Late afternoon shadows stretched long and thin as a shower of sunlight fell through the avenue of oak trees lining the length of the driveway. Over the years their branches had woven together to form an arched canopy, although sadly they were half naked of their coppery autumn leaves which collected about the procession of azalea bushes beneath them. Of which only a few bushes still retained a scattering of soft pink flowers.
Cassie wondered what a beautiful sight it would be in springtime to drive down this corridor of flowering shrubs under its roof of new green leaves. However, it was without doubt, the longest driveway she had ever seen. The gravel road stretched five hundred metres as straight as a die, until the last fifty meters where it bent to the left in an 'S' bend fashion, opening into a sizeable circular clearing with a large three tiered fountain in its centre. Skirting the clearing were more azaleas framing the flagstone path surrounding a stately house, or more precisely an enormous mansion, separating it from the lawns and the perfectly manicured gardens.
An old red sandstone building stood timeless with its backdrop of the Savernake Forest bordering the property on all sides. Ivy vines wove their way up the textured walls, finding footing in the mortar between each stone rising three floors, almost the full height of the front façade, only a foot or two short of the moss covered tiled roof. Four chimneys were visible from the front aspect on its steep pitched roof, one of which emitted soft plumes of smoke. Circular turrets dominated the corners of the house, rising level with the peak of the roof with battlements extended the length of the walls between each turret. It was stunning against its picturesque backdrop and the setting sun.
Alex whistled in admiration. "This guy must be loaded," he remarked.
"What a wonderful place to live," Cassie muttered, marvelling over its charm and beauty, unable to take her eyes off the house.
"This," the Professor announced, "is Havenswood Manor. It would be very hard not to be impressed by it, wouldn't you agree?" turning his head to face them and flashing them both a broad grin. His mood had taken a sudden turn for the better, his cheery manner becoming infectious enticing easy smiles from his companions.
"Yes, indeed, I think it would be hard to find its equal anywhere," she agreed, in awe of the enormity of the house, its grounds and the forest abutting it. It was completely secluded from the outside world. No traffic noise, no street lights, no annoying neighbours. It was perfect.
Lilith brought the car to a stop in front of the house, alongside a small path leading to the front doors.
As they approached, the lamps lining the path came on, highlighting the faded red glow from the setting sun giving off its last blush. Cassie stopped to watch as the sky changed colour in the dying moments of dusk. In truth though, she just wanted a minute to gather her thoughts. She didn't know if her trivial amount of information was really worth all the trouble of travelling out here, and the thought of being interrogated about Jarvis made her nauseous. She didn't want to remember how vulnerable he'd made her feel but remembering was inevitable. That was the whole point of coming here after all, to talk about Jarvis and his companions.
The front door opened and a stoutly woman with ruddy cheeks greeted them, wiping her hands on her apron before ushering them in.
"It's good to see you again Professor," she flirted, emphasising her sincerity with a wink, "and you too," she said, nodding curtly to Lilith, raising an embarrassed giggle from the Professor and a "Hmph" from Lilith.
"The master will be with you shortly," she announced to the Professor sweetly, guiding them through the entrance hall. "We don't get too many visitors here you know, it's a bit of a novelty." She called back to Alex excitedly, who was doing his best to camouflage his snickering, amused by her greetings and the responses they elicited. Her character was as large as her bust, bold and bubbly and not backward in coming forward.
"Mrs Philpot, I'd like you to meet Alex and, somewhere," looking behind him toward the front door, he searched the semi darkness outside for Cassie, "is his cousin who is here to see Mr Neumann."
"Very pleased to meet you." She said politely to Alex. "Please make yourselves comfortable in the study. I'll see to the young lady," cheerfully shuffling them through another doorway into a very spacious room. The length of one wall was lined with bookshelves from the floor to its lofty ceiling. Leather bound books filled every available space, some looked particularly old.
"And, don't go touching anything," she said, waving her finger at Lilith.
Alex got the distinct impression that if Mrs Philpot didn't like you, you'd soon know about it. Clearly she didn't think much of Lilith. But then again, she obviously had a thing for the Professor and Lilith was his attractive, younger assistant. He could understand she might be jealous. Neither the Professor nor Lilith seemed to take much notice of her manner so Alex thought it best to forget it as well.
Instead, he turned his attention to the oversized fireplace. The delicate engravings in the mantel extended almost three metres in length and stood nearly two metres from the floor. The fireplace was practically large enough to stand inside. It was supported in place on either side by two pairs of intricately carved columns to resemble tree trunks made from the same piece of black marble as the hearth, one pair at either end supporting the mantel and a larger pair framing the fireplace on either side. Between the pillars were beautifully carved forest scenes. Logs blazed in the grate and the fire's warmth filled the room. A spark shot from a log as the sap crackled in the heat. Alex ran his hands lightly over the intricate carvings. The stone was cool to the touch despite the heat from the fire below it.
The hardwood floor was stained a deep mahogany although the polish had now faded from time and wear. A Large Persian rug covered the floor in front of the hearth with an old green Chesterfield high backed wing chair, angled towards the fire. A matching two seater sofa was placed perpendicular on the other side of the fireplace soaking up the fires warmth. Alex couldn't resist the chair and sank deeply into it, shifting his weight in the well worn leather, softened over years of use. The seat was perfectly moulded to the shape for his rear and very comfortable. He clasped the arm rests lightly, fingering the rough texture of cracked leather along the edge, enjoying the nobility of the chair.
"Elijah, it's good to see you. Thank you for coming all the way out here." The man's voice came from behind Alex's chair.
"I'm just sorry it isn't under better circumstances," replied the Professor in a serious manner, taking the man's hand and shaking it vigorously. Alex couldn't see his face but the voice was familiar.
"You said you wanted me to talk to someone. He's here with you?" he asked.
Alex stood from the chair and turned to face the owner of the voice.
"You!" they both exclaimed simultaneously.
"You know each other?" the Professor queried, perplexed by their animosity toward one another.
"So, you have information for me?" he asked, a little disgruntled. His posture straightened expecting a verbal rebuttal at any moment. He didn't try to disguise his displeasure at seeing him, but then, neither did Alex.
"Actually, that would be me you need to talk to." Cassie stood in the doorway behind him, Mrs Philpot by her side.
Alaric turned to face her. His mouth gaped open and his heart skipped a beat at the sight of her. "Cassie!" he exclaimed. "I, well, um," was all he managed, stumbling over his words as he strained to regain his ability to speak coherently.
Cassie's cheeks flushed bright red although the heat she felt coursing through her wasn't confined to her face. She felt excited and nervous all at once. To be standing so near to him again was intoxicating.
"You know each other?" asked the Professor, even more bemused. Neither of them answered as they stood staring at one another, lost in silent communication in each others eyes.
"Are you going to speak or are you trying to catch something in that fly trap you call a mouth," quipped Alex, breaking the spell between them was broken.
"Has anyone ever told you how annoying you are? You prattle like a nagging fish wife." Alaric chided.
"Yes. In fact I believe you did only a few days ago, just before you hit me!" Alex barked back.
"Why are you here anyway, if it's Cassie who wants to talk to me," equally irritated with Alex as he was with himself for letting him get under his skin.
"I don't think anything will be achieved if we can't all sit down together rationally and get to the bottom of what's going on," Lilith interjected, diverting the discussion back to the matter at hand, before it deteriorated to childish petty squabbling.
The Professor stood to one side scratching his head, puzzled as to how the three of them should already be acquainted.
"Yes, you're absolutely right Lilith," agreed Alaric, finally composing himself.
"Cassie, I apologise for my terrible manners. I can't tell you how pleased I am to see you again," giving her a slight bow with the dip of his head, his voice was as smooth and sweet as honey. "Please, come in. Welcome to my home." His gaze never left her face.
Her knees weakened and began to shake, threatening to give way before she'd taken a single step. An overwhelming sea of emotions washed over her. The person she believed herself to be, confident and always in control, seemed to have deserted her, replaced by a nervous and needy stranger now occupying her body.
Whether he sensed her distress, or her desperate need to be closer to him was blatantly obvious, she could only guess. Alaric quickly stepped forward and offered her his arm, which she eagerly accepted, escorting her to the sofa and taking his place beside her. All eyes in the room were on her but all she could see was Alaric. The heat in his blue green eyes permeated every corner of her soul. For the first time in days she felt as though she could breathe again. The constriction in her chest which she hadn't been aware of until now, released. Her whole body seemed to sigh in response and visibly relax.
"This is your home?" she asked, looking around the room in admiration.
"Yes," he chuckled quietly. The iridescence in his eyes glittered when he laughed. "It's all mine. Do you approve?" petitioning for a favourable reply.
"Very much. I think you're very fortunate to have such a wonderful home." Of course Cassie was envisioning herself curled up in his arms in front of this same fire, his naked body entwined with hers.
Little did she know, Alaric was envisioning the same fantasy. Subconsciously they leaned a little closer toward one another, as though an invisible cord was pulling them together.
"Maybe later you'll allow me to show you around the rest of the house," eager that she be equally pleased with the rest of his home as she was with this one room.
Or was it her approval of him that he wanted.
No. Definitely not. Her approval of him was irrelevant.
"I think we should just get on with this meeting so we don't take up any more of your time than necessary." Alex protested indignantly through gritted teeth, still standing by the Chesterfield, his arms folded in front of him. His eyes squinted and his lips pursed tightly together giving a good impersonation of having bitten into a bitter lemon. He hated that Cassie was attracted to him.
"That's enough Alex." Cassie chastised, staring daggers at him until he turned away and mumbled profanities to himself. Preferring to be as far away as possible from Alaric, he moved to stand next to Lilith by the bookcase, which in his mind was a much better view. Long legs and a short skirt could always improve his mood. Lilith however, seemed not to notice his presence in the slightest, having adopted a closed posture and seething glare toward Cassie.
"Too many hot heads and jealous minds in this house tonight", the Professor mumbled to himself, sinking into the chair behind the desk and let out a long sigh. He felt tired to the bone but nonetheless, there was a job to do here and he'd listened to enough bickering.
Alex does have one thing right, he thought, it was time to get on with business.
"Alaric," he began. "Cassie came to me this morning with news about some people she saw last night, who I believe are most likely Anil Norgay's killers."
All eyes turned in unison to face the Professor. His white hair and stately presence behind the huge desk gave him the appearance of a presiding judge in court.
"Cassie, can you tell me what you saw?" Alaric asked, his knee coming to rest against hers as he turned to face her again. Her heart fluttered. She was finding it hard to focus on the topic of conversation, his presence was a constant distraction. Staring down at the floor, mindlessly examining the intricate pattern in the rug, she composed her thoughts and once again related her encounter with Jarvis and his two companions.
"Hmm. I don't like the sound of this." Careful not to let Cassie see the full extent of his concern, Alaric stood and began pacing back and forth in front of the fire, one hand on his hip, the other supported his chin, rubbing the dimple in its centre. Deep furrows etched into his forehead as he contemplated the implications of Cassie's news.
He stopped pacing and faced the group.
"I have no doubt that Jarvis and his companions murdered Anil. I'm also sure that by tomorrow the police will have someone else in custody, some poor fool they've framed for it," looking to the Professor and then to Alex.
"What I'm concerned about is that Jarvis knows Cassie saw them and he also knows he can't glamour her into forgetting about it. Besides that, he has a personal interest in her." His gaze rested back on Cassie. "They're hired assassins who can't afford to leave any loose ends."
"And I'm a loose end. Is that what you're saying?" Cassie asked, reluctantly voicing the statement that everyone was thinking. A pungent taste of bile tinged the back of her throat as her stomach twisted in knots again.
"It appears that way, yes."
"Then what do we do about it?" Alex asked.
"Well, we can't let him get to her, but, we also have another problem. Jarvis and his colleagues most likely have information that we need," he answered, troubled by the only tenable solution to their problem.
"You mean to lure him into a trap and use Cassie as bait." Alex aired in an acid tone, articulating Alaric's inference.
Cassie's shoulders slumped. The prospect of another confrontation with Jarvis was terrifying. Risky at best and at worst, well, she didn't want to think about that.
Alaric didn't answer. He didn't need to. He looked at Cassie, his face expressing a thousand words.
"No. I won't allow it. Fuck you!" growled Alex furiously. "It's too dangerous. You said it yourself, he's an assassin," emphasising the word slowly, as though he thought Alaric was too daft to get the point. "How do you propose to protect Cassie against an assassin? Not to mention his friends. I suppose you can take on all three at once can you?" His face contorting in anger, his chest puffed out and hands on his hips in the pose of a defiant rooster.
"Yes, I can take on all three at once and protect Cassie." Alaric protested calmly, resigned to the fact that he would need to expose his secret to gain their trust.
"Please enlighten us then, just how do you plan on doing this?" Alex stood his ground as Alaric approached and stood toe to toe with him.
"I can, because I'm a stronger and faster assassin than any of them." He answered, giving him a humourless half grin.
Alex watched in shock as Alaric's incisor teeth doubled their length and sharpened to a point.
"What the ….. Holy crap," he exclaimed jumping back a step in astonishment. "Are they real? You're a, a …"
"Vampire." Alaric finished the statement for him.
"That's impossible. Vampires don't exist. They're fairy tales told to frighten children and to give grown women wet dreams," although his eyes were fixated on Alaric's teeth, which were undeniably real.
"It is possible and they do exist. Are you afraid of me?" he asked devilishly. Enjoying that he'd caught Alex off guard.
"Well, that depends. Do you plan on killing me?" unperturbed by his challenge.
Alaric glared into Alex's eyes. The pregnant pause of silence sent a chill through the room, while the electricity between them sizzled and crackled with tension. "No. I haven't killed a living creature in centuries and I don't intend to start with you." he stated flatly, conceding he'd lost the upper hand.
"Then, no. I'm not afraid of you." To prove his point he stepped forward again, pressed his thumb onto the end of one of his fangs, twanging it like a guitar string, to test its authenticity.
Alaric huffed and stepped away. He wasn't sure if Alex's boldness was due to bravery or stupidity. Time would tell.
He looked up at Cassie who sat wide eyed staring at him. He took a couple of steps in her direction and then stopped, fearing his revelation would be too much for her to accept. She was the last person on earth he wanted to frighten.
To his surprise, she stood and approached him, taking his hand in both of hers and squeezed it in reassurance.
Cassie sensed his insecurity. She wasn't afraid of him. In fact, she felt even more attracted to him, if that was possible. All those vampire movies and books she'd read tantalized her imagination. He was her personal, living wet dream. Heat bored through to her core, throbbing and alive with need.
"You need bait. I'm bait. End of story," leaving them all in no doubt that the discussion was ended. Although, her heart pounded in her chest and her mind screamed at her to take back her words, she knew that unless she confronted Jarvis she would never be free of him. In her mind, he would always be waiting for her just around the next corner, stalking her endlessly. She would never feel safe. It was better to deal with him now and if she had to trust someone to protect her, she was glad it was Alaric. In her heart she knew he would never let anything happen to her, or at least she wanted to believe that. He'd already protected her once hadn't he?
He retracted his fangs and the tension in the room decreased a couple of notches. With a tentative smile, he squeezed her hand gently as thanks for her support and to reassure her that he wouldn't let her down, holding her hand a fraction longer than necessary. His eyes roiled with mixed emotions as he fought to keep them in check.
How long had it been since he last felt anything?
It was so long ago the memory was just an echo in his mind. He'd existed in a self imposed cacoon, numb, devoid of any human emotion, which was only natural, he thought. He wasn't human.
He'd been dead inside.
Until now! Now, he was overwhelmed with emotions that threatened to crack his stone heart and bring his world crashing down around him. Desire, hate, frustration and fear. He couldn't remember the last time he'd felt fear.
He was completely unprepared.
"I have a couple of questions," Cassie began. "I'd like to know what's going on. I want to know what we've become involved in?" reviewing in her mind everything she'd already learnt.
Her query jolted him out of his stupor.
The Professor, Lilith and Alaric looked at each other, their faces grim.
"That's fair," said Lilith. "If you're going to put your life on the line, you should know what the cause is you're aiding."
The Professor nodded in agreement.
"It may be more comfortable to have this conversation in the sitting room," Alaric stated. "This could be a lengthy discussion."