The rest of Elena’s week was just as disastrous. Ms. Callas made Elena miserable at work, the few hours of peace Elena normally had at home were slowly being swallowed up by extra work Ms. Callas was having her do, and, it didn’t matter how hard Elena tried, Ms. Callas was never satisfied. The way she expressed her dissatisfaction, in this cold and deceptively passive way, left Elena feeling inadequate, an emotion she was not comfortable with.
To be fair, even without Ms. Callas’ special brand of torment, Elena wasn’t happy. Somehow, between the demands of her career and “living the dream,” discontent had slowly taken root. Elena loved the practice of law. She had wanted to be a lawyer for as long as she could remember—every pet she had during her childhood she had named Cicero—but the reality of law, the business of it, was not something Elena had anticipated or been prepared for. She had been so idealistic about her career that it had left little to no room for the pragmatic aspects of its practice, where quantity was more important than quality; a truth Elena couldn’t reconcile.
This had been her frame of mind for months. Even so, Elena continued to get up every morning to go to a job she didn’t enjoy. She wanted to believe she did so out of a sense of duty or honor, but it had more to do with pride. She refused to be defeated, and so she struggled not to let the discontent consume her. Fortunate for her, she was temperate by nature.
Living in Japan during the first years of her life, and the devastating loss of her parents, had left an indelible mark. Ritual, privacy, modesty, honor and decorum; these things were incredibly important to Elena. Most of all, she was not the kind of woman to wear her emotions on her sleeve. With her, the adage was true—still waters ran deep. And so Elena continued on her path, trying to find the right balance in her life, and hoping she would soon find it.
Thinking it might lessen her unhappiness Elena focused the few work-free hours of her week on doing things that made her happy. On Wednesday, for instance, she visited the New Orleans Museum of Art during her lunch hour, and ran in City Park after work. There was something sacred about walking through the stone halls of the museum, a profound sense of calm, and finding peace beneath the shade of a giant oak tree at the end of her run. On Thursday evening, Elena dined with Cataline.
It was spring, Elena’s favorite time of year in New Orleans, and one that traditionally brought with it evenings spent outside. Since her earliest memories, April was a time for eating in Cataline’s garden, surrounded by blooming hydrangea bushes, the gurgle of a fountain and a continuous stream of birdsong from the trees. Thursday evening was no exception.
“So, tell me about your love life.”
Cataline made her request without any preamble, a teasing smile brightening her face as she set down a plate of roasted brussels sprouts on the table. It was a surprise she hadn’t asked the question before; questions about Elena’s love life were usually the first thing out of Cataline’s mouth, and Elena had arrived an hour and a half before to help with dinner.
“Nothing to tell, really.” Elena made a face and then took a sip from her drink. The food was spread out between them on the patio table, and each held a cocktail in her hand. Elena speared a brussels sprout and chewed on it quietly, while Cataline stared at her across the table.
Cataline was the opposite of Elena. Where Elena was reserved, Cataline was loud and full of life. The daughter of a French pianist and a Spanish cook, Cataline grew up in New Orleans and was childhood friends with Elena’s mother, and, like her, was also an artist. Elena liked to think of her as hippie chic. She had long, curly chestnut brown hair with deep amber highlights, light olive skin, deep-set hazel eyes, and cheekbones to die for.
“Nothing to tell? Is that your story, really?” Cataline stared at Elena with a perfectly arched brow, and downed half of her cocktail in one swallow. “A girl as beautiful as you and no love story to tell. Elena, you’re too serious for your own good. You need to put yourself out there. Every girl needs a good love story, and the love affair with your shoes doesn’t count. Although I can see how red-soled shoes could get any girl’s heart fluttering.”
Cataline’s smile was warm, and as comforting as the summer sun. Elena wished she could smile with that kind of confidence. When she was younger, all Elena wanted to be was like Cataline. Tall, lithe, almost ethereal looking, Cataline was uninhibited and vibrant, something all together different than Elena and the more reserved culture she had grown up in as a child. When Elena had first arrived in New Orleans after her parent’s death, she was floored by the contrast. Cataline wore every emotion on her sleeve, and never kept anything to herself. She was full of joy and she lived every second to the fullest, without reservations.
“You know I splurge on very little,” Elena replied to Cataline’s earlier remark. “I can at least have one weakness,” and red-soled heels were it.
Although Elena’s parents had left her a trust fund with enough money to see her through her childhood and a decent part of her adult life, she did not spend it frivolously. She lived as modestly as her profession allowed, and it was important for her to have savings just in case the worst were to happen to her or Cataline. Cataline didn’t have anyone taking care of her—she was a divorcée—and raising a child had not exactly been economical. Cataline had inherited a house in the Garden District from her parents—an old Greek Revival that was as much a part of Cataline as Cataline’s buoyant personality—and she and Elena had lived in it since Elena’s parents died, but the house was beginning to show its years and if something were to happen to them, they would only have a deteriorating house, and Elena’s dwindling trust, to fall back on.
“I did run into a handsome guy the other day at work, literally,” Elena added, and then recounted for Cataline the story of her encounter with the blonde-haired man. Elena told her story quietly, as they ate, the crisp spring air growing cooler around them as night settled over the small garden. Halfway through, Cataline ran inside to grab a cardigan but the cooler air didn’t bother Elena, although she had to admit it felt colder than it should have.
“And you didn’t even get his name?” Cataline chided her in the end, resting her chin on her hand and giving Elena a half smile; she had topped off her drink only moments before. “That’s what I’m talking about, Elena. You need to take a few risks. Live a little. You should have ran after him and asked for his number or his Facebook name. Isn’t that what you kids do today?”
“I don’t have a Facebook account, Cataline.” Elena tried not to roll her eyes. Instead, she took another sip from her cocktail. “And what was I supposed to do? He was really rude about it. He didn’t offer to help me pick up the papers, and he sure as hell didn’t apologize; not that it was his fault, but it would have been the gentleman-like thing to do. He didn’t even speak. He stared at me like I was a fly in his drink and then walked away.” Now that she thought about it, the incident made Elena angry. The man hadn’t been civil at all.
“He sounds handsome, though.”
Cataline’s voice took on a dreamy lightness when she said it, and Elena couldn’t help but laugh. As Cataline reached for her drink something moved in the air above her shoulder.
Elena leaned forward to see a small, pale blue butterfly fluttering in the air, which she somehow hadn’t noticed before. “Of course, in your school of thinking good looks cures everything,” Elena replied, then shook her head and continued to eat her dinner. By the time she looked up from her plate, the butterfly had gone.
Before Cataline could pick up on the conversation, Elena decided to change the subject to something less annoying; she didn’t want to think about that man or her work. Cataline was obsessed with art, and so for the rest of the meal Elena distracted her with a discussion on the latest art exhibit at the New Orleans Museum of Art, an exhibit on Zen art from Japan. After dinner, Elena helped Cataline clean, agreed to meet her Saturday for lunch at Café Degas—their favorite restaurant—and left before Cataline recalled their prior topic of conversation.
Throughout the week, every time Elena closed her eyes, she found herself unwittingly thinking of the man she had run into. His pale blue eyes would bleed through the emptiness in her mind, followed by the fine lines of his nose and the shape of his mouth. Sometimes, she would see him in her dreams. Even so, she never found the courage to ask Ms. Callas who he was. A few times during the week Elena found herself walking through the halls to Ms. Callas’ office, but the moment she stepped inside her resolve left her. The look in Ms. Callas’ face stopped Elena cold, and she would stumble through some weak law-related excuse to explain why she had interrupted her.
Livia Callas was icy; it was the only way to describe her. She was a hard woman and, from what Elena could tell, as cruel as she was beautiful—and Ms. Callas was strikingly beautiful, with hair as dark as midnight and eyes an ashen gray-green. She had an oval face, strong jaw line, perfectly full lips, and almond-shaped feline-like eyes. She always dressed in designer clothes, and there was nothing laissez faire about her. She had a husband Elena had never met and rarely heard of, and a twin brother, Mr. Moraitis, who was also a partner at the firm. Elena had never met him, but heard he was even more imposing and unapproachable than Ms. Callas. He spent most of his time traveling for work, and in New York at the original firm offices. Elena had looked at his photograph once, on the firm website, and he had the same black hair and gray-green eyes as his sister.
Ms. Callas and Mr. Moraitis were originally from New York. The success of their firm in New York City led them to open an office in New Orleans fifteen years before. Elena tried to do the math all the time, but she could never manage to reconcile their age with the way they looked. They must have been close to fifty years old, but they didn’t look a day past thirty-five. In the past fifteen years, the twins had made a name for themselves in New Orleans, and were very active in the community. On Saturday, for instance, Ms. Callas would be hosting a benefit at the New Orleans Museum of Art and Elena was expected to attend.
Friday, of course, turned out to be a busy day at work. Not only did Elena have her daily work to complete, she also had to assist Ms. Callas with certain details for the benefit. It was well past dusk by the time Elena stepped onto the elevator to the parking garage. If it hadn’t been for Holden, another associate at the firm, Elena would have had to stay even later to finish everything. She was texting him a “thank you” when the elevator doors opened onto an unlit floor.
The sight took Elena by surprise. She stepped forward out of habit, startled when the elevator doors closed shut behind her, cutting off the only source of light and plunging everything into darkness.
Elena’s voice echoed through the dark and empty space, the hollow sound sending a chill down her spine. Nervous, she fumbled with her phone. It took her a second, but she managed to put in her security code to unlock it. The first thing she did was check that her text to Holden had gone through. Relieved once she saw that it had, Elena wrote him another quick text.
This time, it didn’t go through.
Elena looked to the top of the screen. There were three bars. The text should have gone through. Annoyed, she decided to call. Why she hadn’t done that in the first place was beyond her. Elena brought the phone to her ear and waited, but nothing happened. The call hung in the air, silent.
Flustered, she almost threw the phone. None of it made sense. If there were repairs to be done or the lights were malfunctioning, she would have received an email; she had not. The reception on her phone was fine and she had half the battery left, but for some reason the confounded thing didn’t want to work.
At this point, she had two choices: get back in the elevator and risk more work from Ms. Callas once she made it upstairs, or suck it up and walk to her car. If she didn’t want to ruin the rest of her evening, the second choice was her only option.
At least she had a flashlight app on her phone, she thought to herself, but was quickly disappointed; even with the flashlight, it was difficult to get her bearings. It was so dark the app could only illuminate a few feet in front of her, not enough to help her locate her car. She parked in the same spot every day so she had a general idea of where she needed to go from the elevators, but she was completely disoriented in the dark. All she could do was hope she was moving in the right direction.
A few minutes in and her phone buzzed.
It was a text from Holden.
“Did you leave? The lights are out in the garage. Didn’t you get the email?“
Obviously not, Elena thought to herself.
With a resigned sigh, she closed the flashlight app to answer the text.
“No email. Halfway to my car in the dark. I’m not going back up there.” Elena hit send, and again the text hung without sending. She tried every way she knew to force it through but got nothing.
She was about to reboot the phone when a sound echoed in the darkness to her left, a distance away from her. Was it a door? Elena couldn’t tell; the sound was so distorted by the time it reached her. Determined to make it to her car, she opened the flashlight app again and started walking.
And again, her phone buzzed.
“Ele, not funny. Ms. Callas and I are headed down. Let me know where you are.“
Elena could already imagine the look on Holden’s face; half worried, half crossed. Again, she tried to reply to his text, to no avail.
Elena decided to walk back to the elevator when she heard another sound. This time, she couldn’t tell the direction. For the first time since she stepped out of the elevator, she felt afraid. The sound could have been Holden or Ms. Callas, but they would have called out for her. Quickly, she pocketed her phone; if someone were out there, they’d be able to locate her easily if she was using a light.
She gave her eyes a chance to adjust, and after a minute the darkness was not as pitch-black as before. Elena needed to get back to the elevator, and all she had to do was walk back the way she’d come. Slowly, she began to move, her arms outstretched so she could feel for anything in her way.
Several seconds later, she heard the sound of shoes.
It was a warm sound, compared to the metal-like ones she’d heard before. It sounded like someone walking slowly, the sole of their shoes scraping lightly against the cement ground. Panicked, Elena began to move faster; she would have started running if she could. Even so, the man behind her—and it had to be a man because of the quality of the sound—did not increase his pace. He continued on with a slow and steady stride, the sound strangely menacing.
Elena was so alarmed she didn’t notice a parking space bumper less than a foot ahead of her and tripped, breaking her fall with her left elbow. A sharp, hot pain seared all the way up her arm to her shoulder, making her cry out in pain. For a few seconds, she forgot all about the approaching footsteps, until she heard someone laugh.
The sound was pleasant, almost amiable. For a fraction of a second, Elena was no longer afraid. There was no cruelty in it or menace. But then just as quickly it changed. Elena heard, almost palpably, the moment the laughter faded into a sneer. The footsteps then quickly resumed.
Elena rushed to her feet without thinking.
As she lunged forward, the sound of a metal chime stopped her in her tracks. A vertical sliver of light appeared in the darkness immediately in front of her, seconds before the elevator doors slid open. Elena had to shield her eyes from the light.
She had made it to the elevator and was standing less than three feet from its doors. Inside stood Ms. Callas, Holden and a security guard who was cradling a large portable spotlight in his arms.
“Elena?” Ms. Callas questioned, her gaze devoid of all patience. It was amazing how the woman could turn something as innocent as a name into a scathing reproach. “Playing in the dark, are we?”
Elena didn’t respond immediately. She straightened up and dusted off her clothes, as the three stepped out of the elevator. The security guard turned on his spotlight and illuminated the area around them. “I was trying to get to my car,” Elena finally replied to Ms. Callas, exchanging a look with Holden, who was mouthing indecipherable things from behind Ms. Callas’ shoulder.
“Did you not get the email?” Ms. Callas asked, the annoyance now clear in her voice.
“No, ma’am, I’m sorry. The second I stepped off the elevator, my phone started acting up.”
Ms. Callas shook her head, displeased. “It was sent over an hour ago. If you didn’t have your head in the clouds all the time perhaps you would have noticed it.”
It took all of Elena’s willpower to bite back a sharp reply. In the mean time, Ms. Callas watched her, waiting. Holden shook his head discretely behind Ms. Callas; able to read the turn their conversation was about to take. Holden’s silent plea gave Elena time to consider what she had wanted to say, and him the necessary opening.
“Is everything ok, Ele? You look like you may have hurt yourself in the dark,” Holden asked in his characteristically friendly tone.
Of all the people she worked with, Holden was someone Elena considered a friend. Warm, good-natured and naturally funny, Holden was that rare breed of person one could only describe as ‘good people’.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Elena lied, trying not to look too suspicious as she glanced around.
Ms. Callas continued to watch her, eyes narrowed, but didn’t say a word. The woman was obviously irritated; the sound of her heel tapping the floor repeatedly made her sentiment clear, but Elena tried not to let it bother her. Instead, she concentrated on the fact that the footsteps had stopped. Her fear was also completely gone. Had she imaged it all?
“Head in the clouds again?” Ms. Callas asked, her tone now verging on acerbic.
Elena tensed, not surprised to see a scowl on Ms. Callas’ face when she finally looked up. Recognizing it for the warning it was, Elena decided to ignore the quip and steer the conversation in the direction Ms. Callas wanted; if not, she’d pay for it tomorrow. “If you don’t mind,” Elena said to the security guard, forcing a smile, “could you shine the way to my car?”
On Saturday morning, Elena woke up early with her cat Cicero curled up next to her in bed, laying on top of an open book. Elena had gotten home around 9:15 the night before, ate a light dinner, took a long warm bath, and then curled up in bed with a good book. She must have fallen asleep reading. Thanks to Holden, who had called to check in on her an hour after getting home, she didn’t dream of the footsteps or the laughter.
Holden had a way of making light of everything, without ever sounding condescending or cruel, and after confiding in him about what she’d heard in the darkness, his response made Elena feel completely at ease; he insisted, in a very grave and serious tone, that it had been the Rougarou, the werewolf of Cajun legend that hunts down Catholics for failing to follow the rules of Lent. The laughter, of course, had been the werewolf’s reaction when he got up close and saw for himself that his prey was nothing but a rule-breaking, petite-sized heathen who wasn’t even Catholic to begin with; the Rougarou, naturally, has a very discerning palate.
“After such an absurd explanation, how would anyone be afraid?” Elena mused aloud to Cicero, recalling the conversation. The cat, who was now contentedly purring on her lap, imperiously lifted her head and stared at Elena with an expectant expression. The petting had ceased. With a clipped cry, she demanded it continue, and with that, Elena forgot all about the matter. She loyally performed her duties as “feline personal assistant”, then got out of bed, took a quick shower, slipped on some comfortable clothes and had breakfast, before leaving the house to complete the slew of things she needed to get done before lunch with Cataline and Ms. Callas’ party.
First, Elena visited a few boutiques on Magazine Street, in search of a particular undergarment that would work with her dress for the evening. After that she stopped for coffee, went to the ATM, picked up her dry cleaning, and finished with grocery shopping at Whole Foods. She got back home just in time to change for lunch with Cataline.
Elena and Cataline had agreed to meet at Café Degas, a restaurant in Bayou St. John, a tree-lined neighborhood across the canal from City Park. The restaurant was one of Elena’s favorites. The food was always fresh and the atmosphere unique—a covered patio turned into a sidewalk restaurant. It was only a mile away from her apartment, and Elena could walk there easily. She got to the restaurant a little earlier than Cataline, so she sat at the bar, ordered a Kir Royale and chatted up the bar tender. Once Cataline arrived, fifteen minutes late—as usual—they were led through the wooden deck dining room, which was built around a large tree, and into the open-aired section closest to the sidewalk.
For starters, they shared a paté and cheese plate, and a French Onion soup—the best in town; and for lunch Elena had the rabbit and Cataline the duck. Sitting so close to the sidewalk on such a beautiful spring day, it was easy to get lost in the atmosphere and let the time pass. Elena could almost imagine she was in Paris. Cataline was going on about a man she just met, and Elena was happy just listening. Plus, their table allowed them the perfect vantage point to people watch. They had champagne, great food, excellent desert, and wonderful conversation. Elena was about to put a fork full of chocolate cake in her mouth when she looked up and saw a glimpse of pale blonde hair, perfectly groomed, coming toward them on the sidewalk.
The person was walking behind a group of people, so Elena couldn’t see his face. Instantly, she felt a knot in her stomach. She must have looked sick, because Cataline was asking her what was wrong, and Elena just sat there, staring at the sidewalk. Their table was flush with the patio rail, her right side to the sidewalk, and she was facing the direction the man was approaching from. Elena met Cataline’s eyes and breathed deep; trying to ignore the blonde hair she could see past Cataline’s shoulder.
“I think that guy I told you about the other day… the one I ran into… I think he’s walking down the sidewalk, coming towards us.”
Elena had whispered the words so softly that not even the person sitting at the table behind her, less than three feet away, could hear, and yet the blonde-haired man stopped mid stride. He stopped for a long enough time to let space grow between him and the group of people walking in front of him. He moved his head to the left, toward the street, and then to the right, toward the restaurant. His pale blue eyes met hers and Elena quickly looked away.
“Elena! Language,” Cataline called out in a half-giggle, never one to appreciate the importance of being earnest.
Cataline moved to turn around, to get a better look at the guy, but Elena reached across the table quickly and grabbed her hands, sending the espresso cup sprawling across the table, espresso spilling everywhere.
Two for two. If Elena had a chance to make an idiot of herself, history seemed to establish she would take it; at least where this guy was concerned.
Elena hissed for Cataline not to turn around, wishing the waiter wouldn’t come right at this moment to clean up her mess. Elena reluctantly let go of Cataline’s hands, and inadvertently caught the man’s gaze. He had started walking again and was less than a foot behind Cataline’s shoulder. Again, he was dressed impeccably, this time in a gray, fine wool sports coat and dark charcoal wool pants. As he came closer, Elena could see there was a texture to the material. He wore a darker gray button down cotton shirt with a continuous leaf print in three tones of white, a black velvet tie and a graphite colored silk pocket square with some kind of design on it that looked like fern leaves.
Everyone in the restaurant grew quiet as he walked past. He stared at Elena with the same detached look as he had before, but Elena could have sworn she saw him smirk right before he went out of view.
For a moment Cataline just stared at the empty space where the man had been only seconds before, and then lifted her gaze to Elena, a stunned look across her features. “By the gods, Elena, you said he was cute. You failed to mention the man is gorgeous!” Cataline interrupted her own train of thought as she waved over the waiter. “I’ll need something stronger than this,” Cataline purred to the man, motioning to her glass of champagne, “a glass of your best Cognac.” She offered the waiter a warm smile, always the eternal flirt, and then picked up the conversation without skipping a beat. “Granted, I only got half a look when he walked past, since you went into Cataline-containment-mode, but wow. Men like that are rare, Elena. And the suit! He is definitely not from here.”
“I wouldn’t know, Cataline. For all I know, he’s mute. He doesn’t say a word.” Elena downed what was left of her champagne, shaking her head. Her heart was still in her throat. She wasn’t sure why this guy affected her the way he did, but she certainly felt something. Right now, she was feeling pretty foolish. “Let’s just forget about it, ok? We need to finish lunch so I can get back and start getting ready for the benefit. I have half a mind to ask Ms. Callas tonight who the hell he is. She has to know. I mean, he was there, in her conference room.”
At this point, Elena was rambling and Cataline just watched her with a knowing smile, kind enough not to bring the man up again.
The walk back home was exactly what Elena needed to settle down. Her mail was waiting for her on the floor of her entryway when she stepped into the apartment. She thumbed through it as she walked up the stairs and into her living room. There was junk mail, a credit card statement and a letter from a bank in Japan.
That was odd.
Elena dropped her purse on the dining room table and opened the letter. It was short and to the point. The National Bank of Japan was requesting she contact them as soon as possible regarding the contents of her mother’s safety deposit box. Elena didn’t know a thing about a safety deposit box, and she couldn’t call now because it was the weekend. She would ask Cataline about it, and call on Monday morning from the office. Elena put the letter back inside the envelope, dropped the envelope in a small basket on the marble mantelshelf—where she kept important mail—and went to get ready for the benefit.
**Copyright © Eva Vanrell, 2011 – 2013. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material contained in this blog, including but not limited to the characters, plots, settings and contents depicted in this Prologue, without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.