"Can you just imagine it? I mean, to think the chef had claimed to be fully trained in French cuisine. The entire meal was completely beyond excuse. Had that been my chef I would have sent him back to France immediately to learn what true cuisine is." With his little finger elegantly crooked as he held the champagne flute, VanHollus half-hooded his eyes as he cast his gaze over his present company. Reclining in a high-back chair before the great hearth of his sitting room, he took a slow draw off his cigar. "I tell you, the Delucha family shall never live that dinner party down. Fully trained help can be difficult to find of late, with all the flotsam coming ashore from the immigration ships. Gah, it is simply dreadful. One would think Europe has more to offer."
Reed nodded his head in agreement before reaching into the pocket of his smoking jacket. Applying a little snuff to the back of his hand, he delicately inhaled it with a wrinkle of the nose. "My goodness, I was saying something similar to my wife on our recent summer trip to France. The architecture over there is simply unrivaled. What could be done to persuade some of their talent to come here to this island?"
VanHollus's eyes narrowed, the ashes on the end of his cigar trembled before being shaken loose. The eyes of the four gentlemen gathered about his hearth now fixed themselves upon Reed, who blanched the moment he caught his error.
"My apologies, VanHollus. Your architectural designs here are always a delight. I meant to say they are only rivaled by the great architects whose works grace the city of Paris." He flashed a quick smile beneath the thick mustache.
A slight upturn of VanHollus's chin dismissed the remark as he held up his glass. The waiting servant immediately rushed to his side and topped it off. Taking a delicate sip, VanHollus chuckled dismissively. "Indeed, Paris. As though the French alone understand stone. Come now, Reed, stone is stone throughout the world. What would a dandy like you who dabbles in textiles know of such refinement?"
"Ah. But have you been there? Have you seen their latest crown jewel? To stand in the marvel that is the Paris Opera! Even you might be humbled by its glory."
VanHollus flicked his fingers. "You are so easily impressed. It is a marvel that society still permits you to present yourself."
One by one, the men pointedly turned their gazes from Reed. Even those he knew had experienced the old world charms. Replacing the snuff box into his jacket, he fixed his lapel with a quick snap of fabric. If he was to be ostracized for speaking his mind at least he would finish. "I admire the ingenuity the project shows and it makes me wonder, if the man who constructed that project came to these shores what could he accomplish?"
I watched in bated anticipation as the hands of my pocket watch ticked away. Why did time always drag when you were waiting for something?
Bang, bang, bang.
The racket continued, echoing in a cacophony from below.
Truly, it must be on time today!
Glancing out the open window, I heaved a sigh into the sticky air of the city anticipating disappointment. Rays of sunshine baked the soot covered world below my fourth story vantage point.
"Where are you!" The minute hand crept closer to ten after.
Bang, bang, bang.
"Erik? What are you—" Nadir's inquisitive voice was cut off by my hand slashing the air.
"Shh!" Craning my head into the still air, I strained my ears through the rumble of horse-drawn carriages. Was that what I thought it was?
"In a minute!" I snapped, feeling my heart begin to race. Oh yes! My nails bit into the dry rotted windowsill as I leaned out as far as I could without the threat of falling. Not that I was concerned, heights had never bothered me.
Bang, bang, bang.
The entire structure began to shake, quaking as the blast of a horn announced the 4:10. I held my breath as the loud rumble reached its crescendo. The engine appeared on the elevated tracks.
Bang, bang, bang.
My eyes focused on one point, one critical point in the whole of this dingy little world. The metallic grind of wheels against their tracks covered the sound, but that was what made this all the more devious.
I was nowhere in the vicinity of the trigger.
Under the tons of speeding train the rope severed, releasing the precariously balanced counterweight. It plummeted, carrying anything that happened to be attached to it through the series of pulleys. It was working! Every calculation played out exactly as it had in my mind, all that needed to happen was …
Below me a tremendous crash erupted accompanied by a pair of rather alarmed screams.
The banging had stopped.
Throwing my hands in the air, I crowed triumphantly, "Right on time!"
Almost directly in the middle of the cobblestone street where the makeshift trebuchet had launched it, lay the twisted bed frame surrounded by shards of soot frosted glass. Well, everything in the Bowery was covered in soot. That state was entirely unavoidable with the passing elevated trains.
"What have you done!" Nadir rushed to the window staring down in horror at the mess. His frantic eyes followed the ropes and pulleys strung in a crude calculated manner to the elevated train track before turning on me accusingly.
"Why is it you always assume I am the one to blame?"
"You usually are!"
The outraged cries of the harlot, glaring up at me through her busted window, drew more attention to the disaster. "You demented freak! I was trying to work down here!"
Casting her a chastising glare, I snapped, "As I have been trying to work up here. For everyone's sake at least get a sense of rhythm if you are going to make us all hear it."
"To hell with you!"
"Living above you, I am already there."
She slammed the window frame shut.
People. Always doing such pointless tasks. Without a pane of glass, the action did her no good. About as constructive as this afternoon's idle scribbling before I was driven to distraction. A firm hand on my shoulder forced my gaze towards the seething Persian. I was no longer certain who was more upset about this afternoon's antics; the woman who now had a permanent breeze in her apartment or Nadir.
"Well." I gestured down into the middle of the Bowery where the horse-drawn carriages nimbly navigated past the wreckage. "I solved the noise disturbance issue the landlord was ignoring."
His foot tapped the floor repeatedly. "You call that being a good neighbor?"
"You mean to Rosie, Laurel, Ave Maria... whatever the hell her name is? By now I swear I have heard a hundred names shouted by her esteemed clients." Leaving the window open to the summer heat to provide at least a little ventilation, I shrugged as I took the five steps needed to reach the desk in the back of the room. Desk was a rather generous term. Really it had once been a shipping crate that held some of my belongings during our crossing of the Atlantic. Ripping the boards apart, I had cobbled together the crude work-space that generously introduced splinters while I worked. Tossing a few rolled up pages aside, I offered him a shrug. "Would you call the hours she keeps being a good neighbor? Truly, it is not as though anyone in this tenement can ignore the thin walls. Miracle the structure is still standing."
He held up a stern finger. "That doesn't grant you the right to pull the bed out from underneath her and relocate it in the street! There are far better uses for your skills than being the architect of elaborate pranks."
A chuckle escaped me.
Burying his face in his hands, he muttered, "Each day that passes I worry about the consequences of you dwelling in this new country."
"Might I remind you precisely whose brilliant idea that was to take our exile here."
Nadir's expression soured before he thrust his hand toward the window. "How did you get the rope down there and attached to the bed? A train, Erik! You used a train track in your contraption!"
Blatantly ignoring him I opened the bottle of ink and dipped the quill into it as I unrolled a draft. "That crack in the ceiling is looking worse than when we moved in. I am not interested in having a skylight in the bedroom, dismal as that room is." My left hand traced a graceful arch on the page as I smiled. "At least now there is a little peace, until the next train comes through to shake everything off the walls."
"For the hundredth time, I'm sorry that there weren't better rooms available." Approaching the desk he cast a worried glance back toward the window. "The Bowery was the only ward where anyone would speak to me after we left the ship, Erik. Immigrants are not left with many options, especially illegal ones. I had hoped this place would be temporary."
"And it is." Adding a few embellishments to the design, I let the quill walk across the page making real my vision. Now that I had silenced the disruptions in the apartment below me, I had just enough time to add the details before meeting a potential client. "Long enough for me to get my business established. It is simply taking longer than anticipated."
He picked up a few drafts that had fallen. "You deserve better than this squalor."
"This rather aromatic district calls to mind the conditions that pervaded much of Tehran when first you brought me to your shah's crumbling city all those years ago. Even the rats had been ashamed of their holes in the walls. What a travesty that after I built him that lavish palace in Ashraf, he went back on his promise of permitting me to rebuild the capital city, choosing instead the distasteful option of relieving me of my head. Which I was rather reluctant to part with."
Clearing his throat, Nadir muttered, "I assure you, had I been able to convince him otherwise I would have tried. Family or not, I was only the daroga and already rapidly falling out of favor. When I left his presence I had to be certain he was convinced I was intent upon carrying out his desire for your execution."
"A fairly convincing act. You had me wondering briefly of how much longer I had to inhale the fetid air of his rotting kingdom." With a roll of my eyes, I spat out a colorful Italian curse. "Spoiled rotten nobility, so long as their daily comfort remains unimpeded they refuse to spare even a glance for anything beyond their little worlds. It is lamentable but repeatedly proven that it is merely a condition of human nature. Every country is rife with it." Seating the quill back into the holder, I pushed up from the desk. "By now you should know I have managed through worse than this. Our living conditions are regrettable, and something that needs to be remedied. However, it is transient. I have but to earn a client here who sees beyond the scrawling lines on the page. A man who sees my vision and appreciates its worth. I had hoped it would have been only a month or two." I shrugged. "No matter, I have plans to secure a stone quarry in the near future and with that the clients should begin to take me seriously."
His eyes studied every bit of me as I shoved my arms into my jacket. Shaking his head he looked away. "When is the last time you looked in a mirror, Erik?"
Checking to be certain my mask was tied on tightly enough, I cast him a sidelong glare. "A mirror? Truly you think you are amusing with such an asinine question. What? Am I not bearing myself with enough dignity?"
He grasped the cuff of my jacket. "Your bearing is fine."
This was my best jacket, the one with the satin lapels and the gold buttons … and time had reduced it to a glorified rag. Daring to look down at my vest, I noted dismally that rogue threads pockmarked the once tight brocade now hanging faded against the thin, grayed shirt. My trousers were not far from letting the sun shine upon my knees. I resembled an upper class beggar.
He locked eyes with me. "Never mind the mask you must wear, your mismatched eyes, or your lack of ready access to raw stone. The condition of your clothing may be why they won't take you seriously."
"Well … " What could I say to that? To the elite of society, I may as well have been wearing rags with a bowl in my hand braying alms for the poor. Tugging on the frayed cuff, I straightened the sleeve and cleared my throat. "New clothing takes hiring a tailor. Tailors require money in exchange for their services. Money that cannot be spared at this precise moment. So … it is but another regrettable condition. I shall just have to redouble my efforts to win them with my good nature."
Nadir buried his face in his hands. "We're going to die here."
Snatching the draft from the desk I quipped, "With an attitude like that surely we shall. I can be rather charming when I desire to be."
"The only chance you have is using your voice to enthrall them to your will."
My spine stiffened at the suggestion. "Absolutely not! I thought we agreed that such deceptions were to be left in the past. That part of me is dead."
"But if we … "
"No!" I slashed the air with the draft. "This time it is to be my own merit! No tricks and manipulations. I can do this, Nadir. I have done it before, your belly will simply have to tighten for a bit longer."
His shoulders fell even as his fingers peeled the congealed wax drippings from the candle on the desk. The thin rays of light from the window outlined the bones already showing through his olive toned skin. His aged body yearned for more nourishment than could be obtained. In the quiet hours of the night, as I worked by the candlelight I could hear his belly protesting the meager offerings as he fought for sleep in the other room. Times were difficult, it was true. But we were far from hopeless.
Striding to the door, I draped a cloak over my shoulders with a backward glance. "There are worse places than this hovel. Not many, but there are worse places on this earth. I will be back this evening with my first contract. You shall see."
The shoddy staircase connecting the four stories was so narrow the tips of my cloak touched both sides as I vaulted down the first flight, eager to venture north into a more opulent area of Manhattan to the home of my potential client. I didn't hear the door open as I passed by. A sudden tension on my cloak halted my progress. I turned to find the harlot glowering out her door, the once fine cashmere of my cloak grasped firmly in her fingers.
"Where do you think you're going?" she snapped.
Extracting my cloak from her grasp, I retraced one step to bring me back up to the landing. I was so close I watched her breath stir the rolled draft in my hand. Lifting my chin, I replied blandly, "Off to a meeting, with a more respectable client."
From behind her, a grubby man shambled out the door, a slight hitch to his step as he pulled his pants all the way up. He shoved past me as he tugged a cap over his greasy hair. I noted he lifted his lip. I could not be certain, but I thought I heard him muttering something about a bruise in a rather uncomfortable region of the male anatomy.
Stabbing her finger up towards me she declared, "What did you think you were doing? You destroyed my apartment!"
"I have no idea what you are talking about." I replied with mock innocence, despite our prior exchange.
"I know it was you!"
Shrugging my shoulders I tapped the draft against my thigh. "What a ridiculous notion. How could it have been me? There are no signs of your door having been forced open, and the only other access would be through the window. Three stories above the cobblestone street? That is an incredulous idea! Must have been one of your upset customers always screaming in your room."
"How dare you!" Heatedly she pressed forward, bringing my foot to the edge of the landing. "My customers are always satisfied! I don't know how you managed it, but I know you are responsible and you will fix it."
Fixing her with a disinterested gaze I suggested, "Go find yourself a lonely carpenter. Satisfy him enough and perhaps he will simply do an exchange of services. Now, good day."
As I turned to leave she stomped her foot hard enough that the old wooden board cracked beneath her. "You think you are too good for this place, you ass! That's it, isn't it? Well some of us don't have many options to earn our daily bread. I hope you get run over by your client's carriage!"
I was halfway to the second floor when I heard her door slam. Well, what a pleasant little darling she was. I didn't have time to dwell upon her tirade. Gripping the draft tightly in my gloved hand, I smiled at the prospect of success as I strode out onto the street. Soon enough I would be standing in the cozy parlor of my client.
This is the crucial key to extracting myself from this collection of vile refuse.