Chapter 25

~Charles~

Shafts of sunlight, filtered by the gaps in the boards, offered a dim view of the pole barn. Straw lined the floor. The musty scent of horse hung in the air even though none were present in the stalls. Most of the tack was missing. Cart ruts told of the missing implements. Everything was down at a work site, dedicated to finishing before the freezing winds drove work to a halt.

It seemed peaceful in here.

But I held the gun in front of me at the ready. Carefully, I stalked through the barn, peering into the stall only to find it empty. Had I deceived myself?

No. I was certain I had seen someone on the quarry edge above me. He had to be in here, there had been no other place he could have reached in time.

Standing perfectly still I listened in the stillness.

Breathing.

The subtle sound of his each breath gave him away. He was close now. Hiding behind the next wall.

There was no where he could possibly go, unless he broke through the wall boards. I had him. Finally, after four months of frantic searching I would confront the man who had orchestrated my father's murder! My blood pounded in my veins. I could taste the iron.

I leapt around the corner with the muzzle of the gun in the lead. Staring down the barrel I glared at, not a stranger, but a face I knew.

"Hello, Monsieur Daae." Michael Perth grinned. He gripped a small pickax in his right hand.

"You!" The gun wavered in front of me, but I fought to keep it level.

He laughed and gave a bow. "Yes, just little old me."

There was a hunger in those eyes, the deep hunger I remember seeing when he had glimpsed what I had brought to Daugherty and Arkwright's. But it didn't make sense. If he'd wanted Father's accounts, why kill him? He took a step toward me. I leveled the gun at the center of his chest. "I want some answers!"

"Oh," he snickered, "I bet you do! I bet your daddy didn't tell you anything before … " He pointed his finger like a gun and pretended to shoot. "Boom, hehe! Not even he suspected that."

My hands trembled. "Why? Why did you do it? What did he ever do to you?" Never had I come across his name in Father's journals. How did this connect?

He stiffened for a moment before driving the point of the pickax into the old wood. It cracked and split under the force. "What did he do to me? Because of your father's reckless actions I grew up without mine!"

I forced myself to remain where I was. I gave him no ground as he pried the tool from where he had buried it. "Stay where you are! My father never had any business with a man named Perth."

"Of course not!" He snapped. "Perth was my mother's maiden name. The name she went back to after she abandoned my ruined father. In doing so, she stripped me of Father's title, his family crest, the right to wear his signet ring." He held up his hand and flexed the bare fingers before me. "Everything! Gone! And your father is to blame for it!"

I narrowed my eyes. "What are you talking about?"

The pickax trembled in his grasp. He stared at the sunlight reflecting off the sharp metal. "I didn't know. For so many years I had no idea who I truly could have been. Mother kept it a secret, raising me in flat she paid for with her own family's money. Meager, money. Paltry compared to the fortune she abandoned. But I always knew I was destined for more than just … toying with numbers. It was in my blood. I could feel it! Then, some years ago, I walked by the parlor when some men were visiting Grandfather Perth. Their whispers said it all. Father wasn't dead. Not dead at all. Just not … fit for society. They said he'd been poisoned, and never recovered."

The unfocused gleam in his eyes disturbed me. My finger stroked the trigger of the gun as his words sunk in, slowly making connections with the past that I had read.

He continued, "All this time Mother had told me Father was dead. But he was only dead to her! Locked away as a dreadful secret so she could live free of the vile stigma. Father was there all this time. Locked in his cell, locked away quietly on the Ward's Island."

I gulped, my finger nearly fired the gun. The name came to me. "Oh God, VanHollus!"

Michael Perth gave a toothy grin. His eyes focused on me as he clutched the pickax. "Yes. That's who I would have been! Except your father poisoned him. He was never the same again."

"No!That's not right." I almost lowered the gun in my haste to explain, but the moment he stepped forward I flung it back up. "VanHollus came to Father's mansion uninvited! It was your father who put the poison in my father's glass! The fault lies with yours."

He drove the point of the ax into the floor and screamed, "Liar! Erik wanted to destroy my father! For years he had stolen land, contracts, even his reputation. This was all his fault."

Sweat poured down my face. This man was clearly insane. I watched as he struggled to rip the ax back out of the floor. After he succeeded, he stumbled forward, his fingers twitching. Wide eyes failed to focus in the dying light. "My father," I began slowly, fighting to remain calm, "only switched the glasses. Your father's anger drove him to the act. Mine only protected his life."

"My father is a drooling mess lying in his own piss in an asylum! All I have done; in blackmailing the fool Snodgrass to challenge Erik, and hiring Black Dog to make sure he never left that knoll alive, was to prove my worth. To get my vengeance. And now I take your inheritance. You will hand over the accounts to me, or I will kill you."

The muzzle wavered, his hands barely held the pickax. The more frantic he became, the more he lost his grip. "Black Dog betrayed you before he died." It was all I could do, keep him talking.

Michael Perth snorted. "That piece of shit? Why am I not surprised? You get what you pay for and the man worked too cheap to be trustworthy. I didn't care. He was a dead shot. That's all I needed. A man who could hit a thin target and make him suffer. That was enough."

Father suffered alright. Memories of that night flooded back. My finger tensed on the trigger again. One shot, maybe I would be lucky and he would drop. I wouldn't need a second. But I hesitated as he swayed. "You sacrificed two men to make sure my father died?"

He nodded. "Though Snodgrass was hardly a man. That idiot couldn't hide his dipping into the accounts like I could. When I caught him, it was the perfect chance to dangle the line. He either challenged your father. Or I ended his career."

"He died. Black Dog shot him."

"I know." Michael smiled. "I couldn't rely on him keeping his mouth shut. So, I paid good money for a double hit. Now … we're going to go back to your house, that castle you live in, and you're going to hand me all your ledgers. Am I understood?"

"I'm the one holding the gun." I glared at him. "I will do no such thing."

"Yes, you will!" He held up the pickax and attempted to lunge at me. I slid out of the way. The moment the sunlight hit his eyes Michael dropped the ax and crumbled to his knees. He dissolved into giggles rocking back and forth as the light glittered in his eyes.

The muzzle of the gun lowered to my side. My God. This man was out of his mind. Shooting him would be like firing on a maimed animal. Carefully, I reached forward and snatched the pickax from his reach. He had order my father killed … but even in that move I was uncertain he had known what he was doing. Father had recorded well the night that VanHollus confronted him. The madness had infected him before he had even sipped from the poisoned glass. Like father … like son.

Caught in the light, Michael rocked himself and babbled nonsense. I grabbed a rope from the wall and tied his wrists tightly behind his back. He didn't even resist me.

Ruined, just like his father. I couldn't leave him here. The sound of horse hooves caught my attention. I glanced up to find Grimaudo opening the door. A look of shock on his face. "What's this?"

"A long story. I think I may need the assistance of your cart. Do you know any Perth's by chance?"

The foreman rubbed his neck with a dusty hand and nodded. "Did some work for a Lady Perth some time back while Master Erik was in Europe." He eyed Michael, an unasked question clearly in his mind. "Think I saw him once or twice during that time. Why?"

"I need answers. Take us there, please."

~Charles~

The building Grimaudo pulled up to was a charming brownstone. The entire cart ride back to the city, Michael Perth continued to mumble and laugh to himself. I rode alongside, making sure he didn't untie the knots that bound him to the cart railing. As I knocked on the front door, Grimaudo brought the delirious man, still in his bonds, beside me. At last the door opened and the butler's eyebrows rose immediately.

I was about to introduce myself when he held up a hand. "Wait here one moment, Sir."

There was no chance for a reply. He promptly shut the door on me. Grimaudo held Perth's upper arm tightly and offered me an amused glance. "What do you suppose that was about?"

I shrugged. "Haven't got a clue."

Not a moment later the door opened and a modestly dressed woman, close to Mother's age, peered out at the figure we had brought to her door. Distress shown in her eyes. Her hand flew up. For a moment I thought it was to strike me, but it came to her chest. She waved us into the house. "Come in, please."

The butler closed the door behind us. I offered a bow and was about to introduce myself when the lady gestured for us to follow. We entered a cozy sitting room. She pointed to a chair in the corner. "Place him there, if you please."

I nodded to the bewildered Grimaudo, he complied. No questions for us? We come to her door with a man tied up and there are no immediate questions? I half expected her to kneel before him and pull off the bonds.

But she didn't. Instead, she poured drinks for Grimaudo and me and offered them to us. The butler stood directly behind Perth's chair, watching him like a hawk.

Lady Perth broke the long silence. "I trust there is a reason he has been brought to me like this. Dare I ask what he has done?" Only then did I notice her hand was trembling.

I bowed my head. "Introductions are in order first. You know Grimaudo, and he is the one who told me he worked for you some years before." She nodded in reply. "Then you must be Lady Perth. So we are not strangers, I am Monsieur Charles Daae. Your son and I have crossed paths through a grave misfortune."

"Not grave." Michael Perth spoke distantly. "Not grave at all. Wonderful. Fulfilling. Marvelous. But not grave. I have done it, Mother."

Every eye in the room stared at him. Lady Perth cleared her throat before she flatly replied, "Answer me, Son. What have you done?"

He grinned, his wandering gaze found her in the room. "Mother … I avenged Father! I buried the man who destroyed him. And look, here is his heir to make amends."

She blanched at his words. Stiffly she crossed the room to loom over him. "The only way you could avenge your father is to have taken his final breath from him, Michael. For he orchestrated his own downfall. I have told you as much. Surely you have not gone back to Ward's Island after I forbade it?"

"No." He rocked back and forth in the chair. "No, I didn't."

She heaved a sigh of relief.

He twisted in his bonds, discovering the ropes around his wrist for the first time. There was no sign of panic. He looked at it as if it were a puzzle, nothing more. "No, I found Monsieur Erik and made sure he died a slow and agonizing death. Just like he tried to do to Father."

Grimaudo tensed. He wasn't the only one. I took three steps toward the man, nearly drawing the gun before realizing what I was doing.

She closed her eyes, and hung her head. "Oh Michael. What have you done?

"The right thing," he muttered absently.

Lady Perth snapped her fingers and pointed upstairs. The butler took Michael Perth by his arm and escorted him out of the room.

We sat in silence as she recomposed herself. Setting the glass aside, she met my eyes with a somber gaze. "Monsieur Daae. I cannot apologize enough for my son's behavior. As you can see, he is not well. I had hoped for sometime now that, in leaving his father's name behind, he might somehow evade inheriting the family madness. But it appears that is not to be. Is it true? Did my son do as he said?"

I stared down into the ripples disturbing my brandy's surface. My voice would not come. I could only nod.

She nearly dropped her glass, only rescuing it at the last moment and placing it on the table. Her fingers gripped the folds of her gown. "Then, his freedom is now denied him. There is no other course of action. He will be joining his father on Ward's Island. I would irresponsible to do anything less."

Her decree made me cringe. My God, to be locked up in that place. Shooting him would have been a mercy. And yet … the blood would have been on my hands. Father's words lingered in my mind, where would it end? It wouldn't.

"How I had longed that Michael would escape that grim fate. I should have known. I had seen the same light in his eye that plagued his father."

"Your husband?" I inquired, quietly.

"Ex-husband." She sat up as tall as she could. "Immediately after the dinner party, where I watched that man proceed with his arrogant folly, I made arrangements for him to be committed to the asylum. I should have done it sooner, but it was far simpler for a woman to arrange for an infirmed man than one who could still pretend to be sane. I wasted little time in filling for the separation. It took work, but my father's title helped push it through. I returned to my maiden name and have refused to take another arranged marriage ever again. We have worked hard to bury the damage, including spreading the rumor that he died of the poison. It was far easier to have society believe me a widow. I wore black only as long as I needed to."

I swirled the brandy. "Mother is still in black. It's only been four months."

Lady Perth swallowed before she spoke. "I did not know Monsieur Erik, your father, very well. But what little time I had spent in his company, I held high regard for him. VanHollus wronged him. Had I been able to influence him, I would have put a stop to that bitter rivalry. And now … all these years … it comes to haunt us again. I am sorry. I can't bring your father back to you. All I can do is assure you that the reign of the VanHollus madness has come to an end. Michael will be confined here tonight. Tomorrow he will be on the first ferry out to Ward's Island. If you wish, you may come. I understand if you don't trust my word after the actions of my son."

I shuddered. No. I didn't want to go anywhere near that place. "I … believe you."

She rose from the chair and knelt in front of me. "Once more, I apologize for this. And I beg your discretion. Let me end this terrible chapter of our lives without society spreading on the vile whispers. Let us end this. I will find some way to make up what my son has taken from you."

My hand embraced hers. For once, my thoughts had stilled. Instead of the wild swirl of the storm, everything settled and my mouth seemed to know what to say without my bidding. "I will not hold you to an impossible promise. There is nothing on this earth that can approach that value."

Pure and simple, I knew in my heart. This was … over. In her eyes, I saw the pain of her son's betrayal. His fate was wretched. And with that strike it also condemned her to a life of separation from her child. I wondered who had it worse? Yes, Father had been murdered … but it had been by a man who's only inheritance was a legacy of madness.

She still knelt before me. Calmly, I stood and placed a hand on her shoulder. "God-willing, this is over."

As I walked to the door with Grimaudo at my side, I heard her utter. "You are very gracious, Sir."

A footman escorted us out into the night. Grimaudo climbed into the cart and eyed the house. "I remember those days. I was a but a boy working under Master Erik. VanHollus was a real cur of a man, even on the sites, we knew that he was trying to chip away at Erik's attempts to establish himself. That was the thing he could never stand. A man who had the gumption to toe the line and not back down. That man was Erik. I swore I heard VanHollus was dead."

"He is." I murmured. "The … remnant of him in the asylum isn't really there, Grimaudo. I can't say that Michael Perth's fate is a pleasant one."

"At least he didn't drink rat poison."

I had to nod. "True, but to be locked away for insanity. Merde Grimaudo, I have seen inside the asylum. I wouldn't wish that on anyone."

He took up the cart horses's reigns and sighed. "You're a better man than I. I still want to bash that little ass's brains out for murdering Master Erik." With a wave, he drove the cart up the cobblestone road into the growing darkness.

I mounted Drifter and blindly headed south to the manor. Numbed by everything, I barely even noticed as I came around the corner of Central Park. A shadow stood before me. I tugged back on Drifter's reins. He paused shaking his head in clear disapproval.

Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed another figure on the rooftop. A woman dressed all in black outlined in the moonlight. Mother. The petals of a rose shimmered in her hand. She leaned over the balustrade and released the rose to the care of the winds.

In my path, the cloaked man lifted his masked face to me and smiled.

Father.

He bowed deeply. "I always knew you to be a better man than I. Bravissmo. It is finished."

The cloak swirled as the wind picked up. Leaves spiraled in the street where only a moment before he had stood.

I smiled and looked up to the dark sky just as the third star winked into view.

~The End~

AUTHORS NOTE: This marks the end of an era for me. I confess I am quite misty-eyed. It feels unreal how long ago I wrote the first chapter of "Nightingale's Strain" which launched into this five book series.

Thank you to those who accompanied me on the entire journey. It's been an odyssey, on many fronts. In researching, in writing, in learning how to layout and edit a long series … and it's been worth every minute of it. None of this would be possible without the great works of Leroux and Susan Kay. In fact it is mainly thanks to Susan Kay's work of professional fanfiction that expanded Erik's life that spawned this. I bow to her and say "Bravissimo! Thank you for inspiring me to push things to the next level." Because of how they both strove for time period accuracy, weaving in real historic events, and deep character psychology I felt compelled to approach it the same way. For now I bid you all adieu. As to whether I will go back and fill in with other shorter works, it remains to be seen. A worthy plot needs to present itself.