University student Lizzie Charters accompanies her mentor, Dr. Emeryk Quintillus, on the archeological dig to uncover Cleopatra's tomb. Her presence is required for a ceremony conducted by the renowned professor to resurrect Cleopatra's spirit-inside Lizzie's body. Quintillus's success is short-lived, as the Queen of the Nile dies soon after inhabiting her host, leaving Lizzie's soul adrift . . .
Paula Bancroft's husband just leased Villa Dürnstein, an estate once owned by Dr. Quintillus. Within the mansion are several paintings and numerous volumes dedicated to Cleopatra. But the archeologist's interest in the Egyptian empress deviated from scholarly into supernatural, infusing the very foundations of his home with his dark fanaticism. And as inexplicable manifestations rattle Paula's senses, threatening her very sanity, she uncovers the link between the villa, Quintillus, and a woman named Lizzie Charters.
And a ritual of dark magic that will consume her soul . . .
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Vienna, Austria, 2018
"Count Markus von Dürnstein was the last member of the family to actually live here." The estate agent's English hinted at an expensive education. Barely an inflection to show he was Austrian.
Paula Bancroft smoothed her long, dark hair — a habit she was trying to break. As a child, whenever she had been scared or anxious, this gesture had brought her some comfort. She hadn't done it for years, but this past week, since arriving in Vienna, she had caught herself doing it time and again. It would all be better when she had settled down. Even more so when she had mastered enough of the language to at least get by.
She gazed around at the splendid marble-columned hallway. Recently restored, like the rest of this grand house, it looked fresh, bright, and clinically clean, to a point where its personality had been eradicated.
Paula's husband, Phil, gave her a reassuring wink. "Why don't the family live here anymore?" he asked.
Did she imagine it, or did Stefan — the agent — deliberately avoid eye contact?
"I'm not sure exactly, but I believe they did not wish to stay in Vienna. The family moved to Salzburg more than forty years ago. They have let the house ever since, more or less. It is beautiful, yes?"
Paula nodded. She would definitely have to find some pictures to put on these stark white walls.
"I understand your contract with the United Nations here is for three years?" Stefan asked.
"That's right," Phil replied. "Dream come true, really. I've always loved Vienna. Used to come here a lot when I was a boy. I had relatives here, but they've died now, sadly."
"I am sorry to hear that, Mr. Bancroft."
Phil shrugged. "It was a long time ago. What do you think, Paula? Pretty magnificent, isn't it?"
As long as it isn't all like this, Paula thought. Out loud she said, "Let's have a proper look round."
Stefan smiled. "Of course. We will start with the library." He opened the polished oak door and Paula gasped at the sight ahead of and above her.
"That ceiling is amazing," she said. "It looks like Klimt's work."
Stefan smiled. "You know your art, Mrs. Bancroft. Yes, Gustav Klimt was commissioned to paint this by a former owner, an archaeologist called Dr. Emeryk Quintillus. He had a passion for Egyptology, and the painting depicts the arrival of Cleopatra at Tarsus. You see her in her golden barge, attended by her handmaidens. I understand it was painted in 1905, when Klimt was at the height of his talent. You can tell by all the gold leaf he has used. Of course, you know his most famous painting, Der Kuss?"
"The Kiss? Yes. It's hanging in the Belvedere Museum, isn't it?"
Stefan nodded. "Along with a number of his paintings. Most galleries in Vienna have their share of Klimt originals."
"I shall make it my job to visit them." Paula tore her eyes away from the opulent queen on her lavish barge. "There must be five thousand books here."
"More, I believe."
"You won't be lost for something to read on the long winter nights when I'm in New York," Phil said.
Paula grimaced. "I'll be a bit stuck until I can speak more German."
"Ah, but Dr. Quintillus — and this is his collection — spoke many languages," Stefan said, "including fluent English. I believe he spent some years working at Oxford University. The books in English are up on the second level. You go up the staircase." Stefan indicated a wrought iron spiral stairway in the corner of the room.
"Was Dr. Quintillus a relation of the von Dürnsteins?" Paula asked. "I was wondering why all his books are still here."
"No, he doesn't seem to have had any relatives. When he died, I understand the house was briefly occupied but then left empty for some years, until it was bought by an uncle of Count Markus. He mysteriously disappeared one night, along with his wife. It is a strange story. They were never seen again and, having no children, the house passed to his nephew as next of kin. Through every change of occupant, the books stayed. It is quite a collection."
"It certainly is. I shall enjoy myself in here." Paula pictured herself spending many happy hours surrounded by what promised to be an eclectic collection of literature.
"Come on, let's see the rest of the house," Phil said. "You'll have all the time you want to spend in here but Stefan will have to get back to the office."
Paula reluctantly allowed herself to be led out of the library and into room after room, all furnished with traditional, dark wood furniture. A dining room with a long, polished mahogany table and eight chairs, a living room with wood-block floor, thick-pile red rugs and a comfortable-looking suite. A massive flat-screen TV mounted on one wall and an open fire stacked with sweet-smelling pine logs promised cozy nights curled up with a glass of Blaufränkisch wine.
On the next floor, corridors led off either side of the staircase, and Stefan opened one door after the other. Most of the rooms stood empty. Three contained contemporary furniture and comfy-looking double or king-sized beds.
"This one has traditionally been used as the master bedroom." Stefan opened the door and, for a second, Paula caught a faint whiff of lilies. Gone as soon as it had appeared, she dismissed it. Furniture polish, probably. Goodness knew there was certainly plenty of polishing to be done, especially downstairs. Still, she had been promised some help. She might not have a job here, but she certainly didn't intend to swap the life of a history teacher for one of a domestic housewife.
She tested the bed with her hand and sat down on it. "We should sleep well on this," she said. "The mattress is good and firm."
Phil picked up a fluffy white pillow. "And we can have pillow fights." He threw it at her and she ducked. It flew over her head and landed on the floor.
Out of the corner of her eye, Paula caught Stefan giving them an odd look. No doubt he wasn't used to seeing forty-somethings playing and giggling like schoolkids. Paula stood, and Phil retrieved the pillow.
"You will see the room has been recently decorated," Stefan pointed at the walls. "I hope you like the color. I chose it myself."
"Very nice," Paula said, not totally sure she liked the gray in so much abundance in a bedroom. It seemed more in keeping with a living room, but she could live with it.
"Love the carpet." She stroked it with her foot. Soft, thick pile, with a contemporary design in shades of gray and lilac.
"The en suite is through here." Stefan opened a door and snapped on the light. Paula took in the stunning black-and-white marble walls and the generous sized bath. Ideal for a luxurious, long soak.
A shadow flitted across the periphery of her vision. She shivered. Her eyes must be playingtricks on her.
"You cold?" Phil asked, joining her. He put his arm around her.
"No. I don't know why I did that. You know that old saying — a goose just walked over my grave? Well, it felt like that. Seriously like that."
"Apart from random wandering wild fowl, what do you think of Villa Dürnstein?"
"I like it." Paula told herself she meant it, but somewhere deep inside her, the same instinct that had made her shiver now began to worry at her. She dismissed it.
"What's on the top floor?" she asked.
Stefan looked surprised she had posed that particular question. But surely anyone would be curious?
"Just more rooms. Originally the servants lived up there. I believe it is all empty now. You can use it for storage, or maybe put anything you don't require in one of the spare rooms on this floor."
"It seems such a shame," Paula said. "I mean, a lovely big house and only the two of us rattling around. A place like this should have a large family, loads of kids running up and down these corridors."
She hadn't imagined it. The estate agent flinched when she said that. In that moment, she was sure he knew something he wasn't telling them — and that thought bothered her more than a little.
"When we arrived, I noticed there were windows below street level," she said. "So there's a basement, right?"
"Yes, there is a basement. The old kitchen is down there. About forty years ago, the family installed a new kitchen in one of the rooms on the ground floor. For modern convenience, of course. You wouldn't like your food to get cold."
"Of course." Paula was beginning to dislike this man. He was too smooth, and right now she wouldn't have trusted him to direct her in a straight line. "I'd like to go down there, please."
"Paula!" Phil said. "Now? Really? You can explore all the nooks and crannies when we've moved in, surely."
Paula shot him a look. "I'd like to investigate now, while Stefan is still here. That way if anything's wrong, or we have any questions, we can get them answered straight away."
"Well, I suppose that makes some sort of sense," Phil said. "Stefan, would you mind?"
Again, the oily smoothness dripped off him. Yet it didn't seem to bother Phil at all.
"Not at all," Stefan said. "I would show you down there if I could." A hint of a smile played around the corners of his lips. Paula didn't like that smile. Sly. She guessed what was coming next.
"The problem is," he said, "I don't have a key to the basement. I am not sure if my company has one, either. No one has ever asked to go down there."
"Really?" Paula couldn't remove all trace of sarcasm from her voice. Phil looked at her questioningly. "I would have thought anyone living here would want to get to know every inch of it. It's an intriguing old house, and basements are usually where you find the most interesting bits. All the forgotten detritus. This one has the added advantage of housing an old kitchen, presumably with at least some of the original utensils and cooking devices still intact. I would find that fascinating."
"My wife paints. She's an artist." Paula wished Phil didn't sound as if he was attempting to explain her reaction.
"Then you are in the right city, Mrs. Bancroft. Have you exhibited yet?"
Before Paula could respond, Phil chipped in. "She's won prizes for her paintings and sold a few."
"It's a hobby of mine. I like to paint landscapes and interesting buildings. That's why I'm so interested in the basement."
"Yes, I can understand that. Wait until you see the garden. You will want to paint that, I am sure."
Paula smiled at him but was determined not to let Stefan off lightly. "When do you think you would be able to locate a key?"
Again his eyes avoided her. There was no mistaking it this time. What was he hiding?
"I'm not sure. I will have to contact the family. Maybe it is lost."
"If that's the case, we'll need to get a locksmith in and have the lock changed. That won't be a problem, will it?" She smiled, determined to match his smoothness with her own.
Stefan said nothing. Phil frowned. "Come on, let's get back to the hotel. Our trunks will be arriving here tomorrow and we need an early start."
They made their way downstairs, and Stefan handed Phil the keys. Paula returned to the library for one last look at Klimt's painting. "Dr. Quintillus," she said. "Who were you, I wonder?"
It happened again. The briefest of movements, glimpsed for a split second. Nothing there now, but she was sure a shadow had flitted across the wall, exactly like upstairs. Stefan and Phil stood by the door, open to the street. Sounds of cars, buses, and the clang of a tram filtered in from outside, along with a chilly draft that reminded her that, spring might be here, but winter wasn't quite ready to let go.
"Let us know when you find that key," Paula said to Stefan.
"Certainly, Madame." He gave her the briefest of nods. She could imagine him clicking his heels in true Teutonic fashion. It brought a smile to her lips and a giggle she fought to suppress.
Phil took her arm as they strolled down the street to the tram stop. "What was all that about?"
"You know perfectly well. That basement business."
"He's hiding something. Surely you could see that."
Phil laughed. "Oh yeah, sure. Bodies in the basement."
"No, seriously. I didn't like him. He was oily. Too ingratiating."
"Oh, he was all right. A bit over the top maybe."
"I can't understand what the deal is. Why we're evidently not supposed to go down to the basement. If there's nothing there, why bother locking it?"
"Maybe it's unsafe or something. I mean, if it hasn't been used in decades, all sorts of nasties could be lurking down there. Dry rot, worm-eaten timbers. Anything."
"Maybe." They arrived at their stop. A tram rolled toward them. "That's something I love about Vienna," Paula said, as it pulled up and the doors slid open. "The public transport. Always a tram when you want one."
"Told you you'd love it here." Phil followed her up the step.
"I'll love it even more when I've seen that basement," she said, settling herself in a double seat. Phil sat next to her and she winked at him. "It's going to be an exciting three years."
"Exciting in a good way, I hope." Phil squeezed her hand.
* * *
Phil slammed his hand down hard on the dining table. "I don't see what the big deal is, Paula. You heard Stefan. He called the family and they're adamant they don't want anyone going down into that basement. Now let it go. Please."
Paula was tempted to protest. Ever since she was a child, she had been fascinated by old houses, especially the kitchens, with their gleaming copper pans and old-fashioned cooking ranges. Now that she had the potential to explore one in her own house, she couldn't let the opportunity pass. Besides, the urge to pick up her brushes and paint again had been biting at her for ages. That old kitchen, untouched for decades, would provide the perfect subject.
"I think it's strange that they'd be so bothered. It makes me wonder what's down there, that's all."
"You read too many crime novels."
"I haven't read one in years. Besides, I have Dr. Quintillus's collection to get through."
Phil smiled. His anger was usually short lived, and today proved no exception. A quick flash and then over. He glanced at his watch. "Hell, I'm going to be late. I've got a meeting at ten."
He grabbed his suit jacket from where he had draped it over the chair, retrieved his briefcase and, after delivering a quick peck to Paula's cheek, left. The rest of the day stretched out before Paula. No German lesson today. She should practice some vocabulary and grammar ahead of a short test, but that would keep for an hour or two. She had finally sorted out their possessions, which had crowded their small apartment in London, but were swallowed by the vastness of this house.
Now it was time to explore the top floor.
She mounted the stairs up to the first floor and then took the next flight up to the former servants' quarters. Hardly a sound penetrated from outside, only the occasional car horn or police siren. Paula walked down the corridor. Her footsteps echoed on the bare boards. She opened one door after the other, each revealing an empty room. Evidently, redecoration had stopped at the floor below. It made sense, though. What would be the point if no one was going to live up here? Paula felt a pang of guilt. Such a waste of a big house. They could have lived in a much smaller apartment for the same money but, as Phil had reasoned, why miss out on such an amazing place? It had been ridiculously cheap by Viennese standards. By any standards, really. Presumably the von Dürnstein family didn't need the money, but wanted the house to be lived in. They certainly signed the contract quickly enough.
The last door Paula came to was at the far end of the corridor. She had to put her shoulder to it. A series of reluctant creaks echoed off the walls until it finally let her in.
An old, worn rug lay haphazardly across bare floorboards. A neat, old-fashioned fireplace, containing a small quantity of ancient ashes, and a single bed covered in a dusty quilt were the only signs of former habitation. Paula wondered why she tiptoed into the room. Why not just stride in there?
Because it doesn't feel right.
She made her way to the window and looked out over the street to the rear wall of the Schönbrunn Palace. The trees were newly green with their spring leaves. That would make a pleasant view for anyone waking up in this room.
A faint whiff of lilies drifted by. Paula sniffed. She caught her breath. Footsteps. A floorboard creaked. She spun round. Held her breath. Listened.
Excerpted from "Waking the Ancients"
Copyright © 2018 Catherine Cavendish.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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