The Odd One Out
Summary: What drives a successful contractor to give up his building enterprize and hide away in an underground dungeon of his own making?
I want to thank Shadowcrest Nightingale for her help with this story!
Finished. Finished was the word of the day. What not one of the men present at Garnier's private little celebration had ever thought he would live to see, had happened. Garnier announced the opera house finished and the building was now left to the rehearsals for the grand opening. Fifteen years of hard work and far too many setbacks, fifteen years. They had lost men to accidents. They had lost men in the war. They had lost men in the terror of the Commune. And they had lost men who had just given up, their strength used up and drained until they could not go working. Even their group - being architects, contractors and businessmen with various enterprizes - was not the same they had started with.
Truthfully, only ten of the men present were of Garnier's original team. One of them was Erik, the one who had the main contract for all the primary structures. He was an emaciated man, dressed in a black suit and wore a mask to cover his face. Right now he was sitting in a grandfather chair close to the chimney in Garnier's elegant parlor. He didn't speak much as was his habit. He seldom engaged in smalltalk and if he did he just started a lecture and never noticed when he was boring the others, so it was better not to try to get him into any conversation. He looked like he was ill but they all knew he was a strong man and by far younger than he looked. He covered his face with a Venetian bauta mask. They knew that he was deformed and they knew that he usually covered his deformity with a paper mache nose and a false beard, but that did not allow him to eat and drink or he would lose the prosthesis. Some had seen his face and were relieved that he kept himself covered. He looked like death himself and so soon after the horrors of the war and the Commune they really had absolutely no desire to see death incarnate sitting among them.
Everyone knew it wasn't Erik's fault and they pitied him for his cruel fate, but at the same time resented him for his difficult character. They knew him as eccentric to say the least, sometimes taciturn and sometimes talking nonstop for hours. His temper was awful. Somethimes he could be very generous and helpful. Some of them had experienced themselves in difficult situations that he eventually just stood before them and placed a wallet full of banknotes in their hands, never asking for anything in return or even asking them to pay it back. They usually did, their honor demanded that, but he seemed surprised when they did pay the money back. On other occasions they found him moody and with a terrible temper.
All of them had experienced that if he was raging verbally or even attacking them with his fists he was not really dangerous, he would not harm anyone in a way that won't heal in a few days. Yes, he was calling them animal names, straight through the animal glossary, but that was not bad, it just caused the workers to make bets which animals he would pick that time. Several workers left the building site with bruises, for this man seemed to be unable to berate anyone for a mistake except releasing his frustration with his fists. But nothing of these happenings had ever scared his colleagues. What did scare them was when he just became utterly quiet, said nothing and stood there like a marble statue. Then he would leave the site and one could be sure something terrible was going to happen, even if they never knew how he did it. There were rumors that he was a dark magician, trained by the gypsies in the mythical Orient in the arts of dark magic.
Garnier was one of the few men who knew perfectly well that Erik - that was the only name the dark man ever intoduced himself with and he once even confessed to Garnier after several glasses of wine that it wasn't his true name - was no magician. He was a master mason with great skills for structural engineering and details but tended to lose himself in the perfection of details until he lost track of the whole project. Garnier liked that Erik usually was absolutely not one for arguments. Erik would just stand there and listen, then go to think it over alone for some days and when he came back he had a solution for almost every problem. Garnier knew that Erik's terrible temper was just a show for the workers because Erik thought a moody tyrant would keep them in line better than a beneficial calm and composed master. In truth his temper wasn't that uncontrollable. Garnier knew that one could spit in Erik's face and Erik would do nothing, just stand there and watch because he was too surprised to react. And then, several weeks later, the one who offended him would have some accident at the building site and never know why or how it happend. Erik seemed to be one of the least confrontative men in the team, he hated to argue, he hated to quarrel and he hated each direct confrontation. Erik preferred to think about it for hours and give his answers in writing and in sketches.
Garnier smiled as he remembered the first days of their collaboration. While everyone else came early and they worked together very close, Erik usually didn't show up before noon. When he came, he never greeted anyone, just sat at his desk and concentrated on something he found important. When everyone went home in the evening, Erik stayed, most likely for the majority of the night, and the next morning everyone would find sketches and notes with Erik's ideas on his desk. They soon learned that trying to discuss anything with the reclusive man wasn't a good idea, it was easier to leave a note on his desk.
Right now the room was bustling with funny anecdotes that had happened the last fifteen years and plans for the future. Everyone had some idea what they would do next, a vacation, a new building project - which was easy to win, mentioning to be one of the top contractors of the new opera house in Paris was enough reference to get several offers immediately.
"It seems I am open for business," Erik's rich tenor voice announced from his chair by the fireplace. He swirled the wine in his glass. "Since all of you know my work, there is not much to say... just that I am ready if one of you has need of the service I provide." Garnier - after fifteen years of working closely with this man - knew that Erik had rehearsed this line for days before this private party. It was not easy for Erik to ask for something.
There was a deadly silence, the tension almost palpable. Garnier knew precisely what everyone thought: I should offer this man a contract for he is the best - but after working fifteen years with him I just can't take it any more! It is not his fault, but he is so creepy, odd, so difficult, I just can't take it any more!
Garnier knew that Erik respected him and he knew that Erik even considered him a friend and yes, he was fond of the odd man, but... yes. But. But dealing with Erik was so difficult.
Erik absolutely hated if someone tried to talk to him, he tended to forget what one told him and remember only what was given to him in writing. On the other hand he tended not to understand the most basic rules of social behavior. Erik might come to one's door in the middle of the night when he had a good idea. Erik might not understand why it was impolite to disturb a business associate at home in the night, when it was impolite to point out mistakes - especially in front of others - and he surely didn't understand the meaning of the word empathy. He seemed to be blind to all the slight signs of discomfort one might show. He didn't even understand if someone told him in plain words that he was going too far - then he would just stand there, his eyes growing bigger like those of a child who didn't understand what he had done wrong now and leave, usually angry and offended because someone didn't appreciate his well-meant efforts.
Even Erik seemed to notice that he had said something wrong for he just got up and left the room. He did not look at anyone, did not excuse himself or bid them good night. He just left silently, as was his habit.
As soon as the door closed behind Erik, there was a collective gasp of relief.
"Come on, you are being unfair," Garnier berated his guests., "He did not win the main contract for nothing. He worked miracles with the structural engineering! He has one of the largest building enterprise there is available in France! He doesn't deserve to be treated like this."
Some looked aside, others stared at Garnier defiantly. "It is not as if you offered him another contract," Jaques pointed out. Jaques was the one who had won the contract for the gas installation.
"You did not either," Garnier defended himself.
Jaques sighed. "He gives me the creeps. He doesn't have many friends here, does he? Not that he willingly offended one of us, but... well... Erik is Erik. Unpredictable. Difficult. Most inflexible. You can't change a plan without him making a fuss over it for days and yet he is the most unpredictable of all."
Garnier felt the urge to defend Erik. "He won the main contract because he was the best man for the job. He proved himself over all these years, didn't he? No one can say he didn't help us in the past. Jaques, didn't you tell me that he brought you food during the starving winter?"
"He did," Jaques admitted, "And for that I am grateful. But... the way he treated the high ranking officials... I do not know if being closely associated with him won't ban me from every public building project."
"I survived that," Garnier reminded him.
"And what? Did you offer him to work with you on whatever building project you have in mind?" Jaques stood up and glared at Garnier."And you have more reason than anyone of us to be grateful. Who helped you to leave Paris in time when the Prussians came?"
Now it was Garnier's time to look aside in shame. "You are right, that was Erik."
"Don't you think it is odd that every one of us has new projects and he has none?" Jean-Francois asked. He was an elderly man, he had been responsible for delivering the marble., "After all, he was the one who had the initial idea for the artificial lake, the bitumen sealed double walls. It was his idea to use the water as counterweight for the weight on the stage, stabilizing the building further, it was his idea to create some of the walls hollow to reduce the weight, especially in the higher levels. This man is a genius, so why does he have so much difficulties finding new clients?"
Garnier laughed. "That is easily explained. You know Erik. Can you imagine him sitting down over an elegant dinner with rich clients or politicians?"
They roared with laughter. No, Erik would never do that. Erik did not understand that skills alone didn't bring clients to his door. He needed the right social connections with the right people - and this was something Erik didn't understand. Erik was gruff and let anyone know that he hated being disturbed. Small wonder he drove clients away with his behavior. Erik was unable to make friends with the right people, he tended to forget who was associated with whom, who had which influence in which political organization. Names meant nothing to Erik. He could stand before the minister responsible for the largest building project in France and ask him not to disturb him because he was busy now. No one was busy when a minister called, no matter what, it would be possible. Not with Erik.
Garnier sighed. „I tried to explain to him how important it was to develop social connections with the right men."
„Let me guess – he didn't understand what you were talking about?" Jaques asked.
„No, he told me that it was wrong that any social connections were needed anyways, that skill alone should be enough. Two days later, when the minister was at the building site for an inspection, he told the minister to leave for he was in his way. You cannot tell a minister on inspection to leave the building site! But Erik had already forgotten everything I told him!"
Another uncomfortable silence fell over the men in the room.
It was the host's duty to make his guests comfortable. Garnier cleared his throat and took a sip of wine. "So... I hope all of us will attend to the grand opening?"
"Of course," was the answer.
"And what do we do...?" Jaques glanced meaningfully at the door.
"He has every right to be among us," Garnier stated firmly.
"He does. But... what if he... offends one of the potential new clients? The politicians? You know how he can be when he's nervous or excited!" Jaques reminded them.
Garnier rolled his eyes. "Please, gentlemen, we all know that he was a successful contractor and master mason before he won the contract for the foundation and the primary structures of the opera house."
"Because he had a partner!" Jean-Francois reminded him, "You remember the old man who didn't know what his own office looked like? But that old man knew every social connection to every important man in Europe! He was with Erik a few times before he retired soon after Erik won the contract for the opera house."
"Gentlemen, without Erik this building would never have been finished, we might have given up when we discovered the water! We just have to invite him. Anything else would be unthinkable!" Garnier insisted.
"And who is going to keep him from committing a serious faux-pas shaming all of us?" This question came from Alain. Alain was the one responsible for the roof of the opera house. He had experienced first-hand what Erik was capable of. He had been there when Erik had openly expressed his contempt for a certain design when the designer stood beside him - and Erik had failed to recognize him and even worse didn't even know that this designer was the nephew of a high ranking ministry official. It had taken Garnier weeks to explain that Erik had just been in bad mood and didn't really mean what he said that day. What if Erik committed an equal faux-pas? Making a very poignant remark about someone when a friend or relative of that person was close enough to overhear?
"Gentlemen, please. He is not a child!" Garnier rebuked them.
"Really? I wouldn't put it past him to appear in working clothes with a chisel in his hands," Jaques complained, "Remember the last time I invited him to a soiree? He had been so busy working on something, he came there in working clothes because he obviously forgot to change."
"Or when we took him with us to the private performance of a young pianist? We had difficulties keeping him from pushing the man from the piano stool when he wanted to take over for he didn't like this man's performance."
"Yes, and then he came to the building site in a dress coat because he felt like it."
"We just cannot risk being associated with him in public. He's just too odd."
While the men in the room shared anecdotes about Erik and his odd behavior - and his skills as a master mason and structural engineer - the man they spoke of stood right outside the door. He had not left when he seemed to do so, but stayed to hear what they said about him. He lowered his head as tears welled up in his eyes. These men were his friends! He had thought that they liked him. He'd given them presents, helped them whenever they needed something. He had done his best to be amiable and make friends and all of them had responded kindly. And now this. Fifteen years of working side by side with them, being part of the team, feeling as a real part of the team, one of them, and now he learned that he had just not seen the small signs that they certainly saw him as an outcast.
The ones he had considered his best friends were now talking against him. Those he thought just colleagues who didn't really like him, now rather supported Garnier's idea to invite him.
Jaques complained: „He pointed out that my wife can't dance when I was standing next to him!"
„You have to admit that she really can't," Alain defended Erik now, „But I get the point. He shouldn't make blunt remarks."
Erik frowned before the door. What was wrong with saying the truth? They had told him that among friends one would say the truth and only among enemies one would have to lie.
Garnier chuckled. „But sometimes his remarks made endless conferences endurable. I asked what we were doing now and he replied: 'Leaving a bad impression.' You have to admit that we all needed that good laugh then."
„What if he explains that he shares the ideas of Robbespierre when it comes to aristocrats when he's introduced to someone who's proud of his aristocratic ancestors?" Jaques pointed out.
„He wouldn't. Even Erik can't be that insensitive," Garnier stated.
„He did," Alain reminded him, „If Martin and I hadn't cut him off immediately his big mouth might have gotten all of us in serious trouble."
„He did not!" Garnier objected.
„He asked how it was possible that the Jacobins were so slobby to miss his grandfather, which was bad enough!" Jaques insisted. Erik shook his head. He still did not know what he had done wrong then, he had asked out of genuine interest and hope for a good adventure story. What had been wrong about that?
"He was at my wedding and he behaved perfectly!" Martin, the electrician in charge of the Opera's own generator, called out. Erik smiled. Yes, the wedding. He had been there, sitting somewhere aside, watching. Not speaking much. Leaving early. But it had touched him that he had been invited at all so he had endured the endless boring hours sitting there, just watching, seldom talking to someone and if he had to lie that he was enjoying himself. When he left he had such headache he needed to lie down on his bed in his dark room for hours before the pain lessened, the celebration was so much stress for him.
"Do not worry," Erik whispered, "I will never bother you again." It was all he could do for his friends, like it was all he could do for his family was to run away for good. He just wanted to lie down in darkness and silence and never get up again.
The masked man slowly went to the opera house, his head down, his steps dragging along like those of a very old man. He ignored the stares, the whispers and the open insults from other people as if he wouldn't notice them. But it hurt to be called a freak, crazy, an idiot or told to go away, threatened that they would beat him or have him arrested if they saw his mask again. He unlocked the small door to the Rue Scribe and climbed down to the dark corridors, the small lantern in his hand the only light in the eternal darkness. He liked the peace the darkness brought. Erik smiled at himself as he realized that he had been so deep in thought he hadn't gone home but to a different place.
Long ago he had built himself a small flat in the cellars for the simple purpose of having a place where he could live and work undisturbed when he did not want to waste time having to walk to his flat or office. His secret home had already served him well during the Siege of Paris and the Commune. This shelter was never meant to be anything but temporary for the time until the opera was finished, but now that he stood in the spartanic accomodation of his own making he realized that this was much more a place he might call home than the elegant flat he was paying an exorbitant rent for each month. What for? To invite people who despised him? To play the host for men who mocked him behind his back? For the few men he had called his friends and now learned they hated and despised him like the rest of humanity did?
Every great building should have its building sacrifice, he mused. A living being, walled in alife, to become the guardian spirit and ensure that the building would never crumble. The most potent building sacrifice was a human being. A human life to make the building last as long as the soul was alife. A human soul for a body made of stone. A beautiful body for his tortured soul. A chance to find peace.
Thank you for reading and please review! If you liked this story, maybe you have a look at my other stories as well?