Nightingale's Strain

Chapter 1

Manhattan

~1891~

People often profess a need to kill their conscience. For me to do so would require an act of murder. When that nagging voice, that for most exists inside their heads, grew entirely too burdensome for me, I had the luxury of sending my conscience on business trips with ulterior motives.

Fortunately, mine had just returned.

"Good travels, Nadir?" The Persian entered my study. Even with my back to him on my second story balcony, I knew he had not yet seen me. His shoes clacked across the floor and faltered to silence. It could only be him. I had strictly banished the servants from my private rooms. Only Nadir was permitted to the whole of my mansion. I owed this man too much. He was my grudging conscience.

"Erik?" The alarm in his voice was unguarded. "I thought you might be sleeping at this late hour."

Indeed, the sun had set below the broken jawline of the city hours ago. "My friend, your puerile efforts to sneak up on me after all these years are truly charming in their entirely unavailing fashion."

A slight laugh escaped him. "The way you can sense things, you must have eyes in the back of your head."

"Nonsense. People are just noisy oafs," I remarked with a wave of dismissal. "Did you secure the contracts?"

The shuffle of papers hitting the mahogany desktop answered my query. A weary sigh escaped him. The man was slightly older than I. However, in our past together I had inadvertently ignited a great love of travel in him. Despite his advancing years, he seemed ever eager to experience a new part of the world.

"Indeed, Erik. I was left to chase after many a signature, but my efforts were at last rewarded. Was all this essential?"

"Yes."

"What are you going to do wi … " Words abandoned him as I turned from the outside world to face him. He respectfully cast his eyes down. Only when a stiff breeze caressed my naked face did I realize that my mask lay on the desk. Left to my own devices for some time, I had taken the liberty of going unmasked within the sanctuary of the upper floors of my home. A few steps carried me back inside to the edge of my desk buried in the throes of my creations. Sheet after sheet of architectural drawings haphazardly flung about. My right hand collected the shield of my dignity. A nervous tremor struck his voice as he tried to cover for the embarrassment. "… I am sorry Erik. You'd been so upset about the footman trespassing here before I left, I was not expecting you without the mask."

"Enough of that. I dealt with the transgression accordingly. Save your pity and wipe that expression from your face before I do it for you." An edge of old acid clung to the words despite my vain efforts to quell it.

A lifetime of being reviled for my facial deformity had led me down some dark and unwanted paths. I understood human nature sufficiently by now to accept social reaction was ungovernable by any form of logic. In truth, it was as uncontrollable as my temper was known to be. Somehow, knowing this did not make such situations any easier. Even after six years my staff remained unaware of what lay beneath the mask. I remained diligent in my efforts to keep it so.

Nadir swallowed and glanced away, clearly scrambling for some safe topic of discussion. We were both well aware that, though the years had blunted the edge from my temper, it was still lurking in the dark waters of my undeniable past.

His gaze wandered around my study which was never known to be neat and organized. The gas wall sconces and candles I preferred to the garish burn of new electrical lights lit the shelves of my unkempt workroom which overflowed with a vast array of my compositions and tinkering. The notes of musical strains carefully penned upon vellum draped over the mechanical devices created by my idle hands. Chaos was a perpetual side-effect of my existence. I slid from one project to the next, my attentions often simultaneously employed in more than one art form at a time. Which was precisely how one of my automatons-in-process had wound up in pieces spread across the top of the Steinway piano.

Years ago, when this grand piano was delivered, I had disassembled the second story wall to lift the instrument in via a crane. The stonework had slid back into place masterfully enough and the newer mortar was hidden by a tasteful cut of Merlot-hued curtains. As with the rest of my household, there were no mirrors within this room. Before the great hearth, various musical scores remained scattered upon the black leather sofa. These were the remnants leftover from my task weeks ago to assist in the selections for the opening gala.

At last Nadir's eyes settled onto the drafts. The moment he found his safe conversation written upon his olive-toned features. "How is the Music Hall coming along these past weeks?"

Welcoming the inquiry with a relieved smile, I returned to the balcony railing and turned my eyes toward the future. Just within my gaze dwelt the corner of my legacy to the world. No glance over my shoulder at the plans was required to witness her promised splendor. By now the structure was nearly complete, the ornate stone facade a beloved tribute to all the beauty of the old world spirit I had left behind. Every nuance from my architectural studies of Europe and Asia were captured in those walls. And the acoustics, oh the acoustics! A shiver ran up my spine anew just as it had when first I had drawn my gift to the new world. America had been a new canvas, a new place yet to find a unique voice. How could I resist the urge to gift it with a temple to experience every nuance of the grandest art known to man—music.

The truth was, I couldn't.

This distraction was why I kept him around, my precious friend Nadir. Time had taught him how to navigate the treacherous labyrinth of my moods and turn them a-right.

He would not be alive now if he had failed to learn. "On schedule, Nadir. So much simpler than Garnier's Parisian masterwork. A year, only one year. I had hardly conceived such a timeline given the years it took to construct in Paris. Honestly, without the complication of a bloody revolution, it has been entirely too simple from the groundbreaking up."

Returning the smile, he relaxed. "Then the grand opening is also on schedule?"

My answer was a simple nod.

"Fantastic. How many nights of music do they have planned?"

"Five. Five days with a culmination of six concerts worth of glorious music rising to the heights in the acoustical genius of my Music Hall. Those attending will be immersed in a spectacle only previously known in Europe's grand halls. And in truth, not even there!"

One eyebrow rose ever so slightly. "Then … " he began tentatively, "whatever is wrong?"

I cocked my head to the side, and my eyebrows brushed the back of the mask in my surprise. "Wrong? What brings you to such a suspicion, dear Daroga?"

A scowl abolished his previously intrigued expression. "I told you, stop calling me that."

At one time the word had been his title in Persia, a position of honor—or royal abuse, depending upon the whim of the court. In my years serving in Persia, the poor man had most certainly undergone an abundance of the latter.

"And I told you never to play games with the master," I quipped. "Now answer the question, you suspicious old goat!"

Pointing to my left hand he observed. "It's the only time you have your magician's orbs out, when something is bothering you and you're trying in vain not to think about it."

Indeed, he was right! How long had my fingers been tossing the three crystal balls into a tireless array of patterns? By the tension in my left arm it had been some hours since I had subconsciously taken up the activity.

"You know me too well." I sighed, and forced my hand to still. I returned the balls to their place in a silk lined box on the desk. The sensation of trembling that followed was almost intolerable. Or was it the uncomfortable silence as I slowly drifted my gaze from him, contemplating refuge in some safe corner of the contents of my new life?

Inexplicably, my eyes were drawn to the Stradivarius I had cast aside last night after assaulting the fine instrument in an impotent fit of rage. So furious had I been with the bow that not one, but several of the strings had been savagely rent in twain. Every string would require replacement in the aftermath of that unsuccessful session. The grand piano in my study simply wasn't enough; I longed to have my pipe organ once more. A session of pounding on those keys always seemed to ease my tortured soul. I had yet to use my clever tricks to devise a method to install one in my home. Thus far I had always drawn the conclusion that the structure was entirely unsound for such a grand instrument. Of course, I had not spared sufficient time on the dilemma, so oft distracted by my various projects. Only recently did I gain the promised access to a pipe organ. Though not my personal property, the Music Hall had installed one in the main auditorium. I had yet to hear her as there always seemed to be activity in the auditorium. My gaze returned to the aged figure before me who waited stoically for my reply. The same ploy he had successfully used utterly failed me. There was nothing I could dredge up that would convince Nadir all was well.

"Erik. Answer me." The demand was more aptly administered to a child than a silver-haired man of my assumed age. However, I could never overlook just how much I owed him. The man who on more than one occasion sacrificed everything to help the ungrateful wretch that I am.

I tried to conjure up something, but the words would not come. How could I tell him? My arid mouth opened and closed wordlessly. I could not even glance in his direction.

The silence stretched for eons, so it seemed, before he inhaled sharply to the rasp of a single sheet of paper across the desk. I remained still.

"No … Erik no." His hushed voice held a chill, one born of dread. "Tell me you had nothing to do with this!"

There would have been no hiding it. His nosy nature would have uncovered that list eventually. A tremble stole through me, one I failed to suppress as my hands came up in slow motion to catch my falling forehead. "Nadir … " Damn that tremble! There was no way it was undetectable. "I swear to you I had no knowledge of this. No influence … "

"Not again!" Desperation clawed at his voice as he flashed the paper in the air. "You swore to me never again!"

"I did not arrange this!" I felt a surge of anger begin to build. I unburied my face and glared directly into his eyes.

He shook his head. "Of all the singers in this world—"

"Why her?" I finished for him, slamming my fist on the desk. "It was not my doing. I was not even consulted! My attention had been fixated on finishing the structure on time! Ask the crew what a relentless task master I have been!"

His shoulders fell as he tossed the paper aside. "Now I see it. The plague hiding in your eyes. You did not just learn this, Erik. How long have you known?"

I dropped into my chair. At least now I would not bear this weight alone. "That the ghost of my past was coming back to haunt me?" The jest had fallen abysmally short at my attempt of mirth to cover my raw emotions. I let my eyes rise to the ceiling to study the fine gold leafed moldings with little interest. "Three days ago."

"Three days? Have you eaten? Slept?" Unbridled concern dwelt in his words.

I tried to smile, but knew it was merely a flicker of one. All I could muster. "No. Not since I learned Christine was to sing here … "

"Dear Allah. For three days you have not slept nor eaten?" He crossed the room in short purposeful strides and placed his hands on my shoulders, forcing me to look at him. He clipped every word. "She thinks you dead. You must remain so, Erik! For your own sake and hers. Remember, we both agreed it was for the best."

"I know." It had been but a timid whisper. "I know, Nadir. Yet, how can I stand in the wings and hear my greatest creation without revealing I am witness?"

Sorrow bore into me from his eyes. "You will have to find a way. She must not know we both deceived her that night on the shores of the underground lake. It has been ten years, Erik. Ten years! We agreed that leaving her with Raoul was better for the poor girl." Beneath his hands I stiffened, the anger threatening to build once more. My jaw tightened but not as much as Nadir's grip on me. He narrowed his eyes and stated firmly, "She was never yours."

Willpower can only hold back the dark waters of the past for so long, I fought desperately to quench the fire that threatened once more to consume me.

A war I could never have hoped to win.

Nadir knew enough to release his hands and step back. I trusted he had felt the muscles in my shoulders tense like a cat coiled for the spring, right before I exploded out of the chair like a raving lunatic. "Never mine? Her heart always belonged to me! She did not love that insolent fool, Raoul!" Even now, after all these years, I could not utter that arrogant prick's name without a sneer. "I should have killed him when I had the chance! How could I have let you talk me into abandoning her to his care? You and your insufferable bleeding heart!"

He waited only for me to steal a breath before interjecting calmly. "Because for a moment in your life you were rational enough to see that her adoration for you was destroying her."

I stood there, mouth hanging open with words once more failing me. I trembled with the rage I still felt, even though I knew he recalled the night in question correctly. I had consented to the entire plan to let her believe I had died. Even to the point of instructing Nadir in the proper dose to reverse the effects of my morbid illusion. Let her move on without guilt over her feelings, make it clean.

"It's been ten years, Erik. How much time do you need to dull the edge of that knife?"

"How long has it been since I helped your son Reza to his grave?" I snarled before I was able to rein in my temper. "Has time dulled that pain? At least yours is truly dead and gone! Christine Daae still lives!" I realized far too late that I had gone too far.

Nadir's eyes closed tightly in visible anguish. The verbal knife had been cast, my skill at naturally harming others once more executed in reckless abandon.

Why had I said that to him? The silence in the room was only broken by his ragged breathing, a man on the verge of tears. Decades ago I had held his ailing son in my arms. It had been my hand that stilled his final breath and spared the child the lingering anguish of his disease. Dignity I left for him fully intact. I was truly the Angel of Death back then. Reza's was the only passing I could attribute to kindness.

A silent tear rolled down his cheek before he turned from me, his head dropping to his chest. "Daroga … " I uttered softly, trying to mend my careless mistake.

"Don't call me that." The reply was soft, shadowed with bitter pain. "It is because of you that my life in Persia ended, or have you forgotten what I did for you?" He took a few shaky breaths before continuing, piling on due shame to my already epic blunder. "I sacrificed everything I had and spent years in prison for losing you on the road. I swore by letting you escape certain execution I was preserving a genius of such scale it would have been a shame to destroy. And yet you dare to throw at my face how you murdered my son. I had hoped you had grown beyond such immature slights by now, beyond the selfish boy I once followed around Persia like a well-trained dog."

He flinched as I laid a hand on his shoulder. Age had taken none of my abilities to move with complete silence. Usually, I performed this little trick as a game. However today there was no premeditation, no motive. Moving silently was simply something I did naturally. "You cannot fathom how much I long to unspeak those words, my friend. You know my temper and I fear that my exhaustion has brought us to this folly. Please, accept my apology." I bowed my head finding it difficult to utter the next words, "Please help me find a way through this situation … three days of my ceaseless plotting has produced no viable solutions."

The nod was almost imperceptible as I withdrew my hand from him.

"Thank you, old friend. I knew you would not abandon me." With a weary sigh, I sank back into the chair.

Nadir remained still for some time, recollecting himself before he crossed the room to pour himself a drink from the decanter of whiskey, his vice. The vice I had driven him to over the years despite his former religious devotions, which strictly forbid the consumption of alcohol except under certain conditions. I had been a bad influence; under my constant grating I had worn those conditions down to include a daily ration to calm his ragged nerves.

Just as I had my vice, so he had his.

His eyes locked onto the violin before he took a stiff swallow. "Erik, did you do that intentionally?"

I shrugged, attempting to shed the tension still contained from my latest surrender to my primal rage. "Yes and no. I hardly intended to be so harsh when I picked her up." I pondered the previous train of thought. "Tell me, Nadir, how do you think a pipe organ would look downstairs? I would of course need to remove a good deal of the existing music room. And the fireplace might require relocating. The larger pipes require venting up here on this floor, but that remedy is simple enough by placement of a hole in the floor … what?"

Had I gone completely mad he may have stood there in a similar fashion as he did now; drink in frozen hand, posture rigid, expression of one completely astounded. "A pipe organ?" He blinked and let the silence extend between us. "A pipe organ next to my room? You cannot be serious. Have you lost your mind?"

"No. That is right here where it belongs." I gestured idly to my head. "And, I will have you know, I have been contemplating the addition for some time. How much I miss the one in my old home beneath the opera house. Of course the sounds would never be as rich as they were in the echo chamber of the underground lake. There is simply no recreating that, not even the Music Hall can accomplish that effect." With one hand I issued a dismissive wave. "The organ itself would nest in the inner walls of this sanctuary quite nicely with a little work."

Downing his drink in one gulp, he immediately refilled the glass with a more generous portion. "Now, this is what I am used to. The conversations that twist and turn at such a rapid pace as to be untraceable. I will never be able to figure out precisely how your mind bridges the unspoken gaps."

"Best not to even attempt such an improbable feat. Sometimes … " would it reveal too much? Not to the man who knew me better than anyone on this earth. " … it is like the dance of a flame. If you hold a substance close enough to be touched by the light you risk burning it. A brief glimpse may be all we can afford before dashing back into the safety of the shadows."

"You truly are at a loss of what to do."

I could only nod. Would I be able to resist seeing and hearing her once more? I could not possibly avoid the grand opening of the new Music Hall. I had to be there, at least in spirit. This time I had been compelled to do things right. I longed to stand in the illumination of the stage lights and bask in the glory as one of the contributors. But my heart warned me I demanded far too much of my own delicate willpower. Was it a gamble I would risk? Would I truly be capable of leaving well enough alone?

"How long before she arrives?" He asked gently, swirling the glass in thought.

"Rehearsals are set to begin tomorrow. She is scheduled to arrive in the morning direct from France." Idly my fingers ventured to an ornately carved box. Opening the lid, I removed the ivory pipe and prepared the sweet opium that had brought me some relief these past days.

In observance of my actions Nadir frowned. "How much have you been smoking lately?"

"Not enough." Lighting the pipe from my candle, I inhaled deeply. The tension ebbed; a wash of deceptive euphoria coated my raw nerves. "I have not even indulged enough to have had a proper sleep."

"Take care, Erik. You need your wits about you," he warned.

Laughter escaped me regardless of my futile efforts to suppress it. A false sense of well-being wrapped me in a blissful blanket as I lay back in the chair. It didn't matter that I knew the effects were all a shameful facade, a temporary escape from the ticking trap that once more threatened my world. I needed this, and although I would never admit it, I appreciated the company watching over me.

"You should have eaten something. Gotten some sleep first."

I clicked my tongue and smirked lopsidedly. "Oh Daroga, shall I fetch you an apron? If you truly insist upon acting as my nursemaid you really should dress for the part."

Placing the now empty glass beside the decanter, Nadir shook his head and tried to hide the smile that betrayed his scarcely concealed amusement. "I need to unpack while you indulge yourself. My friend, please try to get some sleep. We will talk in the morning of how to handle the grand opening."

"Grand opening of a grand house." I giggled. If there was but one way to kill my damnable pride truly the breath of the dragon was capable of it. "Nadir … you like magic tricks. Watch." Suddenly one of the orbs appeared in my hand from a puff of sweet smoke. "Oh look … I am quite upside down."

An amused smile spread across his face. "Erik. Get some rest."

"Ahh … there is my old friend." I grinned into the surface of the orb, my distorted reflection grinned back upside down. "Phantom of the Opera. Hehe! Now you see him … now you do not."