Name: Edwin Powell
Appearance: 5’10” and carrying some extra weight around the middle; hair greying, thinning, and balding from an original mousey brown; eyes watery blue behind thick glasses which he does need
Occupation: lawyer (specialty is civil, not criminal, law)
Personality: thoroughly competent in his job and very exacting, but has a tendency to misplace objects; appears chronically nervous or stressed (perhaps only in connection with the McLean estate?); fussy about the correctness of things.
Backstory: inherited the management of the McLean family affairs from his own father, also a lawyer, still living but now retired; Theodore Powell, the father, and John McLean had a long history as friends and worked well together, but the younger lawyer, Edwin Powell, had less of a rapport with his client; the man seems to be genuinely afraid of some aspect of this case… does he know something he shouldn’t, or is he just a high-strung individual?
Name: Joseph Michael Harrison Jr. (Lil’ Joe; hates to be called Junior)
Appearance: rangy build, around 6 ft. if he isn’t slouching, crew cut sandy blond hair and hazel eyes
Occupation: police detective
Personality: seems slow on the uptake and dismissive of civilians, perhaps especially young women, but in reality he’s no such thing; very keen senses and notices a lot that people accidentally let slip; dedicated to upholding the spirit of the law, if not the precise letter of it; friendly with everybody but actually trusts only a few privileged individuals who have earned his respect.
Backstory: born in Atlanta, Lil’ Joe (his father is Joe, or Big Joe) and his family moved to the Blue Ridge Mountains when he was in elementary school, and he immediately fell in love with the beauty and culture of the rural area, although he will forever feel just a tiny bit like an outsider due to his city roots. He’s well-liked by the community, but somewhat frustrated by the political constraints of a system where the Sheriff, his boss, is an elected official and must remain popular. Let’s say that he’s a man of honor, but not above finding a jug of moonshine on his back porch steps once in a while.
Name: Lizzie Mae Jenkins
Appearance: : light chocolate skinned colored girl (despite the growing Civil Rights movement, it remains impolite to call a nice woman “black” in this era and area), 5’6”, slim and fit; hair worn close to her head and nearly always covered; eyes large and ebony
Personality: cheerful, takes pride in her work; surprisingly wise and astute for her age; warm and sweet; often sings or hums softly to herself when absorbed in a task.
Backstory: the eldest of six children, Lizzie Mae was given a lot of responsibility for simple household chores and watching over the younger kids early on, which has matured her and made her patient and kind, rather than the opposite; nevertheless, she’s grateful for this opportunity to get out of the house and earn money on her own, as she’s also somewhat independent; secretly she’s attracted to the hippie movement, but doesn’t dare join, nor does she think she’d fit in (too shy and conservative).
Name: Robert (Buzz) Bailey
Appearance: roughly 5’11”, thin and sinewy, tanned and fairly weather-beaten, tousled light brown curly hair which falls into his face, scruffy not-quite-a-beard stubble usually, greyish/bluish eyes, contagious grin with oddly perfect teeth
Occupation: none really: hobo, odd jobs
Personality: easy-going and laid-back, but doesn’t goof off when he’s working; likes his freedom; believes in peaceful coexistence, however pragmatic instead of idealistic when it comes down to the everyday world, and carries a switchblade since being a wandering homeless person has its dangers.
Backstory: left an iron mining town in Pennsylvania to find other work (and because he’d burned his draft card to evade the Vietnam War), and just kept on going… couldn’t settle on anything or anywhere that suited him for longer than a few months, but the road does get lonely; amuses himself on long train rides sketching with chalk or charcoal, and is quite a good artist, but doesn’t believe in his ability enough to try it professionally; surprisingly romantic.
Name: Eagle, born Willie Watson, Cherokee name Wohali, which means eagle
Occupation: mine worker/ drug ring ‘scullery boy’
Appearance: Cherokee and white mixed-blood, relatively short for a young boy, 5’7-8", skinny but does have some muscles on his arms and back. Round face, slightly hooked nose, brown skin. Shoulder-length black hair, and yellow-ish brown eyes.
Personality: quite rough and aggressive at first impression, but once you get through this shell, you will find a rather decent young man, amiable and caring, but does have a wild edge. Very passionate about nature and hunting.
Backstory: Eagle’s father Dan Watson was an Indian-White mixed blood himself, but he was only a quarter Indian so he looked quite Caucasian. Dan set out with another Indian, the ‘Old Man Gail’ to find works in the smoky mountain mine. While they were working, Dan pursued the ‘Old Man Gail’’s daughter, ‘Willa’, a renowned beauty in the mine. They ended up staying together for quite some time, but never get married. Dan was not very proud of his Indian heritage, and was planning to marry a white woman. So Dan left ‘Willa’ and took their only son away.
Dan named the child Willie after his mother, and introduced him as his child from a ‘previous marriage’ to his married wife. Willie/Eagle wasn’t treated too badly to start with, but Dan was a rather arrogant man, he thought he saved Willie from a ‘backwards’ life. As a result, he was very demanding and can be abusive sometimes. Willie’s step mother did not like the boy, and his half siblings looked down upon him. Willie never felt he belonged in his father’s home, so he began to ask about his biological mother. Dan was angered, and he beat the boy thinking he was ungrateful and failed his education. And that pushed Willie out of his father’s house.
Willie wandered streets for some time, as a young boy without guidance, he made some ‘bad’ friend who pointed him to the wrong ways of making money. Occasionally Willie worked for the mines, and by sheer chance, he made contact with his maternal grandfather. Because of Cherokee’s matrilineal tradition, the ‘Old Man Gail’ considered his grandson a Cherokee as well, and tried to take him in. From his grandfather, Willie learned about his maternal family. In the Cherokee language, the ‘Old Man Gail’ was known as Gola Wahuhi, winter owl, given to him by a wise woman for his rather stern characteristic. And Willie’s mother ‘Willa’ was Unega Woya, the white dove.
Willie was given a Cherokee name as well, Wohali, eagle. And from that time on, Willie abandoned the name given by his father, and called himself Eagle. Eagle very much respected his grandpa, but found the old man can be overly strict sometimes. Gail or Gola Wahuhi tried his best to pass on his knowledge to Eagle, but the young boy never understood why he needs to learn this ‘old-fashioned stuff’.
Name: James Wright (Known as Wild Bill to a selected few)
Appearance: appears older than his actual age, lean and muscular, about 6’3; pale skin, dark curly brown hair with an edge of golden shine when caught in sunlight, but already greying due to health condition; bright emerald eyes, but appear sunken; left leg slightly crippled, needs walking stick.
Occupation: head of Diamond Lilliane Jewelry company
Personality: appears passionate and energetic, a capable and strong-minded businessman, values talents as well as hard work; but in the inside suffers a great deal of self-doubt and guilt.
Backstory: Born and raised in Georgia countryside, James’s family had lived and worked on this land for generations, first as farmers then miners. Young James grew up wild and free-spirited at the foot of the Blue-Ridge mountains, while his parents Richy and Lilian worked on a gold mine.
In his childhood, James always appeared taller and stronger than his peers, the young boy took pride in that, but little did he know, his appearance was a result of a genetic disorder that runs down his family, causing the Wrights men to grow but deteriorate quicker than usual. But that was something out of a young mind, James was the ‘Big Kid’ of his group, and after beating up a bunch of older kids bullying the new-arrived Joe Harrison Jr., the two boys formed a deep bond with each other. Sharing a common obsession with the cowboys and the west, the two can be seen playing together, reenacting their favourite moments from TV shows. These two were inseparable, the adults called them the ‘Boys’, but between the boys, James and Joseph, they identified themselves as ‘Wild Bill and Lil Joe’, just like the heroes from TV shows.
Careless days passed quickly, it all ended when James’s father Richy died from a mine collapse. His mother Lilian continued to work to support her children, but eventually gave way to pneumoconiosis. James dropped out of school completely, to take over his parents’ work. In the following winter, James lost his little sister to tuberculosis. There was a rumour flying in the town about the Wrights’ ancestors interbred, and their family illness was a curse, the young boy felt he couldn’t depend on the town folk’s kindness, so he left and Lil Joe lost contact with Wild Bill ever since.
Young James traveled down to Louisiana, there he was taken in by a kindhearted and very skillful jeweller, Raymond Donnadieu. James first worked as an apprentice, by hard-work and determination, he quickly raised to become Monsieur Donnadieu’s right-hand man. Monsieur Donnadieu had only one daughter, Lilliane, so he gave her hand to James, along with all his property. James was very grateful, he took over Raymond’s bushiness and brought it to a whole new level. But things changed when his son was born, the child carried Wright’s genetic flaws, and showed signs of deterioration from a very young age.
James’s heart was consumed by guilt, until the day he met a mysterious masked man known as the Faceless Maestro. The masked man offered a helping hand, after his ‘treatment’, the boy’s condition improved and became stable. James felt like had been granted a new life, worshiped the Maestro, and will do whatever it takes to please his ‘saviour’.
"So now what?" Peter was growing impatient as well unnerved by this...the ritualistic undertone of Seraphim's handling with the ...thing. Sure the McLean Mansion would be a wondrous vacation destination, but only in its formal and full glory. Now he was just cold, and tired, and spooked by the darkness of the mountain regions. Strange animal howling, and a burnt down mansion, perfect setting for a horror movie. "Now we check the rooms, if any of them are in good condition, we rest. If not, we gather what we can, and camp in the hall." "Jesus, Seraphim, you need to tell your butler... bulteress to stop doing that!" Peter virtually jumped when Thienete seemingly just materialised next to him.
“Ma’am, Miss McLean Phelps, you can’t seriously expect me to stay the night here. We must go back. I must go back. I have important work to do tomorrow morning,” Mr. Powell protested. “It is simply not convenient for me to… ahem… camp in a burnt out building.”
Smiling like the fiery angels that she was named after, Seraphim responded brightly, “But Mr. Powell, I absolutely cannot allow you to drive back on these twisting, foggy mountain roads after dark, especially since you are unfamiliar with the area. It’s too dangerous to be contemplated. No, we’ll all ride back with you in the morning, as we’ll very likely need supplies which we haven’t brought with us. Besides, if I’m not mistaken, I own that car.” She contemplated a moment. “Although I may also need a small truck. We’ll see.”
Seraphim shrugged, she began to realise she might have let her anticipation get ahead of her reasoning. All of them had ignored the fact that the mansion had been burnt. It did not look that bad from Mr. Powell's photo; of course, the mansion was built from limestone, so the outside won't burn, it was the interior, the wooden structures, the furniture, and people...Seraphim shivered. "My lady, we will manage." Thienete said as she wrapped a shawl around Seraphim's shoulders.
The interior was worse than they thought. A lot of work needed to be done if they were to restore the mansion back to living condition, let alone its formal glory. But by sheer miracle, the library, the dining hall, the ball room and the laundry only suffered minor damage. And Thienete was able to gather enough sheets, so they decided to spend the night in the library. The bulteress thoughtfully constructed a private space for Seraphim using bookshelves and bed sheets, and a rather comfortable bed using a recliner. For the gentlemen, Mr. Powell and Peter, there were plenty of sheets and blankets for them to survive the night. Seraphim lay on the recliner, with a violin case as her pillow, and random notes played by Uncle Johnny in protest. She was home...or was she? Nothing felt right. Of course they shouldn’t; she was not here for a vacation, she had work to do!
Seraphim pummeled her pillow, ‘Good night Uncle Johnny.’ The later made a scratchy noise with the string and surprisingly, went quiet. ‘Good night, gentlemen.’ ‘Good night darling, we need to get these fixed as soon as possible.’ ‘Goo....oood ni....iiight Ms. Phelps...’ The sound of sheets rubbing suggested that Mr. Stevenson was struggling with his makeshift bed on the floor, and the shiver in Mr. Powell’s voice suggested that he’s not going to have a good night. ‘And...Thienete...’ ‘Don’t worry my lady, I’ll watch the night for you.’
Seraphim was woken up by a gentle touch on her shoulder; she was not asleep, not entirely anyway, so it did take long for her to come back to consciousness. ‘Thienete, What is it?’ It was her butleress. She crouched on the floor, her silhouette much resembled a black leopard. ‘We have company.’ The entire building was pitch black, their only light source was the moonlight, and candle light, but they were already burnt out. The generator had been damaged by fire and nothing had been done to it yet. So if looked at from the outside, one would take the McLean mansion for an abandoned building; indeed one would think so. Footsteps, first on leaves then on broken bricks and glasses, and flashlight, and men talking… the silence of the night magnified everything.
Uncle Johnny, of course, didn’t exactly sleep, although the ghost did require some rest occasionally. So as his great niece lifted her head off the violin case “pillow” to better hear men’s boots crunching in the darkness, the late John McLean wafted up behind her. For once he decided to forego his customary fiddle twang; he, too, was alert and listening. Ironically enough, his ghostly glow provided a small pool of light. Mr. Powell, vaguely discernable at the other end of the room and only identifiable from the difference between his height and Peter Stevenson’s, stirred fretfully, but didn’t rouse. Seraphim was just about to thank her demon butleress for the warning and suggest waking the two men when her deceased relative spoke.
“Girl,” he said conversationally, “friendly neighbors don’t come visiting in the middle of the night. It’s not a fit time to stop by uninvited.” And Uncle Johnny’s eyes blazed blue above an incorporeal, but feral, grin. “Still, I figure I ought to welcome these folks properly, don’t you think? After all, this is my home.”
Seraphim, feeling very much like a Georgia McLean instead of a Washington-bred Phelps, wondered idly how much harm a dead man could inflict upon the living. It would be interesting to find out, and clearly she would in the immediate future. The butleress kept her thoughts to herself, but Thienete tipped her head to the side slightly, as if weighing something, then, quite clearly, nodded to the old man’s spirit. Uncle Johnny immediately winked out, vanishing to some distant part of the mansion, closer to the approaching interlopers.
The incorporeal spirit of the late master of the McLean family flew swiftly to where the voices came from. This was...is his home and he knew every inch of it. Uncle Johnny watched from a broken window. Three men were approaching from the east wing. A bald and buildy white man walked in the front, behind him was a young man with dark skin, the third man was hidden in the shadow. "No Luke I don't like this." Said the dark skinned man to the man in front. "What, are you scared chicken?" mocked the bald man. "Cut the bull**t Luke, this is disrespectful to the spirit!" "No you cut the bull***t chicken!" "It's Eagle" "Don't care, you are on this boat, so put your native superstition behind." "Hey Eagle, we be good," The third man spoke. As they moved closer, John Mclean was able to see him in flashlight.
A short sturdy man, Caucasian as well, his cap pulled low to one side. "We stayed here a week, and not a soul bothered us, dead or alive. The patrols don't go inside, locals s**t their pants when they hear Mclean Mansion. They think this place is cursed or something; this, Eagle boy, is good cover." "Well said Timmy." Luke the man in front waved his torch, and uncle Johnny could figure out more. The third man, Timmy, had only one eye. A long scar ran down his left face, but his right eye was deep and sharp, and seemed to glow inhumanly in the dark.
Luke flashed the torch towards the window. "Did you see that?" Eagle screamed. "Quiet chicken, what?" "There...there was a man standing at the window!" "I see nothing." Timmy shrugged. "No I swear there was a man right there, in that window!" "Why the hell do we bring him?" Timmy frustratedly threw his hands in the air. "Because he's the only scullery boy available! Timmy, we had cooked some good stuff in the cellar, and boss man wants it tomorrow! Now move your lazy ass, we've work to do!" 'Little bastards, What did they do to my house?' Whatever they’re doing, it's nothing good, and they don't want eye witnesses. Uncle Johnny could see a reflection of firearms on their belts.
Uncle Johnny was not your average ghost, his connection with the golden fiddle not only sustained his incorporeal form, it also lent him some 'tricks', and now he was angry. "What was that?" The younger man Eagle suddenly pointed his flashlight to the front. "Chicken, I'm warning you..." "No Luke, see" The short man Timmy jerked his head towards where Eagle pointed his flashlight. A black shadow was moving towards the edge of the light radius, not entirely a human shape, just...a shadow.
"Who goes there?" Luke shouted to the shadow: no response, the shadow kept moving. "Hey stop or I'll shoot!" Luke pointed his rifle at the shadow. "Please misters, don't shoot!" Like a veil being pulled off, all of them saw an old man, who walked into the light radius, hands held up in the air so they knew he carried no weapon. "Hey old man, what are you doing here?" "Why misters, just a homeless old folk trying to find shelter." The old man replied. "Don't care, move away, this place is ours." "But misters, the mansion's abandoned, lots of space in there. I’m but a frail old man, all I need is a little corner to sleep..." "I said I don't care, and get away!" Luke clicked the safety. "Alright, alright misters, I'll go, you’re the boss." The old man stepped back. "Ay misters, can I borrow a light?"
Luke rolled his eyes, he shoved a lighter into young Eagle's hand and pushed him towards the old man. Eagle understandably was not happy, but soon persuaded by Luke's rifle. Eagle walked slowly, no matter how hard he tried, he just cannot see the old man's face clearly. His hands were so shaky that it took him three times to light the lighter. And the third time, when he finally got the fire going, he saw the old man's face. Not a face exactly, half of a face. From the upper lip up, there was charred flesh and black scars, and from the upper lip down....there was nothing.... Eagle felt strength left his legs, he whopped down on the ground, rolling and crawling back to the other two, leaving a watery trace behind him. "Ggggghost!" The young man screamed.
"What the hell?" "Luke, where did he go?" Timmy held down the bald man's gun and pointed to where the old man was standing; there was no one. "There! In the trees!" Luke shook off Timmy's hand and pointed his rifle to the trees. "No in the window!" Fog rolled out from nowhere, one by one dark shadows seem to just sprout from the earth. "The McLeans, they are back..." Eagle murmured shakily. "Luke this isn't right, we need to leave!" Timmy nervously scanned the surrounding shadows... they don't move, they don't speak, they were just...standing there... "What the hell?" Luke felt goosebumps creep along his forearms; what are those darn things?
"Maybe we can walk around them?" The answer was a no. A face suddenly materialised in front of them, charred flesh, no chin. Luke could even feel a cold breath on him. The three of them screamed, Luke emptied his bullets into thin air, and Timmy dragged the other two back into the trees.
The men’s screams, oddly muffled but echoing in the fog, both natural and supernatural, woke Mr. Powell with a yelp. Peter must have startled, too, because he flailed and kicked an unseen piece of furniture in the inky blackness which filled that end of the library. “Damn,” he swore. “Sera, what’s going on?” Then, not waiting for an answer, demanded, “What time is it, anyway?”
Tenuous moonlight reflected upon a glinting white object which then closed with a snap. “It is 17 minutes before midnight, Mr. Stevenson,” replied Thienete Almundus’s neutral voice, “precisely. I regret that we’re a bit short on provisions, so I cannot offer you any refreshment at this time.”
Seraphim herself answered the first question. “Some trespassers came onto the property,” she explained, “almost undoubtedly for nefarious purposes, although we can’t be certain that the men were members of the same drug ring that murdered my family. I’m sure that by now Uncle Johnny has dealt with the situation satisfactorily.” Belatedly recalling the presence of Mr. Powell, largely because this statement made him yelp again and try to scramble to his feet, which were unfortunately tangled in his sheets, the young woman added, “The place seems to have developed a reputation in these parts. They probably just got spooked and ran away.”
“Ms. McLean Phelps, it is neither appropriate nor amusing for you to be joking about the late patriarch of your family in this way. For a moment I… I was worried that, er… that you believed there was actually a ghost haunting the premises,” scolded Mr. Powell in a pitch several notes higher than normal due to his fear.
A red light seemed to shimmer in the darkness, but before anyone else who might be motivated to reprove the lawyer for overstepping his bounds by reprimanding his client had a chance to do so, Peter Stevenson spoke. “Mr. Powell, I’m sure you understand that everyone copes with grief in their own way. It’s neither helpful nor polite to criticize Seraphim at this point. And indeed, all she meant was that the legend of her uncle provided an effective deterrent to keep minor criminals at bay and out of the house… the house which you’ve been responsible for maintaining until she took formal possession of it this afternoon. Of course, it wouldn’t be entirely your fault if we were to find evidence of illegal activities inside the mansion somewhere, but it could be argued that you should have hired a guard or a watchman to prevent unauthorized entry.”
Mr. Stevenson was rewarded for his gallant defense of her freedom to express herself with a kind and genuine smile from Seraphim. Then, realizing that he couldn’t very well see it in the dark, she asked her butleress, “Thienete, do we have any flashlights or perhaps a lantern? I’d like to make sure that the men whose footsteps we heard are, in fact, gone, if that’s possible, before going back to sleep.”
Only one, madam." Seraphim could hear the butleress reached down her pocket, then a few metal coins and finally a click. A beam of yellow light cut open the darkness. Both the gentleman involuntarily shaded their eyes. "Ouch," Peter exclaimed. "But we could always use more light. My apology Mr. Stevenson, do you mind?" The butleress handed the flashlight to Peter, and while the two men were watching with their jaws nearly dropped on the floor, Thienete tore down the leg of a broken chair with her bare hands, wrapped one end in tattered cloth and lit it with a lighter. "Would you mind Mr. Powell?" "What...oh right." The lawyer took over the handmade torch from the bulteress, shaking...and was still doubting himself about what he just saw.
Thienete equipped the rest of them with torches; Mr. Powell's anxiety seemed to increase with the flicking fire. In the dark it was out of sight out of mind, but now they can see, and who knows what is lurking in the shadows? "Madam, I will check the premises, you and Mr. Powell should be safe in the library, this area is well-sheltered. And Mr. Stevenson, would you mind giving me a hand in the patrol?" "Err..." Peter was certain he's not afraid, at least not as terrified as the lawyer was. But to brave the unknown outside? "I will go with you." Seraphim declared. "No Sera, it's too dangerous!" "Oh Peter, it's all right, I have to see myself."
The three of them circuited the mansion, the main building at least. Nothing peculiar was found, considering their only light sources were a flashlight and two torches. They needed the daylight for a more in depth inspection. So it had come to the conclusion that whoever, whatever the trespassers might be, they have left, and nothing more can be done in this total darkness. It would be sensible to get some rest while they can, and leave plan-making for after dawn.
"Peter, go ahead, you need some rest." Seraphim offered a smile to her boyfriend. "Nonsense Sera, I'm not leaving you here alone!" "Peter my dear, thank you for defending me, but I am no baby." Seraphim gently rested her arms on Peter's shoulders, and pushed him towards the mansion. "I need some fresh air, that's all." "Now Sera? This is not a good idea! Let's just go inside." "Mr. Stevenson, the premises is clear, it will be fine." Thienete exchanged a glance with her mistress, "Give the lady some privacy." Peter tried to argue but both ladies seemed very determined; he frustratedly walked away with the butleress, insisting on watching over his girlfriend from the porch.
'Come on Uncle Johnny!' Seraphim muttered to herself. A gust of cold wind stirred up movements behind her back. The young McLean heiress was met with a rather horrid sight, a charred face missing its chin. "Uncle Johnny, a bit exaggerated don't you think?" Seraphim was only mildly taken aback. She raised an eyebrow, while the distorted figure transformed back into the transparent form of the elderly McLean. "Girl, this is my house, and I do not like trespassers." "How many are they?" "Three as I can see." "Do...do you recognise any of them?" Seraphim bit her lip and asked carefully. "....No..." Uncle Johnny replied after a long silence. "I know what you’re thinking, it's not them." "We will find them uncle, we will." "Yes we will. But first, girl, remember to check our cellar!"
The group of travelers returned to an anxious Mr. Powell who treated them like a gift from heaven. Although the smoke made him cough, he was glad of the extra light, and the reassurance of warm bodies in the clammy night air. “Ah, you’re back. I trust all is in order, and we can resume our disturbed sleep in… well… whatever degree of comfort exists under the circumstances,” the lawyer greeted them, extinguishing his torch in the dry soil of what had been a potted plant before the fire.
“Yes, Powell,” Mr. Stevenson said in a hearty tone that was also faintly disparaging of the other man’s lack of bravery, “We saw no sign of anyone in or near the house at present. It should be perfectly safe to go back to sleep. Whoever it was should be long gone by now.” Turning to face the two ladies, Peter inquired, “Are you sure you wouldn’t be more relaxed and better rested if you allowed me to watch over that fiddle for you, dear? It can’t make a pleasant pillow.”
Seraphim was rapidly tiring, and extremely unenthusiastic about the prospect of starting that argument over again. Nonetheless, she told him, “No thank you, Peter. I’m already used to it, and having it with me is calming to my… delicate… nerves.” And with that, he had to be satisfied, because not another word did she speak to her boyfriend that night, not even ‘Sleep well.’
“Do not worry, my lady. I shall take care of everything,” vowed Thienete the butleress with a businesslike nod. And, of course, she did.
Mr. Powell tossed and turned on his makeshift bed, he was not hoping for any rest tonight, but eventually sleep came anyway. But it was a shallow and alert sleep. Mr. Powell kept seeing the ghostly figure of his late client wondering the halls of the ruined McLean mansion. The lawyer could feel it, the old man was trying to communicate, but he just cannot hear him. There was something between the two, like a glass wall. Then everything was on fire, right in front of his eyes. Mr. Powell could even smell the burning wood...one cannot smell in dreams, can he? The smell was real.
Edwin Powell literally jumped out of his skin, well not his skin exactly, but blankets and bed sheets. "Ah Mr. Powell, punctuality is indeed a professional code for lawyers, right in time for breakfast." "Ms. Almundus?" Mr. Powell's eyes were still out of focus, he took a few deep breaths and let his consciousness drift back to the waking world. He indeed saw fire...a small bonfire by which the butleress was boiling tea... "Would you like a cup of tea Mr. Powell?"
By sheer magic Thienete was able to conjure up some sandwiches for breakfast. And after that, they sat around the large reading table in the library, and made plans for the day. According to the butleress's ever faithful pocket watch, it was seven minutes past eight. Mr. Powell was already putting forward job-related reasons, begging to be excused. But Seraphim with her angelic smile 'kindly' reminded him that, his only job for now is to look over the mansion until everything is settled, and they were far from 'settled'. Then the lawyer tried to distract everyone with the topic of family pets, and naturally led to his recomended pet dealers. Seraphim genuinely thought for a moment, but she quickly decided this could wait.
Mr Powell frustratedly slouched on an arm chair, and watched the rest come to a conclusion that they should first inspect the house, make renovation plans, then hire architects, stonemasons, carpenters, builders, whoever it takes to restore the mansion, at least the main living quarters. "Madam, where would you like to start with the inspection?" Thienete asked, waiting for the instruction from her mistress. "We should check the cellar." “Of course,” Thienete replied, already retrieving the makeshift torches utilized the night before, although they wouldn’t need to be lit until the party was actually ready to descend underground. Mr. Powell, not surprisingly, elected once again to remain behind. He’d had to sleep in his suit, which now smelled of smoke, and he was not happy about it; the lawyer wasn’t about to venture into a dirty, and undoubtedly cobweb-festooned cellar.
The wealthy family who’d originally built the mansion had taken advantage of a fairly sizable natural cavity carved into the bedrock by the nearby stream when it had once, ages ago, run below the ground. Now that the creek followed a different channel, the cave was dry enough to store food and other perishable items in, although cloth and spare wooden furniture would be better relegated to the attic. All that had been necessary was to enlarge the opening, and build steps down to the cavern. This was accessible from the back of the kitchen, as well as from outside the house and across a beaten earth yard.
Due to fire damage to the kitchen, and considerations of sunlight to help illuminate the cellar, Seraphim opted to try the outer entrance. Sure enough, the doors, set almost flush with the packed soil but angled slightly upwards, showed signs of having recently been used. They’d been oiled to keep them from sticking or squeaking badly, and the pattern of rain spatter from the last storm was disturbed. “Before the place burned,” Seraphim reminisced quietly, “there were trellises of jasmine against the back of the house, on either side of the kitchen door. You can still see where they were. It smelled like heaven to me when I was a girl.” Pulling herself together, she held out her torch for the butleress to light, and proceeded down the stairs.
Seraphim would have been careful with her firebrand anyway, since the cellar should normally contain some barrels of kerosene for fuel and the occasional oil lamp, as well as its jars of canned vegetables, jellies, pickles, honey… other foodstuffs stored for the winter months… racks of bottled wine, both store bought and her aunt Jolene’s famous mulberry wine that would knock you off your chair if you weren’t prepared, and assorted other liquor of legal and illegal varieties. Some of the moonshine, for that matter, was just as flammable as the kerosene. However, on the long, scarred, old worktable that took up the front of the cellar set something that looked like it belonged in a chemistry laboratory. Connected by curls of glass tubing were burners and flasks, and most ominously, at the end of the table lay a scientific quality scales, next to which lay a couple of large, clear plastic bags of fine, white powder. This was obviously not a backwoods still.
“My God,” Peter blurted involuntarily from behind and above her shoulder. Silently, Seraphim agreed with him, although after their nocturnal visitors, she’d half expected something like this.
“Peter,” she asked carefully, “don’t take this the wrong way, but how much do you know about ‘cooking’ cocaine? Is that what the strange, sweet smell in here is from?”
He came forward to look closer, although he was astute enough not to touch anything, and answered, “Why on earth would I have a clue? Cocaine is made from the coca plant, which is native to South and Central America. I doubt it’s imported raw, but for all I know, it may require further processing after it’s smuggled into this country.” Peter Stevenson blinked several times. “I sound like an encyclopedia, but really, you know I’m not into the drug scene, Sera.”
“This is such an out of the way location, though,” his girlfriend objected, mainly to herself.
“If I may suggest, madam,” Thienete interjected smoothly, “perhaps this is intended for a specialized clientele, rather than widespread distribution. It would make sense if the purity of the product made here is higher than that commonly available on the street, for example.”
After making their discovery, clearly the next thing to do was to report it to the police, which meant a trip back into town. However, that coincided neatly with Seraphim’s plans to hire renovators to restore the mansion to, at present, a livable condition, and eventually it’s former grandeur. The McLean heiress already knew essentially what sort of workers she’d need to hire. Thankfully, Uncle Johnny had left her quite well provided for. Come to think of it, what had happened to the elderly ghost? They hadn’t seen or heard a peep from him this morning. Perhaps he’d used up all of his energy the previous night, and had to rest and recuperate. She could try plucking a few notes on the fiddle to awaken him, like rubbing a lamp summoned a genie… but no, let the old man sleep.
Because they’d been down in the cellar, the trio had failed to hear the rattle of gravel in the circular drive when a car passed over it. Just as they were emerging from the darkness, however, they caught sight of a blond man leaning forward to take a closer look at the kitchen door, which had refused to shut all the way once they’d forced it open. Quickly he turned his head towards them, an alert and appraising expression, which was almost immediately replaced by an amiable, if slightly dim-witted, smile. He wore khaki pants and a denim shirt, but there was a police badge clipped to one side of his belt and a gun on the other. “Morning,” he greeted the small party cheerfully. “I’m Harrison, Det. Joe Harrison. What are you folks doing around these parts on this fine day?” A detective, that explained the plain clothes. “If you don’t mind my asking?” he added.
“By an odd coincidence, we’ve been doing your job, officer,” Peter answered. “Peter Stevenson. This is Miss Seraphim Phelps, and her… er… butleress, Thienete Almundus. And we’ve just found evidence that a drug ring has been using Miss Phelps’s cellar for illegal purposes.”
“You don’t say, sir? That’s mighty interesting, isn’t it? Miss Phelps’s place? Here, I thought it was the McLean mansion,” Det. Harrison drawled, allowing Peter’s error, possibly unintentional, in calling him ‘officer’ instead of ‘detective’ go unremarked upon.
“I am Seraphim McLean Phelps,” the woman in question said, thinking it was time to speak for herself, “my great uncle John McLean’s heir, and I arrived to take possession of the estate yesterday.”
“I see, ma’am,” the policeman responded slowly and carefully, as though she might be either very drunk or a lunatic. “And you’ve been spending the night in the cellar. I don’t suppose you have any idea what a still looks like? A distillery?” he clarified helpfully.
Thienete gave him a glance that should shrivel an ordinary person to a mere shade. It was most rude of him to be treating her mistress with such obvious impertinence. The effect was wasted on Detective Harrison, though. Perhaps he was, after all, an imbecile. “We were disturbed during the night by trespassers. Hence, Ms. Phelps deemed it prudent to examine the cellar this morning,” the butleress informed him coldly.
“And yes, I know full well when I’m looking at a still, and what’s in the basement,” Seraphim told the detective, keeping a tight rein on her temper, but accidentally using the northern term for cellar, “is no such thing.”
“Yes, ma’am, certainly. Trespassers. They left all their gear there for you to stumble over, though. Now that’s a curious thing for them to have done,” commented Joe Harrison, stroking his chin in ostensible puzzlement.
Seraphim couldn’t very well tell the whole truth on this point, so her retort was weak, and she knew it. She fervently hoped her face wouldn’t flush. “They weren’t expecting to run across us, and got frightened away.”
Det. Harrison broke out in a wide grin. “Well, we have that in common, ma’am. I wasn’t expecting to see you here, either. Why don’t we all go down to the cellar so that you can show me exactly what you discovered, and then you can accompany me back to the station to make an official statement? Just to clear things up, of course.”
“Do you honestly think we’re going to make a run for it, or something?” Peter demanded. “You can’t possibly miss their paraphernalia. Go on alone and collect your evidence. The sooner we get this over with, the better.”
“If you say so, sir.” There was a slight pause, as if the police officer were considering something. “That’s an awfully nice car parked out in front of the house. Swanky. Expensive. It yours, sir?”
“No, it’s mine.” Seraphim was beginning to lose patience with this man. “Are you implying that I obtained it with ill-gotten gains, detective?”
“Oh, no ma’am, Miz Phelps. Nothing like that. Surely a decent young lady like yourself wouldn’t be mixed up in any of this business. But maybe you ought to come into town with me and… elucidate… a few points, for the record.” Det. Joe Harrison was inwardly pleased. His sheriff had been pushing him to close the McLean case. Now, he had something substantial to investigate, beyond his gut instincts.
Seraphim could literally feel the icy anger flowing off of Thienete Almundus in a chilly breeze. Darting a glance at her butleress, she said in a low voice, “Let me handle this, Thienete. Please.” The demoness pressed her lips together, but nodded slightly. Wondering if she was, in fact, saving the police officer’s life, she continued more loudly, “Do you imagine I’m not the McLean heiress? Or do you think I’m both the rightful heir and a drug dealer?”
“Neither one, ma’am.” Harrison was either amazingly unperceptive, or immune to glacial freezes. “What I think is that you and your companions need to swear, under oath, to the truth of everything you’ve been telling me. There’s a lot of red tape involved in police matters, you understand.”
The man was stubborn, that was beyond doubt. Reflecting that it wouldn’t completely ruin her plans for the day to reschedule around official police procedure, and that she’d wanted to return to the city anyway, Seraphim was perfectly ready to concede… but first she yearned to shake that fatuous smile Det. Harrison was wearing, if only for a moment. “How,” Sera asked suddenly, “do I know that you’re actually an officer of the law, and not some dangerous psychopath trying to lure us into your vehicle? You seem unreasonably persistent… detective?”
“Furthermore,” interjected Thienete, unable to resist this opportunity, “you are armed, whereas we have no weapons.” Never mind that she herself was a formidable weapon; that wasn’t pertinent.
A crease furrowed Det. Joe Harrison’s brow for a fleeting instant; he appeared the tiniest bit taken aback by this assault on his honor and credibility, and that was enough to satisfy Seraphim. Thienete and Peter, however, might happily have expounded in this vein for hours if it hadn’t been for the somewhat tardy arrival of Mr. Powell, who took the situation in hand and personally verified everyone’s identity.
“Mr. Powell, what are you doing here?” Detective Harrison involuntarily reached for his gun, but then he recognised the voice. He looked over his shoulder, eyebrows raised in confusion. “Thank Heaven you are safe, what took you so long...” the lawyer hopscotched on the damaged floor, “Oh why Detective Harrison? I was not expecting you. The investigation is over, isn’t it? At least according to Sheriff Morgan. Shouldn’t you be expecting us...I mean Miss Phelps and me, in the police station?” “I believe we have already met.” Seraphim smiled wryly. “This woman...I mean...she IS Miss Phelps?” “Why Detective Harrison, of course yes, Miss McLean Phelps, heiress to the McLean mansion!” confirmed the lawyer.
“And what about this small ‘lab’, do you know anything about that?” Detective Harrison shone a flashlight towards the old worktable. Mr. Powell hopped over, poking his head down the cellar entrance, but it was too far for him to see. Hesitating, the lawyer padded a handkerchief in his hand and leaned on the door frame, so he could get a better view. “By heaven, what?” He exclaimed. “I have never seen such a thing...It must be them! Those trespassers last night! It must be theirs!” “O...k...., ”The detective ran his fingers through his sandy crew cut, and scratched the back of his head. “So...ma’am, you’ve changed your mind about filing a police report?”
“Indeed I have not, and I was always going to, if it wasn't for you, detective Harrison, suspecting I was a drug dealer." With that said, Seraphim, wearing a triumphant smile on her face, walked past the detective. Following her was Mr. Stevenson; he mumbled in great dissatisfaction and shook his head. And last but not least, the butleress, who bowed slightly for courtesy sake, and gave the detective a glare that would devour a living soul.
After that came the tedious drive into Ellijay to give their official statements. Well, it was tedious for Peter Stevenson, at least, since Detective Harrison, although willing to allow Thienete Almundus to ride with the lawyer in the luxury car, insisted upon Seraphim and Peter accompanying him in his vehicle. And, of course, being a lady, Seraphim was offered the front passenger seat, while Peter was left kicking his heels, metaphorically, in the back. What made it worse was that, after their initial friction, Seraphim Phelps seemed to have lost the majority of her hostility toward the policeman, and was quite pleasantly discussing with him her fonder memories of the McLean mansion from when she was a girl. It was all shallow chitchat, but nevertheless, it was a conversation in which Peter could take no part, and he felt that Sera really should be making some effort to include him, her boyfriend.
Ellijay wasn’t much of a town, to Peter’s way of thinking, but as an antiques appraiser, he’d been to smaller, so he was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt and hope that the party’s necessities could, in fact, be obtained here. There was just the small matter of explaining the situation, once more for the record, and then he and Seraphim could go about their business. The sheriff, a much more reasonable man by the name of Lyle Morgan, took down the butleress’s information first; being Thienete, this required a scant few minutes, as she was succinct and to the point. Next, it was Peter Stevenson’s turn. He thought that the detective, whom the sheriff allowed to conduct the questioning, emphasized the trespassers’ hasty retreat rather excessively, but soon he was done as well.
Waiting for the police to finish with Seraphim, however, lasted far too long. What were they doing in there? Asking her to recite every detail of each visit she’d ever paid to Georgia? Peter wouldn’t put it past them. Neither law officer seemed overwhelmingly intelligent. It was a full hour before his girlfriend reappeared from the sheriff’s inner office. Thienete Almundus, of course, was supremely unruffled, and didn’t even spend the interim frequently examining her pocket watch. Indeed, it was as though she wasn’t bothered in any way by the wasted morning. Upon her mistress’s return, however, the timepiece was duly consulted.
“Sera what took you so long? ” Mr. Stevenson bounced up immediately once his girlfriend had been released from the Sheriff’s office. “What were you talking about anyway? Which school did you go to? What is your favourite food?” “Now, now Peter, we are adults. Sheriff Morgan is very responsible man; he was just doing his job!” Seraphim frowned and shook her head. “Oh yes, of course...” and a loud a groan of his stomach announced the end of the argument. “Well-said Mr. Peterson, it is indeed time for lunch.” concluded the butleress.
Food is essential for human beings, even for a small town with a population of 1300. Soon they were seated in best restaurant of Ellijay, by the name of Cornerstone, identified by the keen observation of Thienete, and confirmed by the local detective Joe Harrison. Seraphim felt the necessity in inviting the detective for a causal lunch. Of course Mr. Stevenson was highly critical of the proposal, but Seraphim reasoned with him that Ellijay is a small town with a tight and enclosed community, they did not know any locals yet, and the detective might be a good start. In addition to that, Detective Harrison was in charge of the 'McLean Case': they need information. Peter felt his inability to argue with the rationales, but still mumbled complains about Seraphim giving the detective too much attention.
Their seats were located on the second floor, with a balcony open to a lovely view of town. "Lady, and gentlemen, may I take your orders please?" Mr. Stevenson nearly fell off his chair when the butleress seemed to appear out of thin air behind him, "Sera, what did I tell you about...that?" Peter pointed to Thienete, "And where are the waiters?" "I will be your waiter and cook today. I have taken the liberty of scanning their menu, which is abundant but lacks a touch of elegance. However, their kitchen does offer a variety of quality raw material, and the owner Mr. Miller is happy to lend me the kitchen."
Seraphim was quite amused, but still had a little concern that they might leave an impression of being imposing. But she was aware of Thienete's capability and was more than ready for a warm meal. "I don't feel like something too heavy, if they have fish, I'd like to have some." Seraphim answered causally. "Ennn...I don't know, lamb maybe?" Mr. Powell was sceptical, so he just ordered something and didn't quite mean it. "I am starving, I could really use some steak." Mr. Stevenson demanded and whether they had it or not, he wanted his steak. "For me, ennn..." The detective, who usually just brought leftovers or sometimes skipped lunch if he was busy, ordered something he's used to "a sandwich will do."
"A butler...ess?" Detective glanced at Thienete; this must be something the city folks do. He had never heard of such position, but there was so much in the world he had never heard of, so the detective let it pass. "Yes, Thienete looks after my...our needs, and she has not yet failed her duty." Seraphim spoke for her butleress. And before the detective had any chance to comment more on this matter, their food had been served. A plate of white flaky fish was presented before Seraphim. It looked plain but once she bit into the fish, her mouth was filled with the aroma of chives, pepper and lemon. Next, roasted lamb chops with rosemary for Mr. Powell, then steak with rich red wine sauce and mushroom for Mr. Stevenson, and last but not least, a filling ham and cheese sandwich for the detective.
"Heavens the lamb tastes divine!" exclaimed the lawyer after he swallowed the first bite. Detective Harrison, however, was very doubtful about the quality of the food, considering the speed it was served. He bit into a quarter of the sandwich, and, “Man, that is the best ham and cheese on rye ever!” the detective wiped his mouth and continued, “What’s your secret, Ms. Almundus?” “Detective Harrison, that is an honour and you have my thanks.” The butleress offered him a half smile and declared humbly, “But as you say, that is my secret.”
“As her employer, I could ask Thienete to give you the recipe, detective,” Seraphim said archly, “in exchange for a few secrets of yours…” The butleress’s eyes widened a bit, and Peter Stevenson almost choked on his steak. Mr. Powell was perhaps the most surprised; he actually spluttered at his client’s forwardness.
Joe Harrison, however, didn’t miss a beat. “Oh really? What are you interested in knowing Miss McLean Phelps?” he countered, putting down the sandwich she was using as a bargaining chip.
All the playful coyness was instantly erased from Seraphim’s face. “The ‘McLean Case’, detective, my family’s case. I’m INTERESTED in knowing who murdered them. The hands that pulled the triggers, and the puppet masters behind the curtain, who are they?” I’m INTERESTED in knowing that.” Her eyes reflected a smoldering light that would not have been out of place in those of the demon butleress herself.
Mr. Powell coughed slightly, clearing his throat. “Surely that isn’t a fit topic for lunch time conversation, Miss Phelps, even if the detective were at liberty to discuss the case.” Peter backed up the lawyer’s protest with a quick frowning glance at his girlfriend, meant to curb her outrageousness.
“You said earlier at the estate that the Sheriff had closed the case, Mr. Powell. So there should be no legal objection to Det. Harrison disclosing any details of the investigation that he sees fit,” Seraphim replied crisply, yet with her exterior calm still unruffled. “And I fail to understand why he should be reluctant to tell me what I ask. Besides, I do not ask you to lay out the whole file in front of me, just… names, faces… that might ‘accidentally’ slip during conversation. You don’t honestly think I’ll go out there to hunt them down myself?”
“I’m sorry, but there’s another reason not to give you that information, ma’am,” the police officer answered, a flash of sympathy showing briefly in his eyes before it was replaced by his normal nonchalance. “I hate to be a disobliging guest, since you invited me to share your meal, but frankly, knowing those names wouldn’t do you a bit of good. It would be much better to do your grieving, and get on with your life.”
“No doubt it would, Det. Harrison, but tell me, do you have children?” Seraphim suddenly looked up from her plate, and stared into the eyes of Joe Harrison.
“No, ma’am...” the detective answered, baffled. He had an ominous feeling in the pit of his stomach.
““The McLean children, my nephews and nieces...as I learned from...” Seraphim couldn’t very well claim, in the middle of a public lunch, that her source was her dead Uncle Johnny, not if she wanted to continue being taken seriously as a moderately sane woman, “er… reliable sources, suffered extreme trauma before their deaths, and I’m INTERESTED in knowing why. “I’m told, on good authority, that while the killers focused on finishing off the adults, some of the children had enough time to run, and hence their bodies were found locked in bathrooms or hidden in closets.” Sera’s eyes were flint and her voice was husky. “They knew, Joe Harrison, they knew what was happening. And I just won’t be able to put this behind me until I know that the men guilty of this atrocity can never do such a thing to another family again. When I’m assured of that, perhaps then I can mourn.”
Peter and Mr. Powell both exclaimed at this forthright speech, simultaneously requesting Seraphim to calm down and stop embarrassing herself and others. It was all very tragic, of course, but it might damage some people’s appetites to hear about it at that particular time in overly graphic terms. Thienete Almundus gave Mr. Powell, who had made the latter rebuke, a glance that caused his mouth to go dry, so that by the end of his sentence, the words were something of a whispered croak. “Miss, do not upset yourself. I shall procure some tea with orange zest and ginger; it’s quite soothing,” proclaimed the butleress, her marked concern for her employer rather than reproach for her, a lesson to less polite members of the party.
As unpleasant as it was, that should be the endnote of the conversation. And Detective Harrison was very glad that he could escape without being rude, because one of the police assistants hustled into the restaurant and delivered the message that the detective was needed in the station. “You must excuse me, ma’am,” said the police officer, rising from his chair and taking the remains of his sandwich with him, “you just drink your tea and don’t upset yourself over things like that. The best thing for you to do is trust in the capable hands of the police. And, to get an early start on that, I’ll be leaving you now. Thank you for a delicious lunch, Miss McLean Phelps, and once again, my apologies for any prior confusion about your identity.”
“I’m afraid I must be going as well,” echoed Mr. Powell, eager to put some distance between himself and his disconcerting client, not to mention that… butleress… who he was not afraid of, certainly not. Swiftly he produced a clean Tupperware storage box from his briefcase, which he habitually carried in case of mealtime emergencies, and tucked the last of his own lunch into it. “Mr. Stevenson, Miss Phelps, it has been… so interesting… meeting you both. Please contact me at my office regarding any further legal matters which might require my attention. For the moment, then, farewell.”
Thienete returned just then with the tea, and was privileged to witness Edwin Powell startle like a rabbit, and then scurry away towards the stairs as if they were his personal burrow. Peter Stevenson had recovered the grace to be abashed at having remonstrated with his girlfriend, at least in front of others, and was therefore very solicitous of her comfort, hovering near her chair and offering to add sugar to her tea if so desired. “No thank you, Peter. Please, sit down and continue eating. That’s what I plan to do, and I’d like the company. And thank you, Thienete; the tea is perfect!”
Silently Joe Harrison sighed. Poor kids. And the gunmen would probably get off with a light sentence due to a lack of anything but circumstantial evidence. The fire had destroyed any bloody fingerprints or DNA the intruders might have left behind. Needless to say, there were no surviving witnesses. So the District Attorney would most likely accept a plea bargain, allowing the culprits to plead guilty to lesser charges and thus avoid being prosecuted for murder.
Detective Harrison was not alone in his melancholy, although Peter Stevenson was upset for quite a different reason. Seraphim was proving herself to be less and less like the biddable and cultured young lady he’d known in Washington D.C. Not only did she ignore his little hints regarding the boundaries of appropriate behavior, but ever since she’d met Det. Harrison, Sera had lavished entirely too much time on the man. What was he, anyway? Local police in an isolated rural town… and that could never hope to compete with his own prestige, civilized society, and… not to brag… but modest wealth. At the reminder that his girlfriend was now an heiress, Peter’s forehead crinkled slightly. Doubtlessly, a well-to-do wife would be a comfortable asset, to say the least, but apparently becoming heiress to a substantial fortune was encouraging bad habits in his charming girlfriend. Furthermore, that butleress had to go as soon as possible; somehow she was mixed up in all this. The antiques dealer was convinced of it.
In fact, the sooner they all went, left this backwards, backwoods location, the more pleased Peter would be. Seraphim had actually stood and studied the comparative merits of rival brands of oil lamps for almost five minutes. And when he’d asked her simply to buy one and be done with it, Sera had told him, “Careful, Peter, don’t lose your cool.” Now the two of them were driving back to the stone outer shell of the McLean mansion with various supplies to make camping out bearable. Not in the posh Cadillac sedan of the day before, since Thienete Almundus was in charge of that, but in a recent, if not new model, Ford pickup truck which Seraphim had purchased, apparently on a whim and the recommendation of an acquaintance of an acquaintance. Although, to be fair, the truck took the mountain roads beautifully; he’d had no idea that his girlfriend could manage a manual transmission, but it happened that Seraphim had learned to stick shift as a teenager on the McLean lanes and trails.
“For the last time, Sera,” Peter cajoled, as the two vehicle procession had almost arrived at its destination, “I know that you have to reclaim the golden fiddle, but why can’t we return to the village tonight to sleep in comfort. In proper beds… isn’t that the least bit tempting, darling?”
“It’s tempting, Peter,” Seraphim replied, “but I mean to stay here until matters are settled to my satisfaction, or until the builders and renovators that hopefully should show up, now that I’ve put the word out that we’re hiring, tell me that I’m a dangerous nuisance and they absolutely cannot work around me.” The McLean heiress fixed Mr. Stevenson with an intense blue gaze. “This is my business, now. Uncle Johnny may have left me with a mess, but he left this mess to me, and I fully intend to clean it up now that it’s fallen into my hands. Can you understand that?”
“I still fail to see why you must do everything yourself. You have a butleress. Delegate. And then forget about it until it must be dealt with, if that day ever comes,” Peter Stevenson stated his side of their argument. “Honestly, that was the one thing that I agreed with that blasted policeman about: it would be better for you to get on with your life, Sera.”
“I AM getting on with my life, Peter,” the heiress declared almost solemnly. “And that, for now, is to get to the bottom of the case, and to rebuild the McLean family home.” With that said, they passed the rusty gate and pulled in, directly in front of the sad stone mansion. Days were short in the mountains, especially when the majority of it was spent on a police statement, a lunch time argument, and of course, shopping for supplies. However today, the sun had mercy on the McLean residents, for upon their return, the golden globe was sinking towards the west. But it should still take a few hours.
Seraphim, now the lady of the house, deemed their priority should be a quick premises inspection. But Peter argued that they had only three of them, it was simply not possible to cover the entire property. Sera was, after all, a rational being, and she agreed. So they focused on the generator. Despite the butleress’s effort, nothing happened. Thienete Almundus was indeed a woman of many talents, but she cannot work a miracle. They needed more professional help, or perhaps this generator was beyond help at all.
Nevertheless, luck was on their side. Before nightfall, the trio, mainly the butleress, were able to clean up two bedrooms. Peter, out of concern about last night’s intruders, of course, suggested that they should stay together. But Seraphim had confidence in her butleress, who will watch the night for them. Thienete in turn handed her mistress back the violin case for safe-keeping. She’d managed to hide the fiddle in the mansion during their absence, and no one would find it if she didn’t want them to. With the tasks of the day settled, goddess Nyx began her reign, and darkness tucked everyone in.
“Well,” began the elderly ghost once he and Seraphim were alone in the larger of the two bedrooms, freshly scrubbed, although sparsely furnished due to the blaze. “It took you long enough to come back for me, girl. If I wasn’t blood kin to you, and therefore able to sense your life force, I might’ve thought you were dead.”
Seraphim felt oddly contrite. The old gentleman had a softer heart than he liked to let on. “I’m sorry, uncle,” she said, picking up the gold fiddle out of its case and examining it for the millionth time. “I didn’t mean to worry you. We were unavoidably detained in town. But,” she hastened to assure him, “your vessel was safely hidden and protected by Thienete’s… skills.”
“I dare say…” Uncle Johnny scowled, “but… Look here, girl, a black butler or butleress is still a demon, and they can’t be entirely trusted. Oh they’ll hold to the letter of the agreement, because they have no choice, it must be honored EXACTLY, but they’ll find ways to trick and trap you nonetheless, so just you be careful!”
All her instincts wanted to protest that Thienete Almundus wasn’t like an ordinary, average demon, and that she could maybe even be trusted without binding her with specific orders, yet her brain told the young heiress that, logically, Uncle Johnny could be right. After all, he did have more experience with the high ranking aristocrats of Hell. “Maybe… maybe you’re right, uncle,” Seraphim acknowledged in a low voice, “but she’s working for us now, when she could merely have taken the fiddle with her and vanished into the netherworld.”
Uncle Johnny surely had a retort to this, but he never got to make it, since just then the demoness herself walked in. “You should get some rest, madam. It was a strenuous day, and there is much planned for tomorrow. Would you like some warm milk to help you sleep?”
“No thank you, Thienete, I’m fine,” Seraphim informed her butleress. “I do have one request, however. If, during the night, you should run across… trespassers… again, come and wake me, please. I realize you are perfectly capable of handling a few mortals, no matter what weapons they might have, but my uncle would like the opportunity to verify whether or not any criminals you may catch are the ones responsible for his death. And for that, we need them intact… more or less.” Seraphim’s smile was a little on the vicious side.
“Of course, Miss McLean Phelps. I understand,” responded Thienete with a brisk nod, the perfect servant as always. “With respect, do you wish for Mr. Stevenson to be apprised of the situation also, should it arise?”
There was a whisper of wind that might have been a ghost whispering, ‘Damn yankee,’ or might not. Regardless, Seraphim barely considered before answering, “No, I don’t believe that will be necessary. Morning is soon enough for him to find out, assuming that something untoward does happen.”
“Very well, madam,” acknowledged the butleress, and opened the door to take her leave. In odd synchrony, Thienete and Seraphim both said, “Have a good night,” at the exact same instant. Each woman smiled very slightly at that, resembling each other even more, despite superficially looking nothing alike.
"Karl, Karl, please, you have to listen to me..." "Lucas Grain, I have heard enough. The heiress was back, you saw them and got spooked, end of story." The tall blond man called Karl impatiently hurled Luke back to the tail of his team of six. "No, no please Mr. Roxenberg, the spirits, the McLeans, they came back, we saw them..." Eagle's plea ended up in a choked wheezing, and then big gasps of air when the gloved hand finally let go of his neck. "Timothy O'Bryan, your men need more discipline," rebuked Karl Roxenberg, seemingly the highest in rank among them, in a flat indifferent voice. "Yes sir, Mr. Roxenberg, of course." Timothy, or Timmy pulled low his cap and bowed respectfully. Of course he knew what they saw, but he also knew when to talk and what to talk, and that was what distinguished him from the other two.
This little gang of six, all dressed in black, forming a line, tread stealthily in the dark. They kept to the shadows, in the tree line. They took the backwoods approach to the cellar entrance, three flashlights kept dim and low. The McLean mansion was no longer unoccupied as they had anticipated, so everything must go, every trace must be erased. Karl squeezed his brows; who knew the McLeans had a great-niece, an heiress, who in fact had the courage to claim the mansion after the horrific occurrence? Typical McLean. The night was soundless, no birds tweeting, no insects chirping, no leaves rustling. The only audible movements were branches occasionally snapping underneath their feet. The moon was crowned by a hazy halo, the shadows were thick and heavy. The stone outer shell of the McLean mansion loomed in the dark like a crouching beast.
Karl Roxenberg was not without fear nor doubt, especially with a firsthand knowledge of what really happened in that damned mansion. But memory of that night was hazy and distant, Karl himself was not certain what exactly happened. All right enough, enough, they had work to do, and he must show his men, and himself, there is nothing to be afraid of. The little criminal group approached the stone entrance of the cellar quickly, but suddenly Karl stopped, he raised a fist and his men all halted at the sign. Eagle, who was at the end of their column, stuck his head out then shook uncontrollably.
The cellar had heavy wooden twin doors; one of them was left ajar, and yellow light seeped through the crack. Someone, or something, was inside! Karl hauled Eagle out of the team and shoved him forward, eye-signaled him to take a look. Eagle clenched his hands together, begging silently. Karl did not have the time nor the patience, he booted the dark-skinned boy on his bottom. The boy lost balance, he nearly fell, and had to cling onto the edge of the door. The solid ground felt like cloud under his feet, Eagle kicked and stumped, forcing strength back into the legs. He peeked through the crack. A lantern, being placed on the 'lab' table, was the source of the yellow light. Eagle scanned the area quickly and looked beyond the table. Something was caught in the corner of his eye. The boy slowly brought his head over; it was a solid black monstrosity, crouching on the wall in an attacking stance.
Eagle's heart skipped a beat, then his sight fell on the table. That monstrous thing was just a shadow illusion, a result of the odd shapes of the flasks and tubing. But soon something else caught his attention. It was sound, soft strokes against the stone floor. The boy followed the dim yellow light. Down the stair deeper in the cellar, a lanky man, dressed in suit, stood straight like a stick, and was sweeping the floor with a broom. Eagle rubbed his eyes, another illusion? Yes it was, the figure was gone. Before a sigh of relief could slip between his lips, the boy found himself staring into a red eye peeping through the crevice. A scream was at the tip of Eagle's tongue, but what came out was a guttural sound. He dropped on the ground; behind him, the remaining five pointed their guns at the door at a voiceless command. The door swung outwards and cracked open…
"Gentlemen, I was not expecting some eventide visitors; you must forgive me for such an inappropriate welcome." What stepped out of that opening was not a demon, nor a monster, but a man...a woman in a men's suit to be specific, because her voice was unmistakable feminine. "Who the hell are you? What the hell are you doing down there?" Karl exhaled a breath of relief but did not lower his gun. "I am Thienete Almundus, bulteress to the heiress of the McLean mansion, at your service gentlemen. As you can see, the mansion suffered great damage from the fire, hence it needs cleaning." "Cleaning? In the middle of the night? Very odd don't you think?" Karl raised one eyebrow. "You may say so, but a lot work need to be done. And talking about odd, gentlemen, I do have some very odd discoveries in the cellar; you wouldn't happen to know something, would you?"
"Sh*t!" Karl cursed. "What are you talking about?” "Odd devices, gentlemen, alcohol lamps, beakers and alembics, very inappropriate for a cellar. Are they yours?" the butleress asked, while her eyes jumped from man to man. "Advice from a wise man, madam: you keep to your business and we keep to ours." To be honest, Karl did not quite mean what he said. Whoever this woman was, she had seen too much for her own good. All trace must be erased. "I will take that as a yes," deduced Thienete Almundus. "So madam, what are you going to do?" "In that case, you will surrender your weapons, you will be detained in the cellar, and my employer will deal with you as she deems fitting," the butleress proclaimed calmly.
"You'll make us? You, with that broomstick?" The head of the dealers cackled into a laugh, and the two men he brought with him echoed. The situation was clear, they were caught off guard by this…supposedly female butler, a servant that heiress took with her perhaps. She was down-right crazy, a crippled brain, cleaning up the cellar in the middle of the night; they outnumbered her, so she bragged, buying herself more time. "No, the broom is not necessary.” "Alright, Ms. Butleress, we appreciate the humour, but I don't have all night. It’s a pity, but nothing personal, wrong place and wrong time. Eagle!” Karl shoved a pistol with a silencer into the boy's hand. "Take care of the lady, and watch out for intruders." With that said, Karl plucked the lantern and broomstick from the butleress, not even bothering to bind her hands, and thrust the woman towards Eagle. That done, Karl led the team down into the cellar.
Now it was only two of them, Eagle and Thienete. The boy jolted the gun and pushed the butleress towards the trees, the woman was surprisingly cooperative. They walked a few steps and Thienete stopped by the tree line, she turned around and darted a blank gaze at her captor. Eagle was made very uncomfortable by her gaze, she was not even glaring, just staring. And that stare crawled like bugs underneath his skin. The boy's face turned red, his lips quivering, eyebrows twisting, hands shaking. He raised the pistol. That stare, those goddamned eyes, if he pulled the trigger, it would be over. ‘Do it, do it,’ disembodied voices whispered at his ears; the boy's finger hooked tighter and tighter on the trigger, but then he let go both of his hands and the pistol hit the grasses with a thud.
"Miss, I don't want to hurt you! Please, go, just leave this place, and please, don't tell anyone about us, please!” "Master Eagle, you just saved your life. Go into the woods and follow the creek bank, it will take you down off the mountain." The butleress extended her right arm forest-ward. Her entire body looked like a haunted road sign. "Go!" Eagle was overwhelmed by the unquestionable authority in her voice; what she said came crushing into his body like waves, washing away every thought but one, Run! The dark-skinned boy first trotted, then raced like the devil was on his tail and disappeared into the shadowy woods. The butleress picked up the pistol Eagle dropped, she removed the silencer, fired three bullets into the air, then dropped it back on the grasses.
Seraphim woke up in a jolt. That was gunfire, no mistake. The younger McLean rubbed her face, time for hesitation was short. Seraphim put on her dressing gown, and after a moment of thought, her overcoat as well. A frenzied banging nearly knocked the door out of its frame. "Sera, Sera, did you hear that?" Her boyfriend Peter was yelling outside the door. Seraphim unlatched the bolt, and Peter literally plunged into her bedroom, "Sera, did you hear that?" "Yes," Seraphim answered. She was hoping for a more subtle approach by her butleress, but Thienete must have done what the situation called for. And whatever was happening down the cellar, it might be too much for her boyfriend. "It's all right Peter," Seraphim pacified her late night visitor; she could try to talk him into staying behind, but she doubted it would work. Or, she could simply put him back to sleep. At least for a last resort, she could use the golden fiddle...
A gust of cold air gushed through her body, and all of a sudden Peter slouched down from his frenzies like a balloon being flattened out, his head hung so low that his chin touched his chest. After a few twitchings and turnings of his limbs, "Girl," Peter spoke in an old man's voice, and when he looked up, his dark eyes were gone, taken by a ghostly blue.
"Un...Uncle John?" That was an exclamation with equal portion of surprise and relief. "That's your butleress's cue I believe." Seraphim nodded, "but Uncle why?" "Girl, it's been a while since I took a body for a spin, let the old man have his fun. Besides, whoever was vandalizing my cellar, I need to see ‘em. Your butleress is probably having a feast down there. You save having some explaining to do to your darling Peter, and I get corporeal armour. And Seraphim...do not ever, ever turn to the power of the fiddle!" "Uncle, what are you talking about?" "Girl, don't deny it, you know exactly what I'm talking about." Yes of course, Seraphim could only run, and pray it was not too late.
“What the hell?” Karl at that moment was directing his men, the ginger-haired twins Roc and Roy, transferring their valuable goods into a backpack, while Timmy and Luke shoving the makeshift ‘lab’ into a wooden box. The gunshot gave all of them a fright. “F…ing Indian moron, useless! Now move, move! We don’t have all night!” Karl cursed and joined his men’s work. “That’s it! Go, go, go!” Too bad, too late. A great force blasted inward, smashing each of the twin doors into the rock walls. Dust and gravel rained down their heads. Five pair of eyes locked on the black-suited butleress on top of the stairs, left eye dark as shadow and right eye blazing like fire. It must be a trick of the dim lantern light, for a blink of eye, a pair of shadowy wings seemed to spread out of the woman's back and dissolve into the night.
“Gentlemen, we could have settled the matter by a more civilised approach, but you choose the hard way.” Cold air whirled around the butleress's feet and cascaded down the staircase. The lantern gave way. The cellar sank into a pitch blackness, and then a loud clang declared the sealing of their way out. In a situation like this, one would follow his instinct; for a gang of drug dealers, their instinct was to shoot. Gunfire blazed across the darkness. Karl screamed and cursed, ordering whoever it is to cease fire, before they were all killed by ricochets. Karl turned on his flashlight and two others followed his lead. The group of five spread out in the chaos of gunshots. The boss man scanned the area. Roy was with Roc, crouching under a table. Timmy and Luke took cover by each side of the staircase, holding their heads.
The cellar was quite spacious, with shelves and barrels arranged along the walls. There were a few blind spots behind the barrels or between shelves, but if that woman was down here, they'd see her. Then it caught his eyes: towards the middle of the cellar, on each side of the walls, there were openings, might be alcoves or other storage areas. There she is! Karl circled his torch clockwise signaling his men to gather around, and then shone the light towards each of the openings. He gestured, directing the twins to check on one side and Luke and Timmy on the other.
But then, the flashlights, which had been performing well the whole night, started to act up. No, no, no not at this time! Karl shook the flashlight violently, banging it against his hand. Movements zip-zapped across the border of the flicking light. Human eyes cannot pick up much in the darkness, but human ears can. Swift pattering on the stone, rustling of clothes, two thumps and a muffled thud. Click, the light came back to life. Karl shone it towards the source of the disturbance. Timmy and Luke were both dropped on the floor, motionless like two sacks.
“What the...” Karl felt hair standing up on the back of his head. With a forward roll he joined the twins underneath the table, back to back, lights facing out. What the devil just happened? How can someone move so fast? The trio swept their light frantically across the floor. Where is she? Then it hit Karl, mentally. What if she was not on the floor? Slowly Karl pointed his light upward. ln the middle of the ceiling, a humanoid shape was dangling upside-down, just like a bat...Karl screamed and rolled out away from the table; two thuds behind him, and the twins, Roc and Roy, were out.
He was the last man standing, Karl Roxenberg, leader of this gang of six. The flashlight won't do him much good, he simply turned it off. Darkness heightened his sense of hearing. Karl focused on his breath, in and out, in and out, and eventually reduced it to almost nothing. His ears began to pick up movements, rustling and cracking. Finally a very subtle thud. Karl hit the switch and a beam of light pierced the thick darkness, there was nothing…But he was counting on the element of suprise. The drug dealer whipped around and gotcha! The butleress, or whatever the hell she is, was caught in the middle of his beam of light. Light startled the woman and Karl emptied his clip into her chest, then he watched in dread that the bullet holes closed by themselves.
“What are you? What goddamned thing are you?” The butleress lunged at Karl like a black leopard, pushing him to the ground. Her knees squeezing the air out of the man's lungs, “You are right about the goddamned part. Wrong time and wrong place, Mr. Roxenberg, but this is personal.” The drug dealer's pupils, on which reflected the bulteress's descending claws, shrank in terror. "Thienete, NO! STOP!" Karl Roxenberg never believed in miracles, but at the brink of death the wretched man was saved.
Two figures ran down the staircase, a man and a woman. Karl could only see in blurry vision. He did not recognize either of them, but the man's face distorted when his eyes met with Karl's. “Him!” The man, despite being young-looking, exclaimed in an old-man's voice and Karl could swear he had heard that voice before! “Uncle, do you recognize him?” “Yes, he was there! He put a bullet in my granddaughter Nancy's chest!" The woman turned her gaze towards Karl, and her eyes were on fire. “My lady, an eye for an eye, a soul for a soul.” Thienete hissed, her lips bloomed into a wicked grin. Karl felt the tips of her claws on his neck, a cold and hard sensation against the soft skin. Deadly and sharp, ready to leave five bloody holes at the other woman's command.
Karl thought he must have had one foot in Hell, because he saw strange things. He saw a transparent white figure hovering over the young man's body; the woman seemed normal, but she was so bright, and the anger seeping from her form was even brighter, like white flames. “No Thienete.” The woman bit her lips, but repeated her order. “As you wish, my lady.” And what about her, the butleress? Karl stole a glance, and that almost cost his sanity. Karl couldn't get what exactly he saw; darkness and terror he remembered, and the last thing before his consciousness drifted away was a police siren, and someone shouting, “Police, don’t move!”