Chapter 29

I do not remember riding Faust back to Damrosch's household. I do not recall picking the lock of his front door, but I assume I must have, for no one witnessed my arrival. Somehow, I found myself drifting out of the fog as he released me, standing in silence over the guest bed where my wife and son lay huddled together beneath a thick down comforter. Lazy tongues of flame flickered in the hearth providing a warm glow.

They were so beautiful together. Christine's skin had resumed a healthy tone as she rested peacefully. In a protective embrace, young Charles held her. One of his hands clasped hers. On the nightstand, a bottle of laudanum told the secret of their blessed slumber. They had been hastily snatched from death's grasp. The morning would tell if there was any lasting damage.

My own hand drifted sluggishly from beneath my sodden cloak. Cold fingers resting upon their hands … red. There was red splattered on my fingers. Lifting both my hands, I stared in wonder at the dark stains on the winter white flesh. I had witnessed it all … like a dream or a nightmare. My hands had acted to another's will, devoid of my conscious thought.

It was not me. I swear it!

You're quite right, it wasn't you.

The cry of shock nearly escaped me, choked off only by my bloodstained hands covering my mouth. What had I done! Eyeing my sleeping loved ones I fled the room, not daring to have them awake, a witness to my despair. I was shaking as I retreated to the silent solitude of Damrosch's sitting room. Standing before the window, I flexed my hands watching the dried blood cracking on my skin. What had I done? I knew what I had done … those memories drifted back in hellish detail. I knew why I had done it … the old excuse came out like a mantra: I had seen no other way to end this. What I could not answer was how I had grown so reckless as to have unlocked that secret door! What have I done!

You'll see. Laughter echoed against my skull, almost painful as I hung my head, shutting my eyes tightly to keep it inside, to force it back. But he refused to relent!

When I opened my eyes, they caught movement, a shadow from the doorway. Nadir quietly tread into the room, his passage lit by a single candle. Setting the holder upon a table, he joined me at the window, locked in silence for sometime as we both watched the falling snow.

"Is it finished?" he whispered, rubbing his forearm.

Very slowly I nodded, not daring to contemplate the full meaning of his words.

Releasing his breath, he closed his eyes in clear relief. "When you departed I feared you would never return."

Perhaps you really haven't.

Shuddering at the passing thought, I covered my discomfort with a sigh. "They were boys."

His concerned gaze turned to me. "Boys?"

I fumbled to find the proper explanation. "Had been boys, at the time we were in Tehran. They grew up without fathers … because I executed them."

Wordlessly, Nadir beckoned me with a hand to continue.

The names left my lips without meaning, without consequence. There were no identities attached to these men.

Concentrating hard, he fell silent for a long time before murmuring. "Kamran Khan, I remember that fellow. He had been an adviser to the prime minister. When he fell out of favor the shah had you lock him in your chamber of mirrors. Manuchehr Khan was a court attendant. I remember arresting him for having stolen from the treasury … the shah decided he would face you, thinking it would be sporting. But this Qaisar Darvish was no ordinary execution."

Silently, I turned my distant gaze to him, not certain I wanted to hear of his fate.

"You do not recall any of them?" he asked. When I did not reply, he lowered his eyes to the floor and continued. "Qaisar Darvish had been a religious man, quietly serving the people of Tehran. During the civil unrest, the shah suspected he was a Babi leader hiding under the guise of a peaceful religion. Unknowingly, the shah created a martyr when he ordered your merciless execution of the man. They arrested his wife who died of poisoning before the dawn, but his son was never found. Dear Allah, these boys would have lost everything with their fathers' deaths at your hands. Is it a wonder they sought vengeance? They truly had nothing to lose."

"Except their lives," I replied somberly. "You were stripped of your title and exiled, and yet here you stand. In four decades I can think of hundreds of paths they could have taken, but they squandered a fortune only to fail in their singular united goal. It is such a pathetic waste."

Really? Are you one to speak? How long did you wallow in the cellars of the opera house?

I flinched against the whisper, rubbing a hand through my hair in a vain attempt to banish it. Inside my head his laughter echoed at my effort.

Nadir offered a very slow shrug. "They had no one left to guide them."

Rather like you.

"That is not an excuse!" I snapped.

"Erik!" His startled reply rebuked me. "Did you ever stop to consider the fates of the families connected with those you executed?"

"Was forced to execute." I corrected through clenched teeth. Why could he not just be silent now. Both of them! I detested what I had done back in those dark days. I did not want to remember!

"Do not dismiss it so easily!" Nadir persisted. "I remember how you embraced that dark service, focusing your loathing for the human species you failed to identify yourself with. I recall clearer than you seem to how you celebrated your clever twists upon the relentless array of deaths." Grasping my sleeve, he earned a cold glare from my eyes. "Do you even remember how many you slaughtered in those days? How many you sealed within your cruel chamber of mirrors to be pressed to the point of suicide? How many died at your hands in the fighting pit?"

Laughter rumbled in my head before I lurched into Nadir's face, roaring back, "No! I do not recall! Those days spent in your wretched courts are a blur of blood and darkness! Do you think I wanted it that way? Do you believe I look upon those days filled with pride over my actions? Somehow I imagine you believing that the very idea of my role as an executioner and assassin originated from me! You would be sadly mistaken. I could no more refuse that duty than you could have refused the shah's order to follow me around like a demented bloodhound!" Out of the corner of my eye, I spied a shadow in the doorway. No doubt our raised voices would have attracted the attention of some servant. Before I had a chance to identify the eavesdropper, Nadir shouted in my face.

"This coming from the man who said no to the shah more times than all the men in his council put together! Erik, do not think I am so naïve! You were clever enough to have found some way out of any duty you detested if you truly desired. But you didn't even try. The death toll continued to amass in your bloody wake … to the point where it followed you here! Leaving us all at risk!"

"Spare me the rhetoric, Daroga!" I slashed the air with my hand, watching him take a defensive step backwards under my fury. "Was it not one of your duties to arrest the very men I had been ordered to put to death? Where is your guilt?"

Heatedly, he protested, "Many of those men went to prison."

"Prison verses my torture chamber, shall we really trouble ourselves with the details? The fate was the same, only the duration of the suffering differed!"

Nadir closed his eyes. "Do not speak to me of the condition of those cells. A strong man could make it out again … that was never the case once the door to your chamber closed! Whether or not you lie in wait for them inside, the grave awaited!"

Countless deaths, twisted and horrific paraded through my memory. Corpses left flayed or burnt, strangled or broken … each face twisted into a grimace of fear as they had known their coming fate. Hunching over, I gripped the mask as the images overwhelmed me. That creature, that malevolent wicked beast was no longer secured within me. In a moment of weakness, I had let him trick me into releasing him and even now I felt the presence ebbing in the darkness. There was no hope of control, I was too weakened now. It was too late. I could not force him back now. What have I done? What plague have I released on the innocent?

"You knew!" I cried out, tears rolling down my face beneath the mask. "Damn you! You knew what I was capable of back then! What a despicable monster lurked within my dark mind! And yet you chose that night to defy the shah, you released me when it was your sworn duty to deliver me for execution! My God, Nadir! Do you have any idea what abomination you let live! You should have ended my life and saved the world from my destructive wrath! Why did you release me when you knew what unspeakable fate you unleashed upon the world?"

My outburst had silenced him for a long moment. The voice that continued was hesitant, heavy with sorrow. "Because I thought I was doing the right thing. I had seen evidence you might change."

"In all this time … all these years … I have not! Deep within I am still a demented monster!"

"Erik." That was not Nadir's voice. Nor was it the detestable voice that plagued me. Uncovering my eyes, I dared to look at the door to find Damrosch lingering there several shades grayer then I recalled. "You … you have to have changed. Dear God, I never … never would have known!"

Ashamed, I turned from him, leaning heavily on the windowsill for support. "Please … Nadir … tell me most of that raving lunacy was in Persian?"

Nadir didn't answer. Damrosch stepped into the room beside him, replying solemnly, "No, Erik … that was all in plain English."

My head fell, the mask contacting the cold glass.

Now now, this is an interesting development. Shall we silence this one before he tells?

My hands clenched into fists. No more, get back inside your cage, monster!

Heh heh. Make me.

Driving my fist against the window frame I felt my gut twisting in fear. He could take me at anytime and that was a message I could not ignore.

"Erik, you honestly didn't know what language you were speaking?" Nadir asked, true concern in his words.

I did not look up as I rocked my head back and forth against the window.

"Dear Allah!"

The trembling started in my hands until I felt it invade practically every muscle. Damrosch's hands guided me to a chair as I sank under the weight of the revelation. In my earlier desperation, I had committed my greatest sin ever … unlocking that God damned door!

"Erik." His voice was firm, coaxing me back to the present. "I saw the condition Christine and Charles were both in when you brought them here. Nadir told me of how you found them … the men who did that to them were heartless." A nervous glance was all he spared at my hands. "I assume that this entire mess is over."

Distantly I replied, "We shall need to replace Reiniger."

His breath caught for a moment. "What do you mean?"

Picking a little of his dried blood from my fingers, I continued. "I was not paranoid, I was right. He has met his fate alongside those who hired him."

Stepping closer to me, Nadir's hand drew my gaze up to meet his. "Is there anyway how you handled this will lead back to you?"

I shook my head stiffly. "The storm left the streets all but deserted. Any tracks will be covered. The snow muffled their cries from the rest of the world. Spring … spring thaw will likely be the first they are even noticed. No one is likely to make the connection." I was so tired, my eyes were closing. But I didn't want to sleep! Not now. Not with the darkness that waited there.

"Alright" Nadir nodded. "That settles it. Not one word leaves this room."

"That tactic worked masterfully in Persia." I remarked wearily.

Damrosch laid a hand on my arm. "Come on, let's get you cleaned up. There's a second guest room upstairs, you may get some sleep there."

Wide eyed, I tried to stand up and elude his assistance. "Oh no, I cannot intrude upon your hospitality any longer than I have! Not now that you know … "

He held a hand up, silencing me. "A discussion for another time, if ever. You need a place of refuge right now, for you would never make it back to your home in your current state. Come, I insist."

I could have protested further but his hand gently guided me out the door. In a short time, I was washing my hands in a bowl of water, mechanically scrubbing the blood off with a liberal amount of soap as though it would help cleanse something deeper.

Damrosch stood beside me, holding a fresh towel as he rambled on in a one sided conversation I was barely hearing. "We'll shift the concerts a bit for the holidays. I can arrange for some hand picked concertos to perform some selections without anyone being the wiser. Your piece we can debut after we have replaced the second chair." He said nothing of me, but I knew at a glance as I dried my hands that was precisely his greatest concern. "Perhaps in December, or early January? That would be a real treat for everyone."

He was talking about music like nothing had happened … under his roof he was knowingly harboring a mass murderer. Part of the veil of my past had peeled back. In the morning, when the shock, wore off would he be willing to live with the knowledge of what I had been? Not just a magician … I made more than mere trinkets disappear. I had made lives vanish without compunction.

Blindly, I let him guide me to the bed. Outside the window, the sky was blushing with dawn as the clouds parted.

Damrosch called out from the door. "Sleep as long as you need to. I will make certain that no one disturbs you."

Even as I lay down, I heard myself muttering wearily, "I do not need to sleep … I need to wake up. Oh God, I have to wake up!"