Unseen Genius: Chapter 21: A Little White Lie
Brielle drew open the heavy front door with a grunt, her mouth open and ready to rebuke the impatient caller. When her eyes fell not on a road worn messenger boy but a pair of smartly dressed police officers, her jaw snapped shut in shock.
The sight of the lawmen, in their heavy wool overcoats with shining brass buttons, sent her heart to pounding within her chest. She knew they couldn’t have any issue with her in particular, she hadn’t done anything wrong. But still, just the sight of their smart, clean appearance made her nervous.
Suddenly, the memory of another time when two uniformed men had come to her door flashed before her eyes. Only those men hand been soldiers, and they had had the inglorious task of delivering death notices.
Shaking her head clear of these memories, Brielle smiled uncertainly at the two men. “What seems to be the problem, officers?” she asked politely, her eyes flickering between them.
Both men stood ramrod straight, their posture evidence of both discipline and professionalism. As Brielle continued to study them, she was able to see past the anonymity of their clothing to the vast differences in their physical features. The man standing a step closer to the door was perhaps in his mid fifties. He had a round, wind-roughened face and large working class hands. The second officer was much younger, barely more than a boy. He was slightly taller than the older gentleman, his sandy blond hair and warm brown eyes more akin to a young farm boy than a hard bitten lawman.
The younger of the pair offered up an affable smile and removed his hat. “There is no problem, Madame. We are only here to ask a few simple questions.”
At the young man’s words the older man grunted and shot his partner an irritated glare. Being the ranking officer, he surely had wanted to speak first. Likewise removing his cap, the man sucked up his great belly and turned his attention back to Brielle.
“Madame I am Detective Le Clarke and this is my overeager associate Sergeant Beaumont.” The detective paused then to pull a small, worn notebook out of his vest pocket. “You are Madame Donovan, correct?”
Brielle nodded her head, mystified as to what these two men could want. “Yes, I am Brielle Donovan,” she affirmed slowly, pulling the door close to her side. She suddenly had the distinct impression that Le Clarke should not have a clear view into the house. Both men were being terribly polite, but warning bells were beginning to blare inside her head.
Le Clarke licked his thumb and turned a page in his small book; his bushy brows drew down, obscuring his pale blue eyes as he read for a moment. “And did you buy two tickets to the Opera Populaire’s production of Don Juan Triumphant on the date of January the 20th?”
At this strange line of questioning Brielle’s inquiring expression changed to one of confusion. “Yes, but what is this all about gentlemen? Why do you want to know that I went to the Opera over two and a half months ago?”
With a sigh the large man replaced his notebook in his pocket and offered her a crafty smile. “I am sure you are aware of the unfortunate incident at the Opera House if you attended that performance.” He waited a beat, apparently waiting for some sort of reaction. When she merely stared back at him he cleared his throat and continued. “When the chandelier fell it injured seventeen people - seventeen prominent people.”
“I am fully aware of what happened, Detective,” Brielle snapped, his patronizing tone irritating her. “One does not forget such an unfortunate incident as you put it.”
Beaumont stepped forward then, an apologetic smile causing the dimples in his cheeks to flash momentarily. “Please excuse us Madame. We did not intend to upset you. We have been investigating the Opera disaster for a couple months now. We have interviewed most of the people present at the performance to try and piece together what actually happened. You are one of the last on the list. It has taken us a great deal of time to locate your current residence.” He gave a friendly chuckle while turning his cap about in his hands.
“I will aid you in your investigation in any way I can, but I do not believe I will be of much help.”
Le Clarke nudged Beaumont back behind him again with his elbow. “You may be surprised how even the smallest detail could later become the key to a case. Please, did you notice anything strange that night? Perhaps you met someone who seemed out of place?”
An uneasy sinking feeling began to weigh heavily in the pit of her stomach. There was only one unusual man she met that night and he was currently cleaning up the library. “Excuse me sir, but I can’t understand how my opinion of someone would help your investigation. After all what do I know of the people who work in the Opera? They all seemed strange to me.”
“Well, Madame seeing as we have interviewed many of the people who were there at the time it will be a simple matter of deducing who did not belong. And when we find him, that man will have an appointment with the executioner.” Le Clarke said with a laugh, both his hands rising to pat at his bulbous middle.
“I did not meet anyone that night who I considered to be a dangerous individual.”
Le Clarke pursed his lips at that and took one step forward, beginning to crowd her. “Tell me Madame, who did you go with that night?”
“Excuse me?” she asked indignantly, refusing to be intimidated by this rude man’s juvenile attempts to throw her off guard.
“You bought two tickets did you not?”
“Yes, but what does that have anything to do with your investigation?” she inquired, shifting all her weight onto her good foot. Carefully she raised her injured heel from the ground, trying to relieve some of the pressure upon her wounds.
Once again Beaumont stepped forward, looking slightly embarrassed at the detective’s unmannerly questioning. “We recently received a letter stating that a Madame Donovan was harboring a suspicious character within this household. And given the fact that you attended the Opera’s last performance we were pressed to question you over this matter.”
Flabbergasted, Brielle ran a nervous hand over her hip, smoothing skirts which did not need to be smoothed. “Who sent you this letter? I have no idea what it may be referring to.”
“The letter was not signed, Madame. We do not know who sent it, but because of the seriousness of the situation we had to follow its lead.”
“I understand, but let me assure you that the man you are looking for is not in this house. The letter must have been some sort of prank. I am truly sorry I cannot help you in your search for justice, but I really must begin breakfast for the household. A good day to you both,” she offered while turning to close the door in their faces.
Before the door could swing shut Le Clarke wedged his foot in the jamb, stopping Brielle’s retreat. Surprise over the heavy man’s quickness delayed her outrage for a split second. When Le Clarke placed his hand on the edge of the door to pry it open further the anger finally infused Brielle’s expression, staining her cheeks scarlet.
“Due to the seriousness of the situation, Madame, we must humbly request a search of the premises. It is our duty to fully explore every lead and we will not have done that if we simply leave now.”
“You wish to search my home?” she asked through clenched teeth, her temper lilting her French almost beyond recognition.
“Only to ensure you safety Madame,” Beaumont added with a smile as he stepped forward to stand directly behind his superior.
“My safety is obviously not the issue here. What you two are truly after is to find the first scapegoat you come across and stick that poor man with a crime neither one of you can solve! I will not allow it!” she hissed, her voice steadily rising to shout the last word.
The smile upon the young sergeant’s face faded quickly at her words. He began to turn his hat faster and faster within his hands. “Now, stop right there Madame. That isn’t exactly true and…”
“Oh shut up Beaumont!” The detective huffed as he gave the door a good shove, sending it flying open and Brielle stumbling backwards. Pain shot up her heel as she came down hard on her injured foot. “Now Madame we have the authority to search the grounds with or without your permission. We do not have the time, however, to continue to bicker with a self-righteous woman! Please move aside!”
“Er, Detective perhaps we could come back another time and…”
“Shut your mouth Beaumont!!” Le Clarke bellowed as he waddled over the threshold.
At the sound of the detective’s shout, all other human noise within the house came to an uneasy halt. The soft piano music tinkling in the background crashed to an awkward stop and was quickly followed by a series of pattering footsteps. Aria appeared in the parlor doorway, her doll clutched under one arm. The child stared at the policemen for a split second before turning to race down the hall.
Planting herself in front of the two men, Brielle momentarily halted their progress. Her intimidating stance was only slightly ruined by the limp in her walk. “If you are intent upon invading my home, then at least allow me to show you around. Lord knows what you two hooligans will do if I don’t have my eye upon you. And if you track mud onto my clean carpets I’ll…”
The echo of heavy masculine footsteps marching down the hallway cut her off. Le Clarke tilted his head to the side as a smile sneaked across his face. “And who might that be Madame Donovan?”
Brielle tilted her chin up, glaring down her nose at the heavy man. “That,” she began without hesitation. “would be my husband.”
The knowing smile died on Le Clarke’s face. “You are married?”
Huffing as she pointedly checked the clock on the wall, Brielle squared her shoulders. “Of course, you scoundrel. Why have you been calling me Madame if you did not assume I was married?”
“Why does your husband allow you to answer the door to strange men while he is home?” he asked suspiciously.
“If you wait here a moment you may ask him yourselves,” she said, turning to hobble as quickly as she could down the hallway, hoping all the way to intercept Erik before he could burst upon the policemen unawares.
Listening with one ear to make sure Le Clarke stayed where she had left him, Brielle picked up her skirts and began hopping down the hall to increase her speed. She turned the first corner and ran face first into a solid wall of warmth. Gasping aloud Brielle stumbled backwards. Two large hands wrapped about each of her arms to steady her.
“Brielle, who the hell was at the door? And who the hell was shouting at you just now?” Erik asked, his eyes blazing as he looked over her head, searching for the source of the noise.
“Shh! You must listen! I don’t have time to explain but please just trust me, alright? And for the love of God just play along no matter what I say!” she hissed hurriedly, as she grabbed one of his hands and began to pull him towards the front hallway.
“What are you talking about!?”
Ignoring his question she clamped a hand over his mouth and continued to jerk him down the hallway. When they rounded the corner and came partially into view of the front hallway, Brielle stopped suddenly and glanced quickly over her shoulder to assure herself that Le Clarke had not moved. Finding the policemen where she had left them, Brielle turned her eyes up to Erik’s confused face.
And then she did something she had sworn to herself to never do to another man again.
Without a word Brielle hopped one step closer to him, fitting her body flush against his as she quickly reached up and gripped his lapels. She hesitated a moment trying desperately to catch her breath as her heart galloped within her chest. When Erik began to mount a protest to her strange behavior all hesitation vanished as she gave a jerk on his collar and covered his mouth with her own.
The masked man went utterly still at her touch, his arms stiff at his sides, his very breath frozen with his lungs. But his eyes came alive in that moment, glittering with the light of hundreds of nameless emotions, burning with a heat which could put the sun’s fire to shame.
Brielle had intended to simply place a light, affectionate kiss on the corner of Erik’s mouth to assuage the detective’s doubts over his presence in the house. But once her lips first brushed his, all of her intentions, all of her plans flew out the window. A trembling began in her hands that she couldn’t explain as she clung desperately to the open lapels of his shirt, holding on for dear life as the tremors spread, shaking the very foundations of her heart. She felt it so deep that it hurt - a sweet, sad, seizing of the soul.
She felt scorched, washed clean to the bone by the inferno raging behind the electric blue of his eyes. Unable to bear the intensity of his gaze any longer Brielle forced her eyes closed, becoming lost in the darkness of the primal fire roaring through her veins. Sound and time faded as she strained upwards on the tips of her toes, longing to be closer, longing to feel this way just a little longer. To finally feel alive again after so long.
When Brielle distantly felt the weight of his hands finally come up to wrap vice-like about the curve of her hips, fear edged into the raging of her blood, dampening the racing of her heart. She turned her face from his then, shaking with the effort it took to break the contact. What was I doing? What is wrong with me?!
Nervously running her teeth over the tingling skin of her bottom lip Brielle eased away from Erik and took a deep, wit-saving breath. She could feel his eyes upon her, moving over her skin like a touch. The warmth of his hands at her waist sent chills galloping up her spine. But she couldn’t bring herself to look up at him - felt too ashamed of her actions to meet the reproach she knew must be in his gaze.
“Just follow my lead,” she murmured shakily before trying to step fully away from his grasp. Her cowardly retreat was halted by the ungiving hands still clasped around her waist. Only then did she dare to look up at his face. When she caught his expression she wished she had kept her eyes upon the floor.
He stood still as granite, his face immobile, except for the tiniest tremor beginning to shake his lower lip. But it was the promise she saw in his eyes which made her knees turn to water and her heart stop within her chest.
Desperate now, she pulled away from his touch and he let her go. A moment more spent within his arms and she would have lost her mind completely. Who would have thought one man could have the power to steal her very will from her?
Turning away from him, she edged around the corner and stepped into full view of the policemen. “Gentlemen,” she began after clearing her throat. “I would like you to meet my husband Jonathan.”
At the sight of the uniformed men Erik shied backward like a horse startled by a viper; only her hand upon his arm kept him from completely retreating. “He hates having unwanted visitors, especially when he is working, so if you would please ask your questions and leave we would appreciate it.”
Le Clarke eyes unabashedly swept over the curves of Erik’s mask before finally meeting the man’s eyes. “You are Jonathan Donovan, monsieur?”
The genuine confusion wrinkling Erik’s brow only served to add realism to the lie Brielle had created. “I suppose I am,” he began, his eyes shooting a heated glare Brielle’s way. “And who may I ask are you, sir?”
The detective once again introduced himself and his partner before barreling on with his questions. “Monsieur Donovan, we are investigating the incident which occurred at the Paris Opera House two months ago and we came to ask your wife some questions about what happened. We also received a letter which stated a suspicious character was living in this household and we must determine if that person has any connection to the case.”
At the mention of the Opera House Erik’s hand spasmed once within hers, and though his expression remained carefully stoic, Brielle could see him go pale. It was understandable, considering she had found him nearly dead in its cellars.
“Any letter you received most likely is in reference to me, gentlemen.” Erik stated calmly after a moment. “Occasionally strangers passing by are slightly surprised to see a man of my distinct characteristics.” With one hand he indicated his mask before continuing. “Unfortunately, this sort of thing has happened before. I am sorry you have troubled yourselves over such a trifling incidence.”
Brielle nodded, thankful that he was playing out the lie so well. “Yes, poor John was burned as a child when the family’s summer estate accidentally burned to the ground,” she said whilst patting Erik’s arm.
Beaumont nodded in understanding, apparently convinced, but Le Clarke continued to frown at Brielle, as if trying to unravel the charade she had concocted. When the large man opened his mouth to continue his questioning, Erik interrupted. “Might I have your badge number sir?” he asked politely.
Startled by the change of subject, Le Clarke looked to Erik in confusion. “Why would you need my…”
“Well I figured it would make things easier when reporting the man who bellowed at my wife, barged into my house, and frightened our daughter if I had his badge number. Now tell me, how long do you think it takes a detective to be busted down to a lowly street cop when it is discovered that he bullies wealthy men’s wives?” Erik demanded his voice remaining quiet but the tone of his words turned ominous.
Le Clarke’s mouth fell open in shock at Erik’s words, his Adam’s apple working furiously within his throat as he gulped down a nervous breath. Suddenly all of the bully in the great man melted down to nothing. “Monsieur, I meant no offense - I was merely doing my job and…”
“Seeing as we have answered your questions, I will overlook your damned rudeness if you turn about and take yourself off this property. You have all you need for your investigation. So get out!”
Le Clarke jumped slightly at Erik’s final statement and backed up a step from the taller man. “Certainly, sir. I think we were about done anyway,” he said as he grabbed Beaumont’s arm and pushed the sergeant towards the front door.
The younger officer turned as he opened the door and nodded his head to both Brielle and Erik. “Sorry for disturbing your morning,” he said apologetically before being pulled through the doorway by the fleeing detective.
Brielle stepped forwards and watched the pair climb into their open carriage and head off down the lane. The awkward jostling of the wheels in the icy mud slowed the policemen’s progress, but soon the wagon picked up a respectable speed. She waited until the police wagon had disappeared around a corner before slowly shutting the door, a triumphant smile blazing across her face.
Whirling around, Brielle clasped her hands together smugly. “Ha! The boar must have been a dolt to try and mess with an injured Irishwoman!” she said, pumping a fist in the air. When the man in front of her answered only in silence, Brielle dropped her hands to her sides, the excitement dissipating quickly.
“Why did you do that?” came the quiet question, his voice still pitched low in that dangerously misleading tone he had used against Le Clarke.
Brielle opened her mouth to answer, but found all the words dry up within her throat. Was he asking about the lie or the kiss? Either way, she was suddenly finding it rather difficult to form a rational reason to substantiate either case.
“Remember the night I brought you here?” At his nod, she pushed away from the door and continued. “I don’t know if you are aware, but that night the chandelier fell into the audience, injuring about seventeen people. Those policemen wanted me to tell them about anyone I saw who seemed out of place. They wanted to dump the blame on the first unfortunate man they could.”
When Erik continued to stare silently at her, Brielle found herself beginning to babble on, building up her words like a dam between them, trying to stem the flow of emotion hanging in the air. “I didn’t want them to know how you came to this house because I knew they would find it strange. So the first thought that popped into my head was to say you were my husband. And about kissing you like that. I truly am sorry. I don’t know what came over me. But I figured that they wouldn’t ask so many questions if I made the whole thing convincing and I…”
“No, I mean, why did you cover up for me in the first place?”
Surprised he would ask such an obvious question, Brielle fell silent for a moment. “Erik, I tend to make it a habit to stand up for my friends.”
Something angry and violent flashed across his face as he turned his gaze to the floor, brooding. “You shouldn’t have lied to the police, Brielle. People get in trouble when they lie to the police.”
“Oh? And what else should I have done? I wasn’t going to let them take you off and put you in jail!”
He growled and advanced on her then, backing her into the wall. “You should have! You don’t understand! I don’t deserve your loyalty! I don’t deserve you risking your good name for my sake!” Erik hissed, reaching out to grip her shoulders with a bruising force.
His shoulders drooped then as if a terrible weight had suddenly settled on his back. “Brielle,” he murmured raggedly. “I have to tell you something. Something terrible.”
Brielle held still in his grip, transfixed by the grave tone to his words. And when he finally raised his gaze back up to hers, she saw the horror that lived deep within the wasteland of his eyes.
“What is it?” she asked, suddenly afraid of what he might tell her.
Just as Erik opened his mouth, the front door flew open, banging against the wall with enough force to make the pictures on the wall jump. Brielle whirled in Erik’s grasp, expecting to see Le Clarke looming on her doorstep. She cursed vividly when her eyes fell not on the heavy policeman but the grinning form of her brother.
With his violin in hand Conner stepped through the doorway, a devilish smile plastered across his freckled face. “My, my I leave for two weeks and here you two are already in each other’s arms! Unhand my sister, sir!”