Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Chapter 18

Oct. 19 – 11:00am

            “Then, if you wouldn’t mind, would you take Erik his mask?”

            “Are you sure that’d be wise?” Alex took the mask gingerly. “I’m not exactly his favorite person right now, you know.” Fascinated, she trailed her fingers along the edge of the latex and marveled at how natural it felt.
            “Nonsense.” Da’ud waved away her concern. “He’s probably already regretting his outburst. When the music stops or changes, you’ll know that he’s exorcised all his demons and it’s safe to brave the lion’s den.”
            Studying every detail of the soft mask, Alex wondered what kind of life he had known that would have convinced him such an item was necessary. She wasn’t blind; she’d seen how some of her classmates in both elementary and high school treated those who were different. One year in elementary school, a girl had transferred in who’d been burned when she was a toddler. Her arms and legs were covered with the scars from the burns and grafts and she’d received her fair share of taunting remarks. Her parents withdrew her within a few months and homeschooled her. In junior high, she met a boy who’d been born with only one arm; the other tapered to a point below the elbow with a single finger-like digit. He was brilliant, handsome, charming, and was a star track runner. He was also teased and tormented by other kids, called “Stumpy” or some even going so far as to question how he accomplished certain sexual activities. Alex had summoned the courage to talk to him one day, nervous as he was by far the cutest boy in school, and they became good friends; they even dated for a while before realizing that wasn’t where their affection lay. But none of that explained Erik’s extreme sensitivity to the point he took such great care to ensure no one saw his face.
            “Da’ud…” Alex looked up from the mask in her hands to find him watching her intently. “What do you know about Erik Devereaux?” The detective settled back on the sofa and pondered what, and how much, he could tell of his friend’s past. Without knowing Erik’s wishes on the matter, he decided on a shortened version for now. Perhaps she could ask the masked man to elaborate at a later date.
            “I’m sure you’ll understand that I can’t tell you everything. Erik is a very private person and I respect his wishes. However, I can give you an abbreviated history that might explain why he is…the way he is.
            “He was born in a small town in France approximately thirty-seven years ago. No one ever discovered the identities of his birth parents as he was abandoned at the altar of a small country church with nothing but his clothing and an unsigned note from the mother. No one would take in a child whose face was as disfigured as his and so he was raised by the priests. He was a prodigy; walking before his first year, playing piano before he was three, violin at five. He could speak four languages, play six instruments, draw with the skill of a master painter, and design buildings that took your breath away and all before he was of age to shave.” Alex couldn’t conceal her surprise or her admiration. She’d known he was highly intelligent and could create music that would charm the birds from trees and make angels weep but she could never have imagined he’d be so skilled in other areas as well.
            “It sounds like a miracle, doesn’t it?” Da’ud sighed and shook his head. “The priests were scared of him. With his skills, his eyes, his voice, and his face, they ignorantly believed he was an agent of Satan come to lure them away from God. They performed what they called exorcisms which were, in reality, methods of torture; utilizing methods going back to the times of the witch trials and the Inquisition. He’d have to kneel and recite various scriptures from the bible for days without food, drink, or rest; they would strap him down and whip him with a scourge to free the devil from his blood; they’d force him to fast and then bleed him to purify his blood. By the time he was nine, he’d already seen more horrors at the hands of those idiot priests than anyone should have to suffer in a lifetime. When winter arrived that year, he knew he couldn’t take another day of torture from those who grew bored from being confined indoors through the cold months ahead. One night, there was a large dinner to celebrate the founding of the church. He used the distraction to slip into the chapel, steal all the money he could find in the collection box, and then flee to Paris.”
            Though the detective’s voice had trailed off, Alex continued to gape at the man in horror. Never would she have thought that anyone, especially those committed to the church, could treat a child in such a way. And the mother…! What kind of woman would abandon her own baby simply because it wasn’t born with a flawless face? No wonder he wore the mask and was so sensitive about it. For years, he’d been told he was a monster; it was inevitable that he would grow to believe it. She marveled at his being able to show her the kindness and care she’d received while in his home after knowing so much pain in his life. Erik was truly an amazing individual…and she owed him an apology.
            The harsh music had slowly softened during the detective’s story and Alex could feel the sadness and despair wrapped in the beautiful melody. Extending her thanks to Da’ud for giving her some insight to her host, she rose and readied herself to meet with Erik once more. Gingerly, she cradled the latex covering as if it were the greatest and most fragile of treasures and made her way to the Music Room.

Oct. 19 – 11:30am

            Damn that woman! Erik pounded a harsh cacophony of sounds as he struggled to stay away from the maddening female in his Library. He was either going to kill her or screw her and, at this moment, he didn’t care which one it would be. He knew the emotional turmoil of the past week was taking its toll on Alex but when he heard her suggest being the bait in a trap, he nearly came unglued. After all this time and she’d still not accepted how maliciously cruel these people could be. He knew there’d be no trade. The girl was dead and Alex would follow were she to place herself into their hands. A flash drive is easily duplicated; there was no securing that particular data. They could remove all who knew of it, though, along with any who might be of use in accomplishing that goal.
He could still see the hurt in her eyes when he told her that her friend was already another victim of her pursuers. He knew she didn’t want to believe him but, deep down inside, she’d known the truth since reading the message. Her later suggestion, while having some merit, was totally unacceptable. The building didn’t exist that could be secured to the degree it would need in order to keep Alex safe. They also didn’t have the manpower, especially now that Da’ud was injured. So, no, there was no way he was delivering that na├»ve child to a sniper’s crosshairs like some kind of gaily wrapped gift. And though he spoke harshly and without thinking, he knew she didn’t have a death wish and was just frustrated. The look in her eyes, though…
The music changed with his thoughts, flowing from anger to sadness as he remembered the stricken look that had quickly faded to rightful fury. Ah yes, Alexandra was a fiery little hellcat and packed more force behind that slap than he’d expected from such a slim girl. At a pause in the music, he raised his hand to touch his reddened cheek and only then noticed the absence of his mask. He had risen from the piano bench with a string of curses falling from his lips when a soft knock sounded and the door began to open. Erik froze momentarily, hoping it was the detective bringing his mask, but then he heard her voice call his name. Before she could locate him in the room, he slipped into a shadowy corner, his face concealed from her pale green gaze.

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