John Smith’s feathers didn’t ruffle easily, but there was something about the old castle that made him uneasy. It might have been the two stone dragons at the base of the front porch steps. It could also have been the eight gargoyles along the eaves of the roof. The old castle felt off, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it.
Or maybe it was his new client that was bothering him. The man was born to the manor into a family of old wealth. He had inherited the castle that he had grown up in. Howard Elsworth Rinker had played the field well into his early forties. It wasn’t until he met Elizabeth that he decided it was time to settle down and start a family. Prior to the wedding, Elizabeth was unusually attentive to his every need asking little of him except for his time. Since the wedding, she had become distant. Howard suspected that she was cheating on him.
John Smith had a reputation among the wealthy for getting to the heart of the matter. He was incredibly discreet and highly effective. Elizabeth Nehring Rinker sat in the office chair fidgeting with her hair. The woman across the desk wore a slight smile as she delivered her apology. “I’m sorry that you came all this way to speak with Mr. Smith. He’s out of the office visiting a potential client. I can take down the details and relay them to him. Please, tell me why you are here.”
“It’s about my husband. We haven’t been married very long, but… Well… I think he’s planning to kill me. I mean, it’s probably just my imagination. The house, well, it’s a castle really, is so very big and it’s easy to lose one’s way in it. It’s just that I can never seem to find him when I want to spend time with him. He’s always off somewhere. Before we got married, we were seldom apart. It was wonderful, and now…”
“…the magic’s gone? The honeymoon is over?” Helen Zaranie continued her background search on Elizabeth and her husband. Before Elizabeth Rinker came into the office, she had been busy gathering information on Howard Rinker for her partner.
“Yes! Exactly! It’s like the excitement drained away the minute the marriage was consummated.”
John examined the wedding photos on display in Howard Rinker’s study. “She’s quite attractive. I can understand why you would be concerned. Do you have any idea where she might be?”
“She said that she was going to visit a sick friend. I wasn’t aware that she had any friends in the area.”
“Where is she from?”
“Ohio. That’s where we held the wedding.”
“That sounds like a good place to start.”
“Actually, I was hoping that you would just follow her around and see where she goes.”
“I can’t very well start following her if I don’t know where she is. In the meantime, I’ll have my associate run a background check on your wife.”
Helen paused her typing and glanced across the desk. “How well do you know your husband? For example, where is he from originally?”
“Like I said, the castle has been in his family for generations. I believe he said that he was born there. Other than that, and the fact that he’s filthy rich, I don’t know a whole lot. I’d go stir crazy if I hadn’t kept my job. I work for a travel agency. That’s how we met. I was chaperoning a group tour in the Caribbean. We met at a restaurant and things took off from there.”
“Ah! A whirlwind romance, it sounds like he swept you off your feet.”
“He’s an amazing dancer. Pretty much every thing about him is amazing. But lately, things have been less amazing and he seems to be stalking me sometimes. Or maybe it’s just the castle that we live in. Sometimes the place gives me a case of the Heebie-jeebies. I feel as though it doesn’t like me being there.”
“Well, would you look at the time! It’s time for me to close the office. Would you mind if I followed you home? I’d really like to see this castle of yours.”
“No, not at all. My Mercedes is parked out front.” Elizabeth rose from her chair and went outside to wait in her car while Helen closed the office. She had already sent the information to John’s phone, but there was no way to tell if he received it. They had moved in the past year into a new building in a nearby town. The place was quieter and there were fewer old acquaintances to run into. Helen set the alarm and locked the door before pointing to the Forester parked ahead of the Mercedes. “Don’t worry about losing me. I’m pretty good at tailing people.” Helen winked before walking to her car and climbing inside.
The castle was located in the midst of an open field of tall grass. A narrow, paved road led to the castle gate. The cast iron gate opened to a bridge over a moat. A high cast-iron fence topped with spearheads surrounded the moat. The bridge was short, about two car lengths. The arch on the other side opened into a courtyard. Helen parked her Forester beside John’s Tesla and waited at the bottom of the steps.
“Imposing, aren’t they?” Elizabeth pointed to the two dragons guarding the base of the stairs to the front portico. Helen nodded and followed Elizabeth. Half-way up the long flight, Elizabeth pointed out the array of gargoyles that stood watch along the roofline. “There are times that I swear I see them moving. It’s silly, I know. But I didn’t grow up in a house like this back in Ohio.”
Helen stared back at the stone dragons at the bottom of the steps. A vague memory stirred in the back of her mind, but refused to reveal itself. She didn’t press the matter as she had other issues to deal with at present. As he climbed the steps to the front door, she realized that the castle was as much an anachronism as John’s manor house. Except there was something more, something she had yet to realize.
Elizabeth pushed open the heavy oak door and entered the front hall of the castle. Unlike John’s manor house, the castle’s upper floors were accessible through stairs in the corner towers instead of a central staircase. There were many similarities to the layout. Off to the right was the banquet hall and to the back of it was the kitchen. A large ballroom lay to the left of the front hall. At the back of the hall, was Howard’s study. Helen smiled as she heard John’s voice wafting out of the partially open door.
“Sounds like he has company. Maybe we should wait…”
“Nonsense! That’s my partner in there. We should go in.” Helen pushed open the door to the study. She smiled and nodded toward John.
“Howard, allow me to introduce my partner, Helen Zaranie. Helen, this is Howard Elsworth Rinker.”
Helen extended her hand. Howard Rinker clasped it gently, then bent forward to kiss it. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Helen.” There was a gleam in his eye. He winked as he straightened up. Helen glanced at John as she moved aside to make room for Elizabeth who had entered the room behind her.
Elizabeth sidled up next to Howard and wrapped an arm around his back. She gave him a peck on the cheek before releasing him. Helen noted the minor annoyance he displayed at the signs of affection. Howard cleared his throat before speaking. “It looks like it’s my turn to make introductions. John, this is my wife Elizabeth. Elizabeth, this is John Smith and his partner Helen.”
“Oh, Howard darling, Helen and I have met. She followed me here. I wanted to show her the castle. She lives in a manor house on the opposite end of town or thereabouts. It’ll be nice to get an architect buff’s opinion of the place.”
“I just love old houses and castles are an absolute passion.” Helen lied. She took John’s arm. “I hope you don’t mind that I came. It was an opportunity not to be missed.” Underneath the idle chatter, she relayed a rather important piece of information. “I told her nothing about where I lived. She was trying to hire you. Some lame story about suspecting her husband planned to kill her. Watch your back.”
“Of course not! I’d love a tour myself. It’s not everyday that you get to visit a castle, especially one with a moat.” Howard walked out of his study and caught up with his wife. The couple led the way down the hall toward the ballroom. Heavy tapestries lined the walls except for slits that let in the light. “Wide enough to fire a longbow through.” John smiled.
“You sound like you’ve had some experience in that matter.” Howard went on at greats lengths describing the dances held there, even relating the story of about replacing the candles in the chandeliers with gaslighting. Helen smiled and nodded, feigning attention while silently conversing with John. “Did you notice when you crossed the moat that the water was flowing? And that tall iron fence? It’s as though someone were trying to contain magic.”
“Or keep it out. What makes you think they were trying to keep it in?”
“Something about the dragons. I can’t quite put my finger on it.”
“The gargoyles don’t bother you?”
“Should they? They seemed harmless enough. A bit curious about me, or maybe it was Elizabeth that they were reacting to.”
Howard led the party to the southwest tower and started the climb to the second level. “An ancestor who built a smaller castle discovered that if you want a moat, you can’t have a dungeon. For that reason, this castle is without a dungeon. It’s a long climb to the next floor, but if you are worried about falling, you’ll notice that we have iron railing along the stone steps. The floor above the halls consists of four suites. Each suite has a bedroom, a bath, and a sitting parlor. The next floor up is meant to house the castle staff, but at the moment we have none.”
“Who does the cooking?” John asked cheerily.
“We take turns. It depends a great deal on what we are in the mood for eating. My specialty is pasta. Howard is quite adept with omelets.”
Helen scrunched up her face at the thought of such a narrow diet. She almost volunteered John, but she didn’t have to. “You’ll have to show me the kitchen. I’m an excellent cook.”
“Seriously, you should hear him bragging about his desserts!” Helen had opened the door to the suite located over the castle kitchen.
“Oh, not that one dear.” Elizabeth was standing across the hall in the open door of the front suite. Helen smiled and closed the door behind her. The light coming in through the arrow slits should have blinded Helen. She feigned the normal reaction, even complaining about the “spots” before her eyes as Elizabeth led her about the room.
The suite was dusty and full of cobwebs from lack of use. There was some damage to the furniture near the slits from rain coming in. The bed was heavily shrouded and a cloud of dust formed when Helen parted the curtains. The copper bath was green from age and moss was growing along the outer wall. When Helen turned the spigot, the pipe rumbled to life and spewed rusty brown water.
After Helen shut off the water, Elizabeth took a seat on the rim of the copper tub and swirled her hand in the water. “You can see for yourself how bad things are here. If I didn’t go to work, I’d go mad. But I don’t think he approves of my working.”
“Does he know that you are still working?”
“No. I’ve been meaning to tell him, but we can’t seem to get together long enough to discuss anything serious.”
Halfway through the word “serious”, Helen fainted falling to the floor. Elizabeth tried to rouse her, but Helen did not respond. Finally, after a few minutes, Elizabeth left to get help from the men who were downstairs in the kitchen. As soon as Elizabeth was clear of the room, Helen picked herself up from the floor and went to the nearest slit. “It’s safe. She’s gone.”
The face of a beaked creature appeared in the slit. “Mistress is dangerous. She lies.”
“I know. Are you held against your will?”
“All of us. They look for more. Maybe you and your friend.”
“Not bloody likely. They’ll be here soon. Are they connected to the dragons?”
“They are the dragons.”
When Elizabeth returned with the men, Helen was sitting on the floor rubbing her head. “I could use something sweet, or a slice of bread, something to raise my blood sugar.” John rifled through his coat pockets and pulled out a root beer barrel. Helen smiled and took it. After a few minutes of sucking on the hard candy, she let John pull her to her feet. The four ambled downstairs to the kitchen where John resumed his inspection of the amenities.
John found the refrigerator unsurprisingly bare. It was a wonder that the Rinkers were still alive based on how little food he found inside. Helen joined him inside the walk-in unit. “Find anything interesting?”
“Yes, the door is still open. If they were going to eat us, you’d think we’d be stuck inside. And the inside release is still there as well.”
“It was worth a shot. But I think they intend to turn us into gargoyles, at least that’s what they did to Doyle. They don’t seem to be on to us as anything but nosey private eyes.”
“We’ll know when we make our goodbyes, won’t we?”
John and Helen left the walk-in refrigerator all smiles and laughter. He turned to the Rinkers. “I’m sorry, but there isn’t enough food in there to make a decent meal. I’ll have to go into town for some supplies. Helen has a list of groceries to pick up for tonight.”
As the four walked down the portico stairs to the parking area, Helen could sense the connection between the stone dragons and the Rinkers. Her sight was fully engaged, enough that she had to stifle laughter at the sight of the grumpy berserker hidden beneath John’s gleaming smile. “Oh, my poor sad toad. Don’t worry. I’ll protect you.” It was a thought she kept to herself for fear of tipping their hand.
“We should be back in about an hour. I promise, it’ll be the best meal that you’ve ever had.” John lied. They were planning on returning sooner, just not with their cars. As soon as they arrived outside of the castle gate, they could sense that something was following them. They drove to the closest supermarket and went inside. Helen made a phone call to a former employer in California. “I need to know everything that you can tell me about dragons and gargoyles.”
“What’s this about dragons and gargoyles?”
“We, John and I, have stumbled across a pair of dragons and an octet of gargoyles attached to an ancient castle. We need information.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t know anything beyond the stories in the fairy tale books.”
“Thanks, anyway.” Helen hung up and sighed.
“What did he say?”
“He said that we should have gone to the library. Our gargoyle friend is still out there.”
“Maybe it’s time to just wing-it. Go see what our friendly neighborhood gargoyle wants. I need to visit the little boy’s room.”
“Fine. Just don’t take too long.”
Helen wasn’t ready to give away her special talents. She decided the best way to get the gargoyle’s attention was the old-fashioned way. She left the store through the back door and gathered some small stones. She walked up the embankment behind the employee parking area and lobbed a few stones across to where the gargoyle had perched. She had over the centuries become quite good at skipping stones. Choosing a fairly large flat stone, she fast-pitched the stone at the back of the gargoyle. It nearly knocked the creature off the roof, but it succeeded in getting his full attention.
Doyle turned around, angry and determined to seek revenge for the stoning. He rose up into the sky and darted toward the figure on the embankment. His charge ended when the woman flung a stone that arched back toward the embankment after he dodged it. He recognized the woman from the bath and settled down next to her. “You are in danger, Miss Helen. Mistress will come for you if you do not return.”
“Mistress should not have sent you to follow me or my friend.” Helen reached out her hand and touched the creature on its cheek. She smiled. “Be careful what you wish for. Things here aren’t always what they seem.” Helen walked back down the small hill and into the store. By the time that John reappeared, she had filled a shopping cart with everything that he would need to cook a decent meal for four.
“I knew I could count on you to get done what needed to be done.” He kissed her on the forehead. “Guess what I found out.”
“That dragons don’t actually breathe fire?”
The grocery store had provided good cover for the two of them to prepare for the hours ahead of them. They drove over to their new office and pulled their cars into the secure garage. From there, they loaded the supplies into John’s old Jeep and headed for the castle. Doyle kept a close watch on them from the sky.
They arrived back at the castle in a little over an hour after they had left. The Rinkers stood at the bottom of the steps, where they had been when John and Helen left. Helen and John handed off the first bags of supplies to the Rinkers and went back to the Jeep for the rest. “Do you suppose they stood there the whole time we were gone?” Helen shrugged. “They could have come with us, couldn’t they?”
“Yes, I think so. Elizabeth was in your office and says that she goes to work every day. I’m just hoping that wasn’t a fishing expedition on her part. I’d hate to think we were on the menu.”
“I’m getting a little sick and tired of outsiders thinking this place is an “all you can eat buffet”. And I am definitely not on any menu!”
The Rinkers had lit only a few of the gaslights in the kitchen, just enough to see the stove. They extended an invitation to stay the night and excused themselves to prepare a suite for the couple. Helen waited until they had left for the upstairs before taking action. She helped John put the perishables safely in the walk-in before igniting a small flame that quickly swept through the kitchen. The remaining gas lamps burst into flame brightening the room considerably.
When the Rinkers returned from upstairs, the ingredients had all been prepared and laid out. John walked the couple through the list of ingredients and made a point to involve them in the cooking process. When Helen felt sufficiently ignored, she silently left the kitchen in search of Doyle.
Helen found him perched atop one of the dragon statues. She floated up to the top of the other dragon and waited for his reaction. “What manner of being are you? No human can fly except through magic and no magic passes the gates.”
“I assure you; magic has nothing to do with it. Now, tell me the truth about this place or I shall set fire to your nose.” Helen smiled and drew a small flame to life in the palm of her hand. Doyle cringed at first and then flew over to inspect the flame.
“How do you not burn, yet you are aflame?”
“I am Lucifer, the Lightbearer.”
“And who is Helen Zar-an-eee?” Doyle drew out the last vowel rising in pitch as he did.
“Names in other languages that mean the same. Now that you know my secret, tell me about this place.” And Doyle spoke quickly telling her everything hoping to finish before someone caught him. And as the last word passed his lips, John called her back inside.
“This place is massive! It took me a while to find the loo. I would have asked where to find it, but I didn’t want to interrupt the cooking demonstration.”
As they sat down to dinner, Howard brought out a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon to drink with the châteaubriand. Helen smiled at her hosts as they each raised a toast to John for the hearty feast they were about to consume. And John raised a toast to the Rinkers for being gracious hosts. And finally, Helen raised her glass and smiled. “I can understand why John feels uncomfortable here. It’s the déjà vu mixed with the dragon magic. But most of all, it is the reunion with Howard and Elizabeth Smith, who found him abandoned along a roadway and raised him as their own. I know not what possessed you to make a pact with dragons, but John and I shall cure that defect before the night has ended.”
“And how do you intend to do that?” a booming voice demanded from the shadows. John rose to his feet, prepared to draw his sword. Helen motioned for him to sit. With a flick of her wrist, Helen set fire to the drapery at the far end of the hall, illuminating the dragon in the process. “Trickery will get you nowhere, mortal.”
Helen stood up and rose slowly above the table. She floated toward the dragon and at a safe distance from the Smith’s, she burst into flame. “I’m not afraid of fire. Have you not heard that dragons are fireproof?” Certain that John had ushered his parents out of the room, Helen raised her temperature to that of a bright blue flame as she approached the dragon.
“Are you afraid of Lucifer? Do you think that your gargoyles will risk their lives against me?”
“If you take them beyond the gate, they will die.”
“Elizabeth left and was gone for more than an hour. Lying to me is not a good way to bargain for your own life.”
Lucifer slowly morphed through several forms – from a blue fireball to a blue fairy – before settling down on a table to talk to the dragon. He had since put out the blazing tapestry and she was the prevailing light in the room. “Seriously, Doyle, did you really think you had me fooled? None of the other gargoyles moved. And when I perched on the dragon’s head, I could clearly see all the gargoyles still attached to the building. But you must have sensed something was different about your intended meal.”
“I thought you incredibly brave and foolhardy. But I also thought you gullible enough. I could not have come to this time without the Smiths and their connection to someone here. I could bring them forward in time. And they could set me free.”
“But you came back here instead of trapping them.”
“Because I would rather trap you here and let it feed off you…”
“Show me the heart and I shall set us all free.” Doyle pointed to a spot on the stone floor. Lucy laughed and plunged deep into Doyle reducing the giant beast to ashes. The ancient castle crumbled around her leaving only dust. The iron gates rusted away in a matter of minutes. But the couple that John had driven out the gate still remained, although they were quite confused to find themselves in a stranger’s car driving away from a now vacant field.
John drove them back to his office. Helen was already there when they arrived. Howard and Elizabeth Rinker were demanding to know why John was kidnapping them. John and Helen spent the better part of an hour convincing them otherwise.