Masked by Design - Chapter Two

It wasn’t the mask that intrigued Kristine.  No, the flesh-colored mask that covered half of Erik De Anton’s face was honestly the least interesting thing about the famed, mysterious architect. 

Since the moment her professor announced that Mr. De Anton would guest lecture her class, she had waited with anticipation to meet the man who restored buildings to their former greatness and who gave a certain flair and finish to everything he touched.  Above all else, he gave people homes.  Unique homes with no two alike, but at the end of the day, a place to call their own. Those were the things intriguing about Erik De Anton.

She wanted to be that architect.  She wanted to work with a family and give them a dream.  She wanted to bring life into something that was once thought to be broken beyond repair.

His lecture outlining one of his restoration projects in the Downtown Los Angeles area continued, and while she attempted to absorb every word, every image on his slide show, every secret he wanted to divulge, she realized she couldn’t take her eyes off him.

What she heard wasn’t his tales of rescuing an old hotel and returning it to its former grandeur thereby creating a definite LA hot spot that helped to revitalize a community, or any of the other stories she waited for all these weeks. All she heard was the sound of his voice, deep and musical like the words slow danced off his tongue and floated over the room.

She didn’t see the images of an old battered building being brought to life flashing behind him, but rather the graceful movements of her guest professor, even though he attempted to hide in the shadows.

In all her studies of Erik De Anton’s work, she could never find a picture of him.  Somehow, she had envisioned an old haggard man in something liken to a mask used for Halloween creating masterpieces from his wheelchair.  

Never in one million years would she have thought him to be younger, maybe mid-thirties at the most, tall and slender with combed back dark hair.  She also never imagined that the side of the face she could see might have practically been sculpted from a statue of what a grand warrior or leader should look like.  The mask didn’t detract from anything he had to offer, if anything, it made him more intriguing.

“And there you have it.”  Again, his voice caressed her.  “The final version of the Greenstone Hotel in all its glory.”  

For one quick second she took her gaze off him and glanced at the final version of the hotel she had driven by many times with its ornate green marble façade.

No sooner did she take in the site than the room went black.  Absolutely and completely black.  

Those around her gasped, some woman even screamed, and everyone began to rustle around.

She tensed and grasped the edge of her desk.  Darkness was not her friend. Even at night, she always kept some source of light on around her.

Somehow though, she didn’t panic.  A quick peek toward the window and sight of lights plus her instinct, told her this power outage was centered only on this room, and she knew who was responsible and why. She just didn’t know how.

As fast as the room turned pitch black, the room illuminated once more and as she suspected, Erik De Anton had disappeared.

While those around her scrambled to get themselves together, remarked about their missing lecturer, she knew she needed to act fast.  In a flash she scooped her items up into her arms and dashed out the door.

Once outside, she glanced around. With only one entrance to the lecture hall, he couldn’t have gotten far.  If he went right he would end up near the library, left the parking lots.  Her decision was obvious, and she ran toward the faculty lot.

Sure she appeared like a maniac being chased by nothing, as she continued on and kept her eyes keen to find the man.  She just had to talk to him.  Though her lungs burned and legs ached from not having worked out since she could remember, she didn’t quit her quest.

At last she reached the lot.  Breathless, and doing her best not to drop her computer or anything else, she skidded to a stop.

Except for a few cars there for the night classes, there was nothing.  Not even the obligatory vehicle pulling out of the driveway indicating she just missed him.

The parking lot was quiet enough she even heard crickets.

Wherever he was now, she surely missed him.

She huffed and, with a lot less pep in her step, she hugged her computer to her chest then made it over to the student parking lot, getting into her oversized not environmentally friendly gas-guzzler fit for any 1970s buddy movie.

With nothing left to do but to go home and study, she shoved the key in the ignition, allowed her car to grumble to life, and took off, well, rolled away the best the car could.  Poor thing needed to be put out to pasture.

Her day started with the excitement of this lecture making her barely able to sit still, but now all she wanted to do was crawl into bed and try not to relive the fact that she came on way too strong and had embarrassed herself in front of one the architects she admired most.  

A wave of exhaustion hit her and at the corner stop sign she took a moment to stretch when she saw him on the other side of the street near the trees.  

Yes, it was him for sure, his height, his stride and the way the light bounced off his mask gave him away.

Her heart sped and instinct taking over, she floored her accelerator, and made it over to him before he could vanish once again.

All right, in truth her car sort of lurched over there, and the whole action would have been much more impressive if she revved a sports car, but her poor car gave it its best.

Be it the noise her vehicle made from such exertion, or the fact that now Erik De Anton basically had a tank of steel barreling toward him, he stopped right as she pulled up next to him.

She threw the car in park, leaned over and cranked down the window on the passenger side.

 “Did you forget to ask a question in class Kristine with a K?” He crossed his arms. 

At the way he said her name, her stomach swirled.  “I told you that you owe me one.”  In all truth she wasn’t sure where she gathered the courage to speak to him like this, but it seemed to be working for her.

He tapped his foot then stepped toward the car and leaned down.  “And what exactly do I need to do to repay my debt?”

That was an excellent question.  With the way that he stared at her, she could honestly think of several things, but though she opened her mouth to speak, she couldn’t conjure a thought.

The man let out a grunt and shook his head.  “Would a hot tea and conversation even things out or do you require something else?”

She couldn’t ask for anything more, and she unlocked her door.  “I’ll drive.”

He tilted his head, got in the car, and pointed straight ahead.  “I’ll navigate.”

The second she drove away, she realized she now had the one and only Erik De Anton in her car, and they were going for tea and conversation.  

Of course now that she had him in her car for these things, she had absolutely nothing to say.  Her mind fizzled out, leaving her completely and utterly blank, unless she counted the way she liked how well his suit fitted him.

For what seemed like several thousand years, they drove in silence with her so-called navigation system simply pointing the way to take.  At least the electronic versions actually spoke. With each block they traveled, she considered what a horrible mistake she made doing this.  Even worse was since she drove, she would have to make the return trip, unless he did her the favor of doing one of his disappearing acts again.

He indicated for her to turn left, leading away from the main part of town and only at that moment she noted she was in the car with a virtual stranger, and one who didn’t seem all that thrilled to be with her.

Yes, she invited a man she didn’t know into her car and drove away with him.

Still, she continued on away from the familiar, the opposite direction of her university and her home.

Perhaps his idea of repaying a debt with tea and conversation had a much different definition than what she thought, especially since he didn’t converse and there was not a restaurant or coffee house in sight.  He didn’t seem like a maniac, but didn’t every movie about some graduate student getting killed start with that exact thought?

 When he guided her down a much more desolate road leading into a canyon with no street lights, she finally stopped the car and gripped the steering wheel for dear life.  While she wanted this opportunity only hours before, now she just wanted it to end.

With Mr. De Anton remaining silent and her heart speeding, she finally garnered the courage to look at him, only to find him staring at her.

She was done for.  “Mr. De Anton.”  Though proud she was even able to utter his name with the way she shook and her throat dried out, she was not quite sure what to do next.  

As if he had all the time in the world and nothing was vaguely off about this situation, he leaned back in the seat, crossed his legs, and tilted his chin in the direction of the windshield.  “I designed that house up there, about 200 feet ahead on the left.”

What?  She didn’t move, didn’t speak, and didn’t understand.

“It was quite a hassle really.  When I started, the thing was a dilapidated mess on this foolish piece of land here on this strange street,” he continued his story.  “However, the owners had the money and the brains to let me do the restoration my way and bring it back to what it looked like in 1920s.  Now, if you don’t mind pulling up I’ll show you something.”

As if under a spell, she inched the car down the desolate road.  Without a doubt this would be her final resting place, but she couldn’t stop herself.

Then out of the darkness, a jewel of a home shined on the street.  Its crowning glory, a huge circular stained-glass window on the second floor of the Victorian structure.

“Stop here.”  Mr. De Anton cleared his throat and motioned toward the house.  “That window was the cornerstone of my design.  The original was destroyed, and we had another commissioned. In the evening it catches the sunset just right to cast a kaleidoscope of color on the black marble floor of the lower level, and the moon glow is particularly spectacular.”

“I would’ve thought a house built in the twenties would be more art deco.” The house was more than magnificent, it was perfect.  She almost envied the people who got to live there.

“Good catch.  Actually, the home from the 1920s was rebuilt from a home from the 1890s, one of the first out here.”  He took on the role of teacher for a second time that evening.

“It’s incredible,” she whispered, not exactly sure if she was speaking about the window or the man next to her.

“Yes.”  Again, he sat back.  “I wanted to take you this way so the house would be on the correct side of the car for you to take it in, but if you travel down to the corner and turn left, you will find the tea house on the main street.”

She took in the house for a few more seconds. “Thank you.”

 “For not murdering you on a dark street? No problem. It wasn’t in my plans.”  He chuckled and pointed ahead.  “I suppose I should thank you for allowing me a quiet ride with someone who at least knows what they are looking at.  I despise idle chatter and appreciate someone who can wait until there is something meaningful to say.”

Once more, she followed his lead, this time back to a lighted road and there, right where he promised, was a small, simple white building with a sign that simply said, ‘Tea” in script.

She parked in the small parking lot and before she could even take off her seatbelt, Mr. De Anton was out and around the car, opening the door for her. The man moved fast.

While she auto piloted toward the front of the establishment, Mr. De Anton quickly corralled her the other way and, as if he owned the place, they entered through the back.

When Mr. De Anton mentioned tea, she envisioned a local coffee shop or maybe a diner.  Instead, she was presented with a crowded restaurant decorated in rich reds and golds, buzzing with conversation. Everywhere she saw knickknacks from several different collections of Russian nesting dolls, to brass statues of animals.

She had never seen anything like this place.

Though it seemed as if every table was taken and some people were even standing in the front waiting for a place to sit, he weaved through the people over to a small empty table partially hidden behind some red velvet curtains.

No sooner had he pulled her chair out and helped her sit, then took the seat across from her, than two waiters appeared.

The first presented them each with a little glass cup with a metal holder full of tea, while the second set down all the accoutrements including an overflowing dish of pastries.  Both staff members arranged the dishes and then left without even acknowledging them.

Everything was beautiful and intricate with exquisite attention to detail, and she took a moment to simply absorb all the sights before her.

Using a small pair of silver tongs, he doled out pastries to each plate. Every movement the man made was slow, graceful and, dare she say, sensual.  “Well, I provided the tea, what about the conversation?”

“I wanted to make sure not to bore you with any idle chatter.” She couldn’t stop staring as he prepared his tea by spooning what appeared to be some jam right into his cup.  

At the way he positioned himself near the wall amid the shadows falling on his face, she could barely make out the mask.  However, the mask didn’t take away from his perfect angular features, but only made him more mysterious. One side of his mouth lifted in a smile, and he stared at her.  “May I?” He motioned toward her tea.

Mostly because she wanted to continue taking him in, she nodded and again was treated to the show of Mr. De Anton scooping up a dollop of the jam and this time stirring it into her drink.

“Cherry jam, this is one of the traditional ways to drink the tea. You may find you like it.”  He lifted his own cup.

She mimicked his actions and at the same time they took a sip of the warm beverage. The strong tea combined with the sugary sweet fruit into something unique and unlike anything she had ever tasted and before putting the cup down, she took two more sips.

“I’m glad you like it.”  His cup in hand, he leaned back and stretched his neck from side to side.  “Now let’s talk. What is it that you almost ran me over to find out?”

A multitude of questions ran through her mind.  What did one ask when faced with a man who built a window in a house based on sunsets and moonlight rather than cost per square foot?  “What called you to architecture?”

He took another sip of his drink.  “Called?  Don’t you mean, why did I choose to work in this field?”

“No.”  She shook her head.  “What called you to it?  Shouldn’t everything be a calling?  I’d hate to think of a man of your fame and talent having fallen into this profession because the MBA program was full.”

“You are one hundred percent correct.”  He leaned forward.  “And for that, I will tell you.”

Somehow, the simple fact he sat here at all seemed a great gift, and she held her breath in anticipation of his answer.

“Architecture is where beauty, restraint, and control converge.”  His voice floated across the table.  “What about you, Kristine?”

 She let his words sink in. He understood, he got it.  “I always thought it was the point where heart and dreams mesh with earth and reality, Mr. De Anton.” 

“Erik.”  He picked one of the sweets off her plate and offered it to her.  “Call me Erik.”

Without taking her eyes off him, she reached forward to take the pastry from him, her fingers grazing over his hand.  “Thank you, Erik.”  

The second they touched, he dropped the pastry and stood, knocking over one of the plates.  

“Erik?”  She sat up.  What had she done?

“We’re even now.”  He ran his hands through his hair, turned on his heel, and walked away, leaving her sitting alone without the faintest idea of what happened.

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