It was red too, of course. Why would it be white? Not on an evening like this. Not when Erik's mind felt as filled with holes as if maggots, along with the rest of the world, had already mistaken him for a corpse. As it moved above his fingers, he imagined them bathed in blood, and then, had it been visible, his assistant surely would have been frightened by the brutality of his scowl.
Leger watched the architect from where he sat at his desk in the reception office amid the balancing of account books. The end of the day had already come and gone and Leger would have been on his way home by now to have dinner with his wife, but he knew that when Erik emerged from his private office this way and hovered about like a wraith before the hearth, he wanted something. And when Erik wanted something, one did not dare attempt to leave.
Finally, as his employer had still not yet said a word since the interruption of the accounting, Leger attempted, "You have been turning that wine around in that glass for nearly a quarter of an hour."
Erik did not look at him. "Well, I cannot very well drink it until you go away."
"Is that a dismissal?" He closed the book with a apprehensive sigh.
"No. Finish your work." Erik paced once or twice more, set the wine glass down on an empty pedestal table, then picked it up again and turned back to the fire.
Leger's hand hesitated over the cover of his book. "Why did you pour it?"
"Why does one feel thirst?" He set the glass down again with a rough clink and turned abruptly away from it.
"You make me nervous!"
"It is not your job to be nervous," Erik snapped and he waved a hand to Leger's book before folding his arms behind his back and pacing nearly out of the room.
The assistant tried not to chuckle too tensely. "How can I do my job when I am nervous?"
"Finish your work." And then he was gone. But only for a moment before he appeared again and once more found his glass where he had left it. "Take a letter."
Leger obediently slipped the book into a drawer to replace it on the table with a sheet of stationary.
Erik continued, his focus beyond the moment, "To the Madame…Does she have a name?"
"Regret." The inkwell was almost empty, he noticed, it would need imminent refilling.
The architect's glare stopped the tapping of the pen against the metal edge. "I am not in the mood for what you consider humor."
Leger stared back at him and spoke quickly, "It is not my humor, monsieur, it is hers."
Erik was silent for a moment, then tipped his masked face to once more look down into the untouched wine. "She did not give you her real name?"
"It is how all her correspondence has been signed. M. Regret."
"M.?" He tilted his head to the side to look over again. "Surely not to mean…Well, surely."
Leger nodded. "No doubt, her initial."
"No doubt," Erik answered with a dryness that spoke that he surely believed her initial were more likely to be "Z."
Leger waited. He considered refilling the inkwell while he waited, but each turn of Erik's hand made him hesitate. Dinner would be stale and his wife would be cross by the time he got home. Finally he dared a soft clearing of his throat. "If you tell me yes or no, I will compose it for you."
"The site is too far away," the architect snapped.
Leger sighed and put his pen to the paper. "No, then?"
Erik was pacing again. "I have no interest in finishing another man's business."
"Then you decline?" But he lifted the pen.
"She repulses me." A splatter of wine worked its way into the carpet.
He began writing. "You refuse."
"I don't ask questions." Leger folded the letter and tossed it into the waste basket, then began another one.
Erik glared at the spilt wine. "You do not know yourself very well." Perhaps this time he would not trouble the carpet cleaners.
"You do realize that the moment she reads this," Leger scraped a bit more ink out of the well and continued, "she will be at your door again, leaving powdery handprints on the banister."
"Make the appointment for four o'clock." The glass returned to the pedestal table. "Make her wait all day."
This assistant only glanced up briefly from his writing. "She is not the only one who will be waiting all day."
"Lock the door when you leave." And he was gone again.
Leger shook his head and finished the letter quickly in the silence that faded, but a smile spread across his face as he did. Sealing it, he rose jovially from his seat, smacking the stool back under the desk and crossed to the hearth to take it upon himself to down the glass of wine. He then dragged the heavy marble pedestal table across the carpet to reposition it over the stain before collecting his hat and at last going home.
Erik watched him descend the outside steps from where he was again positioned behind the curtains of his office window. Now he was alone. What had he done?
In the dark, for the lack of moonlight, the piles of leaves along the gutters looked for a moment to him like the dead in the streets of a land her preferred not to recollect.
He turned his back to it, and sighing, he pulled off his mask and flicked it onto the top of a low bookshelf. He ran his hands up over his face and back through his hair.
"Hmm," he muttered to himself. "Say it." But he did not.
Why does one feel thirst? Why does one feel hollow? He needed something inside of him and he needed it immediately, but when he tried to pinpoint what that something was, he was at first at a loss and at second thinking of her designs.
She had shown him the best. Lured him with the best. And that left what? Less than the best. But she had been right—would he have expected her to do anything else? Expected her…As if he knew her at all. He did not like strangers. He did not like impertinent women. He did not like clients. He did not like dyed hair and makeup and costumes—not without the theatre. He did not like it at all.
Erik found himself in a rather negative fame of mind.
"Say it!" he shouted to himself and abruptly tore the curtain off its hooks at the window. Twisting it, he glowered and then flung it aside before turning to go further back into the room again, striking at his death's forehead with his hand.
He needed to draw. He threw himself down to sit at his desk.
No, he needed to see what he had done. He was up again.
He had gone there the night before with eyes like a child disillusioned, but now he knew better. Now he knew where his power lie. It was coiled inside of him, ready and thirsty, like the Punjab lasso. It was impatient and snapping its jaws. It was frustrated and ready for the combat, but he was not in Persia and he was not nineteen and he was not that man anymore. He required to tell himself this often. The years of trick palaces and artful assassinations were long past. How many more ordinary houses would he have to build before he ever finally felt like an ordinary man?
Dead leaves took to flight as he swept past them on his way down the foggy street.
She wanted a miracle of creation, did she? This artful client. She wanted a surrogate father for offspring half-formed. Another god with hands to mold the clay of life and lips to give it breath when her own had abandoned her. Houses lived, houses breathed. As an artist, he understood. Progeny…abortion… Her words. He laughed aloud and the sound echoed back and forth between the buildings he passed. An old man walking a dog on the other side of the street stopped and stared, and Erik realized then that he had left his mask behind on the bookshelf.
Laughing again, he tipped the brim of his hat to the man who remained frozen as he passed by him, and then Erik went around the corner. Someone would be having nightmares tonight.
"Why does one feel ordinary?" he asked no one, and he avoided being seen for the remainder of his walk to the building site.
The new watchman would normally only have needed a gesture from Erik to allow him admittance, but he chose to avoid the guard and instead found his own way through the gate, making no sound to betray his presence.
The house was magnificent. He knew that it was. He would not have designed and built it to be less than magnificent. Circling its back gables, he sighed and pressed a hand over his heart. Yes, something within him was satisfied. But was it enough, he found himself wondering. Wine glasses are only ever filled halfway.
His palms itched, and so he went inside.
"Is there anyone here?" he called pervasively.
Of course there was no answer. He began to hum as he moved through the courtyard. "A taste of Italy for Von Baronet." And grasping the marble banister he launched himself up the first flight.
On the second level, carved accents curled about the corners of the ceilings like wisps of smoke that gave the effect of the comfort of warm, closed places even though the balconies opened up widely to the chilly autumning skies.
"Something to be said for simplicity," he half murmured, but even as he said it, he knew it would do little to reassure him. A flash in his mind's eye of the lines and curves and angles the little lady, Madame M. Regret, had shared on those soft, curling papers suddenly made him regain interest in the glass of wine he had left behind. Erik needed air.
Out on one of the balconies where the wind touched him without restraint, he had a clear view over the gate to the street, and therefore saw the man approaching the house long before he reached it. Who it was, he did not recognize by sight, but he walked as if he were both very rich and very drunk. Erik observed from above as he noticed the watchman and then altered course to go around and out of sight toward the back side of the property.
A scowl and the rustle of his cloak, and Erik was back to the ground level. As he crossed through the yet unplanted yard, he heard the voice calling from the other side of the wall and it was this that he recognized.
"Johnny!" The abrasive whisper of the same Belgian man from the night before was unmistakable to Erik's irritated ears.
"Johnny, I've got it!"
Erik folded his arms under his cloak and glanced back through the unfinished structure of the house with a frown to see if the watchman had heard. But there was only silence there, and no flashing of the lantern, so he turned his attention back and leaned against the wall.
"Johnny, is that you?"
"Johnny isn't here right now," Erik spoke clearly. "What have you got?"
There was a gasp and a scuffling sound. Perhaps the man had fallen—Erik wouldn't have doubted it in his state. Footsteps…and yet he was not running away.
Trailing a hand along the stones, Erik followed the sounds on the other side back toward the direction of the street.
"Who's that!" a hiccupped hiss finally asked once the corner was reached.
Erik did not answer him, but instead turned fully to the wall and, taking hold, climbed it easily. He crouched on the top edge and looked down to see the drunken man leaning back against it just below him, fanning himself anxiously with an old tricorn hat.
He drummed his fingers against the ledge by his foot for a moment before addressing the intruder impatiently, "What have you been told?"
The man jumped away from the wall with a strangled shout and, dropping the hat, staggered backwards to look up at the dark shape above him. With eyes that shone like angry stars, Erik could not be missed. "Baronet?" He shook his head and his boots scraped back through the leaves.
Erik leapt down from his perch and took hold of the other before he could run. He pulled him back and spun about to slam him against the wall. "Well?"
The drunkard did not answer, but he did stare wildly at the face that loomed over him, clear and horrific even in the dark and through inebriated haze.
Erik twisted his hands into the man's coat and pressed him more firmly against the uneven stones, grating his back into them. "I don't like you," he said flatly. "Or your little friend. Don't come back here."
The Belgian's mouth opened and closed, wordlessly, but not without a puff of foulness each time.
With a grimace, Erik pulled back to toss him aside.
The man stumbled into the street though he did not fall. "Johnny!" he gasped again, too high-pitched, his wide eyes roving up and down as if they hoped in desperation that his friend might still appear. And then he left, unevenly, but quickly, and Erik made certain this time to watch which way he went.
Strange, he thought when he was alone again. A pattern. A coincidence. A conundrum. And was it going to rain tonight too? He tilted his head back to the sky and then moved out to the middle of the street so that he could look up at the shape of the house with its tarps fluttering up high in the breeze.
The tricorn hat he would leave in the street to be run over by carriage wheels in the morning. Or perhaps by the carriage he heard approaching now. It was time to go elsewhere.
There had to be something more, he knew, he could not deny. But he would not say it. No, not tonight.