Chapter Three – Hunting in Shadow

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“Miss Katharine, we are here.”

She blinked away the haze of sleep and glanced up. Walter stood outside her door. He held it open, waiting for her.

“Oh, sorry.”

She grabbed her bag and stepped out of the limo. Her suitcase sat next to the car already. When she grabbed for it, Walter gave her a sympathetic smile. “Please allow me. You seem exhausted, and besides, I still need to show you to your room.”

Kat shrugged and let him carry the case. She noticed how he walked with a slight limp, but it didn’t seem to bother him. After glancing around the darkness, she realized they were standing on a packed gravel drive under an archway. The house always had reminded her more of some ancient castle. Lights sprayed across gargoyles with forked tongues and pointed teeth that lined the tiered roof. Two large French doors stood before them like the gate to some forbidden fortress. Marble lion statues stood as the sentinels near the entrances and at the corners of the arch. Each illuminated with their own spotlight from the ground before them.

They resemble the lion on the wax seal, Kat thought.

In the distance, she could hear a trickling fountain as it bubbled out in the courtyard. She didn’t remember that part of the manor, and it didn’t help ease her anxiousness about returning; in fact, it only solidified the notion to hurry back to her dorm once the legal hearings had finished. She had considered the place her home once she’d left to join the academy, but everything seemed too bright and polished to be considered a home. Despite knowing they had done some renovations to one of the wings, it appeared to make it more like some stoic museum than anything a person should live in.

“Are you ready?”

Kat spun to see Walter holding open one of the french doors.

His mouth had spread into a pleasant smile. “I see you like the newly renovated wing. We just finished it last summer. I think you will find it most accommodating.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Kat agreed. “I can’t wait to see it in the daylight.”

“Do you need any refreshments before bed this evening?” Walter closed the door behind her as she entered the corridor. Large framed paintings and delicate wooden tables lined the entryway. The polished wooden floor was covered by a trailing red rug that ran down the length of the room.

“No, I’ll be alright,” Kat answered as he led the way.

“Should you need anything in the night, you may call me or if you prefer to get it yourself, you may. The other maids are gone for the evening, but they will be back in a few hours to tend to the house and garden. The stable hands should be arriving soon to tend to the horses if you desire a morning ride.”

“You know I haven’t been gone that long. I remember the drill.” Kat glanced through an opening to see a large kitchen. It was complete with a two-tiered oven and multiple stovetops. “Nice kitchen.”

“Oh, this is the new guest kitchen. This one will be closer to your room if you wish to use it.”

She nodded.

Another opening further down the corridor revealed a large study. It was complete with antique wooden shelves filled with books and an enormous oak desk at the center of the room. She noticed the house, though mostly unused, was free of dust. Even the corners of the rooms and baseboards seemed to sparkle.

After a few more twists and turns down multiple hallways, and up a flight of stairs, Walter paused at one of the heavy wooden doors and opened it. Kat entered the massive room that was the size of her college apartment. A large four poster bed sat centered at the back wall draped in soft fabrics. Two large windows rose at either side of the bed that looked out into a courtyard. Outside, small lamps encircled the pathway that maneuvered through the flowerbeds. Kat turned back to her room eyeing the grand bathroom with jacuzzi tub. A fluffy tan robe hung next to the door with matching slippers.

“I’ll set your suitcase in the wardrobe for now. Should you wish to unpack, you may do so at your leisure. Tomorrow I am running an errand in town. If you wish to make any purchases, you may accompany me. However, should you go a different day is quite alright as well.” Walter sat the black case on a wooden shelf just inside the massive double-doored wardrobe. “Do you require anything else before bed, Miss Katharine?”

“No,” Kat yawned. “I think I’m good for now. Just a lot to take in, you know?”

Walter nodded and pointed to the telephone resting on the vanity table. “Press pound one to reach me in my quarters, or pound two for the head maid. One of us should answer. If not, leave a message, and I will call you back as soon as I get it.” He smiled. “Good night, Miss Katharine. It’s good to have you back, even if it is only one week.” Walter left the room and shut the door behind him.

 Kat stood staring around at the room, and her eyes lingered on the bed. It looked comfy, but could she really sleep feeling so out of place where she was supposed to be at home?

“How did I go from exhausted to can’t fall asleep? Maybe a little wandering around would help.”

Kat dug in her purse for her phone. Something cold and metallic slid along her skin at the base of her neck.

The key, she remembered.

She pulled it out from underneath her shirt and examined it in the light. One end had the interlaced triquetra that had been attached to a small length of metal with three prongs at the end for the locking mechanism. The shaft had an inscription with what appeared to be old runes. A couple of nicks appeared along its edges giving it a worn look. Kat shrugged, not understanding why he’d want to give it to her. She decided to tuck it back into her shirt again, just in case. The cold metal still shivered across her skin. After grabbing her phone, she headed out the door. She decided to leave it open to help her find it again later.

Adrenaline pumped through her body.

Sleep became even less of an option.

Too much new, too much unknown, to even think about sleep.

Part of her training had insisted that knowing one’s surroundings could be crucial in any situation. So, there she was, galivanting down seemingly endless hallways, marking any hidden spots in her mind as well as anything that could be used as a weapon against her.

Kat eased down the stairs. Her eyes flicked from painting to painting. The manor appeared to have actually become an old museum more than a warm and loving home. It didn’t have the smell of old dusty books anymore. Instead, it seemed too clean, or more unused. Kat rounded a corner to find another stairwell. That one appeared different somehow. The wooden stairs had visible scuffs, and the handrail didn’t shine like the others down the hall. That had to be a much older wing of the house. One she should have been able to remember from her childhood. Kat hesitated, then meandered up the stairway, letting her instincts flare as she investigated the deserted section of the house.

The walls were bare of paintings and mirrors.

It made her shiver.

However, a small light flickered at the top railing.

“Hello,” Kat called.

She paused halfway up the stairs, then hurried up the last few feet. Her muscles tensed, conditioned from her training. Instinct warned her that someone was nearby or had been recently. Lamps lined the walls every few feet, yellow with age, but clean.

Still, no answer and she didn’t hear any footsteps. Kat swallowed down an unsettling lump in her throat. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled, yet she pressed on and moved down the hall. Another set of stairs presented themselves at the end of the room in the form of a winding staircase.

The darkness crept in through the windows with each step forward. Kat glanced at one of the nearby lamps hanging on the wall and found the bulb missing. She licked her lips and checked the other side. Again, no bulb. The Celtic triquetra froze her skin and brought more shivers down her spine. Kat turned to go back down and hesitated. She could return in the morning, but that seemed stupid to do in her own house and childish. Yet, her instincts had never been wrong before. She licked her lips and took a defensive posture. She reflexively grabbed for her side gun, but all she had was the knife strapped against her calf. Drawing it could cause trouble if Walter found her running through the house with her knife in hand. She decided to keep it concealed for the time being.

Kat started up the stairs. Each step groaned and creaked with age. As the darkness crept in, she pulled out her phone for the flashlight feature. Bright light pooled in front of her. She blinked only then realizing the suffocating amount of darkness in the upper nook of the manor. Her mind itched to unlock the hidden, old rooms. A landing at the top of the stairs led out to an old storeroom. She glanced out a small window, trying to get her bearings, but couldn’t recognize which wing glowed outside. A few dusty boxes set around the room covered in crinkled papers and weathered books. She tiptoed across the creaking floor, examining the assortment of items. One of the documents with washed out writing had a date from the early twentieth century at the top corner.

A shadow loomed at the corner of her vision. She swept over the light revealing an old door at the end of the room. The worn silver handle appeared as though untouched for ages with a thick layer of dust coating the top. Kat swallowed hard and reached for it.

As her fingers grazed the surface, a stack of boxes toppled down, threatening to crush her beneath their combined weight.

She threw herself backward and stumbled into the wall.

They landed with a loud thud, probably waking Walter.

Dust splashed out, choking the air in the room. She coughed as the thick, dirty air invaded her lungs. Her eyes darted around, but only the boxes remained. A few papers and old books had joined the avalanche of decaying cardboard to scatter across the floor. She put her hand to her chest and let out a deep breath.

Kat knelt to repack the belongings.

She piled most of the books back into the boxes before noticing an imprint in the dusty floor. A large shoe print showed next to the boxes.

The print was not her own.

Kat squinted and felt the hairs prickle on the back of her neck once again. She bit her lip. The rational part of her brain reasoned that Walter could have been up here earlier that day; however, her cadet training knew better. Kat placed the last book into the box and reached for the papers when a low growl confirmed her suspicions and echoed out from the edge of the room.

She froze.

Every fiber of her body halted in place.

Her heart pounded, almost vibrating against her ribcage.

Someone or something was there with her.

Kat gasped out a small breath and inched the shaking light down as she unholstered the small knife from its sheath.

The idea that someone was lurking in the shadows of the storage room seemed unlikely. The growl made her think of coyotes. They were about the largest predators in the area, but she had heard stories of panthers roaming around long ago. However, with the news of her uncle’s death, it seemed much more likely that a disgruntled relative didn’t want to wait for their share of the inheritance, but that was the problem. Other than herself and her brother, she didn’t really know the rest of her family.

She edged toward the stairs.

More footsteps in the dirty floor caught her attention.

Not a predator, but at least one person for sure, she reasoned.

She breathed out and assumed a defensive stance again with her feet spread apart and her arms relaxed, but ready to strike. It wouldn’t be too outlandish for someone to try to rob the mansion, but the security system and few guards that she knew would be at the guardhouse nearby, had been a significant enough deterrent for most.

A shiver ran down her spine.

Her eyes glanced at the floor again, finally seeing her own footsteps from earlier.

She narrowed her eyes, noticing a pattern.

The larger footsteps encircled her own.

She was being followed.

Kat swallowed and shined the steadied light near the stairwell. Movement caught her eye, and something knocked the phone from her hand.

Light spun, flickering across the room, before landing on a nearby box and trapping the beam between it and the phone.

Her muscles trembled, pumped full of adrenaline. Someone was definitely there and looking for a fight. She narrowed her gaze in the darkness and held the knife at the ready, letting her eyes adjust to the surroundings.

A heavy coat swayed near the boxes next to the stairs.

Her eyes locked onto the tall figure.

The person shifted closer.

Kat’s fingers gripped tighter against the knife. “I will warn you now that I am a trained officer, I am armed, and will defend myself should you attack. Give up now, and no one gets hurt.” Technically, her training hadn’t finished yet, but they didn’t need to know that part.

Again, the cloaked figure shifted closer but remained out of her reach.

Another growl rumbled out.

“This is your last warning.” Kat inched toward the stairs.

If she could lure them out into the light, she might have a better chance or at least be able to call for help. The figure darted forward.

She recoiled back, still clutching the knife, and dashed back toward the stairwell.

Heavy footsteps thudded behind her.

She smirked as the darkness faded, allowing her to glance back.

The crook had pulled up the edges of the collar, concealing his face. But she could get something of him at least.

He was male, just over six feet in height and about one hundred and eighty in weight. Kat paused, daring to gather as much intel as she could.

He had long, dark hair tucked into the coat, so she wasn’t quite sure of the length. And, his eyes almost glowed like a hot flame, filled with intense malice.

The perp lunged forward. His hand snapped for her throat.

Kat dodged and flew down the stairs.

As she neared the bottom, she slipped, but used her momentum and rolled down the remaining steps.

Her blade slipped into her palm, digging into her skin. The faint metallic scent of blood pierced the air.

Hands grabbed her shoulders.

She sank a knee into the burglar’s chest. As he collapsed forward, her elbow dropped into the back of his skull. His grip loosened and she sliced at the air, forcing him to dodge back.

Kat rolled away, aiming to get a better look at her assailant and instead heard footsteps limping down the hall toward her. She glanced to the side, spotting a familiar face coming down the hallway.

“Miss Katharine, are you alright? What happened?” Walter hurried to her.

She glanced back in front of her to find an empty hall.

“There’s someone here. Someone was up there.” Kat panted and felt her whole body shaking. She couldn’t stand just yet.

“Are you hurt?” Walter knelt down to her.

“N-no.” She winced, knowing full well she would have at least two bruises in the morning. Not to mention, her own injury from the knife. Her palm still stung from the light cut. “I’m okay. He was right here a second ago. He was wearing a big coat, probably a duster, black leather. I could smell it in the air.”

“Did you see who it was?” Walter helped her to sit up.

Kat grumbled. Her plan hadn’t worked as she had hoped. “I didn’t see a face. It was too dark. I did get some basic info, but not enough to identify him.” The leather cord tugged at her neck, and she tucked the necklace back into her shirt. “I, uh.” She glimpsed around the floor. “Dammit. I think I lost my phone.”

“It is probably up there still.” He helped her to stand. “Why don’t we get you back to your room to rest, then I’ll come back and retrieve your cellphone for you?”

“Wait. What if he comes back?”

“I doubt there will be anything to worry about.” Walter gazed out the window at the purple haze of dawn.

“I would feel better if we came back to get it after daylight. Please don’t worry about it.”

Walter gave his soft smile. “If you insist, Miss Katharine.”

Kat glanced as they walked down the hall. Nothing stirred, but even if the fight was over, she knew the battle had just begun.

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