And then, just like that we were granted permission to exit school. As long as we needed, Carson said firmly, and we weren’t to return until we’d found a solution to our problem, whatever it was. I wasn’t sure Orcus had stuck to the story he’d planned to tell, or at least what he’d said he’d tell, but I wasn’t too far concerned. Orcus did have a talent for the dramatic, and as long as it got me what I wanted (which was time to solve the Sebastian problem so I could go back to hating Orcus in peace), I wasn’t in the least bit bothered at how he used it.
Raechel and Sebastian were both ready to go in a moment. Sebastian took a bit longer when Raechel had begun packing books into her satchel, grumbling about how really unnecessary it was to hound him about reading when he wasn’t going to do much of it anyway. Raechel had given him one of her rare, but really excellent verbal thrashings, and his attitude, though not much changed, had softened and he’d become quiet and surly, instead of surly and whiney.
In a matter of hours Carson had contacted Orcus’ family, and we’d been picked up, whisked to the airport, and boarded a private jet that shot us across the country to the state of Maine. I learned two things on that trip: Orcus had an extremely wealthy family, and their fascination with all places cold and remote was a very good reflection of their state as human beings.
It was Orcus’ aunt that met us on the tarmac, not his mother or father, a fact which didn’t leave me much miffed. My parents rarely met me or Ben if we flew anywhere, and we relied quite heavily on family relatives to greet us in foreign locations. His aunt did very discreetly inform me in the car that his mother had disappeared a few weeks after he was born, and his father, whose family was run strictly as a firm, had seen to it that Orcus had been grounded into the institution as soon as he’d shown his characteristic sign of extreme intelligence. It was about this time that I began to actually appreciate my family, as rotten as they were, and to feel very sorry for Orcus. Of course, that feeling was also obliterated when Raechel informed me that he’d scored higher than me on our last Chemistry exam; and I’d studied quite hard for that test.
His aunt, Eleanore Mastadon, was Orcus’ father’s sister, and I swear she was perhaps the greatest mother-figure born into this world. It was obvious she considered Orcus her son; it was equally obvious that he wasn’t sure what exactly he was meant to make of the affection he’d probably never gotten from anyone else. On the ride home, while Orcus was deep in conversation with his driver-cousin, Aunt Eleanore explained just how wealthy the Locke family truly was. They were of that class of society whose wealth made the Forbes 100 look destitute. How had they managed it, I asked. By encouraging the children’s cognitive processing and teaching them family finances in such a way that substantially more came in than went out. Orcus must have over-heard that last part, because he’d peered over his shoulder, giving his aunt a puzzled and wary expression. Like he didn’t know he was a pawn in another person’s chess game.
When we arrived at the house Raechel and I were the only two people miffed at the size alone. Orcus called it a house, as did Sebastian. Raechel and I agreed that this was nothing even remotely resembling a house. A very large house was probably a liberal half of a football field. Orcus’ house was a freaking palace. It made the White House, literally, look like McDonald’s. And this, Eleanore had said, was Orcus’ childhood home.
“Did you ever get lost?” Raechel asked him.
He shook his head. “This is the Firm’s territory,” he said grimly. “Getting lost is not an option.”
I paused a moment and looked back down the driveway. It was very long, and very winding, and completely unnecessary aside from the fact that it had been installed to give visitors a grand impression of the Lockes. The gate had granted us entry two miles ago, and there had been extensive grounds to occupy our vision as we made the five-minute drive to the ‘house’. Great oak trees had lined the road, all evenly spaced. It was difficult to believe Orcus had lived anywhere that was manicured, and the way he curled his lip at the scenery told the observer that he didn’t like it. As he’d said, though, it was the firm’s territory. If it ever became Orcus’s all the manicuring would undoubtedly go very much away.
The house itself was truly impressive. It was aged and weathered, but no less grand. It was a cross between gothic and colonial, fifteen steps to the double doors, and the great windows on either side shining and brilliant. There were more windows across the front of the house, all smaller than those next to the door, twenty-four in number. Each one was paned and clear as crystal.
“Nice place,” Raechel finally managed.
Orcus snorted. “That’s what you think.” And he led us up the white marble steps to the doors.
The inside was even grander than the outside, which shouldn’t have been possible, but there it was. There was a great double staircase, one reaching up and around to the left, the other to the right, meeting in the middle, and then ascending a further three steps to the landing. They were a dark, richly colored wood, and the staircase on the right was carpeted. It seemed a bit curious to me, but to each his own. Below the stairs a hallway stretched at least a hundred feet before us. Light poured in through doors that had been propped open, and the hall was lined on either side with tables supporting figurines and walls holding portraits. To our immediate right was what looked like a blue sitting room, and to our immediate left was a room with much the same layout, but instead of blue was decorated with green. In both rooms were two huge fireplaces, mantles very ornately carved, but while the blue room had a portrait, the green room had a mirror.
The portrait was what caught my eye, and I took a step closer. The subject was a very beautiful woman in modern dress. Her long hair cascaded down one shoulder, a very beautiful black, like Orcus’. Her eyes were grey, her face was shaped much as his – in fact it would take less time to describe the differences. The most striking and immediately recognizable feature was her manner: she was warm and engaged where Orcus was cold and aloof. I turned to him, the question on the tip of my tongue.
“My mother,” he said quickly, and it was more than clear that nothing more was to be said on the matter.
Our coats were hung in a closet very conveniently masked, as it had no handle. A simple application of pressure from the fingertips, and it slid open with ease.
Orcus turned to his aunt. “Where is he exactly?” It should be safe to assume he was talking about his father.
“In the Great Drawing Room,” she said quickly, “but he’s been going about the house all day with Sean Martin, so you’d better make yourselves scarce. I’ll tell him you’ve arrived.” And she made her way down the grand hallway.
Orcus grabbed my arm and began hauling me up the carpeted stairs. “Come on, all of you.”
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“The attic,” he said shortly. “Edward never goes up there, so my sisters and I made it into a makeshift hideaway when we were younger.”
We had just reached the top step when a voice boomed from below us:
Orcus paused on the top step, his features distorting as a look of pure hatred swept across his face. “Piss fucks.” In a second he’d schooled his expression and dropped his hands to his sides. He marched half-way down the stairs and called weakly, “Here, sir.”
Brisk commanding steps came up the hall, and the same commanding voice bellowed, “Show yourself! And your friends as well!”
His father wasn’t doing much for Orcus’ temper, but the sociopath motioned us to follow him, and we did. We stopped on the bottom step, his father coming into view. Orcus was paler than ever, and still sweating profusely, but he stubbornly stood on his own, head up squarely as he faced the man marching down the hall. Mr. Locke stopped a few yards away, looked his son up and down, and then looked at us.
“Well?” he snapped.
Orcus gestured to us. “Mallory Tourney, Raechel McNab, and Sebastian Degas.”
Mr. Locke’s lip curled. “School?”
“Degas arrived rather suddenly and with amnesia. Director Carson employed us to trace his history as we could.” Orcus was dutiful, prompt, and robotic. It would take a blind fool to think they were answers given out of respect or fear; he hated his father.
Mr. Locke gave me a second examination, a sneer identical to his son’s stamping itself onto his face. “This is your competition?”
Orcus glanced at me. “When she chooses to be, yes.”
His father’s expression didn’t change. “Not much is it? As I expected.” His shrewd and cold gaze landed on his son again. “Why are you sweating?”
“No it isn’t.” When Orcus didn’t reply, his father’s jaw locked. “Keep scarce.”
Orcus didn’t acknowledge the remark, but he wasn’t required to. Mr. Locke had turned and marched back to the drawing room. I watched him go, and when I turned back to Orcus I found myself on the receiving end of a full-on glare.
“Do not attract anymore of his attention,” he snapped.
“What did I do?”
“Nothing, yet,” he replied. “Keep it that way.”
I gave him sarcastic thumbs up. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
Orcus cast one more scathing look down the hall, and then quickly led us back up the stairs. It was almost funny, I thought, how very alike, yet different, they were. Mr. Locke obviously had a very short temper, as did his son; I had learnt that over the years, just because I would instigate fights with him. But Mr. Locke was obviously the family shouter, and Orcus’ anger was more often felt than seen. Mr. Locke would likely be the one to put his foot through the television, and Orcus would be the one to pull your spleen out through your throat. If it were comparable to nature, Edward Locke was a rampaging bull elephant, and Orcus was an African Rock Python.
Elephant, now that I thought of it, was a very good description for Mr. Locke. Or perhaps water buffalo. He was a very big man, about Sebastian’s height maybe, and he was built with muscle. His arms were big, his shoulders were broad, and his gait boasted powerful legs. His hands were twice the size of mine, probably as big as my head, and had none of the slenderness of Orcus’. His features were very different as well. His hair was wavy and grey and his eyes a very deep brown. His mouth was harsh, his chin and jaw squared, and his nose looked like it belonged to a parrot. It was a heavy face, much like the rest of his body, and it didn’t do much to endear him. His very nature appeared nasty.
Orcus was more belligerent than usual as we marched along towards the attic, so the three of us kept our mouths shut and followed him without a word. The hall we walked down was decorated in much the same fashion as the lower floor, and it was just as devoid of people. That was probably to be expected, though, since household staff are trained to keep as much out of the way as possible.
The attic, Orcus explained, had its entrance at the west end of the third floor, constituted the fifth floor, and spanned the entire building. That meant that about three to four normal sized houses could have fit quite comfortably along the level. It could very conceivably have been a whole house unto itself. Orcus hadn’t been joking when he’d said they’d made it a refuge. There were five pallets lined up against one wall, each one equipped with a pillow and two blankets. A small heater and a fan were tacked into the wall above the pallets, and looked as though they were used regularly. Boxes were arranged to allow access to three desks, each large enough for two people to work comfortably. They were positioned under windows that looked out across the grounds in all directions. They, like the ones downstairs, were cleaned well and emitted a great deal of light.
Raechel turned to me. “I’d live up here too, but not because my dad’s an ass; I’d live up here just because.”
I agreed. Sebastian didn’t. “Winter would make it intolerable,” he declared.
Orcus snorted. “Better to take shelter in a carcass than attempt to weather a sandstorm.”
My mouth very nearly dropped to the floor. “That’s the very first proverbial piece of wisdom I’ve ever heard you use! And it didn’t even involve an order for coffee!”
Orcus wasn’t amused. He just stared at me. After a long moment he said, “My estate, my edicts. Don’t touch anything if you don’t ask first, don’t make any noise, and don’t carry on conversations with my father.” He pointed to the east end of the attic. “The books and charts we smuggled out of the library are down on that end.” He began walking in said direction, following a path made through the sea of many boxes, but suddenly stopped and turned around. “I don’t have to explain anything else, do I?”
His eyes were trained on me, so I nodded. Why he thought I was going to be talking to his father was a bit beyond me, but I was willing to agree. It wasn’t exactly like I would be able to go anywhere else to get this information, and since almost everything we knew about vampires so far didn’t apply to Sebastian (except for the blood part, but vampire and stuff), killing him didn’t seem like the most effective method of disposal, no matter how attractive it was. I almost groaned; if he started whinging at any point during our investigation, I could not promise myself he wouldn’t die.