When I think of all of the cases I have worked on, only one stands out as the most physically and emotionally trying of them all. It happened when I had been commissioned for an Opera House. The opera Garnier, The Paris Opera House, Opera Populair, I shall leave the choice of its title to you because this gaudy building was known by many names and by one dark secret that was hidden in the bowels of the structure. Being the 'Great' Vanessa VanCartia, I am the only female detective in Paris at the time, and at risk of sounding too proud, the most successful detective, period. I have never failed in my career, not once. But that reputation for success had nearly been destroyed by my involvement with the most mysterious of men, one who bordered an enigma. He was dastardly, but good; Simple, yet complex; Clever, and yet unknowing of issues of the heart. He was a jumble of opposites, a perfect duality, and I found myself drawn to him. Only Erik had made me feel so untrained and clumsy. He had a dangerous air that was in no way an act. And my life changed on a fateful morning in 1890.
The sun shone brightly on the morning of October the fifth in 1890, flooding through the large bay windows. I was in my private library reading a new novel by Charles Dickens, when I was interrupted by a knock at the door. My maid, Natalie, entered and curtsied.
"Oh don't bother with all of that. Just tell me what it is you want," I snapped, marking my page and setting the book on my desk. I peered at my maid over a pair of reading glasses. Her face went pink with embarrassment. The poor girl had just started her employment with me and was still adjusting to my views.
To say I was a difficult mistress was an understatement. I ran my days more precisely than Pheneas Fogg. I rose at the same time every day, had my meals at the same time, and ran my life in an orderly fashion. Add onto the fact that I treated everyone like my equal, and expected to be treated the same, and you effectively had the strangest employer in the country. I hate bowing or curtsying of any kind. It is a ridiculous form of respect when a simple handshake will suffice.
"Well, Mlle. VanCartia, there is a gentleman here to see you…," Natalie began.
"Natalie, please call me Vanessa. There is no need for formalities between us," I interrupted. I noticed Natalie blush again as she stammered an apology. She then told me that the gentlemen needed to speak with me and seemed to require my services as a detective.
"Very well, tell him that I will be with him in a moment," I sighed, putting on a housecoat over my shirt, vest, and suit pants. I then headed out the door and down the hall. I entered my parlor where across from me sat a heavy set man in a plum suit and who wore the most absurd pompadour. I recognized him immediately. He was a rich business man who was trying too hard to impress our still remaining aristocracy of France.
"Detective VanCartia?" He asked nervously, rising to his feet. A hopeful gleam was in his eyes.
"I am she. How may I be of service to you Monsieur?" I shook the man's hand.
"Firmin, Richard Firmin," The man jumped at an unasked or implied question.
"Yes, I know. You are one of two managers' of the Opera Garnier, is that correct?"
"Well…yes, but how…," The Manager stuttered.
"My good man, believe me or not, you and your esteemed colleague have been the talk of the town since that fiasco of the missing diva, which I might add is still unsolved. I recognized you from the papers. Also your carriage and demeanor is that of a man of power and leadership; even if he is held in sway to the whims of a certain woman," I responded in polite condescension.
"You have got that right," He whispered to himself, "She's a nightmare." He chuckled.
'As the great Carlotta is prone to be,' I thought to myself, a small hidden smile etched across my face. It was no secret that the opera's lead singer and current diva was infamous for her temper and high maintenance ways. She was reportedly as fiery as her hair color.
"Monsieur Firmin, what exactly is the problem? I can assure you that everything said here is held in confidence," I went straight to business, all traces of amusement gone. Uncertainty fell over the manager as he fixed me with a pleading stare. He was in desperate trouble. I reached across and rested my hand on his folded ones.
"You can trust me," I encouraged, giving him a nod to say what he needed to.
"An employee of the opera has been murdered. A man named Count Francis DeSanderville," Firmin answered.
"A count was an employee of the Opera?"
"He was part patron, part production designer. We were more of a hobby to him than a job. He was an artistic soul and a good man. The Opera is in an uproar over it and we've had a hard time trying to keep everything hushed up. Who would want to kill a man so unobtrusive? All of the ballet rats keep shrieking about the culprit being the Phantom…,"
"The Phantom," I asked, "how operatic." A quiet giggle escaped from me. This scenario was starting to become far too familiar, a person taking advantage of others through clever tricks and an impressive name.
"He is no laughing matter, Mademoiselle," Firmin shot at me. "He was a scoundrel. He robbed us twice without a trace, and we never even saw him. He was also behind the Chandelier falling. Thankfully, he hasn't made his presence known in nine years. It is safe for us to assume he's dead. We haven't heard from him since the last incident."
"That is because Detective Mifroid was on the case, and he is nothing better than a novice," I said, not bothering to hide my harsh criticism. I went over to the mantle and poured to glasses of cognac. I then continued while handing one of the glasses to the manager.
"Monsieur, I do not advise you to believe that your assumption is at all well founded. This 'phantom' may not have been active for several years, but that doesn't in any way prove that he is, in fact, dead."
"So you believe that it was a ghost that killed poor Francis too?" Firmin spoke up quickly, protective anger written on his face.
"No. The Phantom is a man of flesh and blood who assumed the title in order to manipulate others. It is nothing more than a façade. You know this, I know this, and all of Paris knows this. After all, He did appear in one of your shows, did he not?" I answered calmly, "Now, if you will permit me, I would like to handle this case."
"Please do. The police are already working the case and have so far turned up nothing useful. I would feel more comfortable knowing that a detective such as you was also working on catching the culprit," Richard rambled. "But as to regards of your fee…."
"It won't be inexpensive. It will be 2,000 francs up front and an additional 100 francs per week that I work the case. You must have no fears that I will cheat you of your hard earned money sir. I am an honest woman; it is the same for anyone who wishes for my services." I cut him off with a tone that said no exceptions.
"2,000 francs!" Firmin exclaimed. "I could hire ten other detectives for that amount…"
"Other detectives are indeed less expensive than I, but none of them have the skill or abilities as I do. If you want the job done right and an arrest involved, you had best grit your teeth and bear it," I said coldly, steepling my finger tips together as I stared at Firmin's exasperated features.
"Oh very well…," Monsieur Firmin sighed, defeated.
"Wonderful," I said cheerily as I wrote out a simple contract. I signed it with a flourish before turning to the Manager.
"I'll be there tomorrow morning. I'm pleased that we could come to this agreement," I handed the paper to the frazzled man as I lead him to the door and watched as his brougham pulled down the street. I entered the house and smiled. I had a case that seemed ready to exercise my full ability. Later that night I sat in the parlor watching the fire flicker on the grate.
"Madame," the voice of my butler, Johann, interrupted my wandering train of thought. "This arrived for you."
I took an envelope labeled to Vanessa VanCartia, personal from his outstretched hand. Contained within was my upfront payment. I was officially on the case.
The next morning was cold with a drizzle of rain falling continually. It was a sure sign that winter was around the corner. I made my way up the icy marble steps of the popular Opera House. I will admit that it was a bit grand for me. The French doors were made of dark cherry wood and gleamed with an over polished shine. The sarancolin columns of the main foyer and lobby supported a mountainous grand staircase. Crystal chandeliers hung every couple of feet down the corridors to the boxes. It was all together too much opulence for my conservative tastes. I handed my sopping hat and coat to a coat room attendant as I examined my surroundings.
"Excuse me," I said, grabbing a passing official by the elbow. He did a double take as he noticed that I was a woman dressed as a man. I arched an eyebrow, silently daring him to say anything about it. He raised a hand in a passive gesture, clearly getting the picture.
"Would you be so kind as to tell me where I may find the managers?"
"They are in the auditorium." The man responded, running to the administration wing.
I thanked the man as he pelted around the corner. The sound of shouting echoed down the Grand Staircase.
Great, just what I need, a singer with a permanent bad attitude.
There was bound to be a conflict. For some reason simpering, sly women who manipulated others to get what they wanted just angered me. Carlotta was one of those women. Oh she worked alright… at whining.
I climbed the stairs and meandered my way into the auditorium. Inside I witnessed firsthand the validity of Carlotta's rumors. I braced myself against the back wall and watched the scene unfold.
"Where ees mah doggie, I want my doggie," The red head shouted at the top of her lungs.
This should be interesting, I thought. As I mused the woman began barging down the aisle, but halted when she saw me. I immediately went defensive.
"Ou ees she?"
"I'm the detective, Signora."
"Ou 'ave already hired my replacement?" the diva screeched, clearly having not heard me.
"Madame, Please…," I responded scathingly, cutting through her decibels surprisingly well. "I would never stoop so low as to ruin my reputation." The assembly fell silent, most looking like they were about to burst into laughter. Everyone, except Carlotta, that is.
"Ow dare you! Do you know who ah am?" The singer exclaimed, puffing up with injured hubris.
"Yes I know who you are. You aren't even worth my time." I patronized, smugly guiding Carlotta to the door, opening it for her to the lobby.
"Ah ave never been so rudely treated in my life." I watched the woman flounce out the door with her retinue and shut it behind her. Silence filled the auditorium.
"I do hope that hasn't hurt the opera." I sighed after a moment. I felt the two Managers squeeze their way through the crowd that had begun to blossom on the stage.
"Don't worry about it. She'll be back tomorrow after she cools her heels." Firmin's familiar bass assured. I turned to face him. I could see that he was impressed by my boldness with Carlotta. Well, someone needed to make her understand her place.
"Monsieur, may I speak with you and your partner?"
"What it is it?"
"Just a few minor notes, sirs," I began. "Number one, I request that the crime scene remains strictly off limits. Number two, I'll need to see the witnesses, and they will have to be placed on administrative leave…."
"There are no witnesses…" The second Manager, Moncharmin I believe his name was, cut in. He fixed me with a clever blue eyed gaze.
"Damn," I muttered. "Well, Gentlemen, Please lead me to the crime scene." The two managers nodded in affirmation, and lead me to a spot that had been roped off so… er…creatively, that I knew immediately that the police had been there. I reset the situation mentally as I listened to the manager's description of it.
"We found him late at night with a broken neck, obviously from a fall from the catwalks, the police think it's a suicide, like Joseph Buquet's all those years ago."
"This was odd, seeing as he was a perfectly happy man." Moncharmin added.
"But what was even stranger was that he was found with an expression of surprise on his face. We personally conjecture that Francis had been having an affair with one of the dancers or employees and a jealous lover killed him after…" Firmin continued.
"He had been with the woman," I finished his sentence. "Well, gentlemen, you have a murder on your hands. This has all the earmarks of one."
Now to find who said murderer was. As I thought this Moncharmin expressed my concern, "But, whom?"
I headed out of the building, slipping my hat and coat on. There were many cases a year involving suicide; this clearly wasn't one of them. All of the signs were there. I wasn't so sure that it was the lady's other lover, as the managers put it, which had killed the Count. But whom indeed, a friend of the adulterous pair, or the woman herself? And what of this mysterious Phantom of the Opera that the management seemed to be so terrified of? That was a side case I intended to solve. I stalked through the soaked streets to the police department determined to get the evidence. Without it I wouldn't have a case to build upon. Not long after leaving the Opera I saw the police building loom into sight. I raced across the street, trying to avoid the puddles of rain. I hurried through the oak doors and headed to the Chief Inspector's office. I wasn't at all excited about seeing the man. We had never gotten along. In Fact, He was the reason I was a private investigator instead of working for the city. I approached the secretary.
"Tell Chief Inspector Ledoux that I wish to see him."
"No need, I already know." An unpleasant voice responded behind me. I turned coolly to see Christophe Ledoux glaring at me, a stack of files in the crook of one arm. His dark brunette hair was slicked back to an oily shine, and his brown eyes held disdain.
"What do you want?" he asked as he walked to his office. I followed on his heels. Ledoux's office was in its usual disarray. Paperwork was scattered all over the desk. Ledoux sat down and began to start his work.
"I need the evidence for The DeSanderville case. I've been hired by the Opera." I stated my request as civilly as possible despite the fact that I was starting to get rankled.
"I heard about that. I must say that I'm not impressed by their choice. The evidence to that case belongs to the police department. Unless you have a notice from a judge, I'm not giving you anything. Good Day, Mademoiselle."
"I'm working the same case, I need that evidence."
"No. Besides, how can a woman hope to solve this case when we weren't able to identify a culprit?" Ledoux sneered, finally granting me the honor of his full attention. I gave him a death glare to chastise the devil himself.
"Excuse me?" I was so utterly livid, I could barely speak.
"You heard me. A woman's place is in the home, being a mother." Ledoux said.
"Can we skip this part of the dance please? You've made your opinion of women's roles clear to me years ago." I snapped, pointing an accusatory finger at him. "Let me just say this, Christophe. We are entering a new century where women are going to play more vital roles in society. I suggest you, and your medieval thinking, catch up. Now, I need that evidence so I can once again finish the job you started."
"I told you, get a warrant, or I'm not handing them over."
"GIVE ME THE DAMN EVIDENCE!"
* * * *
(As written by Erik)
I sat laughing in the manager's office as I left a note for them. It was obvious that all of the Opera employees' thoughts were flooded and muddled. Come to think about it, so were mine. Slightly. Who was this detective, really? She was so bizarre, judging by what I'd seen unfolding on stage. I had to commend her for standing up to the Banshee. When Mademoiselle Le Inspecteur appeared in the auditorium, it was almost a scene from a comedy. The contrast against the feminine extravagance of la Carlotta was so stark the whole Opera House knew that Mademoiselle Le Inspecteur wasn't like other people (let alone other women). Even I sensed that she wasn't a woman to play games with. I knew something had to be done to keep her from poking around where she didn't belong. The sound of voices drew me from my thoughts. I ducked into the secret passage behind the oak bureau, leaving a crack to listen through. I heard Firmin apologize for hiring such an expensive private investigator as the two idiotic managers entered the ornate office.
"Nonsense, Richard, I trust your choice." Moncharmin responded, sitting at the mahogany desk. "After our last run in with you-know- who, I know you wouldn't place the Opera's assets in danger."
Well speak of the devil, I smirked, knowing that Moncharmin was talking about me. I hadn't thought I had left that deep of an impression on those two.
As Richard sat down, rifling through the mail the secretary handed him, he suddenly froze, his gaze fixated on a letter addressed in red ink and sealed with a red wax skull. I grinned in satisfaction. Their jaws dropped at the same time and their complexions turned to a pale mottled porridge, as the first letter they had received from me in ten years took its full presence. To them I was a ghost back from the grave, to me; it was a reclaiming of my power and influence over this theater.
"You read it."
"No you read it."
"No, no, you read it, I insist."
"No, I insist."
Finally, Moncharmin opened the letter and began to read aloud.
My dear Directors,
I have noticed a detective in the backstage area of the Opera. While what you do with your business is no longer any of my concern, I insist that you warn her to not cross me or you will find more than the Count's death on your hands. Be sure to follow my instructions this time. To a better understanding.
Your obedient friend and servant,
Their blood froze. I could see it clearly. Moncharmin turned to Firmin and simply handed him the letter. Moncharmin waited as Firmin reread the note.
"Well, what do you think of the situation?" he asked.
"He's not asking for much, now is he?" Firmin mused. "Why not cater to his wishes?" they nodded to each other and continued their day, certain that somewhere in the shadows, a fiend was watching, a wicked smile on his face. Me.