The Curse of Baron Roderick
Clichés to look forward to: Friends disappearing one-by-one! The secret passages! The mystery solved!
Neon exchanged a worried look with Bronwyn.
They hadn't been searching for ten minutes before Peter's frantic voice came over the walkie-talkie. "Caitlyn's disappeared!" he has said, his soft voice sounding terrified. "I'm scared!"
"I'm sure Caitlyn's there somewhere," said Neon, reassuringly. "Maybe she just went into a different room, and you lost track of her."
She could almost hear vehemently shaking his head. "No! We were in one of the storage rooms, and there was nowhere to go. I thought I heard someone behind me-- and I turned to look-- and there was no one there-- and I turned back to her-- and she was gone! There was no time! The ghosts got her!"
Harold had replied to the communication first. "Stay put," he had ordered. "Mr. Hiroji and myself will come up to give you a hand finding her."
Neon thought it a trifle suspicious that Caitlyn would have disappeared so quickly after Raiha did. The more she thought about it, the angrier she became. Did Raiha go off and hide somewhere, just so the two of them could have a romantic rendezvous? Well, he certainly could have picked a better way to go about it. This was hardly the time or the place-- a crash of thunder reverberated throughout the house.
Five minutes later, Harold's voice came over the walkie-talkie once more. "Peter's gone," he said solemnly. "I found his walkie-talkie on the floor… it was crunched underfoot."
"You guys never had any problems like this before!" exclaimed Neon, upset. This just wasn't right. Maybe it was semi-believable that Raiha just might have a romantic rendezvous with the maid… but it was anything but likely that they would involve Peter in any way. She rolled her eyes. "Neon no hentai," she murmured under her breath, and redirected her thoughts elsewhere.
Plus, why would he crunch his own walkie-talkie? If he was scared, he wouldn't let go of it. If he wanted to go hide, he wouldn't have left his walkie-talkie out in the open to be found. It took a considerable amount of effort to smash one of these little devices... they looked very sturdy. No, Peter's disappearance seemed to be legitimate. So perhaps Raiha and Caitlyn's disappearances were for real, too.
So many options! she scowled. "Harold," she said aloud, activating her walkie-talkie. "May I speak with Hiroji?"
"Oi," he said, his voice scratchy over the wavelength.
"Joker-san, why don't you come join us down here," she suggested in Japanese. "I don't like the idea of you two being alone up there."
"Hai," he answered. "I don't like this either… I'll see you in a few."
"Mm," she acknowledged, pocketing the walkie-talkie.
But it was not to be. After six minutes of radio silence, Harold's voice came statick-y through. "Mr. Hiroji is missing," he said.
Neon stared unbelievingly at her walkie-talkie. How could that be? "Why?" she demanded. "He should have been down on our floor by now! Why isn't he?"
"We heard something," said Harold, his impeccably groomed voice tinged with a note of uncertainty. "The sound of a woman's voice singing… coming from a room which is normally kept locked. It took me a few minutes to find my key… I unlocked the door. There was a shadowy, ghostly figure of a woman, seated at an old piano… the keys were moving by themselves… she turned and looked at us… I hid my face… when I looked again, she was gone. So was Mr. Hiroji." He took a deep breath. "If you don't mind, madam, I'll come join you and Bronwyn, and perhaps we can put together a game plan."
Neon's fist tightened around the walkie-talkie. How dare they! How dare these ghosts kidnap her friends! So what if they could be annoying… so what if they were crazy. They were partners… they were friends… they were some of the few people in her life who meant anything to her! And now they were gone, dragged goodness-knows-where. She sat disconsolantly on the edge of a bed, trying to collect her thoughts.
"I'll get some tea for you," said Bronwyn, gazing thoughtfully at Neon. "You sit here in this room, and I'll be back."
"But what if you disappear on the way to the kitchen," said Neon hesitantly. Not that she cared anything for Bronwyn, but she didn't want to be the only one left in the house. The lawyer would be coming the next day. Less than 24 hours… but even one hour in this horrible place, without her friends' support, would be too long to bear. Would she ever see her Kurei-sama again? How could she face him, telling him that she had lost Joker and Raiha over such a triviality? It should have been so simple, putting her business in order! How did it become so convoluted?
"I'll escort her to the kitchen," said Harold, appearing in the doorway.
Both women jumped slightly.
"That was fast," giggled Neon nervously. Why couldn't Joker have shown up so quickly when he had agreed to meet up with them?
Harold smiled. "I didn't want to leave you two ladies alone."
And yet you're both abandoning me by myself? thought Neon wryly. You just didn't want to be alone, that's all… But aloud, she said gratefully, "Well, at least that way, the tea will still be hot when you get back. Thank you for being so kind."
"Nothing like a spot of tea to calm the nerves and soothe the mind," said Bronwyn practically, and she and the butler left.
Neon's gaze traveled absently around the room. It took her a few moments before she finally determined that this was indeed her Uncle Roderick's old bedroom. How quaint! The furniture was old but well-kept; the room was cozy, and would have been pleasant if not for the deluge which stormed outside the window. She traced the carvings on the sturdy bedposts with a finger as an impish smile fluttered to her lips. Perhaps she would keep this one… she wondered how much it would cost to ship it to Japan. She had a feeling that her Kurei-sama might find it interesting, too, and she happily amused herself with lemon-tinted thoughts as she wandered aimlessly around the room.
"Even a bell-pull," she thought, noticing the item suspended over the bed. She'd always read about those in books… even at the Uruha mansion, though, they didn't have such luxuries. She gave it an experimental tug.
She pulled harder.
There was a creaking and grinding of machinery from somewhere deep behind a wall. And then— - one of the bookcases pivoted, revealing a secret passage. Stone steps spiraled down.
"Jinkies!" she murmured in awe. Where did that come from? she thought bewilderedly, but shifted her focus to this new development instead.
Neon's curiosity was piqued. It was normal for old houses to have a secret room or passage of some kind. In case the house was attacked for whatever reason, or maybe if the owner merely wished to eavesdrop on important conversation. She forgot all about waiting for Bronwyn and Harold as her curiosity got the better of her, and she stepped through.
Her foot pressed down on a button, activating the door once more. It swung shut.
Neon opened and closed the door a few times using the button, before she was satisfied she could escape if the need arose.
Her way was lit by small electric lamps lining the wall. She stared suspiciously at them. If the electricity was off, and had been off for several hours by now—- why did they work in this stairwell? Were they on an independent generator? She came to the conclusion that this might have been the work of her uncle during his renovation project, and she continued down the stairs.
If her uncle had known about this passage, it made it a little less frightening.
Neon turned a corner and heard voices. She froze, her Uruha training getting the better of her. She kept her mouth shut and her eyes and ears open. Though unable to see anyone, due to her position, their words were channeled audibly enough into her ears.
It was Joker's voice. "Oi, let us out!" he growled, banging on something.
"Oh, do be quiet." It was a female voice.
"You're such a baby," scoffed a male voice, and that must have served to irritate Joker more than he knew, for Joker's banging and grumbling ceased.
"Just cooperate and it will be all right." His voice held an ominous tinge that was anything but reassuring.
Neon quietly digested these words in her mind, and crept forward a few more paces. She discovered a small room, opening onto the stairwell, and she tested the door. It was unlocked. She slipped inside, and not a moment too soon, for her sharp ears soon picked up the sound of someone treading down the stairs behind her. She held the door ajar so that she could still hear, although her vision was obscured.
"She's gone," said a curt voice. "Help us find her."
"You're kidding. Where's there for her to go?"
"We'll take care of her. Don't worry. She won't be bothering us for long. There aren't many places she could have gone to."
"Leave Neon out of this—" said Raiha sharply. "You've caused enough damage as it is."
"You really don't need to be making enemies so enthusiastically," agreed Joker.
"Oh, I'm sure you'd do well with her company," scoffed a voice. "There's nothing like a woman's touch to make everything so nice and homey."
"We don't plan on making this our home," responded Raiha promptly.
"Shall I stay behind and watch over them?" asked a voice.
"Just to be safe, yes," answered another. "The rest of us will go look."
Neon held her hands out in front of her to keep from bumping into anything. Her hands touched the cool metal of… her fingers traced over the shape… a vase! Not the best weapon, but it would do in a pinch.
She waited until the footsteps had retreated away, back up the stairs. Then, Neon counted to fifty before she felt safe in slipping out of her little refuge. A few more turns down the stair… and she could see a figure, with its back to her, doodling on a heavy wooden door with chalk.
The guard. And it was certainly no ghost. And he certainly had no artistic talent, either—the picture was a badly muddled caricature of Raiha and Joker all tied up. Little speech bubbles came out of their mouths, begging for mercy.
She raised the vase into the air and silently brought it down upon his head. There was a sickening 'thud' as it connected, and he slumped wordlessly to the floor.
Neon rolled him over with her foot.
It was Keefe.
Keefe? But he had been out checking the fox-traps… she mentally puzzled over this for the few moments it took to undo the keyring from his belt.
"Joker-san? Raiha-san?" she murmured softly through the door. "I'm here… it's me." A few false tries, then she found the proper key. The two had been tied up rather inexpertly, and both Joker and Raiha had made considerably progress in freeing themselves from their bonds. Neon took care of the remainder within seconds, and then beckoned them to follow her.
"Come with me," she murmured, and led them off to her little room.
They knelt down on the floor for a quick conference.
"Me first," said Raiha in a soft whisper. "I went to go talk to Caitlyn. She made some tea for us; it must've had something in it, because the next thing I knew, I was in that little room you let us out of. I woke up a few minutes after Joker-san was brought in."
"Right after I got off the walkie-talkie with you, Harold asked if he could borrow it for a few moments. I gave it to him, and turned my back on him to go investigate another room. The next thing I knew, I was hit on the head with something blunt-- rather like you did with our little friend back there-- and I pretty much crumpled. That guy knows exactly where to hit." Joker rolled his eyes. "I've got a poor little bump on the back of my head… wanna feel it?"
Neon smiled. Raiha and Joker couldn't see it, due to the unlit nature of the room, but they could sense her fangs showing.
"So who exactly was involved?" she asked smoothly. "So far, our list says Caitlyn, Keefe, and Harold. The butler did it, h'm? How cliché!"
"The butler did it with help," corrected Raiha.
"Peter, too," said Joker with a scowl. "The little snot was rude to me."
"So, the bottom line is… at least four, maybe five, of them were together in a plot to scare me away from my inheritance," said Neon. "They would make it so that I wouldn't be here for the lawyer's arrival tomorrow. No one else had seen us come in, so no one would have known we'd ever shown up. They might have even produced a letter along the lines of, 'I don't care much for claiming the inheritance, signed, Neon'. They would have inherited everything, divided it among themselves, and lived happily ever after, tra la la."
"They have lived here all their lives," agreed Raiha. "They were very upset that a 'snooty little niece Roderick never saw', as they put it, would come and upset their plans. They had assumed that they would get everything, part and parcel. It was quite a shock for them to learn of your existence and your claim."
"And they would have left us there for a Very Long Time," said Joker. "I don't think they wanted to let us out."
"What a horrible fate," said Neon, her eyes gleaming. "Now that we know what's what… shall we?"
"Heh. You never did like playing defense, did you?" remarked Joker, grinning. "But, all right. I believe I saw some weapons in one of the first-floor rooms. Conventional weapons, perhaps… but effective in the hands of trained professionals, ne?"
"Oh, speaking of which, here's your Raijin," said Neon, handing it over. "I don't suppose you want to use it on these poor idiots?"
"I'd rather not," said Raiha calmly.
~three days later~
Neon, Raiha, and Joker sat comfortably in the first-class section of the airplane which would take them to London. They had made reservations at a five-star hotel, and had planned the next week full of sightseeing and attractions.
"It's amazing what people will do for… what, three million pounds?" remarked Raiha, doing the mental math in his head.
"All five of 'em," agreed Joker. He opened up his complimentary pack of salted peanuts. "But they shouldn't play with fire unless they want to get burnt."
"Let's talk about something else," said Neon firmly, shuffling a complimentary deck of airline playing cards. "Spades, anyone?"
"Deal me in," said Raiha. "So, Neon-san, what do you want to do with your inheritance?"
Neon smiled, dealing out seven cards to each of them. "I'm going to buy a nice little weekend-getaway island with a nice little weekend-getaway house on it," she informed them. "And I'll probably get some new furniture for my room while I'm at it… I'm in the market for a good, solid wood, four-poster bed."