34.

Doors were locked, curtains were drawn, and lights extinguished, but Erik still made his accustomed round of the downstairs. It was a habit, even living alone, to never give in to sleep until he was certain that everything was inspected and locked. It had been his way of insuring the world would not encroach upon the safety of his domain below the Opera. Likewise, in a real home, there was the chance of a door left unsecured, an ember in the stove not quite extinguished, a gas light left sputtering. The danger here was to Mirielle, to the house itself, and to himself.

His footfalls were as silent as a housecat's as he started up the stairs. From the bottom of his bedroom door, light escaped to offer a swath of invitation to the darkness in the hall. Erik stepped silently up to the door and pushed it open with his fingertips.

Mirielle was sitting on her side of the bed, taking another sip of her tea. She sat the cup down quietly upon its saucer with a sigh. "I curse this ankle, you know."

Erik smiled as he approached the bed and sat down next to her. "It's better to take it easy at first."

Her blue eyes held an appeal as she looked at him. "But I should be going out with you."

"I'll tell you a secret," he said softly. "Dogging my footsteps gives Nadir a sense of purpose."

"It does?"

"He's a retired policeman, dear. Every bit of his livelihood depended upon his skills in investigation. He's used to interrogations and soothing tempers as well as having a finger on the pulse of the community he serves. Here he lives in a community of Parisians and expatriates from several nations. Most of them are business men. A few have called upon his services, but nowhere near the amount that would keep him busy. Or well paid."

A slight frown crossed her brow. "Is he having money troubles?"

"No. He gets a stipend from his government to retire upon. But there is no purpose to his days. A man needs purpose. I had my music. Nadir had me."

"You know he is always welcome here, Erik. He's become your friend."

"Yes, he has." Erik paused and tugged at his cravat, sliding it from around his neck. " We snapped and snarled at one another for years until complacency caught up with us. I never completed the awful deeds he believed me capable of, and he shadowed me with his bowler and his boutonniere, subtly socializing me.

"I suppose that is why he and Percival and I got along. We all had our livelihoods wrapped up in security of one kind or another. Our paths met at the Opera, and as you know, we worked together when the time arose."

Mirielle sighed again. "Then at least you are in capable hands when you do this ritual."

Erik drew the paper from his pocket. "Here. See for yourself."

Mirielle studied it. "It looks like a shopping list."

"It is. The first thing we need do is find the ingredients we need and build a small alter upon which to appeal to Papa Legba to open the doorway."

"For who?"

"That, my dear, is what we have to decide."

"Oh? You don't know?"

"Not as yet. I have ideas, but I shall leave it up to Raoul to choose."

"Who do you have to choose from?"

"You appeal to the loa that offers the sort of help you need. Mambo Sabine explained that some of the loa are particularly good for things like luck, prosperity, problems in love, that sort of thing."

His wife looked at the list again. "Candles, flowers, candy? Money? Rum!"

"That's only the start of it," he said with a chuckle. "Those are things to appeal to Papa Legba, who will be curious and then sympathetic to the person who builds the alter. The rest of the list, the plants, are for a bathing process that will cleanse Christine of her woes."

Mirielle turned her attention to him, letting the list drift to her lap, clutched gently between her fingers. "Erik, do you believe that Christine's problem can be solved by a bath?"

Erik took the list from his wife, folded it and stood. Moving to their dresser, he lay the paper upon it. "Anais explained something to me. She said that the spirits respect the effort a person puts into their questions—the belief. Anything we do for Christine will be recognized by the spirits. That is all that counts."

Erik brushed a kiss upon her knuckles. "Are you going to read for a while?"

He watched as his wife went through her preparations for bed, all the while replaying Mambo Sabine's last words.

"The ritual is to call the spirits," she had warned. "After their arrival, you must be prepared to do what is asked of you."

Was that the way it started then? A spirit guide and a promise? All that is asked of you.

He had been Christine's guide. Or at the least, the person who had insinuated himself into her days at the opera and seen to her growth. She'd been a graduate of the conservatoire. They had prepared her voice. But it was he who had struggled to awake her soul.

Trusting her to another spirit would be daunting for Raoul.

Purchasing a bottle of rum and some cigars, or chocolates and food for an alter was one thing, but would the Viscount be prepared to carry out the requests of the loa?

He waited until Mirielle got into bed and pulled the blankets over her. He tucked them gently around her.

"You are coming to bed, aren't you?" she asked.

Erik looked down at his lovely wife, at her questioning eyes, her soft face, her hair on the pillow, still as dark as night, and smiled. "Of course, dear. I wouldn't want my wife to ask for a hot water bottle when she can have a warm husband."

Mirielle's chuckle was rich, deep with humor that shone in the lively sparkle of her eyes. "I much prefer my husband."

It didn't take him long to get ready for bed and turn down the lights. Sliding into the cool sheets, he rolled to one side, and slid a hand to rest of his wife's waist. She sighed, a contended sound in the night.


Erik woke at his usual time, early enough to don his robe and go downstairs to the kitchen to light the stove. Puttering around the kitchen, he drew water into the kettle and looked out the window at his back garden. The morning sky looked clear. It could promise a chill day, or if the breeze stilled, could allow the sun to bring spring's warmth.

He lost himself in looking at the plants through the window. Upstairs was a list of articles that would appeal to the spirits. Stepping out of the kitchen and into the garden, he understood what Sabine had impressed upon him. Here, in the rich silence under his trees, the energy of life crowded closer around him. Nature had a way of folding you into its pulse, its vibrancy. All around him was the movement of the trees, their branches waving, the leaves speaking softly as they rustled together. Life itself was here in abundance. How tragic that people did not stop to listen to it.

He walked slowly along the path under the trees. What had Christine lost, he wondered. Could it be that she had been disconnected from all of the meaning of life? Her time at the opera was spent day and night inside its walls. He had seen her as protected by it, and now he realized it was a small imprisonment. Her whole being was focused on being there when the note was struck, moving to where the marks were on the stage floor. Was she struggling because she lacked such finite guidance?

He quickened his steps. The kettle would be boiling now and he would present his wife with a morning cup of tea. At the edge of a bed near the door, a single pansy had escaped and was growing along a crack in the pavement. Erik bent and collected a pair of its blooms. Preparing the tea, he slipped the two flowers inside a napkin so that their colorful faces peered out. He tucked the napkin in the saucer and ascended the stairs.

Mirielle still slept. He sat the saucer and cup down quietly on her bedside table, and went about quietly selecting his clothing for the day.

Once dressed and out of the water closet, he arrived to see his wife had sat up in bed and was taking a sip of her tea. "Good morning," he said, leaning over her to place a kiss on her forehead.

"Thank you, dear," she replied softly. "Did you get these from our garden?" She had drawn the flowers from the saucer and laid them upon the folded back sheets at her waist.

"Yes. I took a quick turn out of doors while I waited upon the kettle."

"What are your plans for the day?"

"Nadir has badgered me into meeting the Vicomte for lunch. We shall explain the list to him."

Mirielle sipped her tea. "You have to keep in touch with him, Erik. The poor man is stretched to his limits. He has a right to know what you are planning to do to his wife."

"I know," Erik agreed easily. "But I can't resist poking fun at such a vast target."

Mirielle raised an eyebrow, and he continued, "No surprises. I swear I shall keep my jibes to a minimum as best my temper will allow me."

"We would all appreciate that, Erik. I know that Raoul may not accommodate you on all points, but you have grown in tactfulness."

"I've had to," he added swiftly. "I was wooing this woman, you see."

"And you did a fine job of it, once you got over trying to frighten her away."

He reached out and patted her hand. "I'm going down to get the paper. Anais should be here at any moment. I wanted her to look at the list."

"Are you going to ask her help?"

He paused. "I would ask her advice. We shall have to see what the Vicomte agrees to before we really know what to select for the ritual."

"Go then," Mirielle sighed dramatically. "I shall lie on the sofa with my foot elevated and while away my day looking at the wallpaper."

"Phooey," he said with a laugh. "You will read or crochet or ask Madame Aulin to lunch. But stay off of that ankle."