CHAPTER THREE - A MAGNIFICENT RUIN
Nick turned off his motorcycle’s engine and pulled his helmet off. Over the ticking of the engine cooling, he heard the whirr of crickets and the soft whoosh of night wind through the grass and trees. He put down the bike’s kickstand, hung his helmet on one of his handlebars and swung his right leg off the bike. The phantom vibrations from the engine’s powerful motor still ran up and down his legs as he walked unsteadily towards the elaborate wrought iron gates.
The gates were huge, heavy and still bore the remnants of being wrapped in thick vines that appeared to have just been cut down not all that long ago. Vicious looking spikes molded with artistic mastery stabbed towards the brilliant night sky from the gates’ curved top. If Nick wasn’t overcome with what was before him, he would have become lost staring up at the wash of stars that he never saw in Winter Haven. He was truly out in the country away from the light pollution that urban living created. That was when he noticed that a word was written into the curving metal gates: Moon Shadow.
Must be the name of the house. Not a house. A mansion. A magnificent ruined mansion in the middle of nowhere. There’s got to be a story behind this place. I need to do some research.
Nick gripped two of the gate’s bars and looked through them at the mansion beyond. It was three stories made of a dark stone with dozens of mullioned windows. The panes looked like they were painted with quicksilver as they reflected the huge white moon that hung high in the sky. He saw that there was a tower in the far back corner of the house with a bronze roof that had long ago taken on that gorgeous aged green. Perhaps it had been built so that the owners could stargaze. Those same vines that had been wrapped around the gates covered much of the front of the house. Their dense leaves fluttered in the wind.
Nick’s gaze dropped to the overgrown garden in the front. There was a large weed choked fountain in the center of a circular drive that must not been used for decades. Flowers bloomed in profusion, spilling down the fountain’s sides like water must have long ago. Though it was night and he couldn’t see the colors of the flowers that bloomed there, Nick imagined that in daytime this place would be riotous with color.
Nick would have thought the mansion was abandoned from all he was seeing except for the warm yellow light that leaked out of the first story windows though the curtains were drawn. Nick doublecheck the address on the stone columns that flanked the gates to know he was at the right place. He was in the right place.
“What would Bane want with an old wreck like this? A beautiful old wreck, don’t get me wrong. I love it. But him? This isn’t what I expected.” Nick whispered.
“What are you talking about? Is everything okay?” Jade asked.
Nick snapped out of his ruin-induced stupor. “Sorry, Jade. I’ve made it to the house. You wouldn’t believe this place. I think that this internship just got a little better.”
Nick couldn’t help but laugh. He itched to get his Nikon out. But he didn’t have his carbon fiber tripod. A shaky camera during long exposures killed the photos.
I’ll have to get Dad to send it along with the cable release, wide lens, flashlight, and external flash. And I guess, I should have him also pack me a few more clothes, too. I’ve only got a week’s worth in my bag.
“Nick? Have I lost you again?” Jade asked.
“Sorry, sorry about that. Look, I should let you go. I’ll call you later on when I’m settled in and tell you all about it,” Nick said.
“All right. But you won’t have to describe the place to me. I intend on coming up this weekend to visit you,” she said.
“Jade, I don’t know--”
“I don’t care what Bane says! You’re not a prisoner! That ruin is not a prison! He can’t keep your friends from seeing you,” she said firmly.
He knew that tone. It meant she would not be backing down. He let out a sigh even as he was smiling. He sort of liked her being a Mother Hen this time. “Okay. I got it. You’re coming no matter what.”
“No matter what,” she said firmly.
“Okay, Jade. I’ll talk to you later.” He heard the click of the phone being disconnected.
Nick pushed on the gates, but they didn’t move. Even when he put all his weight into it there wasn’t the slightest give.
Must open automatically.
He swung around looking for a call box. That was when he heard the soft electronic whirr above him. He looked up to see where it was coming from. Two surveillance cameras were pointed directly at him from their perches on top of the stone walls on either side of the gates. Nick gave a nervous smile and cocky wave. Was Bane watching him even now?
I’m not sleeping with him. He can stare as much as he likes. He just can’t touch.
That was when he saw a very modern and efficient electronic keypad against one of the stone columns. He had missed it as his attention had been on the mansion. There was a button marked ‘call’. He pressed it and was rewarded with a delightful Indian voice coming over the line.
“Yes?” the Indian man asked.
“Uhm, ah, my name is Nick Fairfax. I’m the… intern,” Nick explained. He winced at the use of the word ‘intern’. It had sounded like such a joke in his father’s office, but now, he didn’t want people to know that he was essentially an indentured servant. He could just imagine people’s reactions.
Though this guy works for Bane so maybe he’s used to having young men ‘intern’ at the house.
There was a moment of silence and Nick swore he heard a sigh. “Yes, yes, of course. I was told to expect you. I am new to this particular security system, but I think I should be able to get it to work. Ah, yes, here is the correct code!”
There was another electronic hum and Nick watched in admiration as the incredibly heavy gates opened as if they were light as a feather.
“They’re open!” Nick cried, taking from the Indian man’s tone that this was an accomplishment of sorts.
“What a relief! They weren’t working well earlier,” he said.
“Thanks a lot. Uhm … I didn’t catch your name,” Nick said, feeling strangely like this welcoming man might be a friend and ally in the coming days.
“My name is Omar. Omar Singh, but you may call me Omar, Mr. Fairfax,” the man said in his singsong voice that immediately had Nick smiling and feeling brighter just for hearing it.
“Thanks again, Omar, and please call me Nick.”
“Of course, Nick. Come up to Moon Shadow’s front doors. I shall meet you there,” Omar said.
Nick almost felt sad as the call box went silent. He went back over to his bike. He put up his kickstand and guided the bike by hand into the property. The surface of the ground change from smooth asphalt to cobblestones. Though it was clear that people had been driving in and out of the property, nature still reigned supreme. Vines crawled along the cobblestones. Flowers and tall grasses bloomed between the cracks in the mortar. Nick was surrounded by nature’s perfume. He felt almost light headed from it.
When he was halfway to the double doors that were housed beneath an elaborate stone portico, a chink of light appeared between them. That chink soon became a slash and then an almost blinding rectangle of light. Nick shaded his eyes from the warm, yellow glow as his eyes had completely adjusted to the night. He blinked a few times and, finally, he could make out the figure of a tall, slender man dressed in a white suit with matching white turban. Nick dredged up a fact from his world cultures class that identified the turban as possibly meaning the man was a Sikh.
“Omar?” Nick asked.
“Yes, it is I.” The man’s handsome, rather aquiline face lit up. His smile was slightly hidden by a closely trimmed beard. The man bowed his head and said, “Waheguru ji ka Khalsa, Waheguru ji ki Fateh. Welcome, welcome.”
Nick wasn’t sure if he should bow back, but he decided that, at least, lowering his head would be polite. He couldn’t shake the man’s hand since his were full of the bike so he smiled as warmly as he could and said, “Thank you! Uhm, what did you say? The first part, I mean.”
Omar laughed delightedly. “It is a traditional greeting of my religion. It means, ‘The Khalsa belongs to God, Victory belongs to God.’”
“Cool.” Nick smiled. “It sounds beautiful.”
“Indeed it is. I am glad that you were able to find your way. It is not an easy route and Moon Shadow does well disguising itself as an uninhabited ruin,” Omar said with a gesture at the overgrown courtyard. There was a frisson of dissatisfaction in his friendly features as if such disorder displeased him. “There is much beauty in nature, but I, personally, like it better when it is contained in neat little beds.”
Nick looked over his shoulder at the sprawling wild flowers and rampant vines, which stirred in the breeze. “I don’t know. The overgrown look gives this place a kind of mystique.”
“Yes, it indicates haunted house or abandoned property,” Omar quipped.
Nick grinned at the other man. “You say that like its a bad thing.” The other man smiled back. Nick then patted the handlebars of his bike. “I’m not sure what to do with this. Should I keep it out here or is there a garage where I can store it?”
“Let me show you the way. There is a large garage around the back that has just been constructed. I am sure there will be plenty of room for your motorcycle.” Omar stepped outside and carefully closed the doors behind him. He immediately took the lead, gesturing for Nick to follow after him along the cobblestones.
Something made Nick look back at the house just as they were passing around the corner. He realized that one of the curtains for the nearest room had been pulled aside and someone was looking out at them. He caught just a flash of a face before the curtain was jerked shut again. A beautiful, marred face.
Nick’s stomach did a strange flip. Suddenly, he realized that being alone in this man’s house was a whole different thing than facing Bane in his father’s office while his father and brothers were present. He was going to be alone here with the man. The image of Bane’s full lips writhing back from his sharp white teeth flashed through Nick’s mind. He shivered. Anything could happen. But one look at Omar’s back and he felt slightly comforted. Though he had little reason to think it yet, he already felt as if Omar wouldn’t let anything bad happen.
“I hope that the drive here was not too stressful,” Omar said. He laced his long fingers together at the base of his spine and slowed his gait so that Nick could keep pace with him while pushing the heavy bike.
“Not at all. I love riding at night. It was peaceful,” Nick answered and silence fell again. Deciding that it was foolish to beat around the bush and wanting some intel before he saw Bane, Nick asked, “Did Bane tell you why I’m here?”
A flash of displeasure, almost pain, crossed Omar’s handsome features. He nodded. “He did.”
Curious, Nick asked, “Am I the first intern to work here? Or does Bane do this a lot?”
Omar let out a hiss of air between his teeth. “No, you are the first… and I sincerely hope the last. Not that Moon Shadow could not use a youthful presence, but … well, it is as it is.”
“You aren’t so keen on the arrangement that he’s made then?”
Omar didn’t answer. He had stopped walking outside a garage that looked very new and modern yet still somehow went with Moon Shadow. It was a six car garage. Four of the doors were shut and two were open. Through one of the open doors he caught sight of the gleam of chrome on a Mercedes’ bumper. Omar gestured for him to leave the motorcycle in the adjoining empty area.
“I will endeavor to make sure that your time here is as pleasant as possible,” Omar answered, which wasn’t an answer at all.
“I appreciate that.” Nick rolled the motorcycle into the garage and brought down the kickstand. He took his helmet under his right arm and unwound the baggage straps from his duffel before hoisting that up in his other hand. He paused and met Omar’s gaze steadily. “Despite what Bane might have told you, I’m not afraid of hard work. I’m happy to be of use in any way that I can be. I want to make sure that Bane honors his part of the deal with my father and brothers.”
Omar nodded, but his unhappy expression grew rather than lessened as if Nick’s willingness made this all the worse. “There is no shortage of work to be done here.”
“Then I take it that he wants me to help with the house and the garden?” Nick brightened at the thought of bringing the house back to life and he would have plenty of opportunities to take pictures of it in its current dilapidated state and then when it was redone.
He did feel a twinge of pain though at the thought that he would be destroying what nature had wrought so beautifully. But the grounds really weren’t livable the way they were. He would have to bring some order to that chaos.
Question is: am I the man for the job?
Every houseplant he’d ever had he had killed. Even cut flowers seemed to die faster with him around. He would under water plants or over water them. He would give them too much sunlight or too little sunlight. He hoped that this job didn’t require actual knowledge or a green thumb, because he had neither. Hopefully, there would be a lot of weeding, raking and cutting. Those things he could do. Anything else and he would need close supervision.
Omar’s gaze became shaded. “He wishes to tell you himself what his plans are for you.”
Nick felt a slight tremor of unease at that. “Oh, well, I guess he has a flair for the dramatic. So we’ll play it his way.”
Omar nodded slightly. “Let us go inside. Bane has asked that I bring you to him right away. After you have spoken, I will take you to where your bedroom. And if you’re hungry, I can have a tray made up for you.”
Nick stomach gurgled at that moment. “Food sounds great.”
“I will endeavor to make something that will satisfy,” Omar said.
They walked back towards the front doors. With every step, Nick’s apprehension began to grow again. Omar made no conversation. He seemed troubled and Nick guessed that he wasn’t sure what to say.
What must he be thinking? Did Bane tell him how my family is awful and I deserve this? Why did Bane choose to offer us this opportunity, instead of just destroying us and moving on anyways? How am I going to live here for an entire year?
With these unpleasant thoughts running through his head, Nick decided that he needed to hear someone else’s voice other than his own. “How long have you worked for Bane, Omar?”
“Oh, my family has served his for over a hundred and fifty years,” Omar answered.
“Really?” Nick wondered if this family connection is what caused a nice man like Omar to stay with the moody, irascible, intern-hiring Bane.
Omar nodded. “We served his family first in India then we accompanied him back to England and finally here to the United States.”
“So your father and mother worked for him and your grandparents, too?”
“And my grandson will replace me,” Omar answered with a proud smile. “He is just two now. But I am certain that he will be eager to begin as soon as he can walk.”
Nick couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to serve Bane, but Omar seemed so enthused about it. “Is Bane married? Does he have children?”
Omar’s expression enclosed up. “No, he is alone.”
Nick was struck by Omar’s tone. It was so final. It was so sad. Not that Bane had shown himself to be anything but a complete bastard, but still, somehow the vast empty spaces of loneliness opened up before Nick and he felt sorry for Bane for a second. He was sure that the feeling would pass as soon as he was speaking to the other man and being insulted again.
“Bane’s a very successful man. I’m sure that when he has a mind be with someone, he’ll have a lot to choose from,” Nick answered awkwardly.
“Real love does not work like that,” Omar answered softly. “And that is the only thing that can save him.”
Nick blinked in confusion at Omar’s words. But there wasn’t time for further conversation as they were before the front doors of Moon Shadow. Nick’s chest tightened. His palms were sweating. He knew his knuckles were white as he clutched the duffel’s handle too tightly.
Omar opened the doors and again that blinding light spilled out. He motioned once more for Nick to precede him into the house. Nick walked in blindly. He stopped a few feet inside and waited for his eyes to adjust. He let out an awed breath when he did. The foyer was huge with a domed ceiling high above them. The floor was black and white marble laid out in a compass design. A mahogany table stood in the center of the design and a gigantic bouquet of white and red roses seemed to gush out of the vase that sat on top of it. The sweet scent was intoxicating.
Nick slowly turned around to take in the rest of the space. The walls were covered in dark wood paneling. Paintings and sketches of birds and other wildlife were hung on each wall. There were three exits from the room. The one straight ahead was a magnificent staircase that led into the upper recesses of the house. Then there were two doorways off to his right and left respectively. But Nick’s inspection came to a screeching halt as the left doorway was suddenly filled with Bane’s massive form.
Bane no longer wore the hood. Instead, he let a curtain of dark hair fall across the marred side of his face while leaving the other side uncovered. Those striking blue eyes stared at Nick, unblinking. Nick stumbled back in surprise as the big man moved silently into view.
“God! Where did you come from?” Nick gasped out
“I told you to bring him to me immediately, Omar.” Bane frowned in consternation at the Indian man.
Omar finished locking the door, seemingly immune to the displeasure in Bane’s voice and demeanor. Nick was surprised to see no less than five deadbolts and two heavy chains being slid across to lock it. “Yes, sir. But we had to put his motorcycle away in the garage. It looks to rain this evening and it would not do to have it get wet.”
Bane grunted. “I see.” His gaze though was still suspicious. He was evidently fully aware of Omar’s displeasure with the internship. Bane turned his gaze again on Nick. “You came. I’m surprised.”
Nick fought not to react to that piercing gaze. He consciously stood in a relaxed position and allowed a unconcerned smile to linger on his lips. “I did. I intend to honor my part of the bargain. Do you intend to honor yours?”
Bane’s lips twitched into a smile as if amused at Nick’s boldness. “I do.”
Silence fell again and Nick knew that he would soon start squirming under Bane’s gaze. He asked, “So you wanted to talk to me?”
Bane straightened up to his full height and Nick was struck again by how massive he truly was. Yet his movements were graceful, almost feline. “Come to my study. We must discuss the rules of this house. Omar, you do not have to attend us.”
Omar’s expression was neutral yet he said, “But, sir, perhaps I could assist --”
“No,” Bane said with finality. The word seemed to echo in the room. Again, his gaze fixated on Nick as he said, “I will speak to him alone.”