Sylvie should have been terrified at a strange man strolling uninvited into her house. But since she moved she’d suffered a scourge of frogs and a storm of owls, and he was handsome, and smiling in a manner a touch haughty but not at all malicious, and she found it hard to believe that a robber or rapist would arrive bearing a bottle of Red Car Pinot Noir from the magical vintage of 1997. He set the wine down on her white marble island and held out his hand. “Kleitos Leonidas.”
It felt strong and rough and dry as sandpaper as she took it in her own. A working man’s hands, although nothing else about him – jacket and trousers too exquisitely tailored to be anything but bespoke, Italian calf leather boots, the wood and bergamot scent of Clive Christian cologne – breathed of manual labor. (Yes breathe. And let go of his hand). “How very…Greek. Does it mean something?”
“’Splendid Lion.’ My progenitors possessed a wretched sense of humor. You can imagine my childhood.” He flashed a rueful grin.
“You seem to have grown into it,” she murmured, clasping her hands together to keep from running them along the fetching burgundy streak in his hair. (Babbling. You’re babbling). She managed with some effort to twist her lips into a frown. “You also seem enough of an urbanite to know that it’s customary to knock.”
“I did, but there was no answer. The door was unlocked.” He circled the island, touching his fingertips to the six-burner Wolf range and the Sub-Zero refrigerator not merely as if he belonged in her kitchen but as if he owned it, offering no explanation of why an accidentally unsecured door implied unannounced right of entry. “I took the liberty of locking it behind me. You never know what sort of rascals might be about. I understand there’s a hospital for the criminally insane near here. And of course, the merfolk.” He waggled the tablet at her.
She was certain she’d checked the doors before she went to bed, but it had been late and she’d drunk quite a bit of wine. Or perhaps Kat had stolen in briefly and left again, forgetting to lock the door behind her. “Might I inquire, Mr. Leonidas,” (damn it, don’t ask his permission), “what precisely about my article brings you here this morning?”
“While you and that Venice short kimono make quite a delightful pair,” he gave her an amused, intimate glance that lingered on her bare legs before returning to her face, “perhaps you’d care to shower and change before discussing business?”
Sylvie had completely forgotten her state of relative undress. She opened her mouth and shut it twice before admitting defeat and fleeing to the master bedroom. “Hot shower, cold shower?” she muttered, twisting the temperature control to the chillier side of lukewarm. After her sordid divorce she’d moved away from Los Angeles precisely to escape men like this. Although, if she were being strictly honest, she’d never met a man quite like Kleitos Leonidas.
She pulled on a cashmere t-shirt and leggings (two can play the game of casual chic), sprayed a dollop of mousse on her palm and scrunched it through her long blond hair (won’t be caught dead running a blow dryer if he has a chance of hearing), and brushed on enough makeup to brighten her features (not going to look like I spent an hour on this). She opened the blinds to a sleek, charcoal grey Jaguar XKR 100 coupe crouched in her driveway. Then she emerged from the bedroom and prepared to face her self-assured intruder on a more equal footing.
And fell immediately off-balance from the smells drifting down the hall. They hinted at culinary achievements eclipsing even Kat’s: coffee, of course, but also vanilla and citrus and a sweet, meaty aroma that she couldn’t identify. The mysterious Mr. Leonidas had prepared breakfast while she showered and dressed. And cleaned the pots and pans. And put together a simple bouquet of lavender and wild iris framing a single white rose as a centerpiece for the dining room table, which was set with her best china and silverware.
“This looks delightful.” She bent down and smelled the rose (they aren’t blooming here yet, he must have brought it with him) before sliding into the chair he held out for her.
She couldn’t recall ever breakfasting so well on L.A.’s hautest of haute cuisine. Gruyère and chives rolled into a cunning little French omelet. Sautéed foie gras drizzled with a port wine reduction. Grand Marnier battered brioche French toast perched against a pot of fresh cranberry orange preserves in one corner of the plate while a pair of brûléed blood oranges stared up wide-eyed from the other.
Although bursting with questions (Why is he here? How did he get a hold of my article a week before publication? Did he go rooting through my cupboards looking for the china? Where did he get that amazing foie gras?) she didn’t manage to speak until after her first sip of the most remarkably smooth coffee she’d ever tasted. “Is this Kopi Luwak?”
Kleitos made a face. “I am an aficionado of many fine things, some of peculiar provenance. I have been known to dine on Helix pomatia sautéed in white wine or on the ovaries of sturgeon. But I draw the line at consuming the excreted waste of civets or any other creature.” He sipped from his cup with refined but still masculine delicacy. “Hacienda La Esmerelda. Grown in the shade of old guava trees, I’m told.”
“It’s wonderful. What’s special about the guava trees?”
“Old guava trees,” he corrected with a crooked grin. He leaned toward her as if confiding a secret. “Perhaps they have some ancient shamanistic wisdom to impart. How to ascend to the dizzying heights of a noble beverage, say.”
She felt a thrill at the nearness of his presence (pull yourself together, Sylvie), but set down her cup and leaned back with what she hoped was a casual air. “And what wisdom do you have to impart to me, Mr. Leonidas? This meal has been astonishing and I don’t mean to seem ungrateful, but I confess I’m wondering why you’re here. You made a quip about merfolk but surely you don’t believe in them?”
“Don’t I?” His tone was a little aggrieved. “Ah, perhaps not. As for why I’m here…your photographs reminded me of a dear companion I lost some years ago. At this very lake.”
She laid a hand on his arm. “I’m so sorry.” A small skeptical voice trilled at the back of her mind (Why come to me? Why not just visit the lake?) but the purr of the Jaguar muffled it and the port wine reduction sent it gurgling for air within its ruby depths. And in fact he had nothing more in mind than a tramp around her small shoreline and down to the nearby river. He spent a few moments alone with bowed head at the water’s edge, skipped a few stones along the lake’s surface, took a few photos of mossy-limbed oaks. No raptors tried to seize his camera. In fact, the birds and the squirrels were mercifully silent all day. Kleitos and Sylvie talked of the city and the country, shared small, safe confidences. And he asked if he could make her dinner.
He prepared a meal as elaborate and delightful as breakfast and cleaned up with inhuman speed (how does he do that?) while Sylvie, charmed but not so charmed as all that, excused herself ostensibly to tend to a positively urgent email but in fact for a quick liaison with a search engine. Kleitos Leonidas, she learned, was the scion of a Greek family of ancient pedigree (which in Greece actually means something) known for his ruthless business acumen and a voracious appetite for rare books and manuscripts most of which, if his lengthy publication history was any indication, he had actually read.
None of it explained why he had deposited himself on her doorstep with the earnestness of a callow suitor, but it appeared she needn’t worry that he might stab her over dessert. In fact the more she read the more she saw herself reflected in him: ambitious and driven, smart and successful. (Maybe it’s too early for another relationship. But maybe it’s not.)
By the time she returned he had dimmed the lights, lit the living room candles and opened a third bottle of wine. “I said earlier that I don’t believe in merfolk,” he said as she tucked herself onto the sofa opposite him. “But I have, shall we say, an interest in them.” He tapped on his tablet and passed it to her.
The screen filled with a photo of what appeared to be an exclusive island resort at twilight. A single tower partly hidden by white-lit twin waterfalls rose tall as the slender palms flanking it against an indigo sky. Gaudy orange and magenta lights illuminated low walls and reflected in ocean water that reposed still and quiet against a narrow stretch of beach.
“Isn’t this part of the THUMS project?” she asked, already knowing the answer. The oil islands had formed the backdrop of her Long Beach girlhood, and California kitschy as they were she retained a fondness for their play-doh aesthetic, certainly far more appealing than the derricks and tanks hidden in their bowels. She had played on that beach several times as a child, accompanying her oilman father; up close the waterfalls no longer masked the low roar of machinery but the thrill of looking out at the world from a usually forbidden side more than made up for the noise. “It’s a beautiful photo, but I don’t understand – ”
“Look more closely. At the base of the waterfall.”
“Oh!” she exclaimed as what she’d thought an artifact of the froth resolved into a figure. “What is that horrid creature?” It resembled nothing so much as a fishy goblin, with green hair and teeth, small pig eyes and a bright red nose set in a scaled face. Atop its head perched an incongruously jaunty red cap.
“One of the merfolk,” he said. “Did you ever stop to ponder why stories of mermaids taking human consorts are so common?” He laid a finger atop the grotesque, blotting out its horrid face. “There lies your answer. It’s a wonder they ever manage to procreate.”
“You’re – you’re joking.” She wondered if she’d missed some small, important detail in her online search. (Something about inbreeding and insanity, perhaps?) “Aren’t you?”
He laughed aloud, as sharp as sudden thunder. “Of course I am.” He reached into his pocket and handed her a small magnifying glass. “Look more closely still.”
She passed the glass over the merman and breathed a sigh of relief. “It’s painted onto the image.”
“The entire image is a painting, actually,” he said. “My own small exploration of the fluid boundaries between the representational and the impressionistic, between the modern and the mythological. I noticed you have a detached studio. In addition to honoring a lost friend I was hoping to rent it for a week or so, do some studies of the lake. Introduce another merman or two, perhaps.”
“You painted this?” She looked at him with a new respect as she handed magnifier and tablet back. (Is there anything he can’t do?) He returned the glass to his pocket and set the tablet on the sofa between them.
“A very private hobby. Which is why you discovered no mention of it when you googled me. No need for embarrassment,” he refilled her wine glass to give her flushed face a moment to cool. “I would have done the same in your place.”
She examined the image again, eager to change the subject. “Why is it – he – wearing that hat?”
“Legend has it that merfolk, fairies and magicians of old identified themselves by their scarlet headgear.”
She eyed his burgundy-streaked hair and said in a teasing tone, “And are you magician, merfolk or faerie, Mr. Leonidas?”
“Call me Kleitos.” He moved the tablet to the coffee table and shifted into the space it had occupied. “I have, perhaps, some small arcane wisdom to impart. If that is a subject that interests you.” He gazed at her as if he were assessing some precious object.
Two and a half bottles of Red Car had done their inhibition-lowering work. Her fingers traced a path along the burgundy stripe and that, as they say, was that. Kleitos never made it to the guest quarters. Sylvie’s Venice short kimono spent a lonely night tossed on a chair back, witness to Bacchanalian revels in which it was not invited to share.
* * *
Around midnight Sylvie woke. She propped herself on her elbows and peered into the silver-lit room wondering what had unsettled her. “Something wrong?” Kleitos asked, turning on his side and tracing a proprietary path along her body.
He shrugged. “I don’t hear anything.”
“Neither do I. The frogs in the house – they seem to be gone.” She laughed and kissed him. “Maybe you are a magician.”
Shadows played across his face and the streak in his hair glowed ember-soft in the moonlight. “Does this mean I can bargain for a lower studio rent?”
“Fuck the studio.” She lay back down, pulling him with her. “No, not the studio.”