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Authors: Louise Marley

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BOOK: The Brahms Deception
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“You should take your parasol,” he said absently. “The sun is bright this morning.”
His attention had already returned to his music before she unfurled the parasol waiting inside the door and stepped out into the brilliant sunshine. As she walked to the garden gate, the notes of the second movement of the quartet trailed after her. She paused, one hand on the scrolled iron, and wished that this moment, in this place, could last forever. She wished she could stay here, in this narrow little house, in this narrow little village, with nothing to worry about but what to eat for dinner and nothing to do but listen to Hannes's music and make love to him every night.
It could not be, of course. There were obstacles ahead. She might wish to stay here forever, but Hannes would not. He could not.
She lifted her chin, and set her teeth in that way her father had always said meant trouble for everyone around her. It was probably a very un-Clara expression, but the challenges she faced were infinitely more complicated than any Clara had dealt with. Everyone thought Clara such a tragic figure, but what did she know of the complexities of modern life, the standards by which women were judged in the harsh world of the twenty-first century? Clara had borne her tragedies, it was true. But she had lived her life as a prodigy and a beauty, a woman admired and desired wherever she went.
No, Clara would never have been strong enough to do what Frederica had done. That was obvious, surely, by the ease with which Frederica had won their battles.
It wasn't over yet, but it soon would be. She, Frederica, would need every ounce of the toughness her father admired and her mother deplored, but she would have what she wanted.
She pushed open the gate, and walked through.
She turned right, toward the postbox set into the wall of the tiny shop opposite Casa Settembre. Nuncia had told her where to find it. She had the letter in her hand, a letter she had painstakingly copied over and over, imitating Clara's handwriting, practicing until she thought it was nearly perfect. The letter was addressed to Clara's agents, in response to one of the letters that had been lying unanswered on the writing desk. It announced the cancellation of all Clara Schumann's upcoming concerts.
As she walked down the narrow lane, she touched her lips with her tongue, still tasting the strong coffee Nuncia had brewed. She took a breath, and felt the restricting pressure of the corset on her ribs and stomach. Her long skirts trailed on the dirty cobblestones, and she knew she would have to learn how to clean them, how to clean her soft shoes, how to live as a woman of a different century.
That didn't matter now. What mattered was this letter, written on Clara's embossed stationery, addressed with the proper pen dipped into the proper inkwell. Every detail of her life was going to be perfect, as soon as she took the final step.
Clara sensed the decisiveness in the demon as it put its foot—
her
foot—outside the garden of Casa Agosto. She had lain as quietly as she could for a whole day now, watching, waiting. She had endured the demon's wantonness of the nighttime hours, had tried to blunt her senses to the excess of lust. She huddled into a corner beneath the shroud of darkness the demon had laid over her. She was the little girl in the cupboard once again, hiding from someone bigger and stronger. She lay still, pretending submission, and prayed for her chance.
This might be it. She sensed the demon's preoccupation. She knew there was a letter, and she knew what it said, because as the demon copied the words over and over it murmured them aloud. That letter was going to destroy her future. She couldn't let it go on its way. It would dismantle the career she had been building since she was nine years old. She would have to fight against this with all her strength.
She crouched in her corner, wary as an unwanted kitten, and waited.
The demon reached the postbox. It reached up with its hand, ready to drop the letter in. There was no time to lose. The critical moment was at hand, the climax of the battle between them. The demon was about to destroy her music as well as her life.
Clara gathered all her energy. She meant to burst forth, all at once, hoping that the element of surprise would help her. She would draw on every strength she had. Her love for Marie, and all the children. Her love for her music. Her love for Robert's memory, and her love even for Hannes, because although he had been unfaithful to her, he had not known it. He was all unaware that it was a demon that seized him so wildly, that drained him of all restraint. The stakes were far greater than one small song, burned to cinders in the garden. Her very life was at stake.
She held herself still, very still and small, and then leaped upward with all the force of her heart and soul. She felt the demon's grip loosen, like sweaty hands trying to grasp a doorknob. It grunted, a most unfeminine sound, and staggered.
Clara rejoiced! Her hands and feet were restored to her; her head and breast were her own. She felt the sun warming her neck and felt the rough cobblestones of the street beneath her shoes. For one brilliant moment, she could see from her own eyes! She grasped the letter, and tore it in half, and half again. She turned her face up to the sky, and drew a deep, enriching breath. The world had never looked more beautiful. The light dazzled her eyes. The scents of the Italian spring filled her nose, and her lungs opened to the sweet air.
The moment of brightness made the subsequent darkness all the more bitter. She barely had time to draw another breath before a weight more oppressive than any she had known before bore down on her. It was like being run over by a carriage and four, dashed into the dust by wheels and hooves.
She was not strong enough. She was overmatched, though she had thrown everything she had into the fray. The demon was both ruthless and powerful, and the combination was more than Clara could resist.
She had time only to emit a single agonized cry before she was crushed beneath an unrelenting pressure. The spark of her spirit wavered like the flame of a single candle, struggling to stay alive. A heartbeat later, two vicious fingers came down upon it to pinch it into oblivion.
 
She was gone. It was done. Frederica was sure of it.
She felt a certain grudging respect for the efforts of her opponent. Clara's onslaught had sent her stumbling, off balance, nearly falling. For one terrible moment she could not see, could not feel her hands and feet or taste the flower-perfumed air. Now she steadied herself with her hands against the stone wall beside her. She felt its roughness through her cotton gloves, and the texture of the sun-warmed cobblestones beneath her feet. She smelled the bread baking in the bakery down the street, and garlic frying from one of the houses. Her head still spun, but it was
her
head, and as she clung to the wall she knew the vertigo would pass soon enough.
It had almost gotten away from her. She had come perilously close to losing everything. She thought there might have been a noise, a shout perhaps, but she couldn't be certain. An elderly woman in a faded straw bonnet, passing her in the narrow street, came forward with her hands out, a look of concern on her wrinkled face.
Frederica shook her head.
“Sto bene,”
she said.
The woman dropped her hands. Frederica managed a weak smile, and the woman turned away, muttering to herself. Frederica bent to pick up her dropped parasol, and with it the fragments of the letter.
She straightened carefully, still a little dizzy. She dusted her gloves against her thighs, and assessed herself. She found nothing amiss. The dizziness subsided a bit. Her breathing was steady. In that deep corner where Clara had hidden herself, had lain in wait for her chance, there was nothing. No spark, no quiver, no vibration of a grieving mother. Nothing.
Frederica put the parasol on her shoulder again. The letter was ruined, but that didn't matter. She could write it again and send it later. It didn't change anything.
She wondered if she would eventually feel guilt for what she had done. At the moment she felt nothing but relief, but still—she had just extinguished a life, or what was left of it. She expected to feel
something
. She was not, after all, a monster.
On unsteady feet, she turned to walk back to Casa Agosto, supporting herself on the high wall beside her, then on the low one around the garden. She trembled with adrenaline, rather as she sometimes felt just before going out onstage to play a recital. She was not happy, exactly, but neither was she unhappy. She was—
She was overwhelmingly, intensely
alive
. And she meant to stay that way.
15
Kristian found he couldn't bear to go back to the unsympathetic environment of the transfer clinic. Instead, he turned left down the street and followed it until it wound around to the restaurant at the edge of the village. The rain had eased to a fine mist, dampening his hair and slicking his leather jacket.
The restaurant was called Da Ildo, and it looked inviting. He could see the white tablecloths and the ubiquitous coffee bar from the sidewalk. He dug his hands into his pockets to see if he had any money. All he had were a few dollars. He had forgotten to change them for euros at the airport. He had his credit card, though, and he thought they might take that.
He hoped he had made his last payment. He couldn't remember when it was due.
Da Ildo was a charming place, sunlit and airy, with scattered tables, a wall full of wine bottles, and the simplest of wooden furnishings. It was empty, a little early for the Italians who would lunch there, but a clash of pots and pans in the back told him the kitchen staff was working. The
signora
who met him gave him a small table near a window, in a patch of cool sunlight. She supplied him with a basket of flat bread and a saucer of olive oil. He ordered an
insalata mista
and a bowl of
linguine con pesto
. His hostess smiled approval at a young man's appetite. Without asking, she brought him a brown pottery pitcher of the local wine, with a thick glass. He poured the glass full. The wine was white, but it had a faint lemon cast to it. It seemed to sparkle in the sunshine, to reflect and absorb it. He tasted it, finding it delicate and slightly grassy, the sort of flavor that wouldn't travel well. He drank half of the glassful before his first course arrived.
He was halfway through his salad and nearly all the way through the carafe of wine when Chiara appeared and pulled a chair up opposite him. He put down his fork. “Chiara! This is a surprise.”
“I have looked for you everywhere,” she said. A worried crease marred the smooth skin of her forehead, and her curly hair was uncharacteristically controlled by a single large clasp. Fronds of it still fell over her forehead, but her throat was exposed. She had thrown her blazer over her usual jeans and sweater, contriving to look both professional and very young. He liked the way she looked.
“I'm sorry,” he said, with sincerity. “I didn't mean to worry you. I had this talk with Dr. Braunstein—”
“Oh, yes, I know. We all know.”
He made a wry face. “You heard us, I suppose.”
“We heard you,” she said mildly.
He laughed. “I should have figured.” The glow of the wine had softened his mood and dispelled his temper. “I suppose that was the end of it. My last chance.”
“Perhaps.”
“I was going to come and look for you,” he said. The hostess brought a glass for Chiara and a fresh carafe of wine, and he poured for her. “I just thought I'd calm down a bit first. And—” He gestured at the food in front of him, and grinned. “I was hungry.”
“Good! The food is very good here.”
“It's delicious. So is the wine.”
“Would you like to tell me about your talk with Dr. Braunstein?”
“You mean, my version?”
She grinned. “Dr. Braunstein is a woman—we would say
non simpatica,
I think. But she is very honest.”
He raised one eyebrow, and drank more wine. “Do you think so?”
“She told us you had a right to be angry. That you had won the transfer, and they took it away from you and gave it to Frederica Bannister.”
“Did she say this in Mrs. Bannister's presence?”
“No. The Bannisters were resting in their room. But the mother knows this already.”
“I suspect so.”
Chiara sighed, and her eyes drifted to the window, to the gloomy prospect beyond.
“Have some lunch with me,” Kristian said. “I haven't had lunch with a girl in so long.”
She looked up at him with those wise dark eyes, and something sweet, something he had neglected for a long time, shivered in his belly. “I think you are a little drunk,” she said.
“A little.” He grinned at her. “It feels great. You should try it.”
She hesitated and her fingers flexed, but she didn't reach for the wineglass. Without thinking, he put his hand over hers, and pulled it forward. With his other hand, he pressed the glass into her fingers. “Go ahead,” he said. “You're not on duty at the moment, are you?”
She disengaged her hand from his, but gently, and with a smile. “No,” she said.
“Why not relax, then? Lunch with a friend.”
She lifted the glass, and he watched the pout of her lips as she drank. When she put the glass down, there was a faint sheen of lip gloss on its edge. He had a sudden urge to lean across the table and kiss her on those full lips. To stifle it, he drank again from his own glass. It was true, he was a little drunk. It was a relief to feel buzzed instead of angry.
Chiara said, “I'm not sure it's safe to be your friend, Kristian.”
“Why not?”
“You are a very complicated man.”
“Isn't everyone complicated?”
“But no!” She shook her head decisively. “No, many are very simple. Work, love, family—simple.”
“I'm not sure what you mean.”
She sipped wine again, then regarded him over the rim of her glass. “To do what you are doing takes a special sort of passion,” she said. “And I think your life is always like this. Your passions are—
come si dice
—more intense. They eat you up.”
“That doesn't seem bad to me.”
“Not bad for you,” she said quietly. “For those around you.” He wanted to say something silly, some foolish joke, but he thought of Catherine, and of Erika, and he couldn't speak it. He put his wineglass down.
The waitress came up, and handed Chiara a menu. She ordered
lasagna al forno,
and then sat with her chin in her hand, her eyes down.
“What is it?” Kristian asked.
“I am thinking,” she said slowly, “that there is something more going on here than we know. That Frederica has done something very foolish.”
“Yes,” he said. And then, without really meaning to, he blurted, “Worse than foolish.”
Chiara's eyes came up to his again. He thought, irrelevantly, that it must be hard to lie to Chiara Belfiore. In a thread of a voice, she said, “Tell me about it.” It felt like a command, and it was hard to resist.
He tried, though. He shook his head, and fiddled with his glass. He looked out the window at the dead vines glistening with rain, and then down at the tablecloth. Chiara waited.
At length, he said, a little thickly, “There's someone there I didn't tell you about.”
“Do you mean there in 1861?”
“Yes. Someone who managed to keep the secret all her life.”
“A woman is with Brahms?”
He nodded. “It's Clara Schumann.”
Chiara tilted her head to one side, and the crease between her brows deepened. “But, Kristian—why is that important? Should she not have been there?”
He reached for the carafe again, then pushed it away. He had already drunk too much. And said too much.
“Clara Schumann was Robert Schumann's wife, was she not?”
“His widow.” Kristian saw again that assault on Clara, the spasm of her body as Frederica did the unthinkable. “Clara was much more than Robert Schumann's wife,” he said. Fresh anger throbbed in his chest. “She was a brilliant concert artist, a composer, a mother. She lived in her husband's shadow, both when he was alive and after he was gone.”
“I think this is common in that time.”
“Yes. But not fair.”
Chiara's lunch arrived, and she said,
“Grazie,”
to the hostess as it was set before her. Kristian waited while she unfolded her napkin and spread it in her lap. The lasagna bubbled nicely in its oval dish. She spooned up a bit, and blew on it.
“Clara had to support her family through her concert career. She had no other way to do it. Her reputation was everything. If it were ruined—well, she would be ruined, too. She never remarried, and she kept herself above gossip and scandal—even though there were people who blamed her for Robert's death.”
“Why did they do that?”
“Because she didn't go to see him when he was in the asylum. The doctors wouldn't let her, though she wanted to. They said seeing her upset him too much. But hardly anyone knew that. And she had to tour all the time to bring in an income, with her husband institutionalized, so even at the time, people accused her of being a negligent mother. And then Brahms—”
The image of Brahms and Clara in bed together—except that it was not Clara but Frederica—flashed into Kristian's mind, and his appetite died away.
Chiara swallowed her bit of lasagna, and prompted, “Yes? And Brahms?”
“He loved her. Everyone believes that she refused him, for the sake of Robert's memory. He never married, either.”
“Ah.” Chiara sat back, cradling her wineglass between her palms. “A sad love story. And so noble.”
“But she's there. In 1861, in Casa Agosto. She's there, with Brahms.”
Chiara shrugged. “That is not so terrible.”
“Chiara.” Kristian leaned forward. “It's a tryst.”
“Tryst?”
“A rendezvous—an affair. They're there together—sleeping together.”
“Oh,” she said softly. She drank from her glass, then put it down and dug into the lasagna again. “They found a way to be together. So romantic.”
“Yes. Very.”
“And Frederica? She found them there, I think?”
“She found them, and she—” Kristian sat back again, at a loss for words. How was he to explain this—this obscenity? This violation? It was the stuff of mythology, of superstition. Of trashy movies and bad novels. “She did something terrible.”
“I don't understand,” Chiara said. “Frederica had no real presence there. No physical presence. She could only observe. How could she do something terrible?”
Kristian blew out a breath. “You won't believe me,” he said in a flat voice.
“We will not know unless you tell me.”
“No one could believe what Frederica Bannister did, Chiara. It was unspeakable. Evil.”
Chiara put down her fork. “Evil?”
“Frederica—” He shrugged, and spread his hands, knowing how insane it would sound. How utterly improbable. “She possessed her.”
Chiara's blank stare brought a bitter laugh from him. “I know it sounds crazy. But it's true. Frederica possessed Clara Schumann. She moved into Clara's body—I saw her—and she didn't come out again.”

Non ho capito—,
” Chiara began, and then stopped. “My English?” she said helplessly.
He shook his head. “It's not your English. It's the idea that's impossible to understand. But it's what happened, just the same.”
“Are you sure?” she said, and then, at his bleak look, she shook her head. “I'm sorry, Kristian. Of course you're sure. And you've tried to keep this to yourself—to protect Frederica's parents?”
Kristian sighed. It would be easy to let Chiara think that was what it was all about, but he couldn't do it. He was so tired of half-truths and deception. “Look, Chiara. I wish I could protect the Bannisters—Mrs. Bannister, anyway.” He took a deep breath. “But honestly—it's about Clara Schumann. About protecting her. It's just—it's not fair that her secret should be exposed. It's not fair to her.”
“But, Kristian—Clara Schumann has been dead such a long time.”
“Please don't say that.” He looked down at the table, and pushed the half-finished pasta away. “I don't know how to explain to you,” he said. “Seeing her there—in her own time, in her own world—she's not dead. She's very much alive. What's happening to her is real. From our perspective, her life has been over for more than a century, but from hers—it's all taking place right now. She's suffering, and I—” Why did he see again Catherine walking away from him across Columbus Avenue, her hair floating in the breeze? He cleared his throat. “She's suffered so much already.”
Chiara rested her chin on her hand. Her gaze on his face was sympathetic, her pretty mouth turning down at the corners. “I think you have a very kind heart, Kris.”
On an impulse, he reached across the table and took her hand in his. The reality of her skin and bone steadied him. “Clara's reputation is all she has left to her,” he said. “This beautiful, tragic woman—so gifted, and who worked so hard all her life—I can't bear for her to be exposed like this.”
BOOK: The Brahms Deception
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