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Brian Blackstone gripped the banister and eased him self down the left-hand set of stairs. The steps' creaking bounced back and forth through the vast formal hall. This one room, the entrance hall to what had once been a splendid English manor, was half the size of his former house. The railing shook and rattled beneath his hands like ill-fitting dentures. But his weakened state forced him to lean heavily on the banister. Each step groaned as if it was ready to break and pitch him headlong. When he reached the stone landing, he heaved a sigh of relief. He heard sounds emanating from the downstairs apartment and hurried for the front door. He needed to meet whoever shared this house, but not now. One thing at a time. It was a creed that had served him well for the past two years.
Outside the solid-oak door, Brian almost stumbled over his valises. The leather suitcases were battered and grimy from two hard years of third-class travel. He had left them there the previous night because he had not felt able to carry them up the winding stairs. And the taxi driver who had brought him in from London's Heathrow Airport had certainly not been willing to take them anywhere, not after he had seen the paltry tip Brian had offered. Brian really was in no shape financially to take a taxi at all. But so late at night there had been no other way to journey from the airport to the village of Knightsbridge.
Brian heaved one case and then the other into the foyer. He unlatched the clasps and dragged out two cotton sweaters and his only jacket. They were the warmest things he owned. The clothes felt distinctly odd, particularly when layered one on top of the other. It was the first time in eleven months he had worn more than sandals, shorts, and a thin cotton shirt.
The December wind made up in wet chill for what it lacked in strength. Brian walked down the graveled drive, sheltered beneath the tallest elms and chestnut trees he had ever seen. Leaves rushed about his feet as the empty branches hummed and rattled overhead. To his right stood a converted stable, red-brick and crumbling. The gatehouse and the manor's main entrance rose just beyond. The entry's tall stone pillars supported a pair of rampant lions clasping some long-forgotten family shield. The iron gates were a full fifty feet wide and thirty high, now rusted permanently open and sagging with age.
The gatehouse was as derelict as the stables. The entire facade was covered in vines, their bases as thick as his thighs where they emerged from the earth. They framed the big lead-paned windows and the doorway. The metal plate set above the mail slot announced that the house was called Rose Cottage.
As he passed through the main gates, he could not help but glance back. His first genuine view of the manor rising above the chestnuts was astonishing. No photograph could possibly do the estate justice, and upon his arrival the house had been reduced by the night and his fatigue to a hulking shadow. Now not even the gray wintry day could erase its decaying grandeur. The house only had three stories, but the ground and second floors were both more than twenty feet high. The Cotswold-stone manor was nine windows broad, and each window measured five feet across.
As he walked the narrow village lane, Brian found himself thinking back to what the taxi driver had said about Knightsbridge. Strange that the man's words seemed clearer now than they had the night before, when the world had drifted vaguely through the mist of Brian's exhaustion. Now, as he walked past brick-and-flint walls bowed with the pressure of uncounted centuries, he heard the man's voice anew. The taxi driver had related how the village was the oldest borough in England. Knightsbridge had been the first capital of William the Conqueror; the ruins of his castle still stood within the village green. The present bridge was erected upon stones set in place by the Romans themselves. The village was filled with centuries of rumors about knights and clandestine monasteries and hidden secrets and mysteriously vanished treasures. On and on the taxi driver had prattled, while Brian huddled in the dark backseat and struggled not to groan.
He felt better after a night's sleep, but slightly feverish and still very weak. The smell of freshly baked bread was the first sign that he was approaching the village's heart. The lane opened into a central square, where a banner announced the annual Christmas market. The plaza was filled with stalls and chatter and people, and flanked by buildings as old as the manor. The chilly air was spiced with mulled cider and cinnamon and cloves. Brian followed his nose to a stall with a rainbow-bright awning and a portable stove displaying trays of hot-cross buns. He pointed and asked, "How much for one of those?"
"Fifty pence, love, and a better bargain you won't be finding here today."
Fifty pence was eighty American cents, too much for a raisin bun as far as he was concerned. But his sense of prices had been seriously distorted by all the places he had recently left behind, and his stomach clenched with hollow hunger. It had been quite a while since he had felt much appetite for anything. "I'll take one, please."
He stepped to the corner of the stall and stood tearing off tiny fragments of the hot bun. Experience had taught him it was far safer to take solid food in small segments. He finished the bun, wiped his sugar-coated hands on his trousers, and waited to see how his stomach responded. When all appeared calm, he returned to the stall's front. "I'll have another, please."
"Knew you would." The woman was as broad as her stall, and the morning's heat caused her to glisten like the buns she sold. "Grand fellow like you couldn't get by on just one."
Brian handed over his money, trying not to wince at the cost, and asked, "Could you tell me where I'd find the Whitehorse Realty Company?"
"Just behind you, love. No, over there, by the solicitors."
Brian thanked the woman and moved back to the side, where the booth blocked the worst of the wind. The day was probably not too cold for early December in England. He had never been in England before. In fact, he had spent two full years avoiding this very arrival.
He felt eyes on him, and knew it was not just his imagination. He tried to remind himself that eyes had followed him through many of his travels, for he had been in a number of places where white men were an oddity. But he could not fool himself into thinking that it did not matter. Here was different. Here he was supposed to feel at home.
A strident shouting match across the square caught his attention. He could not make out the words, but the banners above the two opposing camps were clear enough. Two elderly ladies staffed a narrow stall whose banner read, "Buy a raffle ticket and save the heritage of our village bells." Two hefty women shouted at them and gestured angrily, waving placards as though wishing they were holding battle-axes. Brian squinted and made out the placards' words: "Ban the noise; ban the bells. Sign our petition today." Just as the argument threatened to come to blows, a lean, middle-aged gentleman wearing a vicar's collar rushed up and swiftly stilled both sides. Brian found himself admiring the man and his ability to calm waters with a few quiet words.
Then he heard two women behind him talking loudly and assuming the noise from across the market masked their voices. Brian realized they were speaking about him.
The first woman said, "He doesn't strike me as a posh gent."
"What, you were expecting the Yank to show up wearing a pair of shiny gray shoes, them with buttons up the side?"
"All I'm saying is, a deep-pockets like him ought to pay a little mind to how he goes about town. Look at him, will you? Skin and bones, he is. Not to mention brown as a native. Clothes flapping on his frame like they was hanging on a line out my back garden."
"Don't be daft. A bloke that rich can ruddy well dress how he likes."
"Say what you like, I'm thinking the new master of Castle Keep is as batty as the old maid herself was."
Brian finished his second hot-cross bun, brushed his hands on his trousers, and moved off. There was nothing to be gained from correcting them. Nor from asking how they knew who he was. The busybody attitude of small village life was one of the reasons he had avoided coming to Knightsbridge for so long. One of many.
Nor were the market women the only ones who knew of him. For as he crossed the cobblestone square, the realtor's door opened and a man bounced out. Everything about him was tightly compressed. The man did not rise above five feet six inches nor weigh more than a hundred and fifty pounds. He sported a double-breasted blue blazer, a flamboyant yellow polka-dot tie and matching pocket handkerchief, and a trim beard. As he offered Brian a small, neat hand, even his smile was condensed, slipping in and out of view in seconds. His voice popped out words like a softly cracking whip. "You must be Mr. Blackstone. Hardy Seade. Such a pleasure, sir. A pleasure. Please, come in. Come in."
The office was compact as well, the ceiling so low-beamed that Brian had to stoop to cross before the receptionist's desk. Hardy Seade asked, "Will you have a coffee, tea?"
"Sorry about the ceiling heights. They weren't built with Americans in mind." He gave quick laugh as he led Brian into the back office. "Naturally not, since this building was erected before America was discovered. Most of the Knightsbridge market predates your aunt's estate. Have a seat there, Mr. Blackstone."
Brian slid into the chair, eased the crick in his neck, and corrected, "My wife's aunt."
Hardy Seade hesitated in the act of seating himself. "I beg your pardon?"
"Heather Harding was my wife's aunt."
Seade lowered himself and proceeded tensely. "But all the documents list you as the new proprietor."
"That is correct." Brian realized more was going to have to be said, so he braced himself and added, "My wife is deceased."
"Oh. How, well, tragic." Seade's tone of voice indicated his dislike for surprise news from his clients. "My condolences."
Brian deflected the discussion with, "I thought I heard noises downstairs this morning."
"Well, of course you did. Any house with spaces that large is bound to reflect a bit of sound. But I assure you, the tenants in your ground-floor flat are of the highest possible caliber--"
"I'm sorry, the what?"
"The flat, sir. The apartment. At the back of the house, over looking the grounds and the river."
"No. You said I have tenants?"
"Well, of course you do. The ground-floor tenants, the Wainwrights, have been there for years. Your aunt had the flat converted specifically for them. Then there is a local doctor in Rose Cottage, and I rent the stable grounds myself. These funds are the only way we have managed to meet the estate's basic expenses. As it is, I am forced to pay the gardener out of my own pocket. He's a fine young man, by the way. No doubt you'll be seeing him around from time to time. Joe Eaves is the name." Hardy Seade suppressed his irritation by thinning his lips until they almost disappeared. "Really, Mr. Blackstone, I do feel it would have been best if you had examined all the documents I've been sending before your arrival."
"I haven't been home in two years," Brian replied.
This news pressed the real estate agent back into his seat. "Then you don't know about the sale?"
"Sale of what?"
"Your aunt's estate, sir. That is, her former estate. Yours now, I suppose, at least for another week. Eight days, to be precise. Castle Keep is to be auctioned off to pay the outstanding death duties."
Brian felt the first tendrils of fatigue lace their way out of his gut. It was such a familiar sensation that he scarcely paid it any mind. It was more like an internal alarm clock, chiming the first note of the call to rest. Which meant he had to wrap up the meeting and make it to his next stop as quickly as possible. "Pay what?"
"Death duties." Seade noted Brian's lack of comprehension and added with disdain, "I believe you call them inheritance taxes."
"I am not interested in selling the place."
"If you'll forgive me for saying so, the matter is out of your hands. The death duties are two years overdue, notices have been filed, and a date for the foreclosure auction has been set."
Brian pushed himself from the seat. "The house is not yours to sell."
Hardy Seade came fully erect. "I regret to inform you that come the end of next week, unless you muster up the six hundred and thirty thousand pounds still outstanding in death duties and interest, the estate is not yours to keep."
"Hand me that wrench, Arthur."
"The what, dear?"
"The wrench. Right there by your feet." Dr. Cecilia Lyons emerged from her dark corner behind the pantry cupboard. "No, not . . . Look there, that metal dingus."
"Ah. We Brits prefer to call it a spanner." Arthur Wainwright, retired brigadier general of the Royal Air Force, former chief of the largest military air base in Great Britain, rummaged through the toolbox. "It keeps us from confusing it with all the world's other dinguses."
"Spanner, wrench, whatever." Cecilia accepted the tool and slipped back behind the pantry cupboard. The antique oak shelves were seven feet tall and weighed a ton. As far as she could tell, the pantry had not been moved since the house wiring had been installed. She and Arthur had spent a very dusty half hour easing them off the sidewall. She squeezed into the cramped space and asked, "Can you shine that light over here, please?"
Arthur did as he was asked. With the cupboard drawn out, the pantry was too small for them both to fit inside. Arthur was forced to hold the heavy flashlight out at full reach, and the light tended to waver. Shadows danced about the ancient water-stained walls, highlighting the age and neglect. Rose Cottage was one of the things Cecilia Lyons loved most about Knightsbridge, and her home's dilapidated state was enough to make her weep.
Two years earlier, the former proprietor had passed on, leaving the manor to a mystery man no one had met. Or heard from. Until now. For that period Castle Keep had been left in the hands of a local real estate agent who was known far and wide as being so tight he could make a penny squeal. Hardy Seade remained utterly unfazed by the state of disrepair.
Arthur Wainwright, her neighbor and dear friend, watched her struggle with the bolt and asked, "Are you sure we shouldn't wait until the electrician arrives?"
"Not a chance." Cecilia struggled with a bolt caked in rust. "Can you find the big screwdriver?"
"Just a minute."
Instantly she was left in darkness. Cecilia said to the gloom, "I've lost all power in my kitchen. You haven't had electricity in your bedroom for, what, a week?"
"Longer, I'm afraid. Not to mention the bath." The light returned, and the old man handed over a long-handled screwdriver. "Gladys had a frightful tumble last night. Gave us both a start, I don't mind telling you."
"I've been by the realtor's office four times this week. We've got a list long as your arm of urgent repairs. All we get from Hardy Seade is the royal runaround." She set the screwdriver onto the bolt and banged the handle with the wrench. The bolt's covering of rust did not budge. Cecilia reared back, aiming not at the bolt but rather at the snooty Realtor's nose.
She hammered down, and the bolt broke off clean. "Uh-oh."
"I told you we should wait, dear."
"What should I do in the meantime, cook over a fire in the garden?" It took both hands to pry open the fuse box lid. "I wonder how long it's been since somebody's had a look in here."
"You can hardly blame Mr. Seade for being forced to deal with an absentee landlord."
"It doesn't stop him from collecting the rent." She squinted over the row of cardboard-capped tubes. They looked like a row of shotgun shells. "I think I remember seeing a box of these fuses under the kitchen sink."
"Let me check." Arthur tottered over and groaned as he lowered himself to floor level. His knees were severely arthritic, as were his hands and right shoulder. He had what appeared to be the onset of a cataract in his left eye. His liver was damaged from six tours of duty in the tropics and all the related illnesses, and there was every indication that he was beginning to suffer from osteoporosis. Cecilia knew because she had been his doctor since her arrival in Knightsbridge eighteen months earlier. Arthur might be old and increasingly frail, but his mind was sharp, and he was proving to be a genuine friend.
"Here they are. And there's a fire extinguisher as well." He returned with both box and extinguisher. "How many do you need?"
"Shine the light over here again, please. Right. There's one with a burn mark in the middle."
Arthur set the extinguisher at his feet, fished out a fuse and inspected it doubtfully. "I don't see a sell-by date."
"That's because they probably didn't know what shelf life was when this was made." She pried out the charred fuse, then held up the replacement to the light. "I wonder if it makes any difference which way I stick this in."
"Cecilia, dear, I really think--"
"Never mind." She gripped the fuse by its cardboard middle and rammed it home.
Instantly there was a huge bam followed by a shower of sparks. Cecilia shrieked and covered her head. Hazarding a single glance, she cried, "The wall's on fire!"
"Not for long, it's not." Arthur took aim with the extinguisher and hit the trigger. "Stand back!"
A torrent of white foam exploded from the ancient device, drenching the fuse box, the wall, and Cecilia. She hardly noticed. "The wall is still burning!"
A change had come over the old man. Gone was the doddering gentility. The voice was crisp, stern, and twenty years younger. "Take the wrench and break through. No, not there. Higher up. Above the fire line. That's it. Strike harder."
The smoke was acrid and burned her eyes and lungs. A bright peak, almost like the burning end of tinder, hissed and smoldered its way slowly up the wall above the fuse box. Cecilia gripped the wrench with both hands, the metal handle made slippery by the foam. She hammered at the wall plaster. A spidery crack appeared about six inches above the burn line. She pounded again.
"That's it. Once more, now."
The plaster broke and fell at her feet. Arthur squeezed in beside her, stuck the nozzle directly into the opening, and pulled the trigger. Foam splattered around them both. Arthur pulled back and inspected the smoldering wall. "One more for good measure."
Cecilia squinted through the white torrent, and when the nozzle was pulled back a second time she asked, "Is it out?"
"Give me the screwdriver." Arthur set down the extinguisher and pried off another section of plaster. He reached into the wall and levered out a segment of what appeared to be newspaper. "Here's your problem."
Cecilia leaned over his hands. "What is it?"
"The London Illustrated News, by the looks of things. They used to wrap copper wiring with newsprint for insulation."
She felt her anger coming to a boil. "How long ago are we talking here?"
"Oh, I doubt it's been used much since the thirties. By then they'd figured out how to wrap the wire in rubber."
She used the wall for balance as she stepped carefully across the foam-slippery floor. "So the wiring in my house hasn't been touched in seventy years."
"Longer, I warrant. Probably hasn't been altered since they went off gas." Arthur followed her into the kitchen. "My dear, you look a frightful sight."
Cecilia looked down at herself. Gone were the trousers and sweater she had donned for work. In their place was a dripping cascade of white bubbles. "Is it in my hair?"
"Is it . . ." Arthur was encased in the same foam. A long streamer grew from his chin like an immense white beard. He could not keep the chuckle from his voice as he replied, "Well, perhaps just a little."
She pushed shut the pantry door. On its back was an old-style mercury mirror, now smoky and cracked with age. Everything about Rose Cottage was ancient. That was one of the things she loved about the place.
Cecilia did not recognize herself, save for the eye opening in her white mask that mirrored the shock she felt. "I look like a walking snow cone."
Arthur was laughing outright now. "Gladys will be terribly sorry to have missed this little show."
She raised her wrist but could not see her watch for the foam. "I have to get to the clinic."
"I'll clean this up." Arthur raised one foam-encased arm before she could protest. "It's all right, dear. I've actually rather enjoyed our little experiment in home improvement. When I'm done here, I'll go put a flea in the ear of our friend Hardy Seade. Mark my word, we'll have an electrician in this very afternoon."
"You can have him move this cupboard back when he's done and save us both the risk of a hernia." Cecilia started from the kitchen, only to be halted by the view through her front window. Across the leaf-strewn lawn rose the hulking presence of Castle Keep. The two battered suitcases, which she had noticed earlier, were now removed from the curved front portico. She asked, "Have you seen him yet?"
She knew Arthur had moved up beside her because she could hear the foam dripping softly on her flagstone floor. "Not yet. He must have arrived very late."
"Late is right." If her anger had generated heat, the foam would have evaporated in a flash. "I can't wait to meet that guy."
Arthur warned, "Perhaps a frontal assault is not the best way to endear yourself to your new landlord."
But Cecilia paid the caution no mind. "Look at him. Couldn't even bother to take in his own luggage. Was probably expecting one of us to drag it upstairs for him."
A note of the former commandant returned to Arthur's voice. "In that case, I would say the gentleman doesn't have the sense to run a bath, much less an estate of this size."
Cecilia turned from the window. "I hope he doesn't ever plan to get sick. Not on my watch."