Autumn Chen cowered in the darkness of the coat closet. She had witnessed a scene right out of a bloody horror movie, but tried to believe that it was only a bad nightmare.
As usual, Autumn came early to catch a glimpse of Taylor Holloway. She stood in the shadows of the parlor doorway and watched Taylor play the piano, a Beethoven sonata, while an old man in a strange outfit looked on. Then the nightmare began. The old man came up behind Taylor and slit his throat with some kind of long needle that extended from the lace cuff of his shirt sleeve. As blood poured from Taylor’s open throat, the old man began to drink it as if it were only water. Autumn gagged and ran into the closet.
Now she prayed that Ellen would return and call the police. In the meantime, she would stay right here, a hidden witness to a gruesome murder. Shock still kept Autumn from feeling anything akin to grief and sorrow for Taylor Holloway. Only two days before, she had bought a new dress in order to catch his attention at Jen Brillstein’s party tomorrow night. But Taylor wouldn’t be at the party. He wouldn’t be anywhere from now on.
Then again, perhaps Autumn had been dreaming it all, but if so, she couldn’t make herself wake up no matter how hard she tried. She squeezed shut her eyes and counted to twenty, hoping beyond hope that she would find herself back in her bedroom, in her bed. But no, when she opened her eyes she saw nothing but the cloying darkness of the closet and smelled the sickening aroma of moth balls. Her body continued to shiver, her clothes wet with the sweat of fear.
She wanted desperately to call her mother on her cellphone, but Autumn had left her phone in her backpack, the pack and her violin case now resting on the foyer table. Oh, my God! If the old man spotted her things, he would know someone else had been in the house! Perhaps he was searching for her now, although Autumn heard nothing, hadn’t heard a thing since she came in here. Should she dare open the door a crack and peak out? Maybe she could make a run for it...
Suddenly, she heard Ellen’s voice, not raised in alarm but in a normal, steady tone as if speaking to one of her students. Autumn strained to hear the words but caught only snatches of conversation.
“Now what...we can do...put us in danger...” Was Ellen speaking to the old man, the killer, or to a police officer she had summoned when she discovered the grisly murder? But it didn’t matter. Ellen was here! That’s all the mattered!
Opening the door, Autumn ventured out and took a few steps into the hall. When she saw Ellen standing at the parlor doorway, she called out her teacher’s name, her voice sounding strained and pitiful. As Ellen turned and spotted her pupil, she immediately ran to Autumn and folded the girl in her embrace.
“Oh, darling!” Ellen exclaimed. “How long have you been here?”
“Since...since...I saw...that old man...kill...” Autumn could say no more as shock overwhelmed her. She began to cry, her right cheek pressed against Ellen’s soft bosom. She knew she stained her teacher’s pretty sweater with her tears but she couldn’t help it.
“So you saw what happened,” Ellen finished for her. “Oh, my darling, how horrible! But the old man you saw is gone now, and the police will be here soon. Come, I’ll take you to the kitchen and give you a cup of nice hot tea.”
Still in Ellen’s embrace, Autumn walked with her to the kitchen where Ellen eased her down on a chair next to the kitchen table. But as she released Autumn from her arms, the girl clung to her in desperation. “Don’t leave me, Ellen!” she pleaded, her almond eyes ablaze with a new wave of terror. “He’ll get me, and you, too!”
“No, no, darling.” With a gentle hand, Ellen stroked the girl’s long and shiny blue-black hair. “It’s all right now. There’s no more danger. Let me get you that cup of tea to help calm you down. Just sit here and I’ll be right back.”
Reluctantly, Autumn allowed her teacher to go. Ellen went to retrieve a clean dish towel and offered it to her student. As Autumn cried softly into the towel, Ellen slipped out of the kitchen and quickly ran upstairs to the bathroom. She kept a small bottle of the opiate Narcanol in the medicine cabinet. Mixed with the tea, the drug would put Autumn to sleep for awhile. Ellen couldn’t allow her student to leave...not now, perhaps not ever. The girl had witnessed too much.
Earlier, when she returned home and saw what Charles had done to her student Taylor Holloway, Ellen tried to control her shock and fear. She found her lover sleeping heavily on the divan, his good suit of Georgian clothes covered in blood. And the boy, Taylor...she found his body—the thin white shell of a body—slumped on the floor, drained of almost all of his blood.
After she tended to Autumn, Ellen would have to clean up the detritus of Charles’ frenzied feast. With his rapid aging, his mind—the part of him that controlled rational thought and impulses—had deteriorated completely, leaving him nothing more than an animal that needed to survive on instinct alone, the instinct to feed on human blood. Ellen could never hate Charles or despise him, only pity him for what he had become. Perhaps she blamed herself a little for allowing it to happen. She knew that this day would come eventually, but back in Charles’ era, this day—this nebulous inevitability of time and space—had been too far away to contemplate, Charles’ eagerness to become like her too overwhelming to dissuade him otherwise.
Now Ellen would have to act fast. Charles was a dangerous time bomb, still cunning enough to circumvent her attempts at keeping him at bay. So she would have to step in and hurry things along, even if it meant that Charles had to be laid to rest by her own hands, a painful but necessary job. At the moment, she could keep him quiet, even drugged if she had to, and locked in the sanctuary temporarily while she tended to the chores awaiting her with an urgency born out of the carnage her lover had wrought.
But first things first....
After Ellen returned to the kitchen and fixed the hot tea with plenty of sugar to disguise any bitter taste of the opiate, she sat next to Autumn and coaxed the frightened child to sip the tea, all the while speaking in a low, soothing voice. At least Autumn had stopped crying. She seemed to comprehend her teacher’s encouraging words and take comfort in the woman’s calm, authoritative manner. Twice she asked to call her mother, and Ellen promised she would do it for her. But now Autumn must drink her tea...
In just a few minutes, the drug took affect. Autumn let out a little yawn and then closed her puffy red eyes. Soon her head slumped to her chest. Ellen picked up her comatose student and carried her down to the cellar where she placed Autumn along a cot used as a temporary resting place for their former victims who awaited cremation in the furnace. An old quilt covered the cot and now Ellen pulled it off and placed it over the sleeping girl. Just the thought of killing this pretty child made her choke back tears of sorrow and regret, but she had no other choice. Just as she had no other choice but to destroy the man she had loved and cherished these many, many years.
She paused for a moment to catch her breath, but for only a moment. Time was of the essence. Her next step would be to go upstairs and retrieve the wheelchair from the back closet, one of the items left behind by the former elderly home owner. After placing Charles in the chair, she would take them up in the elevator to the third floor. Once she had Charles secured in the sanctuary, Ellen would return to the parlor and carry the body of Taylor Holloway down to the cellar. Up and down, up and down. It would tire her out but it couldn’t be helped. She still had student backpacks to dispose of, and Autumn’s violin, a beautifully-made instrument of polished maple, such a waste but necessary. Ellen would think up a plan to cover the disappearance of both the Holloway boy and Autumn Chen. Had they been having a secret romance, one so steeped in secrets that it caused them to run away together? Teens ran away all the time for fewer reasons than an illicit love affair. That scenario certainly had possibilities. As she stoked the furnace, Ellen continued to work on the story. Taylor Holloway and Autumn Chen had run away together for whatever reason; a logical explanation would come to her soon. Then they simply disappeared whether on purpose or not, although she didn’t want to play up the possibility of foul play. By the time the police began to investigate, all traces of the teens would be long gone. Ellen hoped that would take care of the matter; although now she had two bodies to cremate instead of one, and two would be all she could manage tonight.
Yet, Charles’ cremation would have to wait.