The fingers themselves were what caught his attention most; long and elegant despite the yellowed appearance, the nails that seemed sharp and brittle to the gaze of one young man from the city out to make a purchase to please his new bride.
Quatre Winner had heard of the house, of course; who had not? That was a more appropriate question. Despite the decaying facade, the overgrown gardens, and the crumbled cobblestone that led from the road in a horseshoe more likely to support the weight of horses and carriages than cars, it was a true beauty. Columns fluted around the wide porch, old metal awnings needing to be stripped away to reveal the windows. The bricks desperately lacked for cleaning and repair, but they were old and in mostly good condition.
Only one thing stood between Quatre and the house with which his bride had fallen in love, and his name was Zechs Marquise. A strange name, to be sure, though no stranger than his own; a stranger man, it was said, nosed about town and halfway through the state if the right person was asked.
Quatre knew a great number of the right people.
Strange was the kindest word used; recluse a close second. Born in a time when men did their duty and had their lovers on the side, the banker from Macon had taken chances, made personal decisions that were not perhaps thought out wisely, and in the end it brought both of them to this place. It brought them to this small faintly dingy restaurant-cum-lounge with karaoke singers only a room away and bourbon lingering in the bottom of the elderly gentleman's glass.
It had taken effort to find the man's patterns and habits, make it possible for Quatre to pin him down and happen to be there to meet him in coincidence.
The silver-haired man lifted his head, and peered over at Quatre for a moment, gaze dismissive. It wasn't enough to put Quatre off; Catherine wanted that house too badly, no matter what shape it was in, and his bride was going to have it if that was what she wanted.
"Mr. Marquise, I presume?" he asked gently, giving a deceptively sweet smile. Most people mistook him for being quite a lot less than the vicious shark that he could be when necessary. "I hoped I would find you here."
"Why?" Right to the chase, but the old, even gentlemen like Mr. Marquise, were usually straight to the point when they were suspicious.
"I was married recently. My wife and I stayed at the Claremont House for our honeymoon, and when we drove through your town, she noticed your house. I'm afraid she's fallen in love with it," Quatre explained. "And I would do anything for her." Even move from Atlanta to such an out of the way hole in the wall as the little town where he sat now, hoping to convince a stubborn old man to abandon his home of nearly seventy years.
"That's very good of you. I'm sure she'll be happy to have such a pliant husband as you prove to be." The bourbon hugging the bottom of his glass disappeared into Mr. Marquise's mouth in a slow sip. "Do you know how many people have offered to buy my home over the years?"
"Quite a few, I should imagine. It's truly beautiful." And it was, even if it was crumbling down, the porches fallen on one side, in obvious need of paint. Buckets were placed on the porches, a scaffold where attempts to fix it had been made at some point and never finished. Junk of all varieties littered the grounds, everywhere except the rose garden and its perfect wrought iron fence.
"I know. That's why... we bought it. And that's why I'm not going to sell it to you just because you want it." He set the glass down, looking contemplative. "You need to learn that you just don't get everything you want."
That was startling, just a little. It didn't jive with what Quatre had heard. "No. No, I'm a businessman. I certainly understand that wanting something doesn't always mean getting it. The indulgence of someone you love, though..."
"Is what brought me here in the first place."
Ah, and that look on his face was full of bitterness and longing all at once in a way that made Quatre curious. "So that's why you aren't interested in selling the house." It was more of a statement, less of a question. "It's an understandable reason."
"I'm sure that you've heard the stories, that you've asked after the place. You had to have if you managed to find me here." Mr. Marquise sat back, and folded his hands in his lap.
"Yes," Quatre admitted. "I asked. I did research in the county clerk's office before anything. You didn't buy the house, you built it." It was interesting that the man hadn't admitted to that. "For love."
"We built it," he admitted. "I built it, had it built. It was everything... everything for love."
Everything for love that left, that didn't work out, and it tugged at Quatre's heart, a faint pull above his stomach. "It sounds terribly sad," he said softly, glancing down at the empty liquor glass. "You've mourned, ever since...?" Since his lover had left, run away with the gardener, the gossip declared.
"He was everything. There wasn't anything to do but stay here, afterwards." He leaned a little, and then waved at one of the waitresses with a nearly nonexistent gesture. She came forward with another drink in hand while Quatre waited quietly, politely. When she left, he leaned forward again.
"I can understand why you won't sell it," he said. "I'm sure Catherine will understand, too, when I tell her. It's a tragedy." A terrible one, to be sure, although he was still quite determined that the house would be hers. Theirs. "I know it's rude to intrude, and even more so to ask, but... I'd love to see inside. Take pictures for her, since she so badly wants to at least see."
There was a slow sigh from Mr. Marquise, but Quatre could tell that he had an in when the man shrugged his shoulders. "All right."
Ah, that was excellent, truly magnificent. "Then I'll call on you in the morning?" Quatre asked tentatively. "I'm afraid it's late and I'll have to go find somewhere to stay for the evening."
"There are a few boarding houses locally. 'Hotels' of a lesser quality. This area used to be more than it is now." Mr. Marquise seemed to be making no moves to leave yet himself, either.
"Perhaps you could recommend one?" Quatre asked, motioning for the waitress. "Would you like something else, Mr. Marquise? Some dessert? I haven't eaten yet, as I was most sincerely hoping that I might find you here."
"I might as well," he decided cavalierly. "I'm an old man, and I might as well take whatever enjoyment I can find. Dessert, then."
"And what's good to eat here?" Yes. It was going to be an entirely productive evening, Quatre could tell. Maybe by the end of things, he'd have just exactly what he wanted.
A house for his wife.
Catherine was going to be proud of him.
He'd promised that he'd at least get inside and take pictures, but he hadn't expected for his sweet talk to work well enough to get him a room in the beautiful, if neglected, old house. Even in its current shape, it was a beauty -- high ceilings and wide windows, built to let in those Southern breezes that made a summer's evening worth living through if there wasn't any air conditioning. The lighting wasn't quite as old as the house itself, though it was close, and Quatre could tell that nothing was up to code. The renovation costs alone could break a rich man, so it was lucky that he wasn't just rich.
Seeing the inside of the house made him even more determined to own it than before, and not just for his wife.
"This is... exquisite." There were no other words, even in the yellowed glow of sixty watt bulbs that left the ceilings in shadows. It probably didn't help that they likely hadn't been painted in the last twenty years. They needed to be painted. But what reason did a ninety year old man with no family and few enough friends have to keep his house shining and beautiful?
"I know," Mr. Marquise agreed. "Even now. I'm sure one day it will look as it used to."
"I hope that I can be a part of that," Quatre confessed. "She's grand." Curly pine paneling and pine heart floors, in desperate need of wax and love, true, but... There was no denying the truth of things. "It's late and I'm sure you'd like to go to bed. I can take pictures in the morning...."
"You can take them now," the old man suggested. "It has a special... something late at night."
"Loneliness." The word broke from Quatre's lips before he could stop it, and he made a guilty little start. "I'm sorry, I..."
His host laughed a little. "No, it is. It didn't used to be, but even before he left, it was lonely. I think I smothered him."
"The only thing worse than not loving at all is loving too much?" Quatre asked quietly, giving a sympathetic twitch of his lips. "I'm sorry for your loss."
"I brought it on myself." Mr. Marquise didn't walk with a cane, but he did lean on things, the door frame in particular, his presumably once-tall frame stooped and crippled with age. It made Quatre want to help him, to hold out his arm for the man to lean on. He didn't think that would go over very well somehow.
"I suppose I should take that as something of a warning," the young man murmured. "Still. I can't imagine ever wanting to leave a house like this." He brought the camera up and clicked off a few shots, paying particular attention to the ceiling medallion and the molding.
"He probably didn't want to, but..." The man shrugged slowly. "It feels like a dream now. I've mourned him longer than I knew him."
And it was much too late to stop mourning him now. Quatre could understand that. "Why don't you show me your favorite parts of the house and tell me about him?"
"This room... I used to host parties here when we first moved here. It doesn't scandalize you, does it? The world has come so much further than it was when we lived here." The man headed for the stairwell, the carved swooping line of wood. "Before the Depression."
A long, long time ago to be so brave and forthright about choices like that. "My wife's brother is gay." Gay. That wasn't the term then, though, was it? They called them bachelors then, and tittered about it behind their fingers. "And I'm afraid it's difficult to shock me."
"Good." He seemed to approve of that, and that was another in with the man, wasn't it? "Come upstairs. There's a piano room."
"Upstairs?" That was interesting. Quatre imagined men straining to get the piano up those stairs without damaging either the instrument or the wood beneath it, and glanced down as if he could imagine what might happen in such a difficult position. "How did they ever get the piano upstairs?
"Carefully. He demanded that it be upstairs so he could see out over the grounds when he played. Treize... was never a man gifted with the same sense of normalcy that the rest of us had." Mr. Marquise headed up the stairs, walking so slowly that it seemed impossible that he made the trek at least once a day.
The camera flash flickered repeatedly, off and on, bright in the dim light of the house. It captured everything -- dust, dirt, lack of care, and all of the beauty that lay beneath it. "But you loved him all the same," Quatre murmured.
"Loved him for it. He made it through the Great War, lofty ideals intact. Not many men old enough to fight in that kept their strange.... strange innocence."
"It must have been a pretty desperate time," Quatre suggested, pausing as they stopped at the head of the stairs. He turned slightly, got shots leading down into the open foyer where the doors of the dual front parlors were both visible. "And it must have taken a lot of bravery to meet those ideals."
"It did. I was too young to fight in it, and too old for the second one, but he... was born to be an officer in it. He was injured with shrapnel and hid it so he could stay on." It hadn't taken much encouragement to keep the man talking as he led him through the upstairs halls.
Too young for the first war, and too old for the second. It must have been nice, Quatre thought, and then felt a little ashamed for thinking it. "He sounds terribly brave. He must have sparkled. No wonder you made this house, all for him."
"It fit him well. Money, between the two of us, wasn't an issue..." Because Mr. Marquise was a well known and very skilled banker, yes, but Quatre wasn't sure what the other man had done. He must have done something after the war, and probably before it, for that matter.
"You were a banker," Quatre probed gently, clicking off another round of pictures in the hall. He could see several paintings there that were desperately in need of restoration, pieces that might have gone for hundreds of thousands at an auction house.
"He was a business investor. That's how we met in the first place. His family had money, and liked to make more of it." Even the carpets were beautiful, except that they could do with a washing and a dusting out. Or both.
"I understand the feeling." Quatre's family could practically swim in their money. It didn't mean that he had any intention of refraining from making more of it. "Money makes the world go 'round."
"It brings out the worst in people. Treize was benevolent with it. He wanted to change things..." Mr. Marquise sighed. "I didn't let him."
"What did he want to change?" They paused outside of a room, and Quatre got a good look at the man. They'd been in dim light for so long that he hadn't noticed how very old and tired Mr. Marquise seemed, how he sagged. Up close, it was impossible not to notice.
He was near to dying. At the worst, Quatre would have to wait another year or so to snatch up the house on the open market. "The way war was fought. He envisioned everything the Cold War brought us. The Gulf War? Targeted missiles and precision airplanes. He'd designed so many things like it, but I told him to put such silly dreams away...."
"Not so silly, really," Quatre murmured. "Terrible. But not silly. Did he work with those things? Here? After the War?"
"Of course. It was hard to stop him. He designed, he planned, all the time. His brain was..." Mr. Marquise shrugged gently. "Always on. Even in bed."
Ah, now that was a faintly embarrassing topic; not because the elderly gentleman's lover had been a man, but because of his age and the implications that lay therein. Fair skin showed the clear color that rose in response to those words.
"Do you want to see the piano room? It's this way."
Thank God for the change of subject. Zechs Marquise was an old man in Quatre's view of things, and he couldn't imagine him any other way, much less in bed with a man who never stopped thinking. "Oh, please. I would love that," Quatre agreed, mouth curving upwards. "The piano... has it been here since...?"
"Yes. I keep it up." If that was true, then it was probably the only thing kept track of and cared for in the house. It made Quatre wonder how often someone came to tune it, if he played it, if....
The door opened, and his breath stuttered in his throat. This room, out of all the rooms so far, wasn't just a room. It was a museum, perhaps even some form of mausoleum, he thought. Everything captured at one moment in time and maintained in pristine condition. Even the lighting was better, spilling over gilded frame silver-backed mirrors and dozens of perfectly preserved pencil sketches, caressing the Erard Grand Piano with its parquetry veneer. Mahogany, boxwood and... ebony? He wasn't sure, but it was one of the most fantastic musical instruments he had seen in quite some time, including his own Stradivarius. "It's...."
"More him than the clothes he left behind ever could have been." Beautiful, Quatre had been going to say, but Mr. Marquise was stroking a hand over the closed lid. It probably helped to keep the elements out, dust, sunlight, harmful things.
"It's... There just aren't words for how exquisite it is," Quatre murmured, pausing to run his fingers over the key cover. "May I?"
"Please." Mr. Marquise shifted, and somehow managed to get his fingers up beneath the lid, lifting it with what seemed like the last of his strength. Then he retreated a little, moving towards a chair to sit down.
"Let me help you," Quatre offered, stepping up quickly to offer gentle leverage down into the chair. "Is there something you'd like to hear? Something that's your favorite?"
"Do you know Le Streghe?" Mr. Marquise sat back in the old, antique chair, and didn't seem to mind that dust stirred up around him. Strange that there would be any there when the rest of the room was so well-kept.
"It's strange that you should mention it. I play violin. Le Streghe is... Paganini. A piece for violin and piano," Quatre murmured. "I don't know the piano pieces as well as I might like, but I can play it for you."
"I would appreciate that." Maybe if it was good enough, he could smooth talk his way back to the house. Just a little playing with something he already knew. Quatre made his luck work that way, used the softness of good looks and expressions granted him by his mother who had died in the birthing of him.
"Of course," he said, and smiled before he went to the piano stool, shifted it to slide his knees beneath the keyboard, and raised the cover.
The keys were old and yellow, true ivory, and his fingers lingered on them for a moment. They were cool to the touch, and it sent a faint thrill through him. It wasn't a particularly old piece, as far as pianos went, he supposed. He had seen older, and the music parlor in his father's home held a French piano that probably outdated it by a hundred years, but there was something there, something in the touch and the feel that made him shiver.
It had been well used, once upon a time, and beautiful still. It looked like it was polished at least once a week, varnished and coated, kept free of the lingering grime that clung to everything else he'd seen. Mr. Marquise was looking on, waiting and watching and possibly pretending that it was Treize there and not Quatre.
That was all right with the younger man; Mr. Marquise was ninety-four. Even if he made the mistake of closing his eyes and pretending that Quatre was his long-lost lover, it wasn't as if he could do anything about it.
He paused, and put his fingers over the keys, pulling the memory of the piece to mind. He was much more accustomed to the violin section of that particular bit of music, but he was sure he could acquit himself admirably. It was close enough, and he had a passing familiarity with how to play piano. He could play, and the less he concentrated, the better it played. It wasn't perfect to start, but... But. His fingers seemed to take on a life of their own. Perhaps it was the atmosphere, but Quatre thought it was the piano itself. Everything flowed, the easy shift and move of his arms and fingers taking him over entirely, and his eyes closed for the music to flood through him.
The notes on the violin held longer, but he could ad lib a little, fill in with his piano work the way that he supposed Treize might fill those silences, embellishing on music that was from a time when extra notes would have been scandalous, destructive. He could almost see it, imagine it, the way Paganini might have stood in front of his audience, violin clasped, the pianist playing more to him than anything else, waves of awe and fear coming off of the gathered people to see him and hear him play the way he did. It made him breathless, made everything strange and blurred in a way, almost as if the devil himself was in that very room, hovering over Quatre's shoulder, as well.
And maybe he was. Maybe he was sitting at Quatre's shoulder, because when Quatre ended the piece, the room was quiet. Too quiet. There was just the lingering of the notes, and the sound of his own breathing.
His fingers drew reluctantly from the keys at first, and then more quickly as a shudder of horror danced through him. Playing the piano of a dead man, half unaware of exactly what he was doing and where he was, suddenly seemed unreal and a little horrifying.
"Mr. Marquise?" he asked again, unexpectedly shaky.
Silence. Silence, because the old man was sitting in the chair, chin propped up on his hand, eyes closed.
"Mr. Marquise?" When he stood from the piano bench, his knees trembled. "Mr. Marquise? Are you asleep?" And were sleepy men supposed to answer 'yes'?
There was nothing, not even the rise and fall of his chest.
He was ninety-four.
And he was dead.
The morning light filtered in through the windows, lighting her hair up with auburn highlights and blonde strands. It was impossible to keep his attention from wandering, so Quatre put his papers down on the table and smiled. "You look radiant this morning."
It was wonderful to see her that way instead of the faint sea foam green that she had started turning the moment she stepped out of the bed. That had been two months ago, but now that Catherine was further along, things were starting to agree with her a little more.
"I do? That's good to hear, since this nightgown hardly fits anymore. " She laughed, and god, the sound went right to his heart. The house fit her well.
The death of Zechs Marquise had brought an inquiry, a variety of questions about Quatre's presence in the house, and a public auction of the very property about which he had been asking. Naturally, he had bought it despite the common opinion of the good people of the county. The presence of someone in the house who actually spent time renovating it and had begun to make overtures in the county had changed that, though, and things were looking up.
"I think you're beautiful this way." He touched her belly every morning, murmured words of greeting. He couldn't help himself. Quatre had missed the presence of a family in his life -- all of his sisters had been much older, and his father had always been at work.
He was going to work very hard to be sure that never happened to Catherine or to their child.
One could work and still love. There was a balance to love, between giving and taking and allowing and smothering, a balance that he seemed particularly aware of given the history of the house. The piano still twinged him a little, but it played as beautifully as ever for him, even if he did prefer the violin.
"Mmm, you'd better." She stopped to pour a cup of coffee before she joined him at the table, and the beautiful garden that it overlooked.
"The roses are lovely," he noted, brow knitting a little. "Especially that one." There was one in the center of the garden, deep-rooted, that bloomed creamy white at the center and deep, dark red at the tips. The buds grew during the day, and then the petals bloomed wildly underneath the moonlight. They always died by dawn, though, and that was the strangest thing imaginable.
"It bothers me," she shrugged a little. "I've never seen anything like it." Quatre was sure that that it had been bought special for the garden, and given the age of the home, maybe it was even a breed that didn't exist anymore.
Still. If she didn't like it...
"I'll have it moved," he decided. "And the others, if you don't want a rose garden. We can dig them up and plant something else, something you'll like more. Besides, the thorns will be difficult with the baby on the way."
"Well, maybe we could... take that center one out, put it somewhere else. Plant some softer plants around the rest?" Catherine liked compromise to get what she wanted best. "What do you think?"
"I think that sounds fine. I'll call the gardener, see what it'll take. Maybe we could plant a tree there instead, something in memory of Mr. Marquise," Quatre suggested, smiling for her. "We could go choose one together, if you wanted."
"Magnolia, maybe? The shade would be beautiful..." Catherine leaned on the table, taking a deep sip of his coffee.
"Coffee thief!" Quatre teased, reaching for his cup. "Perhaps we could have a larger one transplanted. It won't be too difficult to dig a little deeper, I think... Let's call around. Just as soon as you give me back my coffee!"
"Mmm, but it's colder than mine," she winked, toying with it for a moment before she handed it over. "I suppose I'll just have to wait for mine to cool. We can call around later this evening or on the weekend. But a tree... That'd add to the garden. It's funny what things he kept up and what he didn't."
"This weekend," Quatre promised quietly. "We'll call this weekend, and maybe go up into the attics to look around. I know you're fascinated by everything that's gone on here..."
"There's a history to the place as much as there's a beauty. Anyway, who knows -- maybe the gardener and his lover never ran away. Maybe he hid their bodies in the attic?"
"We'll go look," he promised again, and laughed. There wouldn't be any bodies in the attic for her to find, but there might be letters. There had been enough by way of valuable paintings that he was a little surprised that he hadn't thought to go up into the attic yet. "I promise. Right now, I need to go to work for a little while. That okay?"
"That's perfectly okay, honey. I'm going to putter around in the parlor room, see what's salvageable and what isn't." She was throwing herself into the renovations, and that was good. It wasn't anything that might cause her to lose the baby, and when she wanted to rest, she could. He knew that she'd go back to work one day, but that was in the distant, happy future. Their future.
That could wait, just like the attic and the garden.
It was a fabulous tree; Quatre just hoped that it would survive the transplant. While the magnolia wasn't full grown, it was fairly large, and they were going to have to dig a much larger hole than transplanting the rose bush had left behind.
That was why the men with the tree had come prepared. They had tools, shovels, and extra earth for the transplant for a reason. The ground was fertile, and the roses had thrived, so he suspected that it would survive.
"It is beautiful," Catherine sighed, about the tree and not the roses.
He read her fairly well; the fact that she had said something about the roses at all was a fair sign that she truly hated those roses, no matter how beautiful they were. If Quatre was honest about it, he found them pretty creepy, too. It had been bad enough when the roses had bloomed in darkness and died in the light of day. It had gotten worse when they had searched through the attics and found pictures, dozens of them, hundreds. One set had been of Mr. Marquise's lover laughing amongst the roses, standing beside the bush they had carefully set outside of the garden and out of sight. His name had been scrawled on the back. It was an unusual picture for the late twenties, mostly for the fact that he wasn't just smiling; he was outright laughing, and there was that rosebush.
It seemed significant, like the piano, and heavy with feeling now that he'd seen all of those photographs. They'd seemed so happy, and photographs had been so rare in those days, a luxury. They had enjoyed their life, until a point, and Quatre didn't want to think about the things that could make a happy laughing life go wrong.
He didn't want to think about what might send a life like that go down the drain. So many good things, all gone in the blink of an...
"I got something here!" one of the workers yelled. "Oh. Oh. OH, HOLY SHIT!"
Quatre stood up, startled. "Stay here," he told Catherine, rising from the bench near the porch. "Stay here..."
The transplanters were scrambling up and out, around the hole. One peered inside, and another was rubbing his hands frantically against his jeans as the others watched from near the tree.
"Skull. Jesus, we're going to have to call the cops and stop to wait. Back up and -- oh, Jose's already got them on his cell. Everyone back up!" The man even put a hand on Quatre's chest, keeping him from leaning in too far.
"A skull?" he asked, his voice cracking. "There's a..." A skull.
Someone buried beneath the roses that bloomed in darkness and died in light. Someone...
Out of the blue, the sound of that old man's voice echoed in his head. I think I smothered him.
Smothered him... and buried him beneath the roses they had planted together.
Buried his happiness. Buried...
"There's TWO skulls down there! Two!" The young man who had been down in the hole was still rubbing his hands against his jeans.
Buried the gardener of fable, maybe. They were just bones, and Quatre hoped that it was them, a death so old it seemed like myth, and not some new death. He still leaned forwards a little, peering. The bones looked bare.
Skulls beneath the rose bushes.
He leaned closer, and the transplanter let him kneel beside the hole. Two skulls, and... "What's that?" It wasn't a rot, no, and he reached down despite the sounds of protest. Those weren't roots, not with the roses planted there. No, it was something familiar, something...
A case. It was a case, a violin case, he realized, scrabbling frantically at the dirt to get it off.
"Hey, hey! Don't touch that! It's a damn crime scene!" Someone watched too much Law and Order, but Quatre still pulled it up. The piano and violin piece -- it sounded strange without the violin, but maybe Treize hadn't been the player after all. Maybe Zechs had, Mr. Marquise...
Quatre's skull started to throb, and his wasn't even bare of skin like those two ones that laid beneath the roses. It wasn't... it wasn't the end of things, it wasn't...
The violin was in his hand and everything was going gray. He could feel himself being pulled away from the edge of the hole, and he could feel pain growing in the center of his chest, chasing through his veins.
It was hard to breathe suddenly, and he could hear Catherine yelling at him, could hear her screaming, could hear the men, and he was being forced to lie down.
Maybe the house wasn't so wonderful after all.
|DISCLAIMER: GW © Copyright Bandai, Sunrise, Sotsu Agency. No profit is being made from this endeavor and I in no way lay claim to the characters or situations contained directly herein as they relate to the above mentioned copyright. In fact, we find that the more we love something, the more money we spend on it, and therefore the more in the hole we become as time goes by...|