"...Now you play a pretty good fiddle, boy, but give the Devil his due. I'll bet a fiddle of gold against your soul 'cause I think I'm better than you."
The boy said, "My name's Johnny, and it might be a sin, But I'll take that bet; and you're gonna regret 'cause I'm the best there's ever been."
~Charlie Daniels Band, "The Devil Went Down to Georgia"
It is spring of the early 1960s, and Mr. Johnny McLean was recently killed at the age of 87 when his home was invaded; his children and grandchildren, and even his great-grandchildren were gunned down, the house looted, vandalized, and then set on fire. Mr. McLean was tied to his bed rather than being shot, and burned to death with the gutted shell of his home. Not even the family pets survived this massacre. However, Johnny's supernatural connection to his fabled golden fiddle was sufficient to allow him to bind his soul to it.
Mr. McLean is, understandably, very, very angry, and is willing to offer as payment for services rendered, the souls of the two miscreants who finally had the courage and intelligence to sell the gold fiddle to Ms. Phelps, an antique dealer who happens to be his descendent, as well as any other spirits he can get his incorporeal hands on.
He feels a "black butler", a demonic major domo, would be advisable as he has no desire for his last remaining great niece to suffer the fate of her Georgia relatives, and knows that, bound to the instrument as he is, he will be unable to exact adequate retribution, ie. seeing every last one of the murdering malefactors dead, preferably in as extremely painful and humiliating a manner as possible.
Ms. Seraphim McLean Phelps is currently 28 and has been on the "shadow circuit" of the Antiques Road Show now for 6 years, examining valuables that are haunted or otherwise show supernatural tendencies. She was born in Georgia, but has few memories of that state, as her father was hired by the Smithsonian Institute.
Seraphim has recently acquired a solid gold fiddle from her birth state, sold to her by very shady characters who were so frightened of the object in question, that they were willing to sign in their own blood that no negative consequences of owning this artifact would defray to her, but rather that their immortal souls would be liable for all damages or expenses incurred. No doubt they thought such a sweet faced young girl could not enforce this contract. That would be a mistake.
Ms. Phelps is currently acting as agent for one John McLean, deceased, of Georgia, who is currently haunting said golden fiddle, which, according to family legend, he won directly from the devil in a music contest. Naturally, Ms. Phelps is interested in detaching the spirit of her great uncle from the item so that it might become auctionable. At the moment Uncle Johnny is communicating his desires and terms to her through the fiddle, which he occasionally plays just for the... um... heck of it... at odd hours of the day and night.
The late Mr. McLean's wishes are fairly simple; basically what he wants is vengeance. For many years simple respect kept the local bad guys from bothering Johnny or his kinfolk, despite the fact that the golden fiddle was well known to be kept by Mr. McLean mounted above his bed. Recently, however, professional criminals involved in the drug trade started appearing in the general area.
Seraphim is no stranger to supernatural dangers, and feels that she is able to take care of herself in that regard, but she is quite sure that she is unequal to the task of obtaining retribution for the deaths of her relatives on a strictly mortal playing field. The villains have automatic weapons. She has a metal violin. Ms. Phelps is a rational being and is not sanguine about her chances should push come to shove. Some form of help, therefore, is required.
At the moment Seraphim is the only person able to physically handle the golden fiddle due to her family connection to her uncle, who is haunting it. She wishes she could handle him better, but he's a very stubborn old man and set on getting his way. Also in her possession is an interesting antique pocket watch, reputed to be the resting place on this plane of a demoness, possibly known as Camilla Izrel. This situation shows some promise.
If no black butler can be hired, Ms. Seraphim Phelps has agreed with her older and deceased relative to attempt to summon a smallish demon and repeat the bet with the golden fiddle, if the demon can be enticed to agree, or simply to accept the golden fiddle as "one soul equivalent" in pay. Ms. Phelps would prefer to retain ownership of the relic, but is somewhat eager to avenge her cousins, aunts, and uncles, as well.
Johnny McLean is willing, as a last resort, to wager his immortal and currently incorporeal soul on Ms. Phelp's ability to beat an average mid-level demon in competency and artistry upon the piano. Seraphim dislikes this plan, thinking that the arrangements heretofore considered ought to be sufficient. The souls of the two unscrupulous violin-sellers might be hell-bound all ready, but she does hold some power over them and two souls in the hand should beat her great-uncle's on speculation.
Now Seraphim prepares to make a journey, with her new black butleress, down to Georgia and investigate the circumstances of her family members' deaths. The demon currently known as Thienete Almundus has been summoned via the pocket watch, and hired in exchange for the delivery, upon completion of her service, of the golden fiddle: one soul equivalent, free and clear. Bravely, Ms. Phelps lets it be known that she has the fiddle, but not being completely stupid, does not carry it with her.
It has been said that the golden fiddle was won directly from the devil himself by Mr. John McLean in a music competition. The solid gold instrument being kept mounted above his bed brought much woe to both John and his kinfolk. Even in death Mr. McLean cannot find peace with his vengeful thoughts, towards the criminals who are responsible for the massacre that almost exterminated his family.
Ironically, it appears that the omnious object is somehow connected to the McLeans. Now the fiddle has come to the only heiress, Ms. Seraphim McLean Phelps, who is equally eager to avenge the death of her extended family. As the old saying goes that, "Devil must be driven out with devils." A demon, in the guise of a butleress, Thienete Almundus, to Ms. McLean Phelps, has been summonded by the later, as a method of aid.
As another saying goes, "Humans can be far more dreadful than demons." The criminals, drawn by the mysterious power of the fiddle, are proceeding actively approaching the object. Meanwhile, a third party who shares an equally strong desire is moving as well, but in shadows...
A ghost, an antique appraiser and a demon butleress...this can be everything but a smooth journey....
Name: Thienete Almundus (AKA Camilla Izrel)
Age: unknown, given as 25
Appearence: about 5'7, slim and pale, ruler shaped body. Diamond shaped face, narrow eyes, heterochromia, right red, left black; thin lips often painted grey or black. Dark hair with steel blue highlights. Odd looking, but people seem to just accept this oddness.
Occupation: Butleress to Ms. Seraphim McLean Phelps
Personality: Where should I start? She has everything about a perfect butleress. Good manner, patience, humbleness, effective organising skills, excellent taste of fashion...and food...I could go on forever. But mostly important, she knows who she is, and what she wants... Thienete almost seems emotionless, she has this strange aura of a wintry lake, with its mirror surface reflecting the feelings and desires of her masters/mistresses. Thienete exists only to serve, without hesitation she will execute her master/mistress's every last order perfectly. She's a skilled sword fighter, also a capable head for strategies.
Backstory: A demon summonded by Seraphim through a mysterious pocket watch.Thienete never talked too much about herself, but Seraphim learned through some research that she had served at least two other mistresses before her. The demoness was somehow best known as Camilla Izrel. That name is still being kept, just not being used. But the earthly names are nothing to a demon, only souls matter. Gradually and occasionally, Thienete disclosed that she was summoned into the human world some 500 years ago by an Alchemist, and she lingered here ever since, being bound into a pocket watch, and providing service in exchange of souls to sustain her being. The most curious thing about Thienete is that you can never ever see her without her pocket watch, which she will never ever allow anyone else to touch, even her master/mistress.
Name: John McLean
Age: 90-ish, now deceased
Appearance: when visible, translucent and pale, roughly 6 feet tall and skinny, grey hair, moustache, and beard
Occupation: fiddle virtuoso, and consequently wealthy land owner and family patriarch
Personality: while he has grown out of some of his youthful bravado, Johnny is still stubborn, brash, and somewhat dictatorial from getting his own way all the time, but he genuinely cared about his many relatives and felt a duty to protect all of them to the best of his ability; for this reason, no one but himself was allowed to play the golden fiddle, which was rumored both to manifest magical powers and to test the soul of the player, but if so, only he ever took that risk.
Backstory: John did indeed win the golden fiddle in a competition with a creature from Hell. But not having complete trust that the devil would give him a gift that had no traps for the soul concealed in it, he initially refused to play it at all. Through careful trial, he discovered that the fiddle will grant magical powers, but your intent must be completely pure or you come more and more under the sway of temptation and sin. At the time of his death, he had spend over 65 years with it hanging over his bed, and was able to project his immortal spirit into the golden instrument, so that he might avenge his family, even if it meant that the devil finally would get his soul.
Name: Seraphim McLean Phelps
Appearance: about 5'4, straight medium brown hair with a reddish tinge, royal blue eyes
Occupation: antiques appraiser, currently on leave of absence due to deaths in the family
Personality: very bright; calm and usually unflappable, even by the strangest of phenomena; career-focused but cares a great deal about her immediate family; although until the recent tragedy, she considered having "Georgia kinfolk" somewhat embarrassing.
Backstory: both of Seraphim's parents are still living due to her mother's running away with an art historian from the Smithsonian Institute instead of living on the family estate in Georgia. However, the golden fiddle came into her hands rather than her mother's, and Seraphim believes that it is her responsibility to deal with the consequences thereof. She has been raised to be respectful to her elders, but having grown up outside of Great Uncle Johnny's sphere of influence, she is not unduly overawed by his ghost.
Name: The Faceless Maestro, referred to as the Maestro
Age: appears 40-ish, but...
Appearence: no one has ever seen his face. He's faceless, but all faces; he's no one, but everyone. Normally he will appear as an average-height gentleman, suited or robed, depends on the occasion, silver grey hair, very clear lake blue eyes with a piercing stare. Always wears a mask.
Occupation: leader of a criminal-cultic orgnanisation
Personality: surprisingly amiable, gentle, and soft-spoken, can make almost anyone trust him and share with him their deepest darkest secrets and desires, and in turn the Maestro will use this information for his own purpose. Has an authoritative, monarchal aura around him, but can be arrogant and crotchety sometimes; feeling human in general is inferior to him.
Backstory: Some say he is an alchemist, or a warlock, or a psychopath. The Faceless Maestro been around for...quite some time. No one knows where he comes from, or who he really is, just no one knows anything about him. The Maestro has gathered himself a considerable number of followers who literally worship him. He has his hands in many businesses, legal and illegal alike, and wields a vast and deep web of connections. The Maestro travels the world in search of mystic objects, his interest lies particularly in pocket watches.
Name: Matthew Hellmann
Appearence: reletively short for a male, about 5'9, but sturdy and agile. He has ash dirty blonde short and curly hair, light jade eyes.
Occupation: professional thief
Personality: agile, cunning, wayward and a little childish. He may seems cold and unamiable, but inside he is still a big boy...kind and caring and...longing for love.
Name: Evangeline (Eva) "deadshot" Hellmann
Appearence: about 5'5, dark reddish brown curly hair, light jade eyes
Occupation: professional assassin
Personality: agile, calm, stern and...single-minded. She appears much maturer than her brother Matthew does, and seems heavyhearted most of the time. Though can be mean and cruel, she is, like her brother, soft in the inside.
Backstory: Matthew and Eva are siblings, orphans to be specific, and the only survivors of a mysterious fire which took the lives of their family. They were raised by the Faceless, therefore became his left and right hands. Eva is very keen on investigating the circumstance of their famliy's death, while Matthew is more of a free spirit who wants to leave the past behind. They were entrusted with the mission of snatching the golden fiddle by the Faceless. However, as some unspeakable feeling towards Seraphim grows in Matthew's heart, the thief hesitates. While Eva is torn between her loyalty to the Faceless and her love of her brother (maybe also to someone else...)
Name: Peter Stevenson
Appearance: tall and lean, about 6'2, brown eyes and short straight black hair, wears glasses (but doesn't need them badly)
Occupation: antique dealer
Personality: appears to be cautious, overly protective, a bit unimaginative, but can be quite charming. Also somewhat reserved about sharing his concerns with Seraphim, who suspects he may not be entirely honest.
Backstory: Peter and Seraphim met over the business of antiques, and he is remarkably matter-of-fact (not skeptical) of the supernatural aspects of some of the pieces she deals with. He has asked Seraphim to allow him to sell the fiddle for her so that she might not be burdened with the wishes for vengeance of her great uncle, but she has refused and wishes to take an active part in punishing those people responsible for the death of her family. He definitely does not want her to take the fiddle back to Georgia, but whether his goal is to keep Seraphim safe or the fiddle nearby is... unknown. Perhaps he has many reasons for wishing that she hand the fiddle over to him. When she does not consent to this, he insists on accompanying Seraphim on her quest for justice.
"This would be the last one, Ms. McLean Phelps..." A young woman in a well-tailored black tailcoat bowed slightly, to the other with reddish brown hair who seemed to be pondering in front of a large French window, as she lifted another suitcase and waited deferentially in the doorway,"...your driver is waiting downstairs, if we depart now, we should be able to catch the earliest train to Georgia..."
The woman in black raised her head while addressing the other. The faint light of dawn unveiled her decorous but pale face. A wisp of her unusual steel blue stained hair slid down, covering her right eye, while the rest was bound as a low pony tail. "...and Mr. Stevenson has had me informed that he will join us directly in the train station, ma'am." The woman added as she glanced down a silver pocket watch being held in her free hand.
"Thank you, Thienete," replied Seraphim Phelps, allowing the butleress to usher her out of the door. Since she had a professional eye for antiques, she noticed the handsome timepiece in the other woman's hand, but did not know if she should compliment her on it. Having never worked with domestic staff of any kind, Seraphim was unsure of the protocols involved, but if the butleress was capable of liking an employer, Ms. Phelps would much prefer to be liked than otherwise.
"It is my pleasure, ma'am." Though sensing her new mistress's interest towards her..."personal belonging", the butleress being called Thienete chose to maintain her composure, and continued the report while leading Ms. Phelps downstairs. "The earliest train leaves Washington in one and a half hour at 7 o'clock in the morning..." All in all she was only a butleress, even a...one hell of it...it had never been her place to judge her masters or mistresses.
"This would a long trip. If everything runs smoothly, we should be standing on the ground of Atlanta Terminial Station 16 hours later..." Opening the door to the backseat, Thienete bowed slightly beside the entrance. "...Would you want me to place the fiddle with the rest of the luggage, or you prefer to...keep it closer, ma'am?" Still holding the "last suitcase" as she referred to, the butleress awaited her mistress's further instruction.
"I believe I'll keep the fiddle in its case with me, where I can watch over it personally," said Ms. Phelps. "It's surprisingly light weight..." and then broke off, unwilling to discuss the metal nature of the instrument in front of the driver. "I suppose if that's all, we can be off, then."
The drive itself was typical Washington traffic, and unremarkable, but Seraphim looked at the historic buildings and monuments this time somewhat wistfully, wondering when she might get to see them again.
When they arrived at the train station, the butleress flawlessly began overseeing of the transfer of luggage to the railway personnel. Seraphim could see the tall, rangy figure of her boyfriend Peter already in the waiting area, and threw a quick smile to him. She had just one more question for Thienete Almundus. When the black coated form looked up at her in inquiry, Ms. Phelps took a deep breath and asked, "Thienete, it has just occurred to me that some butlers prefer to be called only by their surnames. If you would rather I call you Almundus, I'm fine with that, and I have not intended to seem overly familiar by calling you Thienete."
The butleress smiled in response to her mistress's concern. Maybe just a trick played by the dim light, her smile seemed strangely unfathomable. "Please do not trouble yourself over the appellation Ms. Phelps..." The black coated woman stood straight as she always does when addressing her new employer. "...I'm fine with either...but calling one's given name surely can generate a sense of acceptance, can't it ma'am?"
Their conversation was interrupted by a porter who came to hand over a checklist. The butleress took the sheer paper and scanned both the list and the luggage, before she turned to Ms. Phelps, "Please leave the checking for me while you enjoy a cup of early morning coffee with Mr. Stevenson in the waiting area. I have ordered two from the cafe, they should be sent to your seats by now..." Said the woman in black as she darted another glance at her silver timepiece. It seemed to be a habit of hers to check the time regularly. "...then I shall join you and Mr. Stevenson in a quarter of an hour." Her sentence was finished with a snap from closing the lid.
Seraphim slowly sipped her coffee, which exactly suited her taste, while Peter reiterated an argument they'd had over the phone on the previous day. "I don't understand why you suddenly need a butler, of all things," Peter was saying. "And you can't deny that there's something very suspicious about her.
"Yes, Peter," Seraphim agreed, "Thienete is definitely somewhat sinister, but for now, she's in my employ and that works to my benefit. Right now I need for my life to be as easy as possible, since in so many ways it must be unfortunately complicated; Thienete will take care of all that for me. You don't need to worry."
"Well," he temporized, "I wish you'd at least let me, or your new found butleress if you're so set on giving her work to do, handle that thing for you." Peter indicated the violin case at Seraphim's feet with a nod and a jerk of his chin.
"Thank you," she replied, trying to remain patient, "but we've discussed my reasons for keeping it with me. As I've said, you don't need to worry." And Seraphim smiled with feigned sweetness as the butleress seemed to materialize at her elbow.
"Good morning, Ms. Phelps, Mr. Stevenson..." Making sure all the luggage had been properly checked, transferred and stored, and the porters were satisfied with their tips, Thienete made her way back to where her new employer and the "escort" were sitting.
Perfect timing, it seemed that she had just rescued Ms. Phelps from another argument about "that thing". "...I hope the coffee suits your taste." The butleress bowed her head slightly as she handed over the day's newspapers to the lady and the gentleman separately, while still carrying another pile under her arm. "Reading material for the trip." The woman in black nodded with a warm smile in response to Mr. Steveson's rather uncomfortable expression.
Luckily enough the uneasy atmosphere was broken by the station's pre-recorded announcement alerting the passengers to prepare for boarding. "I believe it is our cue..." The butleress gestured the platform as she listened to the broadcast, "...Please follow me, ma'am and sir...and making sure that all your belongings are with you." The younger woman glanced at the violin case carelessly, a shadow of a smile played around her lips.
Seraphim wasn't entirely sure why she hadn't explained the exact nature of the black butleress to Peter, but her logic was basically this: it's my business, he doesn't need to know, and I don't trust him with quite all of my secrets. Also it was going to be a long journey and she had no desire to spend it defending her arguments. She had really hoped he would be more supportive of her through this stressful time, but perhaps he was doing his best to protect her in his own way.
Her great uncle would in one sentence have condemned her modern female forwardness and told her not to take any grief from anyone, since, after all, she was a McLean... more or less. Strange, the old ghost had been very quiet. She'd expected him to make his presence known after they reached the train compartment. Seraphim resisted an urge to check on the contents of the violin case, however. She was sure Thienete knew her business and she could use a little peace and quiet time before arriving in Georgia. Resolutely, she picked up a book and proceeded to bury her nose in it.
The train whistled. With its long and thin whimper the locomotive moved out, slowly at first, then faster and faster, leaving its white steamy track being torn apart by the wind. Standing in the tail carriage of the train, Thienete relished her last glance at the metropolitan city. Having not much experience in the "new world", the butleress found this continent and her people rather...fascinating.
'Ah, time to get back to work...' the ticking sound of her pocket watch pulled the young woman back to reality. Shortly after paying a visit to the dining car, the butleress stood outside the door to the compartment in which her new employer was sitting. Holding a well-polished tray in one hand, Thienete knocked on door with the other, and entered the cozy first-class box after her permission being granted.
"Pardon the intrusion, Ms. Phelps, Mr. Stevenson..." The young woman stood upright while she greeted the passengers in the compartment. "...but I believe a light breakfast would serve as a good refreshment of the morning." Said the butleress as she placed the tray on the table and removed its cover, "...pancakes with syrup and fresh strawberries, blueberries and raspberries. Soft boiled eggs, and fortunately enough I, in the dining car, stumbled across some green tea, which is perfect for balancing out the greasiness of the pancakes and enhancing the fruity taste of the berries. Would you like me to serve you with one cup, ma'am?" Thienete held out the porcelain teapot adroitly, ready to fill her employer's cup, but was broken in on by an unsettling tune, which might only be a result of the jolty train, came out from the violin case.
"Thank you, Thienete, that would be lovely." Seraphim looked disapprovingly at the jangling violin case. "Uncle Johnny, do you have something important to say on the subject of breakfast?"
"None of your sass, now, girl. What I want to know," said a nebulous form, that when viewed from the window might have looked like no more than steam rising from the teacup, "is what you brought this... this yankee along with us for?"
"Now Uncle, if the worst that you can say about Peter is that his family comes from Connecticut, I won't listen to you any further. It was my decision to include him, and as you can't do this without me, I believe I have the right to make some of the choices as we go," retorted his great-niece. "Why don't those of us who can, eat a nice, civilized and polite meal." Seraphim smiled and her one dimple showed. "I love pancakes!"
"It is an honour to have your approval, ma'am..." Filling the cup of the rather disturbed Mr. Stevenson, the butleress raised her eyebrows while leaned sideways towards the misty figure, "...such a pleasure to have you join the breakfast, Mr. McLean. How may I serve you? Some tea maybe?" Another limpid stream fell briskly into an empty cup being placed near the edge of the table. The old man's ghost rolled his eyes to the young woman, who just served his incorporeal form with something he was neither able to touch nor to drink.
"Mr. Stevenson's assistance has been much appreciated by now..." After setting down the teapot, the butleress walked away from the table and returned to her position behind her new employer. "Your great-niece along with your vessel, Mr. McLean, remained safe and sound during my absence due to the handover of luggage, thanks to this gentleman's effort." Cold and calm was her voice, a perfect balance of courtesy and sternness.
"Did you really think we were in much danger waiting for the train to arrive, Thienete?" Seraphim wondered, startled, a strawberry raised half-way to her mouth. "I'm asking for your... professional opinion, if I may."
"As I've said, Seraphim," put in Mr. Stevenson, "more people are interested in that piece than you think." Even in the private compartment and in the presence of a ghost, Peter still referred to the golden fiddle obliquely.
"I have to agree with Mr. Stevenson's very insightful opinion. One can never be too cautious, Ms. Phelps." Making sure the windows to the aisle were sealed by curtains, the butleress continued. "There were eyes watching back in the station...You have made it known that the fiddle is in your possession, as a decoy, and surely there are those who take the bait." Swaying shadows cast by the day light enveloped the compartment in a strange eerie atmosphere. "Mere underlings who dare not to disturb the placid surface for now. Fear them not, none shall harm you while I am still drawing my breath, ma'am." Folding her right arm across her chest, the young woman bowed formally, before switching back to her normal mild intonation, "And there are few more things I wish to draw your attention to."
The butleress held out a notebook being kept in the chest pocket of her tailcoat. "It should be around midnight when we arrive in Atlanta. I have booked our accommodation for the night at the Georgian Terrace Hotel." Said Theinete as she turned to another page. " And there is a Mr. Thomas Powell, a lawyer who would like to discuss with you, Ms. Phelps, some matters regarding the legal procedure of property inheritance, on your LATE great-uncle's behalf, tomorrow morning." A rather loud note, played by the old ghost in retort, fell on the word "late".
"But for now, I'd highly recommend that you take some time enjoying your tea or the scenery or a book or two, ma'am and sir, while we are heading for Georgia. It is a long trip." Returning the notebook into her pocket, the young woman cast a careless yet meaningful glance at the violin case. "No need to trouble yourselves over the safety issue. And if I may suggest, Ms. Phelps, try not to leave the fiddle out of your sight."
Seraphim picked up her book again, sipped her tea, and when that was gone, absently sipped her uncle's tea, all the while trying to regain that sense of fleeting peace she had possessed earlier in the morning. She was traveling towards extreme danger, and she accepted that. It would seem, however, that some degree of danger had already found her before she ever left Washington. Seraphim Phelps considered this. She supposed she ought to be afraid, but she found the emotion topmost in her mind was, well, annoyance. Maybe that was her native MacLean stubbornness and pride, but she viewed these early threats almost like party-crashers, who wouldn't wait for their invitations to the Georgia free-for-all. Very well, she would take Thienete's "advice" and try not to let the fiddle out of her sight.
More than anything, Seraphim wished for someone she could include in all her plans, who she could confide in like a friend. But the first required complete trust, and something simply held her back from divulging too many privileged details to Peter. He would try to dominate and bully her, "for her own good." Hmph. And the second required social comfort and converse, and Seraphim just couldn't let her guard down regarding non-work related topics with Thienete, nor did the black butleress desire such a breach of protocol. Her Uncle Johnny? Single-minded old cuss, but she guessed ghosts did have a right to be. Still, Seraphim felt very alone until she ruthlessly pulled herself together and focused once more on the book before her face.
The train traveled steadily, city after city, town after town, all the way down from Virginia to North then to South Carolina. Passengers rushed on and off, and when the landscapes outside the windows had slid from river plain to woodland and finally, to hilly forests, the train, carrying the fellowship, passed the border of their destination as well as Ms. McLean Phelps' birth state, Georgia.
Thienete lifted the thin lace curtain as she watched the night's veil curtaining off the oil painting masterpiece drawn by the last few rays of sunset. Piece by piece, its splendor of gold, orange, scarlet and maroon was being washed away by waves of ashy clouds. A pale new moon unveiled its unearthly beauty from above the stars. It was quiet, too quiet. The majority of the remaining passengers on this vehicle had sunk into sleep, it was a long trip after all. The butleress pondered, they could have taken the overnight train but her new employer had insisted that extra hours should be allowed, in case of...unexpected events...a cautious decision, she must admitted.
Scanning their compartment, a shadow of a smile played around the young woman's lips. Ms. Phelps, with her head at ease reclining and a book she had been reading covering her face, remained quiet and still on her own seat. While faint snore rose from Mr. Stevenson, who had occupied the other cushioned bench by lying on it. How about Mr. McLean? The old man's ghost was nowhere to be found, and surprisingly his vessel had stayed utterly silent. 'Here comes the show...' Snapping shut her pocket watch, the butleress stood up and left their private box. This time, she was only an audience.
The train preceded its steady journey. After a short pick-up stop at Toccoa, the vehicle entered the state's northern mountainy region. Talking about mountains, tunnels seemed to be unavoidable when travelling through these geographic landscapes. One, another, and soon after the train's tail had been engulfed by the darkness of the longest tunnel among the series, a furtive figure, under the cover of the thick shadows, crept in the carriage in which the fellowship's compartment was located. Dim light on the aisle revealed a small young man whose face was shaded by a low peaked cap.
The intruder opened the door stealthily with his free hand. While on the other swayed a second violin case which was identical to Ms. Phelps's. Peeping around making sure he remained unnoticed, the young man carefully stepped in and reached out for the original, but recoiled quickly into shadows as a strange noise vibrated the case as soon as his hand touched its handle. One second, two seconds, it seemed that the human members of the fellowship were so tired that the only response was...well Mr. Stevenson rolling over. Sighing in relief, the thief switched the two cases, and fleetly made his way back to the other end.
Little did he know, an unusual redness flashed through the darkness and the butleress's figure emerged from the same shadow in which the thief had taken his refuge.
Thienete would, of course, wake her when it was time to get ready to depart the train upon its arrival in Atlanta. Seraphim's dreams would not let her await that event, however. Although they had been pleasant enough when she'd first dropped off, something seemed now to be different. Probably the increased humidity was all that was bothering her for, although Washington could be pretty muggy in the summer, the ranges of northern Georgia were classified as temperate rainforest, and always seemed to be dripping.
Peter was softly snoring, in a way which in spite of herself she found endearing, and Theinete was off on some business, arranging and facilitating, and great-uncle Johnny... was silent. Seraphim shifted the violin case so that she could sit up and stretch her cramped limbs more comfortably, and the changed weight of the case immediately caught her attention. So it had happened after all. Now the only question was, what new object was in this replacement case; was it safe to open it and find out, or should they abandon it unopened?
Nearly half an hour later, the train pulled into Gainesville station, the last stop before its arrival in Atlanta. Normally the platform of a relative small station should be quiet during night time. But unfortunately, or fortunately enough for some, take that young man with a low peaked cap carrying a large canvas bag for example, a medium-sized band, which was on its performing tour, chose the same travelling method and vehicle. Mingling with the crowd, the hatted young man stayed as low, and as natural, as possible and didn't leave the band until they reached the exit. The thief was no green hand and he almost slipped away unnoticed...almost. Because through one nearby train window, a pair of different-coloured eyes was watching his every last movement
'It seems that we can finally enjoy a moment of peace during the rest of the trip...' The butleress relished the man's small figure vanishing through the exit. It was something they had foreseen, precautions, therefore, had been taken. Nothing really had been lost, exclusive of a violin case. 'Very well...now, what should I serve for supper?'
When Thienete returned to their compartment with her prepared dishes, the young woman met her employer's inquiring gaze. "Good evening, Ms. Phelps." Said the butleress as she set the table for meal. "I should have served the supper earlier but you and Mr. Stevenson were asleep and it is rather rude to disturb one's dream." Darting a rather careless glance at the "new" case at Ms. Phelps's feet, the woman continued. "We will arrive in Atlanta in one and a half hour, ma'am, why not enjoy the last stage of our journey with a bowl of hot creamy mushroom soup, in stead of troubling yourself over that tinpot wooden imitation. Absolutely horrible workmanship, but a special souvenir none the less..." The butleress uncovered the tray, allowing the food's pleasant smell filling the closed space "...and I find this roast chicken sandwich surprisingly satisfying. A perfect match for a cup of mild Chamomile tea, which complements the light spicy taste of the chicken."
"Mmmmm," Seraphim practically crooned, "that smells wonderful." She gave the substitute case a little nudge with her foot. "Yes, it makes sense to take this one with us, as though we hadn't noticed a switch, just so long as there's nothing more dangerous in that violin case than an imitation fiddle. I don't see why there should be at this point; we haven't started seriously stepping on toes, yet. Not yet."
"Imitation fiddle?" gulped Mr. Stevenson? "Switch? You mean you let someone steal the golden fiddle, Sera? I don't understand why you aren't more upset!"
"It's all right, Peter," Ms. Phelps reassured him. "The real fiddle is safe. The case we carried was only to fool prospective thieves." She laughed lightly. "And I guess it worked." In a more solicitous tone, she added, "I didn't tell you earlier because I knew that you'd react this way. You're a good man, but... well... not such a great actor, I'm afraid." Although, to herself, Seraphim wondered if the show of indignation that Peter was displaying wasn't, in fact, an act. He had seemed to be a good man until this business with the fiddle had caused her to wonder at some of his behavior. Oh well, one must move on with what is available. It would probably turn out that she could use all the help that she could get, and alienating her boyfriend now would serve no useful purpose that Seraphim Phelps could perceive.
"A wise decision, ma'am." The butleress bowed in response, with her eyes wandered to an oblong suitcase being kept under her employer's seat. "And a perfect choice for a surprise...to our uninvited guests."
A secluded alley, a dim lamp and a lonely car, no mention the rolling white mist. A corny scene in horror movies, but hit right on the atmosphere. A scurry of footsteps echoed across the narrow lanes, the violin thief on the train had to thread through the maze of back streets carefully before he could even locate his employer's car. The thief knocked on the car window, and it was wound down shortly after a mumbling swear. Another young man, older than that hatted one, stuck his messy ash blonde head out.
"Mr. Brighton, I've got it..." the comer pointed to the bag he was carrying. "Well done Eddie!" The other man being called Mr. Brighton opened the car door and clapped on Eddie's shoulder, as he signaled the younger man to put that bag on the co-driver's seat with a jerk of his head. The thief hesitated, unsurprisingly, as if was waiting for something. "Here, buy yourself a drink..." Shooting the young man a sideway glance, Mr. Brighton tossed a pretty thick envelope on to Eddie's hand. Strangely Eddie was paying half attention that he almost missed out his reward, "You know Mr. Brighton...this...this thingy...is weird. It had been buzzing all the way so I had to wrap it up...." "All right, all right, this is for the bag..." The older man in the car broke in on impatiently, by handing over two other greenbacks. "...No Mr. Brighton, I'm not asking for extra..." The younger man took off his hat, now his shorter build made perfect sense. Eddie was still a boy, maybe 17 or 18 but no older than 20. "...you've been good to me, sir...that thingy freaks me out, I don't feel right about this...this whole business..." "Eddie, you worry too much..." Mr. Brighton reached out trying to muss the boy's hair, "...no I'm serious, just...be careful, sir..." the boy deftly ducked the older's hand before throwing the bag on the seat, and quickly ran away without a glance behind.
"Stay away from trouble, kid!" Half joking, Mr. Brighton called out at the boy's receding figure, before sitting back in his car. He couldn't help but agree with Eddie. The whole business wasn't right...it ran too smoothly. "Now what's hidden inside you, beauty." Muttered as he opened the bag and torn off the wrap, and cursed out loudly at a walkie-talkie inside the violin case. "Clever girl...very clever."
Harsh ring tone broke the silence of night. Ordinary phone calls seldom came thus late, just like ordinary people seldom stayed up thus late. A red-haired young woman, reclining on a nearby cushioned couch, picked up the phone."Good evening, Mrs. Brighton speaking..." Her deep voice was saturated with feminine charm. "Evening darling, how's our little tomato?" Mr. Brighton's cheerful tone, completely contradicted to HERS, rang out from the earphone. "Oh she's asleep,as sound as a big potato..." The woman smiled wryly and shook her head, yeah..."Mr. Brighton's" brilliant sense of humour. Using their childhood nicknames as passwords. "That doggie supplier tricked me with worm-eaten walnuts..." Better safe than sorry, one of the golden rules of their special occupation. The message was sent through using their secret language, along with the caller's artificial frustration. "How...oh well, I told you..." "Mrs. Brighton" jeered back, she knew this would happen. "I'll keep an eye on that...you'd better get back, RIGHT NOW!" "Right, of course, yes MOM..."
Ah Georgia, just the heat and humidity in the air getting off of the train brought back memories. Hazy ones from very young childhood, they were primarily, largely involving big, sloppy dogs that slept in a space under the porch. Strange, Seraphim thought to herself, she'd returned to the state before during the course of her job and it hadn't affected her like this. But this was coming home, or at least it would be hers for a while. She still hadn't decided if she wanted to eventually sell the McLean property, assuming that she could find someone willing to buy it for a decent price.
That choice would wait, however. Ms. Phelps took a firm grip on the case of the fake fiddle, and stepped from the train and into what she thought of as the Atlanta stage of her adventure. She didn't expect any more intrigue that night, but it never hurts to be prepared for anything, she reflected. Somewhere somebody had by now discovered her little ploy, and just might be angry enough to try something rash, although she doubted that. Still, having her entourage of dubious boyfriend, ghostly uncle, and demon butleress with her was much more reassuring than such a list would make the average person think.
Yes, a demon butleress...What's the old saying ? 'Speak of the devil.' Thienete was again, unsurprisingly, facilitating the luggage transfer. Through the thin steam from under the train, the butleress' eyes fell on her new employer. She watched a subtle nuance of the antique appraiser's facial expression from vacancy to alertness. The former was out of the distant memories, while the later, the current situation. Though Ms. Phelps had always been very conservative about sharing in depth with her newly acquired butleress her personal experience, a demon was a demon. 'Humans are truly fascinating creatures...'
"Excuse me, sir..I mean...ma'am..." A voice from behind her pulled Thienete's thoughts together before she could indulge herself in musing. The porter came up for handover was taken aback when the black-coated figure turned around revealing her feminine features, while a man had been expected. "We...err...we've got all your luggage here." "Thank you good sir." The butleress simply smiled off his rather rude stare and signaled this railway worker to follow after checking the list.
"Ms. Phelps, I believe a peaceful night awaits us ahead." Thienete reassured her employer as she approached the rest of the fellowship, but avoided mentioning anything associated with the fiddle in the presence of the porter who was pushing their luggage trolley. Though the majority of the suitcases had been piled up on the trolley, two of them, in particular, were in the care of the butleress, just as if she was sharing the load. "Shall we head for the hotel, ma'am?"
"Indeed, Theinete," was the answer, of course, and the drive to the hotel was accomplished with very little commotion. The luggage was shuffled in and out of the vehicle with a minimum of fuss, due to the professional handling of the butleress, and the roads were smooth and almost glossy with a light ground fog. Traffic, at that hour of the night, was negligible, and Seraphim did not seem to be in a talkative mood. Peter, who ordinarily would have found the silence awkward, had rapidly grown... well, not quite drowsy again, but mellow after his late meal.
Once they reached the Georgian Terrace Hotel, however, Mr. Stevenson livened up considerably. "Here," Ms. Phelps said, shoving the violin case into her boyfriend's abdomen, "you can carry this from now on if you like. I'm just as glad to be done with it, and as a bonus for you, it might actually be worth something; you never know." And she beamed almost angelically.
"But Sera, where is the real fiddle?" he demanded, following her and the demon servant into her suite. "I think I deserve to know at least that you have it safe overnight."
"Shhh," responded Seraphim, playfully sneaking up on the phoney case where he's absently set it down. "Let's see what's in here, first." Deftly she flipped the violin case open in one fluid movement. Something impish in her sense of humor made her itch to hiss at the contents and jump back as though revolted, just to see what Peter would do, but Ms. Phelps restrained this impulse, merely stating, "One ordinary, probably cheaply crafted, wooden fiddle, painted gold for our beguilement, one supposes. I suspect it will prove to be spray paint, as I don't immediately detect any brush strokes."
She yawned ostentatiously, and moved toward one of the cases Theinete Almundus had carried. "I could get spoiled to this life. It's such a luxury to be able to travel with your own pillow." Quite muffled jangling replied from inside the case, which metamorphosed into the voice of an elderly man as she unlatched and opened the baggage in question.
Something shiny peeked out from between the rolled up ends of a fluffy down pillow, and Uncle Johnny appeared to be in mid-tirade. "...no respect for the deceased, not even those who take the time to watch over them!" said the incorporeal old gentleman, glaring at his relative. "If you don't want my help, that can be arranged young lady!"
"But Uncle, even if I did drift off for a few minutes during the train ride, I still slept with your...er...residence under my pillow," cooed Seraphim, dimpling charmingly. "What more assurance of your treasured status could you ask for?"
"Minx," retorted Mr. McLean, but he seemed to be much mollified by his great-niece's roguish ways. This was more easily relatable behavior than her independent streak which he'd seen in Washington, and it made him feel that he wasn't wasting his ghostly energy in trying to protect her when she admitted that she did need him.
"Then I shall arrange a proper accommodation for the night for you, Mr. McLean." The butleress' voice rang from near the bathroom entrance. "Pardon the interruption but your bath is ready, Ms. Phelps..." Carrying a towel folded over her left arm, Thienete had to clear her throat to draw herself a tiny bit of attention over the group's heated debate. "...and Mr. Stevenson, I have had your room prepared as well." The sentence was finished with her hollow smile of courtesy. It was getting late, and a long day awaited ahead, and mostly important, her arm's getting sore...no that was only a joke.
After the door to their suite had been closed in Mr. Stevenson's reluctant face, Thienete opened the other suitcase she had carried, in there laid the old gentleman's "proper accommodation", a backup violin case. Carefully she placed the golden artifact on its velvet lining, then closed and latched both lids in a streamy flow before she secured the container inside her quarter.
"This way ma'am." Pushing open an ornately carved door, the demon servant led her mistress into this perfumed steamy chamber. " Aren't there no better conclusions to this long tiring trip than a relaxing warm bath and a good night sleep? The sedative nature of this lavender and santal essences mixture would ensure the later." Said the butleress as she dipped her hand in the bath water to test the temperature. "Your appointment, which begins with a delightful brunch, with the lawyer, Mr. Powell, is at a quarter to eleven tomorrow morning." While holding a silk bathrobe for Ms. Phelps, Thienete continued her report and collected the former's day-wear after the lady reemerged from behind a painted screen. "If you are in need anything, just ring the bell." Bowed the butleress as she excused herself.
Seraphim stepped into the bath and let her muscles relax and her mind float. Uncle Johnny had promised that she would be well provided for by the inheritance of the estate. She wasn't sure what kind of standards he had, but tomorrow was soon enough to find out. Washing her hair was such a little thing, and yet it made her feel so much better after this long day.
She took her time toweling it dry, or as dry as it would get without the blowdryer she hated to use, combing out the long mass of her hair and braiding it for the night to keep it from tangling. Finally sliding between the sheets in silk pajamas, Seraphim Phelp's last waking thought was that it truly was a luxury to be able to travel with your own pillow.
In their languor, rays of sunshine shattered on the marble floor of the hotel's lobby. A slim figure of medium height, in her signature black tailcoat, stood upright, waiting. When the minute hand of the woman's pocket watch pointed to ten, a scurry of footsteps caught her attention. "Ah there you are Mr. Powell, I have been expecting you." The black-coated woman smiled with cold courtesy. Panting, the comer been addressed as Mr. Powell studied his receptionist with his calculative light bluish grey eyes. "You...you must be Ms. Almundus, the butler...ess to...Ms. McLean Phelps." The man inquired. "Your observation serves you well, Mr. Powell." Gracefully the butleress bowed her head. "Please follow me, sir."
"Ms. Phelps, Mr. Stevenson, Mr. Powell is here." Leading the lawyer through the maze of tables and chairs of the dinning hall to a quiet private corner, Thienete notified her employer and her gentleman companion as she took the comer's hat and overcoat before excusing herself for other matters.
"Please do forgive me, ma'am, sir, for this late appearance, the traffic this morning was horrific" Said the attorney apologetically, "You must be Ms. Seraphim McLean Phelps, the great niece of my late client Mr. John McLean, my condolences, ma'am." While taking his seat, Mr. Powell attempted a handshake with them both... but... unfortunately tripped on the table leg... and ended up fell on the chair... Indeed his eyes were calculative, but perhaps better at counting banknotes than measuring his steps. Immediately the lawyer brought on the subject trying to shift their attention from such an exhibition of himself. "Though Mr. McLean did make a will, due to the... absence... of other family members, you and your mother are the only two inheritors of Mr. McLean's, in fact the entire McLeans' family fortune, which include the fully furnished McLean Mansion and the surrounding estate, all the remaining antique collection, two cars and approximately 2 million dollar deposit..."
At the time Thienete returned to their table, Mr. Powell was working very hard on locating something hidden among the thick stack of his documents but...Let's just say the attorney's carelessness and shortsightedness allowed him to pile up the files too close to the edge of the table, and eventually when a photo of the McLean estate was whipped out, he "grandly" elbowed aside this pillar of papers...in one stride the butleress darted to the table and caught the teetering pile in her free hand while on the other...sat still the tray full of their dishes. "Be careful, sir."
"Th...thank...you...madam..." If Mr. Powell were a mole, he would dig a hole and hide in it without hesitation.
Seraphim, despite her great uncle's assurances, was a bit staggered by the extent of the estate. Of course, there were death duties and inheritance taxes still to be paid, as well as some fairly thorough restoration of the house in order to render it livable, but if she invested wisely, she could afford only to work as much as she liked in the future. Ms. Phelps couldn't imagine giving up the quiet thrill that was researching the history of the artifacts which she appraised. To her, each was a little mystery waiting for her to solve it. Yet she had other ambitions as well, other hobbies which she would now be able to afford to indulge. No one in her family had ever been to Europe, for example, and she would very much like to travel.
Peter Stevenson interrupted his girlfriend's reverie by patting her thigh and remarking, "It's a good thing for me that I have a foot in the door already, since now men will be lining up to date the heiress." And he laughed at his own joke, while Mr. Powell looked, if possible, even more uncomfortable. Seraphim did not find this attempt at humor particularly funny, and it was in a slightly peevish mood that she returned to the present difficulties facing her. There was vengeance still to be exacted, the criminals who had massacred her relatives must be brought to justice, legally preferably, and until Theinete took final possession of the golden fiddle, thieves on the lookout for the musical instrument must be dealt with.
"When will it be possible for me to take up residence in the house, Mr. Powell? I understand that it was a crime scene, but certainly by now the police will have gathered all the available evidence from the building itself. I'm anxious to start renovations and repairs there as soon as it is permissible for me to do so," said Ms. McLean Phelps briskly.
"Yes, yes certainly, Ms. Phelps..." The lawyer nervously shoved his pile of documents towards the middle of the table, "...It was a battle negotiating with the police. But since the investigation inside the estate has drawn its conclusion, the authority has no excuse to hold the property any longer." Handing over the photo to the heiress, Mr. Powell continued with a shiver in his voice, "We'll go to the court this afternoon to have the will probated and the tax issues discussed. A...after that I...I'll personally...escort you to the McLean Mansion, we...we should be able to stand at i..its entrance by night...fall." The lawyer swallowed hard. "...Though Detective Harrison, who is in charge of the case, would very much like to speak to you personally in a few days, he's very... conservative about starting the renovations at this stage..."
"Pardon me sir..." Filling their tea cups, the butleress interposed as she narrowed her eyes. This was not an answer that would please her employer, in other word, herself. "...I am no expert of laws, but isn't it an owners' right to handle his or her in this case properties as her will? In the scope of laws of course, which I am positive that renovation does not go beyond the border." Thienete was also positive that Mr.McLean would not entrust his affairs to an amateur. This Mr. Powell had been acting strangely affected. He was afraid, for the smell of fear is too familiar to a demon. "To the best of my knowledge, as a historical construction...and criminal scene unfortunately, something must be done to restore the McLean estate's livability, does it not?" The young woman blew her final argument.
"Ye...yes of course..." Even a passerby could tell the attorney's uneasiness at the presence of the butleress, "...This is only his suggestion...Detective Harrison has been working very hard on this case, his worry can be understood. But as you said, madam, the Testament is in force, Ms. McLean Phelps has the full right over the McLeans' family fortune." Mr.Powell managed a smile, more a grimace to be honest. "The good news is that the estate itself is not in an uninhabitable condition." He tapped on the photo, eagerly wanting to prove that he was telling the truth. Surely the house could be described as old, a little burnt, but not dilapidated.
"A good news indeed. With the permission of Ms. Phelps, I shall do my utmost to restore the mansion to more than inhabitable." The smile of satisfaction lightened the butleress' face. "Please have some tea, Mr. Powell. I do hope this traditional British breakfast tea suits your taste, milk and sugar?"
"I'm so glad to hear that I have the legal leeway to proceed, Mr. Powell," Seraphim said sweetly. She waited until the lawyer's mouth was full, and continued, "I'm sure I don't have to explain to you how distressing it would be for me to be reminded on a daily basis whether or not, from the blood spatter pattern, my cousin Maisie was rolling out her famous biscuits at the time of her demise." The already jumpy attorney choked, coughed, spluttered, and was heartily thumped on the back by Mr. Stevenson, while Ms. Phelps looked on innocently, as if butter wouldn't melt in her mouth.
"But please, enjoy your breakfast, sir; we can continue the discussion of business affairs when you've finished." Seraphim inspected the photograph while he recovered his composure somewhat. "Who, may I ask, has been caring for the dogs during the interim? I would hate to know that either you or Detective Harrison had been negligent regarding their welfare. Not that I am aware of their names, of course, or even how many there should be at this time, but my family has always had dogs on the property." Again she smile beatifically. "It was very unusual that they should bite anyone, I believe."
"Regarding the family pets..." The lawyer wiped his mouth with a piece of napkin, "I am regret to inform you that none of them...survived the...tragedy." His face winced. "But if you wish to resume this family tradition, I'm acquainted with several reputed pet sellers...and I'd be more than happy to, if I may, introduce you to a qualified cleaning company or two." Well, business topics definitely seemed to bring the attorney back to life.
The following brunch went surprisingly smoothly...but not so with their afternoon arrangements...Due to Mr. Powell's 'professional' handling, their matters couldn't be settled until late afternoon. Mainly thanks to the expert attorney's amnesia...clearly he had forgotten several documents of necessity in his office. Though every inch of the sun's verging towards the horizon seemed to increase his stress level, strangely Mr. Powell showed no sign of speeding up. Apparently he was afraid of something, something that facing it would be the last desperate choice, even under broad daylight. After nightfall? One could only pray.
When the court finally sealed the validity of the will, only half of the golden sphere was visible above the horizon. Its light slanted through those narrow French windows and cast on the marble floor long, slim shadows behind the group. "Now, Mr. Powell, shall we head for the mansion?" The butleress inquired, catching their dear attorney leaning on the carved rail, biting his fingernails. "...Ye...yes, of... course..." Clearly Mr. Powell's mind wasn't with his body as he was startled by the question. His eyes wavered, a handkerchief was quickly swept cross his forehead, wiping off those dripping beats of sweat. "Are you all right, Mr. Powell? You look unwell..." Thienete tilted her head, her face almost beamed with genuine care... well,almost. "I...I'm fine, Ms. Almundus... thank you." A deep cough was let out by the lawyer trying to mask the tremble in his voice, "...Let's go down to our car, shall we?" he rushed ahead,then halted at the top of the staircase and hesitated as he suddenly realised that...he didn't know the way. "Down the staircase to your left, sir. " Nothing escaped the butleress' perspicacity. She bowed and gestured down with perfect manner, then turned to her employer. "Ms. Phelps, gentlemen, why don't you take a comfortable seat while I fetch our transportation? I must say they have some exquisite cushioned settees in the lobby."
The drive itself was smooth and uneventful, at least so long as they remained on the paved roads. As the vehicle wound higher up and farther back into the mountains, Mr. Powell's anxiety seemed to double, and he jumped visibly in his seat when the next turn brought the unmistakable crunch of gravel underneath the car's tires to his unwelcoming ears. Clearly he felt that he had left behind the last remaining vestige of civilization, despite the perfect maintenance of the gravel roadway. Anything could happen out here.
This nervousness even began to have it's effects on the other travelers. Mr. Stevenson began to fret on his own account, mentally detailing the number of things that could go wrong with this trip, while absently tapping his teeth together in a manner that drove Seraphim to distraction. Ms. Phelps became somewhat testy in her apprehension about what she would find at her great uncle's residence, although she directed no sharp remarks to anyone. In fact, the whole company became unusually quiet, except for the lawyer's periodic throat clearings. Once a bump where a rivulet had washed out a small hollow of pulverized rock brought an odd twang from their baggage. Seraphim reflected that it couldn't be easy to return to the scene of your own murder, and gave the old man extra credit for bravery as well as his characteristic bravado. Only the butleress continued to be entirely undisturbed.
No surprise that Thienete was the driver. She held the steel in her palms and did her utmost best not to be distracted. Though a demon she was, her earthly form did not possess supernatural powers. But a demon's senses were something never to be underestimated. The car was heated with all kind of emotions, anxiety, expectation, fear...the sealed space might be silence to the other passengers, but to the butleress, it was a party.
"Which way should we go, Mr.Powell? Should I turn left or right?" Thienete decided something must be done before she crashed the group into a ditch. No response, "Mr. Powell?" The butleress unwillingly rose her voice, she hated to be rude.
"To your left, follow the creek...bank." As if was woken up suddenly, the attorney gave the direction awkwardly fast. "Detective Harrison has had the creek dammed upstream in order to search for clues." He managed a grim, "Otherwise the creek view from the mansion is absolutely gorgeous, we are very close by now."
"Really." Thienete noncommittally raised one of her eyebrows, "I hope everything goes well with his investigation." her words almost beamed with genuine expectation, "It would a shame that the mansion loses such a nice view."
The car traveled in twilight. Even though the firey chariot of Apollo was yet to reach its destination, Nyx's reign came much earlier in the mountain region thanks to the dense vegetation. A few more turns, a few more bumps. When the last ray of daylight lingered in between the hill, and the new moon peeped from the tree tops, they were finally there.
Large oak trees guarded the entrance way. Time has not yet came to autumn when they were crowned with golden leaves, but the spring showers had already awoken the lush green. The trees stood in silent salute, their arching branches cast mottled shadows. Narrow and thin those shadows crept in the vehicle, webbed its passengers' faces like shattered porcelain dolls.
"Behold, the McLean Mansion..." Mr.Powell exhaled a shaky announcement, there was something unnerving, unfriendly about the atmosphere. The car was slowed down unintentionally, it seemed whatever was affecting the humans passengers also had its grip on the butleress. The heavy air, maybe just a trick of the humidity, planted this haunting feeling, they were the intruders.
At the end of the tree line stood the mansion. A Chateau of a mixture of French and Spanish style, with towering pinnacles, long and narrow windows, lovely arched porticus and stone pillars of sculptured ivy and flowers. The dull lime stone shrouded the entire building in a plutonian grey. The afterglow lingered on the westward windows, the glasses blazed like fire. While the windows on the opposite side, shimmered in a cold light of obsidian. The shadow was pressing in, soon the fire dimmed out.
The night fell...
Night fell, and the early summer evening cacophony of chirping crickets and whirring June bugs, croaking bullfrogs and piping spring peepers, serenaded or irritated the occupants of the car, based on their temperaments, as they exited the vehicle. For Seraphim it was a wild and crazy sort of symphony that she remembered from her childhood, not especially fondly, as it happened, but she welcomed the normality of the noise. Keeping strictly to the paths, as she had not yet applied any tick or mosquito deterrent, the young woman said to Thienete, "It seems fitting that I be the one to carry the fiddle across the threshold," a remark which Mr. Powell found a bit odd, but then she was a McLean, after all.
Fireflies danced around her as she went to fetch the violin case from where it had been carefully packed away. Peter Stevenson thought privately that Seraphim looked surprisingly pretty in this setting, although he'd always thought of his girlfriend as a sophisticated city dweller; he could be happy vacationing here, he mused, automatically calculating the value of the property that was visible to appraise, however something would have to be done about those maddening bugs! It might be worth keeping the old homestead as a personal retreat, and it would certainly sound good, "my mansion in the Blue Ridge Mountains", especially among antique dealers.
Seraphim found herself looking around for some unidentified thing that was absent, and then realized that it was the dogs. It had been foolish of her to suppose that the criminals had not poisoned them all to prevent them from raising an alarm before their raid. These were the most vile of evil men, and she needed to remember that always! Very well, she would start again with new dogs, two or three perhaps, big hounds that were useful for whatever purpose you put them to. "Pet sellers, indeed!" she whispered to the ghost of her great uncle. However, tomorrow or the next day would be soon enough to check out local dog pounds and shelters.
For now, though, the building's shadow filled interior beckoned darkly. Striding forth in the lead, and carrying the case with the golden fiddle in it as reassuringly as she could, Seraphim Phelps proceeded up the flagstone steps, and unceremoniously opening her own front door, went inside.