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Authors: Janet B. Taylor

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BOOK: Into the Dim
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“Questions?” I choked.

She went on as if I hadn't spoken. “Though I didn't expect our introduction to be quite this abrupt, I suppose it might as well happen this way.” She didn't smile as she extended a hand. “I am Lucinda Carlyle. Your mother's sister.”

A velvet drawstring bag dangled, heavy and bulging, from her wrist as she extended a hand. When I pointedly ignored the proffered hand, she sighed and let the arm drop back to her side.

My tongue like a slab of cold meat, I asked, “What is all this? Why is my mother's image woven into a nine-hundred-year-old tapestry? What am I doing here?”

Collum muttered, “That's a good question. Why
is
she here?”

Before anyone could speak, the vault door buzzed and swung open. Moira, wrapped in a plaid bathrobe, her graying hair ensconced in a phalanx of pink sponge rollers, rushed in. Hectic spots appeared on each round cheek as she wheezed. “Hope Walton, how in the name of Mary and Bride did ye get down here? Get back to yer bed this instant!”

Lucinda, in her belled skirts, laid a hand on the flustered woman's arm. “Let it be, Moira.”

Moira deflated slightly, though she still puffed with aggravation. “Are ye fine then, Lu? Did everything go as planned?”

“Yes. Quite well, in fact. I think the senator will be most pleased.”

Lucinda pulled the bag from her wrist and passed it to Moira. A grin passed over Moira's lips as she took a quick peep inside. The bag made a muted metallic clank as she set it on a nearby crate.

I gawped in disbelief as everyone around me acted as though it was perfectly normal for grown people to prance around in the middle of the night dressed like extras in a bad movie.

“Go back to bed, Moira,” Lucinda leaned her parasol against a bumpy covered object. “You too, Collum. I'll explain things to Hope after I get out of this blasted costume.” She gave an irritated tug at the low neckline. “We'll be up in a while.”

Moira shook out the fabric bundle she carried under one arm. “Nonsense. I'll stay too. Ye'll need help with the corset. Besides, ye must be exhausted.”

“You're too good to me,” Lucinda said. “Hope, you'll help as well, won't you?”

I stared from one to the other, my mind whirling so fast, it flipped into blankness. I found myself nodding.

“That's settled, then,” Lucinda said.

When we entered the costume room, a guy was sitting at the computer desk, his enormously broad back turned toward us.

“Hey, Lu. Col,” he said before wheeling around in his chair. “How'd it go with—?” He sprang to his feet. “What's
she
doing here?”

Computer boy was a titan. At least six and a half feet tall, with skin the color of an autumn acorn. Twisted, finger-length dreadlocks stuck out in all directions as if he'd been tugging on them. He topped the freckled Collum by a head, and his beefy proportions mirrored many of the professional football players my dad so admired. He should have been formidable. Yet behind a pair of gold-framed glasses, the boy's brown eyes seemed bashful as they fixed on me.

“Oh no,” he groaned, slapping a hand the size of a small ham to his forehead. “Lu, I only left the watch room for a tic to get . . . something. I—I thought she was asleep.”

Though he towered over her, the boy visibly shrank under my aunt's scrutiny.

“Yes, Douglas.” Aunt Lucinda flicked a look at the mangled remains of a sandwich lying near the desktop monitor. “I see that.”

“Douglas Eugene Carlyle.” Moira's scorching tone made the big guy shrink even further, until his head looked like it wanted to crawl inside his shoulders. “How could ye leave the door untended, lad? The poor lamb is likely scared out o' her wits.”

Collum strolled over and gave Douglas a sympathetic clap on the shoulder. “Bad timing, mate.”

Douglas reached up and swiped at a smear of mustard on his cleft chin before he bowed his head in shame. “Gor, Lu. I'm pure sorry for it.”

Lucinda nodded and patted him on the arm. “No harm done. It's likely better this way, actually.” She grunted. “Introductions, then, I suppose. Just because we're weary doesn't mean we should neglect the niceties. Hope, this is Douglas Carlyle, my ward, and your cousin . . . of sorts. His father—my cousin Charles—and his mother, Yourna, were killed in a car accident when Douglas was only seven. He joined our family and has lived here with us ever since.”

I met the boy's kind eyes. His hand swallowed mine in a gentle, warm grip. “Call me Doug,” he said, smiling. “And it's pleased we are to have you here at last.”

“And Collum MacPherson you met informally.” Lucinda gestured to the laconic boy, who barely glanced at me as he slipped off his officer's cap and tucked it under one arm. “Collum is Mac and Moira's grandson. Later today, you'll meet his sister, Phoebe—”

“Too late,” Moira muttered.

“Ah, naturally.” Lucinda and Moira exchanged a wry look before Lucinda went on. “Well, in any case. May I present Sarah's daughter, and my niece, Hope Walton, lately from the United States.”

I felt like my eyebrows had disappeared into my scalp by then. Even leaving aside the whole costume thing, my aunt's so-proper introductions were too bizarre to bear, especially buried as we were in some freaky high-tech burrow secreted deep beneath the ground.

“Um . . . hi?” was all I could manage before I spun on Lucinda. “What—”

Before I could say another word, Moira had hustled my aunt away into one of the curtained booths. Fabric rustled, and I heard the snap of hooks being undone.

“Hold your water, Hope,” Moira ordered as she emerged, carrying a huge bubble of yellow taffeta. “Ye'll get your answers. But let your auntie change first. She's pure tired.”

Moira began to bustle about, humming under her breath as she tucked the various costume accouterments away in the tall cabinet. Doug crept back to his computer. Only Collum acted as if anything unusual might be going on. He passed his gun belt and officer's coat to his grandmother, but his cold hazel eyes stayed focused on me. Dressed in a tight gray T-shirt, his Union-blue pants tucked into black boots, Collum's muscles bulged as he leaned against the wall, arms crossed.

If he wouldn't scowl like that all the time, he'd actually be kind of cute.

Ignoring him, I marched over to the booths just as the curtain was whisked aside. Lucinda emerged swathed in a soft navy tracksuit, a terry-cloth turban wrapped around her head.

“Much better, Moira,” she said. “You were right, as usual.”

When I wouldn't move out of her way, Lucinda stared into my face, her turbaned head tilted. A look of something like pity creased her eyes as she studied me. “Yes. Yes, you're absolutely right. It's time you knew.”

For one split second, I longed to stop her. To walk away and go on with my broken little life. I straightened my spine and stared right back. I'd come way too far to chicken out now.

“This will be difficult for you,” Lucinda said without dropping her gaze. “You were brought up in a household of logic, Hope. Of academia and rationality. And your mother's descriptions of your eidetic abilities are quite astonishing. In the end, however, Sarah decided your phobias had grown too intense for you to bear those secrets she wanted so desperately to share with you.”

My face burned at the casual way she brought up my issues . . . problems . . . whatever, but I disregarded this. “What are you talking about?” I said. “My mother didn't have
secrets.

Doug wheeled the desk chair over and offered it to Lucinda, who skirted around me to sit. Pinching the skin between her eyes, she exhaled long and deep. “Hope, I want you to know that my sister's decision to keep all this from you is not something I agreed with. We argued about it. Often. In the end, I honored her wishes. Unfortunately, we've now come to a place where that is no longer an option.”

Lucinda let out a long breath and squared her shoulders before continuing. “Prepare yourself, Hope. It is now time for you to set aside what you think you know of this world. For there are things in it which are not easily explained.”

Chapter 9

I
STOOD MUTE WHILE MY AUNT AND
M
OIRA HELD A BRIEF
, private discussion, after which they marched out the door. Lucinda gestured for me to follow.

I had no choice. I scurried after them as they moved along the cellar and back through the still-open vault door. Behind me, I heard the two boys follow.

“Lu,” Moira fretted, “ye look pale. Couldn't this wait till morning?”

Lucinda murmured something I couldn't hear as we wove among the high stacks and cloth-draped objects. Near the rear wall of the stone chamber, we stopped. Lucinda waved Doug forward, where another security layer was embedded in the stone.

“In the year 1883,” Lucinda said as Doug keyed in a code, “after a late night of brandy and cigars, my great-great-grandfather Hubert Carlyle, along with his estate manager, James MacPherson, and Dr. Carlos Alvarez, a family friend, went down to view the excavations of Huberts's new wine cellar. The room in which we currently stand. Construction had ceased, due to the family's waning funds, but Hubert wanted his friends to view the progress.”

There was a grating sound. A section of stone the size of two men began to slide back into the rock.

“The excavations,” Lucinda continued over the noise, “had left this back wall unstable. No one was injured in the rock fall, but the collapse did reveal something quite odd.” Lucinda gestured toward the now-open portal. “An ancient stone staircase.”

“And too bad for us it wasn't an ancient escalator,” Doug mumbled, pushing through the door.

As he helped Moira and Lucinda through, I glanced down at a dust-covered glass case. Tacked to the front was another of the innocuous labels.

 

ARTIFACT 3624. TRANSYLVANIAN REGALIA.

ACQUIRED: CARPATHIA, 1573. LC, MM1, MM2.

 

I read it again. My gaze tracked over the hundreds of boxes and crates, all with similar labels. On the far wall I could make out the top of a jackal-headed statue. And weren't those sword hilts sticking up from the packing material in that open crate?

The shock was wearing off now, and a piece of the puzzle clicked into place.

LC, MM1, MM2.

Lucinda Carlyle. Mac MacPherson. Moira MacPherson.

Archeologists? Art dealers? Are these some kind of black-market antiques?

None of that jelled with the period clothing or the computers. I was still missing something. Some vital element.

“Oy,” Collum's shout from the opening made me jump. “Get a move on, yeah?”

We descended in a single line down a set of ancient steps carved into the very bedrock of the mountain. Each one was worn in the middle with age and use. As we moved down and down the switchback path, I trailed my hand along the cold stone, feeling rough, rudimentary chisel marks beneath my fingertips.

Wire-caged light bulbs hung at intervals, clipped to the same bundle of colored wires I'd noticed in the computer room that tracked along beside us.

Even with Moira and Collum's flashlights lending support to the scant pools of light, the darkness began to press in on me. The air thickened with the damp, elemental scents of earth and stone. The walls warped, and the already low roof loomed over my head.

Too dark. Too close. It's going to collapse. We'll be buried alive. I gotta get out. I gotta go.

I flinched when a dislodged pebble skittered past me down the steps.

“Wait.” I braced myself against the wall and tried to suck in the dense air. “Wait. I don't . . . It's too . . . Can't . . . breathe.”

Collum turned from the step just below me. The light from his flashlight splashed across my face, and his irritated expression changed. He took my hand in his own callused one. For the first time, he sounded almost decent.

BOOK: Into the Dim
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