She would get the letter today.
"Happy birthday, Sarah. You've talked yourself out of a good time again." Sarah Berkley stared at herself in the mirror of the ladies' restroom and tried to work up some emotion. It was her twenty-fourth birthday, and she'd just shot down, figuratively speaking, the only proposition she was likely to receive all night. For some reason, this didn't bother her.
It wasn't as if Mark had been impolite. On the contrary, he'd acted quite the gentleman, but Sarah could see, as if in a crystal ball, the short future of any relationship they tried to build. And as for a one-night-stand--she had dismissed the thought immediately. That reeked of desperation, and Sarah wasn't desperate. Being desperate implied that you cared.
A faded girl living a faded life, she thought. Her reflection agreed with her. It was a reflection of a tall, pale woman with long blonde hair. Even her eyes were a pale blue, and they gazed dispassionately at the world, although those who cared to look saw a hint of steel in them.
She supposed she should go back out there; her friends would be wondering what was keeping her otherwise. She thought about their lively conversation and about having to cross the crowded dance floor again and sighed. She'd been feeling tired and jaded lately; nothing seemed really interesting any more. Maybe it was just a bout of birthday blues, but it was a really strong one.
Maybe she'd go to the range tomorrow. The thought of standing in one spot for two hours and unloading a box and a half of ammunition into some cardboard was the only thing that interested her much nowadays. She was getting good, too. A ghost of a smile flitted across her face as she contemplated her chances of winning next month's competition.
She was quite sure Mark wouldn't understand that. With something of a shock, she realized that she'd been subconsciously categorizing everyone into two groups--the normal people, and her. It sounded so arrogant when she thought about it that way, but it was the truth. So what was she waiting for? Someone abnormal? Someone like her? Keep dreaming, she told herself. Relationships with other people involved compromise. No wonder she was so mediocre at it.
"Sarah! There you are. Are you all right? That guy didn't try anything weird, did he?" Rebecca also worked for Sarah's company, and it was she who'd pushed the hardest for this outing.
"Oh, no, he didn't try anything." Sarah looked back from the mirror. "I just told him 'thanks but no thanks'."
"But why, Sarah? He seemed like a nice man to me. You're too picky; it's not like you're going to marry him. Just have a little fun."
Sarah just sighed, and Rebecca gave her a look that plainly said she thought Sarah had forgotten the meaning of the word.
"Girl, you have to try and loosen up a bit. You look like you're going to just up and fade away someday. Try living a bit."
"I am living," Sarah said defensively and then she plastered on what she hoped was a reassuring smile. "I'm sorry, Becky. I guess I'm just feeling down about today. Getting old and stuff, you know?"
"You're too young to do that." Rebecca rolled her eyes, but she didn't press the subject. "Let's just get back out there. Maybe you'll find someone you don't even know you're looking for."
Sarah didn't think she'd find someone like that in a place like this. Where would I find someone like that? she wondered. Her reflection gazed back cynically at her. Transylvania maybe; with her pale complexion and blank expression she thought she looked like a bloody vampire.
To the surprise of no one, Sarah went home alone. Rebecca had proposed they try somewhere else, but she'd caught the look in Sarah's eye and hadn't repeated the suggestion.
Sarah unlocked the door to her apartment and flicked on the light. She'd been living there for over a year, but the walls were still bare; she didn't care much about interior decoration. Or exterior decoration, if it came to that.
She stooped and scooped up a pile of mail. Bills and birthday greetings made up the bulk of the letters. She was sure her foster parents had sent her more money, as if she was still in college. She kicked off her heels and with a sigh of relief plopped onto the couch.
She started sorting her mail, throwing junk at the wastepaper basket. She stopped when she came to an official looking envelope from a law firm by the name of Sawyer and Moore. The name rang a tiny bell in Sarah's head. She had heard of this firm before, but she couldn't recall where. She put the other letters aside and tore open the envelope.
She scanned the missive inside and felt her eyes widen with shock. The letter was written in the language of lawyers, just close enough to English to be comprehensible. Sarah comprehended. She comprehended all too well.
"Inheritance," she murmured, the word conjuring up images of crowns and thrones and ties by blood. Sarah felt a cold serpent of fear start to uncoil in her stomach. Her real parents. Her real past.
Sarah dropped the letter and headed for the kitchen to pour herself a generous measure of something, anything, floor polish if need be. She stopped and gently closed the cupboard door.
"No. Gotta keep my wits about me." She was aware that she wasn't acting rationally, but she had to do something. Had to keep calm. She did all the washing up, and her ironing, and was halfway through vacuuming the floors when she felt tired enough to go to sleep.
She tumbled into bed, sheer exhaustion pulling her eyes closed. Suddenly she sat up again, went over to the safe, took out one of her pistols, loaded it, and placed it on the stand beside her bed. If I'm going to be paranoid, she thought, I might as well go the whole way.
She'll contact the lawyers on Monday. Tuesday at the latest. She has to wonder what she's inherited.
It hadn't been an unpleasant weekend. Sarah hadn't given it a chance to be. She was at the range by nine in the morning, and stayed there until the last of the other shooters packed up after dark. She went back home reeking of gunpowder and oil and sweat. Her arms ached, and she knew she was probably messing up her chances for the competition, but sanity, she decided, was more important than another trophy.
She was in control, she decided, and she was handling it. She was handling it her own way, on her own terms. It was perfectly normal to be a bit anxious about a past one couldn't remember. And the nightmares were enough to frighten anyone.
She was twelve years old again. She was on her hands and knees, cold flagstones under her fingers. She could feel warm blood flowing from a gaping wound in her leg. She pulled herself to her feet. She had to run. All her pursuers had to do was follow the trail of her blood. She stumbled on in the darkness.
Her questing fingers found an iron door. Pale, shaking hands struggled with the locks and bolts. Behind the door something waited. She could feel it. It was merely existing; dead, but still dreaming. The twenty-four year old Sarah screamed inside the young Sarah's head, begging her not to undo those last few locks. The girl didn't hear her. Dizzy with lack of blood, the girl pushed on the door, falling into the darkness within.
Sarah woke with a scream and grabbed blindly for her Margolin semi-automatic. Drenched in sweat, she held the gun in trembling fingers, like a child would hold a favorite toy. Eventually she placed the gun back on the bedside table and buried her face in her hands. Why are they coming back now? she wondered despairingly. She knew of course. The answer lay in a letter still lying where it had fallen three days ago.
She had a scalding hot shower and scrubbed at her face, trying to erase the memories of her dreams. I'll sell it all, she told herself. I'll get rid of everything they've left me. I'll auction it, or even pay someone to junk it. Nothing can be worse than this.
Her courage fortified by these resolutions, she forced herself to eat a tasteless breakfast in front of her web browser and then picked up the phone. There's no sense procrastinating, she decided, the sooner I get this over and done with the sooner life can go back to normal.
She has to come here. The lawyers will want her to sign things in person. She'll need a couple days to pack, of course. She'll be here in a week, at the most. She'll come, she must.
The Sawyer and Moore law firm was tucked away discreetly between an ophthalmologist's surgery and a small café in a part of town that had been politely decaying for the best part of twenty years. In fact, Sarah felt the entire town was slowly crumbling back into the rolling countryside.
With the detachment of someone who had learnt it in a book, she knew she had grown up around Armstead. To her relief, although some of the buildings and thoroughfares seemed vaguely familiar, nothing in the dozing town woke the fear that slumbered uneasily in her mind.
The trip up had been relatively pleasant. Sarah wanted to spend as little time as possible in Armstead, but had sensibly packed enough for a couple weeks, or longer if the need arose. She had also taken the better part of her firearms collection. She felt a bit silly, giving in to her paranoia like that, but decided it was better to feel silly than frightened.
As she had traveled farther north, the countryside grew darker and lusher. Small farms and forests broke the monotony of the rolling hills, and she wound down the windows to better enjoy the clean country air. There's nothing to be afraid of, she told herself cheerfully, as she hummed along to her collection of sixties classics. It was just the trauma of losing my parents so young; she recited the therapist's words in her head like a mantra. Just an overactive imagination, he'd said, although Sarah was bright enough to know that her case had puzzled him.
Although she knew no one, she was waved to several times as she motored along the quiet streets of Armstead. She supposed that tourists were a rarity here, and she smiled and waved back. A young man on a bicycle loaded up with groceries directed her to the town's only law firm. She smiled and thanked him, and drove on.
"Welcome back, Ms Berkley," he called cheerfully after her. Sarah felt her face grow cold. They did know her after all. They recognised her after all these years, welcomed her back as if she'd only been away a week. Her first instinct was to put the car in gear and drive as far and as fast as she could away from this place. She took deep breaths, recited the therapist's words again and drove on.
Moore reminded Sarah of a turtle. His long, thin neck supported a nearly bald head that craned forward to peer at her short-sightedly. He courteously got up from behind his polished wooden desk and shook Sarah's hand before directing her to a chair.
"Welcome back, Miss Berkley. Armstead has missed your family's presence."
"I'm not planning on staying," Sarah replied quickly. "I just want to get these affairs in order."
"I see." Moore sounded vaguely disappointed, but his professional manner soon reasserted itself. "The terms of your father's will were rather unusual. That is to be expected of course. Your father was a great man."
"I don't remember him," Sarah replied tonelessly. This wasn't quite the truth, as she had one fragment of a memory. A large, warm hand holding hers as she stood in front of a grave festooned with flowers, and a voice in her ear, telling her she would be protected. She flung the useless memory away, and concentrated on Moore's reading.
"All assets to be held in trust until the occasion of my daughter's twenty-fourth birthday." Moore paused and looked up at her, to make sure she was listening. "At this time I assume she will have completed her education, without yet being bound by the responsibilities of adult life."
"What does that mean?" Sarah asked.
"Your father, I assume, expected you to take over the running of the family estate."
"You said assets. What exactly have I inherited?"
"Let me see," he shuffled through some papers, "I'll just give you a general overview, you can peruse the particulars at your leisure. You've inherited the family home and grounds, there's no evaluation, and no expectation that you should sell. Stocks and bonds worth roughly seven million dollars, a collection of bank accounts, total assets around three million dollars, and various antiques and curios currently in storage at the estate worth over twelve million dollars at last evaluation." Moore looked up at her enquiringly.
Sarah's fear had receded in the face of a wave of pure greed. Her mind was trying to wrap itself around the numbers and failing. "I had no idea," she breathed.
"We can recommend an accountant, although I'd imagine you'd prefer one closer to your home. There is some administrative business, of course. I assume you'll want to visit the house." That snapped her out of her dreams of pina coladas and palm trees like a slap in the face. The family home. Again, she had no memories of it, but she knew with visceral certainty that somewhere within its walls was a stone-flagged floor and an iron door.
Where is she? She should be here by now. She must visit, she has to visit. Sarah, where are you? Sarah, please. This is your home.
Sarah stayed in a little bed and breakfast place near the local school. It was clean, if not overly comfortable and the kitchen turned out huge home-cooked meals. She had been here two days. She was now a wealthy woman. She could leave any time, begin a new life. She didn't.
Sarah carefully removed the fat from her bacon. She was eating well here, and enjoying it, but there was no need to go overboard.
She knew what she had to do. Looking out through the lace curtains that adorned practically every window of the little hotel, she could see where the Berkley estate, her estate began. It squatted on a hill northeast of Armstead like a mossy gargoyle. Her family obviously hadn't been farmers, for the lands had been left to run wild. Tall, dark trees hid any buildings from view, and a high, if crumbling, stone wall deterred sightseers. As she watched, a murder of crows alighted in one of the towering pines.
She had been informed that her father had arranged for the sprawling mansion to be maintained in the family's absence, and she resolved to visit the housekeeper. It would delay the inevitable moment when she approached the house itself, at least for a few hours.
Sarah felt distinctly uncomfortable being fawned over. The housekeeper and her husband, who occasionally trimmed the weeds around the house, were practically licking her sensible leather shoes. They informed her that they had worked tirelessly to keep the house, her house, in pristine condition for her return, and wasn't it wonderful that Berkley Manor had a mistress again. Mrs Cox explained carefully that she hadn't been given the keys to much of the manor, and she was dreadfully sorry, but she just didn't know what kind of condition some of the rooms would be in after all these years, but it was wonderful to have you back, dear. To Sarah's relief, it appeared that there was electricity connected, although Mr Cox butted in apologetically to say that it wasn't the most reliable of connections, but with a bit of capital he could fix that right up, yes ma'am. Sarah plastered on a fake grin and made her escape.
It wasn't until she had driven half-way up the hill that she realised where she was going; such was her relief to be away from the sycophantic pair. With an effort of will she calmed herself, and nosed her station wagon through the wrought iron gates.
Sarah put the station wagon into first as she eased the car over cobblestones pushed up and broken by tree roots. She winced as she heard something scrape. In amongst the trees the temperature had dropped dramatically, and Sarah stopped briefly to pull on a jacket. The sun had retreated behind a blanket of featureless grey cloud that conspired to add to the dreamlike atmosphere.
After about half a mile of forested wilds Sarah came to another pair of wrought iron gates. The cobbles stopped and she glanced at the enormous ruts and potholes ahead of her with trepidation. She decided this was definitely not a place to get stuck, and with some regret she abandoned her vehicle.
As she stepped out of the car the dark trees rustled, as if whispering among themselves, passing on the news that the master was home. Sarah pulled her jacket tighter around her shoulders and picked her way over the uneven ground to the gate. There were a surprising number of locks on the gate, although all, except one, hung uselessly from the cold bars. Sarah fished for the huge bunch of keys Moore had handed her. She hoped she wouldn't have to sort through all of them. She looked at the padlock more closely. Scored into the metal was a strange symbol, a bit like a stylised twig with a circle around it. She ran her fingernail over it trying to remember why it seemed so familiar to her. As if of their own accord, her hand reached for the bunch of keys, and without hesitation pulled one out and fitted it into the lock with a satisfying snick.
Sarah rubbed her forehead in a gesture of bewildered worry, "I don't remember this," she muttered to herself. She pushed the gate open wide enough for her to slip through, and went on.
Her feet crunched on the gravel as she rounded a pair of sentinel pines. She knew the house was just up ahead, but she kept her gaze on the ground in front of her. She halted, took a deep breath, and raised her head.
The house was huge and grey, with lead lighted windows that stared back blankly. Ivy covered a good portion of the wall, its questing fingers tapping mournfully on some of the windows. There were turrets and gables and well, Sarah wasn't really sure about the architectural details, but she knew the house was grand. She barely registered the fact that she had fallen to her knees, and it wasn't until her vision swam that she realised she was crying. An ache deep inside her, so constant and dull she didn't even know it was there had flared to life as the tears tracked down her face. I'm home.
Eventually the gravel under her knees grew painful, and she pulled herself to her feet, still euphoric. She wiped her eyes and fumbled for the keys. She couldn't get into the building fast enough. She flicked on the lights out of a habit she didn't know she had. The dim bulbs did little to penetrate the gloom, but Sarah didn't notice. Her mind was awash with images, remembered or imagined, and she practically flew down the dusty corridors, opening doors and peering into rooms.
Spring; the doors were flung open, the scent of flowers and sunshine distracting as she tried to study. Summer; maids were hanging out billowing white sheets as the master's daughter danced laughing between them. Workmen carefully carrying an antique clock up the stairs. Glittering guests arriving for a party. A Christmas spent alone and wondering. A grave festooned with flowers, and a warm hand holding hers,
"You will be protected."
Eventually the tide of emotion subsided, and Sarah collapsed into a chair in what appeared to be a drawing room, unbothered by the cloud of dust that rose as she did so. This was certainly unexpected, this visceral attachment to a house she couldn't remember. Still, she felt safe here, and all the floors so far had been carpet or polished wood. No iron doors, no nightmares made real. Relief washed through her, although she could not say what she had been dreading. It was her father's house, and now it was her house. It just felt so right. She belonged. Safe. She curled up like a child, and fell asleep amongst the dust motes and memories.
It was nearly dark when she awoke. The trip in to the house seemed surreal, like a dream. What had she been thinking? Falling asleep in the middle of the day and sleeping here, of all places. You're completely mad, she told herself. She stretched and brushed the dust off her clothes. She supposed she should be getting back to the hotel, although she felt strangely reluctant to do so. It was if there was something she had missed, something she should see. She shook her head; this was meant to be a quick visit, not an expedition. She promised herself she'd come back.
She strode towards the front door, shutting doors and turning off lights. She started trotting towards the exit. The house might not have been the haunted mansion of her nightmares, but she didn't want to be here after dark.
With a sigh of relief she arrived back at the entrance hall. A spectacular staircase led up to the second floor, and Sarah looked around with pride. With a house like this she felt like nobility, even if there wasn't a title to go with it.
The clouds had broken up while she was sleeping, and as she was about to leave a solitary beam of light filtered through the window and alighted on an oil painting, partly obscured by a curtain. Curious, she drew the curtain back.
It was a portrait. Sarah gasped, as her startled gaze met with her father's determined stare. She would not have recognised his face if it weren't for the subtle similarity to her own. His hair was the same pale gold, and the line of his nose matched hers. He was dressed for hunting, and he held a rifle in the crook of his arm. A gold cross hung at his throat. It was with a shock that Sarah realised he was standing in a graveyard. The background was vague, but she could make out urns and crosses silhouetted against an evening sky. There was no year or signature on the portrait that she could see, although there was a legend inscribed into the wooden frame.
Michael Berkley: Master of the Hunt
Sarah looked at the portrait again, and felt her fear return. This was her father? There was something decidedly creepy and otherworldly about the painting. It was as if the artist had rendered more than should be realised by mere paint. She shivered as she gazed into his eyes, for the unnamed artist had captured a strange light in them. Her father had seen things that were not meant to be seen. Her attention strayed to the legend again...Hunt. He had sought these things out, she knew.
She didn't know how long she stood in front of the painting, trying to get it to mesh with her fragmented memories. Eventually she pulled herself away from the image, and realised that there were two things she should have been paying more attention to. That the sun had set completely, and that she was no longer alone.