"You're fortunate. By the looks of it he didn't suspect a thing and swallowed the entire hidden dose concealed in the ale." Leaning against the door, Nadir eyed the unconscious shackled figure in the room. Tipped onto his left side, Erik's hand still embraced the thick wooden tankard. Stretched out on the floor, his eyes barely twitched as he slowly breathed, a slight trail of saliva clung to his slackened lips. "Take care, approach slowly. But I don't see where he spilled anything in an attempt to deceive us. He seems to have eaten the entire meal and drank the full tankard without even a thought."
Holding the lantern high, Wright edged into the room. "So, he eats well?"
"Oh yes." Hobbling in on his crutches, Nadir stayed behind the doctor. "Doesn't seem to matter what I provide. Fruit, vegetables, small cuts of meat, when he behaves for a bit I've had the cook make a custard which he seems to like. Not that he remembers from day to day … but it's a gesture that helps with some of the guilt. Of course, there is no silverware allowed in here, a knife is entirely out of the question. There is no need to goad him into eating, the hard part comes from getting the dishes back."
"Wood, I see."
"The only option. Metal would be lethal, any form of china or pottery far too breakable, leaving behind shards." He shrugged. "The wood can splinter if he throws it hard enough, but generally they survive for the longest duration." Hovering near, Erik he noted. "You best get on with your examination of him. We'll have no longer than a quarter of an hour before our safety will be in check. When Erik wakes, he will be more than furious and there will be no entering the room for the remainder of the day."
Glancing up, Wright handed Nadir the empty plate and tankard. "I thought you said the moment the door closes he doesn't seem to recall what happened."
The Persian laughed, "Yes, but drugging him has a more lasting effect. He does not fancy being tricked."
Turning back to his patient, Wright lifted Erik's limp arm observing the malformed skin on his face. Closer to the deformity, he found his mind troubled to explain what he was seeing. The texture appeared different than the rest of his body. Thinner, pale, and with a slight sheen in the lantern light. "Self mutilation?" He murmured aloud, speculating on what seemed to be an immense scar.
"From birth, as I understand it," Nadir replied. "He has said as much."
Shuddering briefly, Wright swallowed. "Well, it is not the cause of this, then. Brings me to another question. He is not a youthful man if the silver hair speaks true." Gently probing Erik's hand he nodded. "The wrinkling of the skin also speaks of advanced age. How old is he?"
"Good question." He shifted on the crutches, maneuvering so he could lean against the wall. "I can tell you this much, I am a few years older than he is."
"And you are aware of your age?"
"Of course, I just reached my seventieth year. Erik must be in his late sixties. It is a rough guess, as when we first met the age difference was more notable."
Wright nodded, "Well, there's a few things instantly apparent. He shows signs of having lost muscle tone from being confined down here, and he has almost no fat tissue under that exceptionally pale skin."
"Only the muscle tone is a true change," he replied, tapping a crutch on the floor idly. "As long as I have known Erik he hasn't shown any evidence of fat, not a ripple of it. His complexion is naturally pale … however, now that I look closer it's even whiter, resembling when he … " Nadir paused for a moment catching himself before he accidentally revealed too much of Erik's past, " … spent an extended period of time out of the daylight."
Fortunately, Wright was only concentrating on the scientific details. "Well, looking at his face again … it's different than the rest of his skin, but perhaps if there is a greater deficiency in adipose tissue in the facial region it may have that result. I'm not sure, I would have to consult with a epidermis specialist." Picking up Erik's thin wrist, he tapped the fingers, feeling the reflex. "Hrm, factoring for the sedated effect, the impulse is about expected." Reaching down to the bare foot, he held onto the ankle and rapped on his toe. Creasing his brow he did it twice. "That however, is not." Taking Erik's other ankle just below the shackle he repeated the reflex test, not liking the result. Quickly in succession he began exploring other reflex points. "Oh my, this is telling."
"What is?" Nadir distractedly counted the number of times Erik's chest rose within a minute. The fine twitches and occasional moan that escaped him meant nothing. It was when his breathing first begins to quicken they would need to get out. He knew that the enthralled doctor would miss those warning signs.
"His reflexes … they aren't consistent … from one point to the next." Exploring the legs again he shook his head. "No … from moment to moment there is some variation. How very odd."
Shifting back to the face, he held the lantern so he could see a little better. "Ocular depth looks normal."
"Hrm?" Nadir glanced up with a mild start. "You mean his eyes? They should be sunken in … and they're not."
"Really?" Placing a finger lightly against the thin skin around Erik's eyes, he shook his head. "The depth appears normal. So, that must have been a gradual change. You did not notice?"
He blinked, leaning closer. "Not until you mentioned it … but then again, in recent times with how violent he became, I have not had much time to spare to actually look at him. Most of my time is spent watching what he is trying to do. That is why so much has had to be neglected … drugging him for something as simple as a clothing change became a great risk, as we had to unshackle him in the process. Safety became a greater factor."
Wright glanced at the garments his patient wore. They appeared to have been a set of pajamas, the now ragged long sleeve shirt hung open where the buttons had been purposefully removed. He suspected why the hard little objects had been denied. Lifting the edge of the shirt he noted an old scar between two ribs on the chest. It appeared to have once been a knife wound, apparently sustained in youth as the scar showed signs of stretching with age. Pulling the shirt wider he examined the back, finding yet more scarring. These marks crisscrossing and layered looked to be from a lash. When his eyes searched up at the Persian he received nothing but silence.
"Hrm, evidence of previous trauma," was all he remarked, before reaching forward and prying open both of Erik's eyes. The lantern light poured into the dilated pupils, the sedative slowed the effect as the muscles reacted to the light. Wright's forehead creased deeply as he watched, flicking his gaze between the mismatched irises. Was it his imagination? No! It wasn't just an illusion caused by the different colors.
"Fascinating … that blue eye, the one on the left, the pupil is contracting slower than his right eye. The reaction is uneven."
"And that means … ?" Nadir pushed off from the wall, letting his crutches take the weight once more.
"Well, the reaction is slowed by the fact he is drugged. But it only makes the difference in speed more apparent. Something is altering the ability to react. No doubt in my mind." Allowing the eyes to convulse shut, he looked up into Nadir's inquisitive gaze. "There is some kind of disruption in the signal, the effects are wide spread. Have you ever witnessed him having a seizure?"
"Yes, intermittently." Counting the breathing, Nadir shifted uneasily. "Do you have any idea what could be causing it? Doctor, I warn you, his wife has been through hell already with all the false promises. Do not give her some vain declaration!"
Casting his eyes back to Erik's twitching eyelids Wright rubbed his mustache. "I have a few theories, unfortunately none of them can be confirmed without him being fully conscious."
Erik's fingers stirred, the rattle of the chain an ominous warning as the cadence of his respiration grew more rapid.
Tapping the doctor's leg with the crutch, Nadir jerked his head towards the door. "Grab the lantern, we need to get out of here now before he wakes up. I'll bring you back tomorrow morning, that will be the first chance he'll be approachable."
Reluctantly, Wright grabbed onto the handle of the lantern, glancing over his shoulder as he rose to his feet. This was a boggling case, Madame Daae had been quite correct in calling it a challenge. "I will use the time to consult my medical journals for anything that may help us."
Shutting the door behind them, Wright assisted Nadir in locking the patient inside. Wordlessly, the men left the basement without a backward glance.
Inside the darkened chamber, the chains scrapped against the stone as Erik's shaking limbs pushed him off the floor. Harsh breaths broke the silence before he threw his head back to release a savage scream.
"I have not heard from him recently." Christine set the tea cup on the table between the high-backed leather chairs in Erik's sitting room. "You have my apologies for the delay, Signor Grimaudo."
With a frustrated sigh, the foreman who had been running Shadowcrest Industries in Erik's unexpected absence wrung his cap between his callused hands. "Where is he now?"
"The last I have heard, he was still in Italy visiting some architectural sites," she replied resolutely.
"So, after searching for quarries to procure more travertine, he has continued to tour Europe exploring the old buildings?" Piero Grimaudo shook his head. He was an American born Italian of humble origins, he had been entirely unprepared to represent the remarkable talent of Erik's company. He had been given no choice. Years ago, the great architect had selected Grimaudo as the most likely candidate, grooming the trusted foreman for a more involved role. The outcome had been unfortunate, however, like most of society Grimaudo was unaware of the true fate of his employer. "Madame Daae, I need to get word to him, and a response! It has been over a year since I have conversed with him. The contracts are nearing completion. I know you told me he trusted my word on a couple of the previous projects, but we are also near finishing the last one arranged before his departure. There are no more contracts secured for the future. We need Monsieur Erik's word on what we should be doing next."
Folding her hands upon her lap, she nodded. "I will try and get a reply from him. Has anyone approached you for a contract in the meantime?"
"Well," wringing his hat a little tighter, he confessed, "yes, there have been a few gentlemen who have inquired. But without Monsieur Erik to draw the plans … and without knowing when he will return from Europe, how can I make arrangements?"
How she wanted to drop her head into her hands. It was hard enough knowing the truth of Erik's whereabouts. Trying to maintain the lie and manage his various businesses had become a grueling task. Previously nothing had commenced without Erik's explicit word. Grimaudo would come calling on a regular basis, each time getting more desperate for an answer she could not begin to give him. Each time, all she could do was extend the excuse for her husband's absence. For now his books still maintained a financial balance, but she could not ignore the fact that Erik's once secure empire had been weakened tragically.
Offering him a thin smile she suggested, "I know that Erik was not the only one who drew the designs, there were a few young prospects he had mentioned with architectural skills. Perhaps they might fill in for now? You know the crew as well as he did … does. He trusts you to make decisions in his stead. Proceed with what choices you believe he would make."
Bowing his head, he began to leave the room. "Thank you for the meeting, Madame Daae. I will work my hardest for Monsieur Erik, as always. Send your husband my regards when next you contact him."
When he had left the room, a solitary tear rolled down her cheek. "I would … if I could. Oh God, Erik … why is this happening? I have no idea what I am doing."
The tapping of Nadir's crutches caught her attention as the old Persian entered the room, shutting the door behind him.
Looking up, she dashed the tear away. "How did it go?"
Hobbling over to the other chair, he collapsed down into it with a groan. "I've been waiting to get off my foot for a while now … he took it. Your doctor had a good opportunity to examine him before we had to leave."
Clasping her hands, she leaned forward eagerly. "What did he find? Anything?"
A slow rise of his shoulder accompanied a sigh. "Theories. Just more theories. Tomorrow he wants to try testing some of them when he's awake and supposedly cooperative." He rolled his eyes. "I highly doubt we will see much of the latter."
Hesitantly, Christine took her tea cup back into her hands, just something to keep them occupied. "What does he think is wrong … tell me Nadir, tell me that he has some brilliant idea! He is a phenomenal neurosurgeon. A doctor on the cutting edge in the best research hospital in New England … that's why I went to him."
"Calm down," he murmured, casting his weary gaze her way. "He seems to have made a few observations I have not heard before. But in the end, he left the room just as perplexed as the rest of them. I am troubled at raising my hopes too high."
Lifting the cup without drinking, she set it back into the saucer once more. Words were unnecessary as she just stared blindly into the lukewarm tea.
Shifting his gaze to the ceiling Nadir tightened his grip on the crutches in his right hand. "Due to this morning's task with the esteemed doctor, I now have no more duties for this day. If you will excuse me … it's been some time since I have had the opportunity to fully rest."
Grunting at the effort, he pulled himself out of the chair before tapping his way across the floor. Pausing with a hand on the doorknob, he looked back over his shoulder at the still frozen figure of Christine, her eyes unblinking. He wanted to comfort her, console her troubled spirit. But the longer he stood there the more he realized no words remained within him. The hope he would ever see his friend restored to a rational state of mind had been dashed to pieces days ago, the moment that chain had very nearly dragged him to his death … the chain he had been forced to lock in the first place.