The Guilded Cage
I searched the darkened corridor quickly, looking for anything that might be a clue to the mysterious owner. The only light here was from the cloud-filtered moonlight that seeped in through the six-foot-high window at the far end of the hall. The darkness made things difficult, but with the butler downstairs I didn’t want to arouse more suspicion than I had to. It’s not like I was here legally. At least the plush carpet that ran down the center of the hallway deadened the sound of my oxfords on the floor.
The walls were lined with portraits, stretching back at least two hundred years – family portraits, it seemed, some with a bride and a handful of kids, some with a single dour-faced man. My attention fell on a small table in the hallway, scattered with a few letters in a haphazard way out of sync with the rest of the manor. I quickly sifted through the letters, wishing there was enough light to scan the addresses, and then ran my hands over the table. I felt something under the rim of it, pressed, and heard an audible click from the east wall. I smiled to myself. Bingo. I slipped down the hall, running my hand down the wall, and found the panel that had shifted. A secret passage – or maybe an unseen room. I smiled. I might get some answers after all. I pressed my hands against the recessed panel, and after a moment’s experimentation, I slid it sideways into a hidden pocket to reveal the room beyond. I walked in and suppressed a whistle.
The room was as decadent as anything I had ever seen, even the french palace I had seen in the war. A crystal chandelier dangled from the ceiling – about half of its candles were lit, casting the room in a warm but flickering light. Three-quarters of the chamber’s floor was covered by a rich Parisian carpet woven with an intricate design of interlinking azure flowers. Small white marble statuettes adorned a small table with a jade top panel, and three highbacked chairs were arranged facing an enormous fireplace carved with scenes of Christ’s progress toward the cross. “Swanky,” I murmured despite myself.
“I’m glad you think so,” a hauntingly familiar voice said. My gaze swiveled like a shot toward the side of the room, where a tall, lanky figure loomed by an enormous window, pooled in a mingling of moon and candlelight. He was dressed as I had always seen him, in an impeccably cut long dark coat that fell to his knees over a silky black vest and matching slacks. A crisp white shirt peeked out from under the vest, and a pink rose was buttoned in place. His dark hair was smooth and gleaming on top, but the sides of his head had been shaved, and he looked at me with eyes the color of a pale winter sky.
“Mister De Lucca,” he continued, inclining his head. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Crane,” I said, gasping as I felt my guts turn to water and a primordial fear grasp my heart. My legs quaked, and I wanted to run away, far away and as fast as I could. Anything to escape this man – this creature. “You’re alive.”
“After a manner of speaking,” Samuel Crane replied, and a quirk of a smile tugged at the corner of his lips, the only expression in an otherwise lifeless face. “I am.”
“But I saw you disintegrate. There was nothing left.”
“You saw me go discorporeal,” he said, his voice carressing each s like a serpent’s hiss, long and sibilant. “Before the sun could destroy me. An old trick that has saved me before.” His smile grew, from an amused half-grin to a predator’s hungry leer. “I am harder to destroy than you reckon.”
I backed up towards the door, and only as my back crashed into solid wall did I realize the door had already closed behind me. My hand shot into my coat, pushing it back, grabbing the textured grip of my forty-five. I drew, yanking the gun up to point at Crane’s chest.
“There will be none of that,” he said calmly, meeting my eyes. “Lower your gun, Anthony, and put it on the table.” He patted the table next to him. “Right here.”
He patted the table next to him.
My mind screamed rebellion, but I couldn’t stop. I walked toward the table, without even dragging my feet, and gently set my weapon on the marble top of the mahogany table.
“There’s a lad,” he said, still holding my gaze, his voice smooth as silk and irresistible. “Now,” he continued, lifting a hand to cup my cheek. Even through his calfskin glove, his hand was as cold as the grave. “We will speak.”