Disclaimer: Most of the characters and situations in this story belong to Alliance Atlantis, CBS, Anthony Zuicker and other entities, and I do not have permission to borrow them. No infringement is intended in any way, and this story is not for profit. All others belong to me, and if you want to play with them, you have to ask me first. Any errors are mine, all mine, no you can't have any.
Spoilers: through "Lady Heather's Box"
A very belated birthday present for Cincoflex. Happy birthday, dearest!
She was a classy lady, no doubt about it.
Brass watched her step through the door, and took his time looking her over--from saucy heels up the great legs, past the expensive suit, to the velvet hat with its bit of netting. Brilliant eyes over a lush pout told him that this dame was beautiful; the cock of her head told him she meant business.
"You looking for me?" the detective rasped, hiding his interest, personal and professional. Never let them see you sweat, that was his motto.
The lady put one gloved hand on her hip and looked him over in turn. The detective knew he didn't look like a hero--he was balding, aging, and tired, too many long nights and failures weighing him down.
But then, he didn't pretend to be a hero.
"I am Madame Bruyère," she said, and the low husky voice with its enticing accent sent a thrill up Brass' spine. "I wish to hire you."
The detective leaned back in his chair. He knew who she was; few people in this burg didn't. But hers wasn't a name spoken in polite society, so to speak. Still, beggars couldn't be choosy, and the rent on his dump of an office was coming due soon.
Besides, she was rich. Rich enough, in fact, that he had to wonder why she was coming to a broken-down old gumshoe like himself.
"What's your problem, missy?" he asked. "Jewels gone missing? A little blackmail, maybe?"
The lustrous green eyes narrowed. "Someone is trying to kill me."
The detective sighed, disappointed. Dames--always overreacting. It was probably just someone blowing off steam. "Go to the police. I'm not a bodyguard."
Brass expected her to start crying, or more likely flounce out the door, but instead the Madame hissed slightly. "They will not listen to me. My reputation--they do not care what happens to me or my girls."
Brass wasn't surprised. Dirty cops were everywhere.
"So, what, did somebody send you a little love note? Afraid you'll tell his wife?" Dealing with women always made him want a drink, but that was nothing new. The little flask in his pocket would have to wait.
One slender dark brow rose loftily. "My...business...has seen two unexplained fires in the last month. And recently someone tried to run me off the road."
The detective frowned. That was more serious than a guy panicking over his undercover activities, as it were. And part of the Madame's reputation was her head for business.
"Hmph." He eyed her judiciously. She made good money, that was for sure, and it wasn't like he was any kind of angel himself. He named his fee, adding a little extra on for the trouble, and she didn't even flinch.
"Agreed." The Madame opened her handbag and counted out the bills equal to a day's work, and tossed them on his desk. "An advance, if you start at once."
Well, he couldn't pass up an offer like that. The detective made the money disappear, then stood and gathered his gun and hat. "Shall we?"
Her car was long and as sleek as the dame herself; the muscleboy behind the wheel wore a suit twice as expensive as the detective's, and his face might have been honest once, but no longer. "Home, Nicholas," the Madame instructed, and the car pulled away from the curb. The detective sat back in the cushy seat.
Brass caught himself looking for champagne, but the ride was short, and before too long the car was pulling up in front of the mansion that the Madame called home. Nicholas was out and opening the car door for her before the detective could even sit forward.
The place was quiet in the daylight, though Brass knew it would come alive with lights and feminine laughter as soon as the sun went down. The detective followed the Madame into the plush interior, and she guided him to a private parlour--as luxuriously appointed as the rest of the place, but with a desk and chairs instead of couches.
She went immediately to the bar. "Would you care for a drink, Detective?"
He shook his head reluctantly--bad idea to drink on the job, at least in front of the client. "I'll pass. Why don't you tell me more about these…attacks?"
The Madame seated herself gracefully, crossing her gorgeous legs and setting down a glass that seemed to hold mostly tonic water.
"The fires first, or the car?"
Brass found himself fascinated by the way her lips touched the rim of the cut crystal. She arched a brow.
The detective cleared his throat and reached for an inner pocket, pulling out a small notepad and a pencil. "Let's take it in order, huh?"
She bowed her head, an elegant nod. "The first fire was small, and frankly we thought nothing of it at the time. It began in the trash heap and we all assumed that it was nothing more than someone's unsmothered cigar."
The detective nodded, jotting. Half of what he wrote was observations of the lady and the room; he would have no trouble remembering the story she was telling him.
"How do you know that one wasn't an accident?"
The Madame gave him a long, level stare, as though weighing his words. "I do not," she said at last, "not for certain. But we are always very careful about such things, and normally ashtrays are emptied into the ashpit rather than the trash, for just such a reason."
"Mistakes happen," the detective said, more to see her reaction than because he truly doubted her words.
"They do." Madame Bruyère set down her glass and reached for the cigarette case on the table next to the chair, opening it and selecting one with long and elegant fingers. She offered the case to the detective, but for some reason he found himself refusing.
The Madame made a ritual of closing the case and lighting the cigarette with the matching table lighter; Brass figured it was habit by now, one that was part of her every day. Someone in her trade always had to keep up appearances.
She pulled in the smoke and slowly exhaled, then looked back to him. "The second fire was set at the base of the house, along the back. Someone piled leaves and lit them, and if my gardener had not returned for his forgotten gloves, the house could have burnt to the ground." She took another drag on the cigarette. "Fortunately he was able to extinguish it using the hose. The fire department would have taken too long to arrive."
"Lucky timing," the detective observed dryly.
The Madame's eyes narrowed and she tapped the ash from her cigarette. "If you are implying that my gardener set it himself, you are wrong. He has worked his whole life for my family and is completely loyal."
Brass snorted silently, knowing exactly how much loyalty was worth. The detective shrugged. "What about the car? I didn't see any damage on that machine out there."
She shook her head. "Not that one. I have a smaller car for more…personal use. Last night I was on my way back home, just after sunset, and became aware that someone was following me without headlamps."
"Where was this?" The detective flipped to a fresh page.
"East of town, on Grampion."
He nodded. That area was still country, and the road was unpaved. "What happened?"
The Madame shrugged coolly. "It was a larger car. The driver came up behind me, driving too closely, and when I tried to pull aside to let him pass, he would not."
She picked up the cigarette, her hand steady, but somehow Brass knew she was not unaffected by the memory. "He followed me for about two miles, I think, and then when we neared the bridge at Runyon he drove up next to me and swerved, forcing my car to the right."
She paused for a puff, then went on. "I believe he was trying to force my car down into the stream just ahead of the bridge, since the bridge itself is too narrow for two vehicles. But I was able to keep control and only slid partway from the road."
The detective was silent for a moment, thinking. He could see why the police wouldn't take her seriously. The attempted wreck sounded like an impatient and clumsy driver; one of the fires could easily have been an accident, and the other just a spot of amateur arson.
Still, taken all together…
There was a knock on the parlour door, and then it opened to reveal a stern Valkyrie blonde in a dress that somehow stirred the mind to martial thoughts. She carried a tray.
"On the table, please," the Madame said, and the blonde slid it expertly into place, moving the ashtray with her other hand. The tray held all the makings for tea, including a small plate of sandwiches and another of tiny cakes. Between the plates was a small beribboned box.
The Madame looked up at the Valkyrie, arching one perfect brow; though not, Brass thought, in censure.
The woman straightened, her face without expression. "A gift, Madame. Anonymous."
The Madame's lips curved in a smile Brass could only call fond. "Another admirer? Very well. Thank you, Sofia."
The Valkyrie somehow gave the impression of bowing without actually doing so, and withdrew. Her mistress rubbed out her cigarette and sat forward. "Tea, detective?"
He eyed the dainty setup with slight misgiving, but it seemed churlish to refuse. "Sure, why not."
The atmosphere was getting to him, Brass thought.
The Madame poured, inquired as to his preferences in sugar, lemon, and milk, and passed him the cup and a small plate of dainty sandwiches. The cakes, he deduced, were for later.
She poured a cup for herself, but then took the little box onto her lap and undid the ribbon, smiling again as the contents were revealed. The detective leaned forward a little to see.
"Do you get a lot of presents?" he asked.
The Madame dipped into the box and lifted out one, examining it with the care of a connoisseur. "Bonbons, yes, and flowers--many of my customers are appreciative."
She lifted it to her lips. With a sudden surge of alarm, the detective leaned forward and knocked the sweet from her hand.
It probably wasn't often, Brass thought, that anyone saw the Madame truly astonished. She gaped at the man opposite her, eyes wide. "Detective!"
He took the box from her lap and held it gingerly. "Anonymous," he said grimly. "This could be another attempt on your life."
She blinked twice, and Brass could see the protest rising in her face, but she was a sensible woman. She sat back, her expression going still and cold. "I see."
The Doc was an eccentric, absentminded oddity of a man, but he was the detective's solution to all questions chemical or medical. When presented with the box of chocolates he slipped on his glasses and took up the challenge with a degree of enthusiasm that would have been frightening in anyone not so palpably harmless.
The detective decided to hang around and watch this time; sometimes Doc's experiments could take forever, but the scientist had assured him that tests for poisons were simple. He leaned against the wall out of the way and watched the man putter around his lab, grinding up a chocolate and dripping arcane substances into test tubes and beakers.
The detective never could figure out why Doc wasn't working at some lab somewhere, or at the least teaching at a big university. Not that he needed money--he'd married an heiress--but it seemed a bit of a waste somehow. But the man seemed happy messing around working on weird experiments at home, and that at least meant that he was available for these...ahem...sub rosa consultations.
And didn't charge much either.
Finally Doc's mutterings changed from abstracted to triumphant. He scribbled on a sheet of paper, then slid off his glasses and turned, starting a bit as he spotted the detective across the room. "Oh, you're still here."
"Yep." The detective unfolded his arms and straightened. "What's the word?"
"Prussic acid," Doc said cheerfully. "Quite a lot, actually--one of these would kill a full-grown man. Normally, of course, one would detect the odor, but the scent of the chocolate covers that. Clever, to use bittersweet."
"Yeah, clever," the detective growled. Whatever doubts he might have had about the Madame's concerns were now gone, replaced by grim purpose. She was right; someone was trying to kill her.
And it was his job to stop them.
He paid Doc the usual fee, taking the box back; the man had offered to dispose of the poisoned candy, but the detective didn't put it past Doc to put the box down and forget about it, and then eat one in a fit of absentmindedness. Or, worse still, offer one to his wife.
As if summoned, she blew into the lab like a gust of fresh wind, tall and starry-eyed. She waved at the detective in passing, leaning over a counter to give her husband a decorous kiss on the cheek. He beamed at her.
It should have turned his stomach, but Brass couldn't help thinking the scientist a lucky bastard to have won such a gem. Doc's young wife was smart and charming, and while not beautiful in the conventional style, she definitely caught the eye and held it. "Are you staying for dinner?" she asked brightly, coming around the bench to link her arm through Doc's.
The detective shook his head regretfully. "Gotta get back to work. Thanks for the invite, though."
"Next time," she said easily, and turned to her husband. "My dear, just wait until you see what I've found--"
The detective left them to her raptures of historical discovery.
He found the mansion at night an interesting place, sure. The Madame had insisted that work go on as usual, not that he had tried to convince her otherwise; her going into hiding would just make her stalker harder to catch. Instead, the detective took a place in her capacious parlor and pretended to be a customer, observing the others who passed through from behind a screen of shadow and the glass in his hand--mostly untouched. The ladies of the house didn't know precisely why he was there, but they did know that he wasn't looking for the entertainment they offered, so they left him mostly alone.
Once in a while one would come by to chat for a moment, teasing sweetly and perching on the arm of his chair or the footstool at his feet, and he was never sure if it was habit on their part or orders from Madame as part of his disguise. He didn't mind, though; the detective knew it was all business, but the girls' smiles seemed genuine enough, and it felt good to have the attention of a pretty young thing, even for just a minute or so.
That didn't keep him from watching, though.
It was noteworthy, the detective thought, how many men came through those doors that he recognized. Even more noteworthy how many were well-respected, powerful, and of the class who would snub the Madame should they meet her on the street in broad daylight. But she welcomed them all with the cool graciousness of the perfect hostess, and Brass admired her poise.
All the more so when it was possible that any one of them might be trying to kill her.
The detective saw nothing suspicious that night, and went to bed when the house shut down at almost four in the morning, in a handsomely appointed guest room in the Madame's private quarters. He'd already had a quiet word with the gardener and his assistants, and agreed with her assessment; these men were loyal. The mere notion of someone trying to harm Madame or mansion had their eyes flashing and their spines straightening, hands tightening on hoe and shovel.
So he had recruited them into a rough guard, promising them extra wages, and went to sleep knowing that the mysterious attacker would find fire, at least, a difficult weapon.
For almost a week the detective waited and watched, using the daylight hours to put an ear to the ground and listen for hints of anyone who might wish Madame Bruyère not merely gone from town but gone from the realm of the living.
In that time, he found frustratingly little about her possible enemies, but learned a great deal about the Madame and her business. He'd made assumptions--who hadn't?--but the reality was both sadder and less sordid than he'd imagined.
Take Nicholas, for instance. The powerful man had been a farmboy gone to war, a POW returned a shadow of himself. He'd been intent on drinking himself to death when the Madame had found him and recruited him to her service, bodyguard and driver. Now he had sworn off liquor and served her with a chaste and burning devotion.
The ladies who worked at the mansion had the same air of lost innocence. Many were not as young as they appeared, and the detective grew to recognize their names and faces, learning scraps of story. One a wife cast off, another a girl pregnant out of wedlock and abandoned by her family; few came to the life because they enjoyed it. Still, they were paid well and cared for, and were free to leave if they chose. They had formed a little family of their own, disdained and shadowy as it was.
The Madame, too, became less of an enigma. The night she invited him to call her by her first name was the night that the detective got the feeling that she was learning just as much, if not more, about him, but oddly enough he didn't care. She was a smart woman and disdained the artificial mannerisms of most of the females he knew, instead relying in private on a direct gaze and direct words. She regarded him as an equal, and he found himself respecting that.
And if there was anyone who could understand a shameful past, it was the Madame.
By the third night, he was having tea in her private parlour before the house was open, and by the fourth they were talking as the sun rose in the sky, not yet willing to retire to bed. The detective had barely seen his office in days, let alone his own small set of rooms, but it didn't seem to matter.
On the seventh night, it all shattered.
Just that afternoon the detective had heard rumors that one of the Madame's former customers--banished for roughing up the merchandise--had indiscreetly declared that he would get even. But no one had been prepared for his methods.
The makeshift torch flung through the window brought instant chaos, but between Nicholas and one of the smarter girls, the fire was brought quickly under control. It was while the detective watched Nicholas smother the flames with a throw rug that he realized that it was a perfect distraction.
It took him only seconds to run hell-for-leather towards the Madame's private rooms, but as he neared the door the detective slowed, his steps muffled by the thick carpet. The door to her private parlour was open--which it never was at night.
Peering into the lit room beyond, Brass saw the Madame seated in a chair, still poised despite the man leaning over her. He was shouting furiously, and the detective could see the tension in her, the almost imperceptible lean away from the threat.
Drawing his gun, he pushed the door open. The sight of the stalker awakened a primitive fury in him, one he hadn't felt since he was young, turning him into a predator. Moving silently, he stalked into the room, praying that if the Madame spotted him past the bulk of her attacker's body she would not give him away.
When the man reached into a pocket and came out with a switchblade, however, the time for stealth was over.
The blade had just popped free of the case when the detective pressed the muzzle of his gun against the back of the stalker's neck. "Drop it."
As he'd thought, the man was essentially a coward. After a moment's hesitation, the blade thudded on the carpet.
"Hands behind your head," the detective ordered, making the stalker kneel on the floor but still keeping the gun trained on him. The man spat curses but didn't move.
The Madame leaned over and pressed a hidden button on the underside of the table next to her chair, then sat back, white and drained. "Are you all right?" the detective asked, concerned, but she shook her head.
"I am now."
Within moments the room was full of rescuers summoned by the silent alarm, Nicholas leading a crew of women and servers armed with fireplace pokers, vases, and--in Nicholas' case--a small snub-nosed pistol. The attacker was bound roughly and the police were summoned.
It was a long and tedious time, explaining things several times over to the police, enduring their snubs and suspicious looks, but apparently having a license was still worth something in that town because in the end the stalker was taken away. The detective, feeling worn and old, headed home. There was no reason to stay, not with the Madame safe and in the tender care of her people.
He slept most of the day away, and spent the evening with a bottle of Scotch, but in the morning he was back in place at his desk, waiting to see what the day would bring. At least he didn't have to worry about the rent for a while--
When she came through the door, the Madame looked much the same as she had the first time, oozing sensuality and class. The detective looked at her and found himself rising slowly to his feet.
"I came to thank you," she said, and he shook his head, unable to look away from those lustrous eyes.
"I was just doing my job."
She stepped forward and trailed a hand along the desk until it reached his own, braced on the edge. The kid glove was soft against his skin. "Yes. But that was not all you were doing."
As if under a spell, the detective took her into his arms. The green eyes, the lush mouth, so close, he couldn't look away--
Brass blinked, the spell broken. He looked up to see his wife in the kitchen, her arms full of bags. Picking up the remote, he shut off the television and got up to help unload the groceries.
"You didn't have to do that," Heather protested as he left the living room, but he grinned at her, taking the bags and putting them on the counter.
"Hey, real life is much better than old movies." Gathering her into his arms, he leaned down and captured her mouth. The hand that reached up to stroke through his hair was bare, but the kiss was just as sweet as any on the screen, and considerably hotter.
When he released Heather, she didn't let him go. "You know, none of the groceries are perishable."
"No kidding?" Brass let an eyebrow go up, then went on impulse. Bending, he swept an arm behind her knees and lifted her off her feet.
Heather squealed, a sound he loved but rarely heard outside the bedroom. "You're in a mood tonight."
Brass started towards the bedroom, savoring every step. He didn't think he'd ever been so happy. "You betcha."
Heather leaned up and kissed his jawline. "I'll find the gloves."
He laughed, and kicked the bedroom door closed behind them.