair perfectly combed now. The leather interior of his car was cast in a dark light from the surely-not-legal-tinted windows, but she could see his coat folded over the passenger's seat with a silver money clip tossed carelessly on top.
"Whoa! Hi, there, hi! Sorry."
He nodded, sure now that she wasn't about to topple out of the window and into his car.
"Thank you for the ticket!"
"You enjoyed the show," he stated softly.
"I loved it! It's my favorite!"
"I thought so."
That gave her pause. "You...did?"
"I...you have...on your back pack. You have lyrics on it, written. I've seen it sometimes, when you leave."
Her mouth dropped open. That was true. Her work bag was old and she didn't mind bringing it because she didn't care if it got beat up. It was her old high school backpack and she did indeed have lyrics and patches covering every inch. He had probably seen her leaving one of her early shifts when he came, and would have seen her loading it into her car.
"You remember that," she laughed. She as probably tomato red by now.
"Yes. It's not my favorite, and...and you said you were a student of opera...and thus..." His shoulders hunched.
"I loved it! I adored it," she was hurry to assure, not wanting him to be embarrassed. It was pitiful when he was, such a grown man like him and obviously successful. And after doing something so kind.
"Did it make you want to go back?"
"You are just like Meg," Christine laughed, jabbing her thumb over he shoulder at the nosey blonde who was craning to hear the conversation. "She asked me the same thing!"
"Music is too wonderful to waste."
"You're right. But I have bills to pay. But still! It was wonderful. And wow! That theater!"
Now the man seemed to sit up straight. "You liked it," he asked, eyes glittering. He was even smiling.
"It was the most beautiful building I've ever seen!"
"Would you like to see inside it?"
Christine laughed. "I already did!"
"I mean the whole building."
"Like a tour? They have them? Do you know how they change scenes? Do they use mirrors? Can they tell or is it like a company secret?"
"They can." He glanced in the rearview mirror. A car pulled up to the speaker and the driver was ordering. "On Sunday. They can. After noon."
"Oh well..." She shifted. Now this really did sound like a date, or at least something other than a passing interest.
"I will understand if you don't," he said, softly again. "But I would be...honored, if you did." Then he nodded in way of goodbye and closed the door. She watched him a few moments after he left, a little shocked. Did he ask her out? Or, was he just a professional, wanting to encourage young aspiring people? Trying to encourage her back into music? Or maybe he was just as Detective Khan stated. An older man wanting to be kind but not sure how, overstepping social lines to do so.
"Hey, if you're not gonna work my window, get out of it," Meg teased tugging on her apron strings.
The interrogation came when Christine was on her lunch break. Meg, who was manager of the shift, pretended to count the inventory as she pestered. "Okay spill."
"You mean you couldn't hear? You were right next to us!"
"Yeah, but he whispers!"
"It was nothing. he asked if I liked the show."
"Oh come on, I know it as more than that! You practically flew out the window."
"I didn't want to miss him!"
"Christine." Meg ripped three brownies out of the freezer box, and tossed them on a tray to thaw. "Get real, now. None of this it's just being nice crap. Between the ticket and him at the window I haven't seen you this excited over something in ages. You're humming again, and smiling and excitable like a puppy. Like before."
"I get excited over stuff," she protested.
Well that had her stuck. It wasn't as if Christine was unhappy. Mostly. She had her interests, her favorite movies, she read and went shopping with what little money there was left over. She was older now though, not a kid anymore. Her excitement was more refined, she supposed. Less bubbly, less exuberant. "I got excited over that new Christian Bale movie."
"You said 'oh great, let's go see it' then forgot that we made the date a week later." Meg shook her head. "You were on the phone with me for an hour talking over shoes to wear to this friggin' show when no one but the ushers were even going to see you! C'mon, kid. You love this crap. Good crap, don't get me wrong, Music, and theater and all that: you love it."
She leaned against the fridge. "You can still love it without your parents being with you. You did at school. And since you won't go back to that, isn't this the next best thing?"
Christine lowered her head, staring at her red sneakers scuffing the linoleum floor. The thing was, she didn't want to enjoy it without her mother, or her father. She didn't want to feel that swept way joy, because it wasn't fair. She knew it was foolish, and a little dangerous, but she didn't want to feel much because they would never feel again.
"He offered me to tour the theater."
"And he gave me the ticket because he saw I had the lyrics written on my back pack a couple of times."
"Christine, holy crap! I can't even get Phillip to notice I've gotten a new jacket without specifically showing him, let alone him figuring it out from something as small as that!"
"I'm not sure it's a good idea. This is definitely, date-y. Right?" Meg had more experience than her. Christine had been a total devotee to her voice, and hadn't had time for boys. She had had the odd boyfriend here and there, usually during the summers, and there was her childhood crush Raoul. They had gone to grade school together, before his parents moved away to the rich side of town.
"Then I shouldn't go."
"Why not. I met Phillip though the store."
"Yeah but you wrote your number on his cup, and we saw him everyday."
"We see Angel everyday. And Detective Khan knows him. It's a small town, Christine. I'm sure it would be fine. Besides it's not like he said he'd be giving you the tour. Did he?"
"No he said the theater does on Sundays afternoon."
"It's settled then." Opening the freezer, she began to count this time for real. "We'll go shopping and pick you out a nice outfit and you're going if I have to drive you myself!"
They sat in silence or ten minutes more, nothing but the crunch of cardboard and plastic as Meg pulled out the empty containers breaking the stillness. Then-
"It would be cool to see how they rigged the staging to change so seamlessly," Christine mused.
"That's my girl!"