This wasn't how it was supposed to be. Moorcote Manor was hers, the place where she could be herself without anyone to judge her. Now it was turning into a nightmare. First, she'd had to allow Alice to join her after she'd seen her with one of her toys, a young accountant from Islington, but that had worked out better than she'd thought. In fact she and Alice had been kindred spirits and for a while it had been good to have someone to share things with. The new one looked as though he would be a worthy addition to her archive, and she was looking forward to the challenge. Then, Alice had insisted on bringing the woman from the club with her, which Erin felt was a risk too far. They should have just killed her and thrown her body in the river, it would have been far less complicated. She had ordered Alice to dispose of the problem.
Then, the situation had deteriorated beyond all imagining. A car had drawn up outside, one that had no right to be there, not in the one place she thought was hers alone. When her mother had walked into the manor Erin knew that her life was going to change forever. Katherine Russell had demanded to know exactly what was going on, wanting all the details, she had known things that Erin had no idea anyone was aware of apart from her, not even Alice. Then she knew that if she wanted her life to be her own she would have to make the one decision she had hoped never to have to make – whether her mother lived or died.
'Are we ever going to get there?' Growled Max, sounding like a recalcitrant five year old going on holiday. Grant, whose foot was already flat on the accelerator ground his teeth, but didn't reply. He loved his friends dearly, but tonight Max was really pushing it. Mind you, he could understand the other man's frustration, even in the early hours it had taken them ages to drive out of the capital, and since then they had done nothing but drive along country lanes praying they didn't meet anyone else coming the other way, and hoping that they would eventually be able to find Moorcote Manor, before it was too late.
'Before we left I tried to speak to Katherine Russell,' Jim admitted, 'but I couldn't raise her.'
'Do you think she's involved in this?' Grant asked, grimacing as he almost missed a sharp right hand bend.
'I sincerely hope not, but I can't be sure.' He admitted. 'She impressed me.'
'Can't be good realising that your daughter is a homicidal maniac.' Added Max helpfully.
'Let's just hope she isn't one as well. We could do with all the help we can get.'
The hallway was almost in total darkness, with only the barest sliver of light from the moon filtering through the narrow windows. Shannon crept along, conscious of every creak of the floorboards, almost too nervous to breathe. She could hear voices, but they were muffled be the thick stone walls, and she hoped that she could find Nicholas and, if she was lucky, Marcus, before anyone noticed she was missing. She found herself in a galleried landing, looking down on the Great Hall, opposite was a two story picture window, hung with velvet drapes that had seen better days. Although an enormous chandelier hung from the high beamed ceiling, the only light came from the few candles that were dotted around the floor. The room was dominated by an enormous fireplace, and the walls were covered in beautifully embroidered tapestries. It was the type of place that tourists would pay good money to visit on a Sunday afternoon.
She quickly ran down the stairs, hugging the shadows. The main front door, which had probably repelled William the Conqueror was securely locked and bolted. Looking round, she found a set of stone steps in the corner that led further down into the darkness, and, grabbing a candle, she continued downwards.
At the bottom of the stairs a stone corridor stretched into the darkness, and she felt her heart begin to thump in her chest. The pale candlelight hardly made an impact into the blackness, but she could see a little way along, another heavy door, which although it looked ancient was secured with a very modern, and very new looking padlock. Putting the candlestick on the floor, she hitched up her skirt to remove the compact from her stocking top, thankful that none of the guys were around to see her. She would never live it down. Time for lock picking 101.
Nicholas became aware of a metallic scratching noise outside the door, and redoubled his efforts to get free. The skin around his wrists had rubbed almost raw, but the manacles had not budged an inch. The wound to his chest had bled profusely, and he had begun to feel dizzy from loss of blood, but he was determined that when Erin returned, he would face her on his own terms, not hers.
Shannon felt the lock click home, and pushed the door open cautiously, peering into the room. From above she heard the sound of screaming and shouting, so, quickly weighing up the risks, she quickly dodged into the room, and shut the door behind her.
'Shannon!' Nicholas had never felt so glad to see someone in his life.
'Oh my God, Nicholas.' Shannon could not believe what she was seeing.
'It's not as bad as it looks.' He tried to kid her, but knew she wasn't convinced. 'Never mind me for a minute. Check that guy over there, I think it's Marcus and he doesn't sound good.' Torn between wanting to help her friend and the need to help Marcus, she quickly crouched down beside him, and checked his pulse, which was shallow, but definitely there. When she saw the state of his back, she felt her breath catch in her throat.
'Oh, Nicholas,' she gasped. 'This is awful.' Making sure that Marcus was as comfortable as she could make him, Shannon found a wooden box in the corner, and standing on it, attempted to use her lockpicks to free Nicholas. The locks were old, and the picks kept slipping, 'I need more lessons.' She tried to joke, but he could hear the frustration in her voice.
'Take it easy, you're nearly there.' He said softly, 'you're doing fine.' Finally the first manacle clicked open, and his hand came free. The chain holding him to the wall slipped through the bolt ring, and he slid to the floor. 'Thank you.' He breathed. Shannon sat beside him, her hands shaking, and took the remaining manacle off his other wrist. Silently, they grasped each other's hands, neither needing to say anything. 'Let's get Marcus out of here.' She nodded, taking a deep breath to steady her nerves.
Gently, Shannon rolled Marcus onto his back, making sure that there was plenty of straw underneath him to cushion the movement. His face was bruised and swollen, but he managed to open his eyes and gaze at her, terrified. 'It's ok, I'm not going to hurt you. Are you Marcus?' He nodded. 'My name is Shannon and this is Nicholas, we're here to take you home.'
'Home?' He repeated, as if he couldn't quite believe what he'd heard. Shannon nodded.
'Your mum is really worried about you.' She helped him to sit up, holding him gently so as not to hurt him further.
Having regained a little of his equilibrium, Nicholas got to his feet, but had to use the wall to steady himself as the world seemed to tilt a little. 'Nicholas?'
'I'm all right.'
'You could have been killed. It's...' He held up a hand to stop her. 'What is it?' she hissed.
'I thought I heard something.' Cautiously he opened the door, only to be met with a flurry of smoke and an acrid smell that was all too familiar. 'Shannon, we have to get out of here, there's a fire!'
'Oh god.' She breathed, trying not to panic. Fire was something she hated, but she didn't want anyone to know how much it bothered her. 'Marcus, can you stand?' He nodded, but both Shannon and Nicholas realised he was just putting a brave face on it. They managed to get the younger man to his feet, but as they moved towards the door he was barely conscious.
Grant flung the car through a decaying set of gateposts, missing them by inches, and sped up the weed covered drive to Moorcote Manor, skidding to a halt in a hail of gravel. Ahead of them, the elaborate windows of the medieval building glowed with an ominous orange light, and, as they watched, a pane of glass shattered in the heat. Jim grabbed his two way as Grant screeched to a halt. 'I'll call the emergency services.'
Max was out of the car almost before it had stopped, Grant following in his wake.
Nicholas and Shannon had to half drag, half carry Marcus up the stairs. As they climbed, the smoke became thicker, and their eyes began to stream. Shannon knew Nicholas was finding it hard going, so she tried to take more of Marcus's weight, but without making it obvious. When they finally reached the Great Hall, they were all gasping for breath.
The Hall was ablaze, the heavy velvet curtains were being eaten up by fingers of flame hat raced along their entire length. The tapestries that hung on the walls were well alight, as was the staircase. The smoke was thick and acrid, and a distinct smell of petrol hung in the air. It was hard to make out anything in the smoky darkness, but, on the burning staircase a figure moved, and in a brief flash of moonlight Nicholas made out the figure of Erin Russell, standing in a sea of flames. She didn't move, just stood there, staring.
'What is she doing?' Shannon coughed, 'She'll burn to death if she doesn't get out of there now.'
'Can you manage Marcus alone?' Nicholas asked urgently.
'What? No, Nicholas, you can't...' Suddenly there was the sound of splintering wood as the door crashed back on its hinges, and Max stood there, silhouetted in the firelight. 'Over here!'
Max took a deep breath and charged into the smoke filled room, taking in at a glance what was happening. Grant followed him inside. 'Get Shannon and Marcus out of here!'
Nicholas ran towards the stairs, his eyes streaming from the smoke. When Erin saw him, she simply smiled, which incensed him further. There was a rushing noise and the tapestry behind her burst into flame, and she disappeared from his view.
'Nicholas!' Shannon yelled. Grant took Marcus's other arm, and the three of them stumbled towards the door. Seeing his friend about to embark on a suicide mission Max grabbed Nicholas forcibly holding him back.
'No mate let it go. Let her go.'
'She's killed people Max, she can't get away with it.' Nicholas struggled, but Max held him fast.
'She won't. Come on.' Suddenly, the fight went out of him and Nicholas allowed himself to be dragged towards the door. Behind him, there came the sound of splintering wood. As Erin ran up the stairs, they fell in behind her, a burning mass of seething flame.
'Checkmate.' Nicholas smiled, knocking over Grant's queen. The other man glared at him, then smiled.
'I can't even beat you when you're injured.' Laughing along, Nicholas winced, putting his hand to his chest. 'Does it hurt?'
'Only when I laugh.' In fact, with twelve stitches in his chest and another two in his head wound it was bloody sore most of the time, but he was never going admit it. Mind you, he guessed that his friends knew anyway. The door to the apartment opened and Shannon and Jim walked in. 'How's Marcus?'
'Doing well.' Shannon smiled , sitting on the sofa next to Nicholas 'He should make a full recovery.'
'His mother is staying with him at the hospital. And the Secretary sends his good wishes for a job well done.' Jim gave an ironic smile. 'We thought this would be an easy mission, maybe even one that was beneath us.'
'We were wrong.' Nicholas said softly. Shannon squeezed his arm.
'At least it's over.'
'Maybe not.' Max walked in, a sombre look on his face. 'I've been talking to the Fire Officer. They have found two sets of remains in the ruins of Moorcote Manor, one is definitely that of Alice Rankin.' He saw Shannon flinch.
'It wasn't your fault, Shannon.' Jim interjected. 'She gave you no choice. Continue Max.'
'The other seems to be that of a woman in her sixties. All signs seem to indicate that she was dead before the fire started.'
'Erin killed her mother, and then started the fire?'
'It seems that way. They also have forensic teams searching the grounds, and have found what appear to be shallow graves near to the hall. I think they are going to be busy for quite a while.'
'And Erin?' Nicholas asked quietly.
'Her body hasn't been found. Yet.' The Australian added.
'She's still out there.' Stated Nicholas, trying to keep his voice matter of fact. 'All those deaths and she's going to walk away from it.'
'They'll find her, Nicholas.'
'If they don't, I will.' he promised. 'Now, let's go home.'
Several Months Later...
A new country, a new city. A new name. Six months it had taken her to recover from that night in Oxfordshire, six months of hell. Now though she was ready to play again. Tonight, a new club - the Blood Queen - would open for the first time, and the game would begin again.