"Come in," called the Professor, as a second round of tapping on his door began.
"Ah, Miss McLennan, please come in. Have a seat." His chair squeaked as he shifted his weight in it to face her. His smile broadened, a little more laboriously than usual, yet still managed to reveal a good view of his perfect white teeth.
He gestured for her to pull the 'student's chair' over to his desk. Its metal legs were rusted, one of which was slightly bent making it a little wobbly. The red vinyl covering had faded and cracked and the padding had long since deteriorated, allowing the tip of a single nail to poke through. It wasn't his deliberate intention to make the student's visits to his office uncomfortable, just brief. Unfortunately students had a tendency to linger in his company far longer than necessary, unless they had an incentive to hurry along.
Cassie pushed the door open further, mirroring his smile. Professor Elijah Cohen was her aging kindly Professor whom she adored. She'd often thought if she'd had a grandfather, she hoped he would have been just like him. Although, he could be tough with the students, she had never known him to raise his voice or use a harsh tone with anyone. It was as if he was from one of those old movies where everyone was always perfectly amiable, not a mean bone in his body.
"Ah. I see your cousin is with you again today. You may as well come in too," he sighed, shaking his head slightly and waving him in.
"I swear, you two are practically joined at the hip. Don't you have your own classes to attend here somewhere or have you finally decided to join our Faculty and study Anthropology like your cousin here," pointing to Cassie and giving Alex his best serious look above the rim of his glasses, balancing dutifully at the end of his nose. His hands fidgeted in his lap.
Alex raised his hand to his mouth to cover his smirk and cleared his throat.
"I'm sorry to disappoint you sir, but I'm afraid the Physics Department can't manage without me," he replied cheerfully. "Actually, I'm only here to escort Cassie to her classes today. You know, make sure she doesn't run into any trouble." He pursed his lips together and stood a little straighter as Cassie shot him a sideways glance that he recognised to mean, 'shut-up or else'.
The Professor's left eyebrow rose with mild curiosity as he glanced at each of them in turn. His interest however, was fleeting and was lost in almost the same moment. His right knee began jiggling restlessly as he glanced at the clock on the wall behind them ticking over to 10:05am. He could only spare them ten minutes of his time. He had a very important meeting shortly and he was feeling rather troubled about it.
His agitation didn't slip Cassie's notice. Even Alex, whose powers of observation were normally restricted to the opposite sex, noticed something off about the Professor's manner this morning too.
"Ok. Yes, yes. Well, what can I do for you this morning Cassandra?" He asked, shifting his weight a little more in his chair.
"I wanted to ask you about the last assignment you set. I was hoping I could get an extension of an extra week, until next Monday. Unfortunately I've had to work quite a few hours recently and I haven't had the time to research the paper," offering her best face of innocence in the hope that he'd take pity on her and give her what she was asking.
"You do realise the deadline is today, don't you Ms McLennan. You should have come to see me last week and we could have discussed this then," not willing to give into her easily. He knew the students saw him as a soft-touch, which he was, but he wasn't in the mood today for niceties.
"I know. I'm very sorry. Time just got away from me. If you give me an extension, I promise I'll get it finished," pleading for his mercy. She chewed on her bottom lip nervously, waiting for his answer in the empty seconds that lapsed.
"It's unfair to give you extra time when all the other students will have completed their assignment in the allotted time. But, since you are one of my better students, normally," he pursed his lips, the small lines above his brow furrowing further in thought, "I'll give you one extra day. But, you must have it here on my desk first thing tomorrow morning," repeatedly tapping his finger on his desk to emphasise his seriousness.
"Yes. I promise. Tomorrow morning you'll have it, I promise." She vowed earnestly, knowing she would most likely need to pull an all nighter to do it. After her classes, she would need to utilize the library's resources until fairly late tonight if she had any chance of finishing the assignment.
Alaric's words only a few days before replayed in her mind, not to go out after dark. Oh well, there was no other choice. Not that she really thought there was any danger, but she liked the idea that her knight in shining armour was concerned about her.
She'd spent most of her weekend fantasizing about Alaric, wondering if she would see him again. He knew she was a student here at Oxford and had said that he had seen her around, so there would have to be a good chance of running into him here, sometime. Or, they had a mutual friend she could bribe for his number. She hoped.
She was still musing over her daydream when a sharp rapping at the door jolted her back to the present. The door opened and the Professor's assistant, Lilith entered without waiting for an answer.
The professor's posture stiffened and he stood abruptly, his sudden movement startling Cassie, making her jump from her seat too.
"I'm very sorry to interrupt your meeting, but I thought you might like to know that he's here," she advised. "He's down the hallway."
In contrast to Lilith's excitement, the Professor's agitation seemed to increase.
This of course caught the interest of both Cassie and Alex. Lilith now had their full attention as well, concurrently piquing their enquiring minds. The two cousins looked at each other with mutual curiosity.
"Thank you Lilith. Please show him in." He responded, again glancing at the clock which now read 10:12am.
Placing a hand on Cassie's shoulder he gently guided her towards the door. "I trust that I'll have your assignment here tomorrow?"
Alex had already retreated and stood staring down the hallway, his interest drawn to the approaching visitor.
"I won't let you down," she affirmed, endorsing her promise once again with the thumbs-up sign.
As Cassie stepped into the hallway, her eyes followed the direction of Alex's interest. Walking beside Lilith was a monk, Tibetan by his appearance. Although Professor Cohen was Professor of Anthropology, specialising in Religious Anthropology which encompassed many religions, the presence of a Tibetan monk was very peculiar.
As Lilith and the monk neared them, his eyes met Cassie's. A chill passed through her.
The monk carried a great burden and he was here to share its weight with the Professor. Her chest felt suddenly tight as though someone had gripped her lungs and squeezed the air out. His visit had grave implications. Cassie knew it in her bones.
The monk smiled warmly at the cousins as he entered the office, shaking the Professor's hand with enthusiasm.
"Anil, it's good to see you again old friend," the Professor affirmed, directing him into his office.
Lilith closed the door behind them.
Cassie and Alex both stood motionless. Cassie stood staring at the space where the monk had been only seconds before, while Alex had his eyes firmly fixed on Cassie.
"I wonder what that's all about?" although he was staring at her, it was an internal question spoken aloud.
"I don't know, but I do know that he's not here on any holiday." Her reply was barely louder than a whisper as she forced her lungs to draw in the air needed to answer him. Her body shuddered visibly, snapping her out of her flustered daze. Her ashen complexion and distant gaze gave Alex a feeling of déjà vu. A sensation of icy fingers stealing their way down his spine, sinking in the pit of his stomach left a residue of apprehension that settled over him like a dark cloud. Only once before had he seen Cassie look like this, thirteen years ago, the day her father died.
Cassie was nine years old when her father, Jonathan McLennan died tragically in a car accident, in circumstances very similar to Jonathan's own parent's death when he was only five. Following their death, Jonathan's godparents the Delgado's, adopted him and raised him with their own daughter Renata, two years his junior. In his early twenties Jonathan married Renata's childhood friend Anna. The three were very close and spent more time together than apart.
Renata had many relationships but none lasted longer than a few months. She was a strikingly beautiful woman with eyes the colour of velvety chocolate, framed by long black lashes and a shock of thick jet black hair, but despite her beauty and an abundance of admirers, she just never seemed to find Mr Right. When she became pregnant and the father was nowhere to be seen, Jonathan and Anna insisted she live with them. Fifteen months after the birth of her son, Alejandro Delgado, whom she named after her own father, Cassie was born. The two cousins grew up together like brother and sister.
For several years their amalgamated family lived together very happily, until the day Jonathan died. The events of that day were forever engraved into Alex's memory. Every intricate detail. The wintery morning sky was dark and cold with storm clouds threatening to break at any moment. The wind whistled through the eves of the house, rattling windows as tree branches scraped against the tin roof. The smell of freshly brewed coffee and bacon and eggs cooking filled the house.
Both he and Cassie hurriedly dressed in front of the fire, each trying to shove the other farther away to hog the heat for themself, Cassie gaining the upper hand when he got one foot twisted unsteadily in his trouser leg, toppling him onto the floor in a noisy heap, giggling all the while. It had become a daily ritual. Everything was a competition between them then, a game. Their mothers were busy organising breakfast and lunches for school and gossiping about the indignities of the local Minister's affair with Mrs Chatsworth next door, whose husband was frequently away.
Entering the lounge room, Jonathan laughed heartily as he watched Alex scrambling off the floor, yet again, and gave each of them a huge bear hug. Cassie stiffened and stared at her father, all colour drained from her face and she began to cry. Thinking he'd hugged her too tightly, he immediately began apologising.
"Don't go," was all she could say, over and over. Dismissing her fears he pried her arms from his waist and wiped her tears away, giving her one last hug before heading out into the dreary weather for work, leaving Cassie to stare dolefully at the door behind him, her bottom lip quivering.
The storm broke shortly after. It rained heavily for hours. School was cancelled as the deluge flooded a number of classrooms, flash flooding closed roads and the guttering of their house overflowed sending a backflow of rain water through the roof in the laundry, dripping into a precariously placed bucket on the edge of the trough.
Hours passed and the storm continued. Shortly after the power went out that afternoon, there came a knock at the door. Two police officers with grave faces came with news that Jonathan's car had been swept from the bridge when the flood surged through. He'd had no chance.
Alex had known then, that Cassie had some sort of premonition about his death. The question was, what was it about this monk that had her so spooked now. It fanned his curiosity to learn as much about him as he could.
Their voices could be heard faintly from the hallway. Alex leaned in closer, pressing his ear to the door, Cassie copying him only a second later, although the best they could make out were broken sentences and a few words here and there. They listened intently for any pertinent information.
They didn't learn a great deal but they did discover the monk's name was Anil Norgay, a Tibetan monk and personal advisor to the Dalai Lama. He was here to ask for the Professor's help to find a cup that had been stolen. The cup had been trusted to the Dalai Lama for safe keeping a very long time ago. They agreed that if the thief knew about the importance of the cup, they would be looking for the other artefact next.
Cassie was intrigued that the Dalai Lama's advisor would be sent here to Oxford to enlist the help of her Professor, an aging religious anthropologist, instead of getting Interpol or another crime agency involved in finding the stolen cup.
Alex on the other hand was still more interested in the monk himself.
As the voices moved closer towards the door, Cassie and Alex sprinted for the exit, reaching it just as the office door opened. Risking a look around the corner, Alex watched as Lilith led the monk away in the opposite direction, ogling the way her rear swaggered as she walked.
"Why do you think a monk of his importance would come here to see the Professor?" She mused. "And, what's so important about this cup they're talking about?" she asked, becoming more confused by questions that seemed to have no plausible answers.
"I know where to start looking for some answers. It's all about asking the right person the right questions," he answered, alluding to a few strings he could pull with a friend in Customs at the Heathrow airport.
It was nearly 10:30am, Alex's stomach began growling loud enough to attract the attention of a pompous looking young man pushing past them in the doorway. Most likely a first year student Alex thought. He'll soon get the pomp kicked out his ass, when he realises he's no better than anyone else at Oxford.
"I'm out of here," he announced. "I need coffee and food, in that order," rubbing his stomach to emphasise that its importance outweighed any other requirement at the moment. His attention was fading fast.
"I'm going to be here until fairly late tonight to get that paper finished. I'll see you tomorrow." She called after him as he moved to make a B-line for the coffee shop.
"Don't go home by yourself. When you're ready to leave, give me a call and I'll come and get you," he yelled back.
"Don't tell me you believe that Alaric was right, that the creep from the nightclub might be out there somewhere looking for me, do you?" she chided. His reply was a dismissive wave, confirming once again, that he had the attention span of a gold fish. Turning on her heels, she headed back inside the building for her next class, dismissing the idea of any danger as being absurd.
Three classes later, Cassie found herself in the library surrounded by volumes of books piled high around her, wishing that the information she needed could miraculously appear on the pages in front of her instead of reading endless chapters to glean a snippet of information from one book and then another and another to write her overdue paper. The internet was of some help but most of the information she needed was abstract and obscurely mentioned in the words of authors long dead and not readily accessible on the net. Worse luck.
Several hours passed as she sat at the desk, watching the sun sink slowly towards the horizon, causing her to squint from its glare as it filtered through the windows, until the blood red hue of twilight descended into darkness.
Just before the library closed she finished her paper with a sigh of relief. Her eyes were beginning to glaze and blur from the long hours focussed on the books. The university was practically deserted at this hour, except for the die hard researchers and one or two Professors and Lecturers catching up on paperwork.
As she left the building, a familiar figure appeared fifty metres or so ahead of her. It was the monk. Whether he had had further discussions about this mysterious cup with the Professor or been utilising the Faculty's facilities for his own research, she didn't know. But, seeing him there at this hour of the night piqued her curiosity again.
Cassie followed at a distance, careful not to draw attention to herself.
Fortunately her sneakers made little noise as she maintained a discrete distance in the shadows of the abundant foliage. He crossed the road and walked alongside one of the residential colleges, rounding the corner onto the cobbled courtyard, heading towards the gardens on the other side with Cassie hot on his tail.
The night was quiet. There was barely a breath of wind to stir the autumn leaves that collected beneath the maple trees. Cassie slowed to choose her footing more carefully, wary of the noisy mine field of dry leaves that would alert him to her presence. The monk also slowed his pace, nervously scanning the darkness from left to right and behind him as if he knew he was being followed. Cassie hid in the shadows behind a bushy rhododendron well away from the street light.
Muffled voices approached from the opposite end of the courtyard.
Goosebumps appeared on her arms as every hair on her body stood on end. She looked for the monk, now only a faint outline of him visible as he disappeared from her view in the darkness of the gardens further ahead. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea, she thought as an uncontrollable tremor wracked her body and intangible fear clawed at her senses, her composure began to fray. What the hell was she thinking anyway, stalking a stranger in the middle of the night.
Turning to leave, the first of three figures came into view freezing her in her tracks.
Holding her breath in the darkness Cassie tried to remain as motionless as possible.
The lithe figure of a woman stepped into the mellifluent light of the courtyard illuminating her tall, shapely body. Bleached blonde short wispy hair contrasted strikingly against her deeply bronzed skin. Her dark clothing clung tightly to muscular limbs, her movement as graceful as a panther and her expression just as predatory as she scanned the area around her.
Close behind her followed a male who looked to be no more than eighteen or nineteen with spiked blonde tipped hair. Metal studs and earrings glinted portentously from every part of his face worth piercing. What wasn't pierced on his body was inked with tattoos or covered in leather.
Cassie stiffened and inhaled a sharp breath when the third figure appeared. She could barely contain her instinct to run, run as fast as she could.
It was Jarvis.
Even in the dim light and the distance between them, he was unmistakable.
Her blood ran cold in her veins.
While the Amazon woman and the punk were focused on following the same path as the monk, Jarvis stopped, his attention diverting in another direction. Tilting his head slightly, his nose lifted to sniff the night air, his head turned to follow a familiar scent further to his left, stopping when he was directly facing Cassie's location. She was well hidden from sight but she could have sworn that somehow he knew she was there.
She wasn't going to wait around to find out for sure though.
She hitched her bag on her back more securely and bolted from the bush, running as fast as her legs would take her back to the road and the safety of the bus shelter near the library only a couple of hundred metres away. There was always someone at that bus stop, no matter what time of the day or night. She didn't stop to look behind her until she reached the shelter, seating herself beside an elderly lady mindlessly plucking at the lint on her jacket.
She exhaled a deep breath and searched the darkness for any sight of Jarvis, her eyes darting from left to right anxiously. Unable to sit still, she stood again and began pacing back and forth, geared up ready to run again if necessary.
The thought of fighting him off if he came for her never entered her mind. There was something about his eyes, a barely leashed sadistic perversion leading her to believe that to find herself close enough to fall into his grasp was a very big mistake. That left running.
The bus rounded the corner and approached her stop. She had only been there a minute or two but it seemed to Cassie to be an eternity.
As she made her way down the aisle, the bus jerked forward and she missed her footing, lurching her into a teenage boy with his Ipod headphones firmly attached to his ears, his head shaking to the beat of the music, giving him the appearance of someone with a Parkinson's tremor. She apologised profusely and took her seat, peering out through her reflexion in the window.
She swallowed hard as bile rose in her throat. Her heart raced, pounding so hard she could hear her own heartbeat. Her hands clutched the seat in front of her tightly, willing the bus to go faster. It was him. Standing at the bus stop, smiling a demented sneering smile, just watching her on the bus. She felt like his trapped prey with nowhere else to escape to.
"Oh God. Why didn't I ring Alex for a ride home? Oh God. Oh God." She mumbled to herself, rocking back and forth in her seat on the verge of losing it. "Get a grip of yourself, he's not following. He's gone." Her fear began to subside with every passing kilometre.
By the end of her ten minute bus ride home, she'd managed to rationalise her thoughts and fears as an over reaction. It would have been just a coincidence that Jarvis was there and besides he wouldn't have been looking for her anyway.
By the time she reached the front door of her apartment, she still felt jittery from the adrenaline rush but had calmed herself enough to return to thinking about why the monk was walking through the gardens at night.
Emptying her bag, she placed the Professor's paper on the coffee table, making a mental note to hand it in first thing in the morning, and dug deeper to the bottom of the bag for her phone. She'd had it on silent while she was in the library and sure enough, there were four messages from Alex.
He knew the library was closed and he'd head out looking for her if she didn't ring back soon.
She was exhausted. She felt mentally and emotionally drained. She put on her PJ's and brushed her teeth. She hadn't eaten since this morning but she was too tired to care right now.
She climbed into bed and dialled Alex's number.
One ring, two rings, and he picked up.
"Hi, sorry I didn't call you. Something came up," defending herself before he had a chance to say anything.
"I told you to call me. Where are you now?" She could hear the anger in his voice.
"I'm home. I caught the bus, I promise I won't ever do it again. Next time I'll call you," grovelling for forgiveness. He wouldn't stay mad at her, he never did.
"What happened? What is it you don't want to tell me," he quizzed. She never could hide anything from him. It was damned annoying.
She sank back into her pillows and began her story, giving him an account of the events after she left the library. Putting it plainly, he was madder than ever with her, vowing not to let her out his sight again. Under threat of coming over and sleeping on her couch, he made her take the phone to the front door to unlock and re-lock the deadlock so he could hear it, and knew she was definitely locked in and safe. When he was satisfied, she turned off all the lights and climbed back into bed, snuggling back under her doona.
"Well," with his mood defused slightly, he proceeded to tell her his news. "I called my buddy at Customs. It turns out that Anil Norgay is a Tibetan Priest with diplomatic immunity," getting to the point finally, after explaining some conversation or other about an impending pub crawl. To Cassie it sounded like gibberish wafting through one ear and straight out the other.
"I mentioned to him that there is a cup, some sort of chalice that was stolen from the Dalai Lama and he has promised to call me if anything that fits the description, comes through Customs," he finished, deflated that Cassie didn't get excited by his investigative skills. It just wasn't going to happen tonight. Exhaustion was claiming her consciousness as she fought to keep her eyes open.
"Thanks for the info, but I'll talk to you about it more tomorrow, I'm stuffed," she mumbled sleepily. "And yes, I promise I'll call you if anyone comes knocking on my door in the middle of the night," adding this last statement, knowing that was going to be his parting request to her anyway.
Happy that they'd dealt with everything important, she placed her phone on the bedside table and switched off the lamp, sleep quickly claiming her.