The GPS directed Cassie to turn down a two-track path, like a logging trail that cut through the woods. It must be Gustave’s driveway, but she did not see a mailbox. There was not even a sign showing a house number, but this had to be the place.
The two-tire path of the driveway was a mixture of sand and gravel with a patch of long grass and thistle growing in the middle. Cassie drove onto the winding trail, it curved into the trees making it impossible for her to see what lie at the end. Gustave’s house had better be there because there was no place to turn around.
Cassie drove for half a mile before she saw what had to be Gustave’s home, or rather, Gustave’s castle. It looked just like the massive stone castles that she had seen in storybooks as a child, where knights in shining armor rode their horses through the castle gate to greet the princess and tell her of their latest victory. But this was a smaller version. It had no moat, drawbridge, or walls like a fortress, but it did have a couple of towers and tall skinny windows. While not as ancient as the ones found in Europe—as far as she imagined—she could tell it was old and had been around a long time. Bitter Castle? Did the gypsy woman actually know what she was talking about?
She drove up to an open area of sparse wild rye, stopping near the stone step entrance. Two outbuildings were off to the side. One she imagined could house Gustave’s car, since she did not see it, and the other looked like a workshop. She turned off the car and looked around. There was no yard, only weeds growing in the barren landscape between the residence and the forest. The trees surrounding the castle had many dead branches. The lush forest did not want to grow on this patch of land.
To the west was Lake Michigan. A spectacular view. The castle was on an elevation overlooking the Great Lake. The muted sun found an opening between dark boiling clouds; soon they would blot out the star of life completely.
The surroundings spooked Cassie. It gave her the feeling that the place was haunted. Nevertheless, she took the properly wrapped An Impartial Account of the Trial of Lord Conwallis from the seat beside her, tugged on the stubborn ring a few more times, and walked up to the entrance’s dozen stone steps. The wide split stones directed the visitor to an unwelcoming door. She adjusted the silk scarf around her neck, making sure it fell over the gypsy’s ugly brooch.
The door’s knocker startled Cassie. It was the head of a gargoyle, just like those weird winged monsters she had encountered when her car quit running. Why would the knocker look exactly like those creatures? For a moment, and only a moment, before her rational mind took over, she wondered if Coopers Creatures lived there. No such thing, she told herself. But she knew there were such things, she had seen them.
Raising the heavy metal ring that the gargoyle was holding in its snarling mouth, she banged it on the strike plate three times. It sounded like the devil was calling. Cassie cracked a smile at the macabre thought. While she waited for someone to answer, a feeling of unease crept over her. Was it the unkempt grounds and the way small branches lay on the roofs of the outbuildings? For a man who seemed to have money, he certainly did not spend it on the upkeep of his property.
Cassie knocked again and waited. He must not be home—if this was his home. She walked back to the car so that she could call him, maybe he was in a part of the castle where he could not hear her knocking. She took her phone from its mount and called the phone number he had given at the bookstore. She got the same message that Nicole had gotten saying that it was not a working number.
“Well, I can’t leave the book on the doorstep. I’ll leave a note.”
She looked at the western sky before searching for paper and pen. Bubbling black storm clouds now covered the sun and it was growing darker. A weather front pushed a gust of wind through the trees, causing the car’s door to close on the leg that she had not brought inside the car. The wind roared through tree branches and stirred up sand that pelted the side of the car.
“Can I help you?” A woman shouted from the castle door.
Cassie looked up and saw a strikingly beautiful woman with pale skin, bright red lipstick, and dark mascara standing at the open castle door. Her long black hair blew in the wind as she put a hand on her hip. Was this Gustave’s girlfriend or wife?
Cassie pushed the car door open and got out. The force of the wind made it slam shut behind her. She jogged back to the steps taking note of the woman’s tight black pants and plunging neckline of her bosom-hugging top. For a second, the thought of Gustave being interested in herself was wrong; this woman was far more sensual.
When she got to the top where the woman was standing, looking at her as if she were an intruder, she said. “Hi, I’m Cassie from C & N Rare Books.”
“Nice to meet you, Cassie,” the woman said with a Transylvania-like accent—or maybe it was French. “My name is Belladonna. How may I help you?”
“I’m looking for Gustave Veil.” Cassie held up the archival box in her hand. “He ordered a book and I’m just delivering it to him.”
“Ah, yes. Gustave did tell me he was going to acquire a rare book. Which one did he decide on? He had several in mind.”
“An Impartial Account of the Trial of Lord Conwallis.”
“I remember that murder. I’m not surprised he chose it.”
She remembered the trial from the sixteen hundreds? She phrased the sentence wrong. “Oh, so you’ve read it?”
Belladonna ignored the question, her eyes squinted as she sized Cassie up and down. At first, Cassie thought Belladonna was going to send her away. That was until Belladonna ran her tongue seductively over her luscious lips and then slid the back of her fingers over her right breast. The thin material did not obscure the erect nipple. Was this woman trying to seduce her into a sexual encounter? A prostitute?
“I’d better go. Looks like it’s going to rain.”
“Wait a moment, Cassie.” Belladonna reached for Cassie’s neck.
Cassie backed away. “What are you doing?”
“There is something on your neck. Please, allow me to remove it.”
Belladonna’s long black fingernails scraped along Cassie’s neck. She could not believe she was allowing this harlot to touch her, but oddly she was. When Belladonna pulled her hand away there was mucous on it. Cassie reached for her neck and rubbed away any remaining snot left by the creature that had been sniffing her neck.
Then the woman noticed the skull ring on Cassie’s finger. “Where did you get that ring?”
Cassie blushed, embarrassed to say Gustave’s ring was stuck on her finger. “Well, it’s a little hard to explain but Mr. Veil was showing it to me in the shop.”
“Oh, I see. Did he give it to you?”
“No, he was only showing it to me.” Cassie tugged on it for the millionth time. “It’s kinda stuck.”
A wide grin formed on Belladonna’s pallid face. “Gustave is here. Would you like to give the book to him personally?”
Cassie cleared her throat. She was both excited and nervous. “Yes, thank you.”
The woman stepped aside and motioned for Cassie to enter. But for some strange reason, Cassie was afraid to cross the threshold. Her gut was telling her not to go inside.
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