As he stood looking down at the pasty faced maniquin before him, a wave of remoteness struck him. What a horrible job the mortician had done with his grandmother. The rouge and heavy makeup gave her a harlequin look. Grandmother had despised makeup.
But what did it matter. This was a shell only. If not for appearance sake, he would not even have had a funeral service. This wasn't the woman who had raised him from a toddler. She'd already left this shabby excuse for a planet.
He turned and looked out into the chapel. Perhaps a dozen of Grandma Anne's friends. And of course Uncle Frank. Not a blood relative, but the husband of his late Aunt Sarah.
Even now Uncle Frank was approaching him. The sweaty hand reaching to grasp his shoulder. Dane could almost hear his mind procuring the proper nicety....
"I know how you feel, son..." came the appropriately sorrowed words. "Your grandmother was a good woman."
Choking back the appropriate response, Dane merely nodded. Uncle Frank was an ass, but he was also a damn good business man. He had headed the Morris Family Trust for n grandma for the last 20 years and Dane had no intention of attempting to take that place. Though Dane was technically inheritor of the Estate, he was smart enough to know he was no business man.
But that was no reason not to let the old goat sweat for a few days.
"Thank you, Uncle Frank. She'd appreciate that. For myself, I think I've had enough of this circus."
"Understandable, my boy. Understandable. But to more practical matters..."
"Not now, Uncle. Can you finish up here?"
"Of course, my boy. Of course..."
Dane was infinitely tired of the phony serenity of the chapel. Saying his goodbyes to his grandmother's surviving old lady friends, he left the chapel.
Yes, he had no intention of trying his hand at the business world. An idea was forming in his head: a thought that he'd unconsciously considered many times. As he drove home it began to take a solid form. Ominous, but solid.
The next morning, Dane drove over to his uncle's office. Dane was impressed by the receptionist: very hot. She was pretty friendly to him too. But then she probably know how much money he'd just inherited.
His uncle saw him right away. After a few brief amenities, Dane opened the conversation they both knew was coming...
"Uncle Frank, I want to discuss my future with you."
"You sound like you've given it some thought. Let's hear it."
"First off, I've decided to leave the family business affairs in your hands. I'm not foolish enough to think that I could run things."
Uncle Frank's tone was carefully neutral, "Your grandmother thought well of our management."
"I know uncle. Grandmother always swore by your business know how. Let's just leave things as they stand."
"I think that's a wise decision, Dane." His uncle concealed any relief he may have felt.
Dane walked over and looked out the window. He saw his 'vette in the parking lot. A shiny black beast waiting for his command. He caught himself, and focused on the business at hand.
"Grandmother's house has too many memories for me..." Last night he hadn't slept well at all. It was like he kept hearing things all night long.
"You could come live with Tammy and I," was his Uncle's reply. Dane was struck with a nightmare image of living with Uncle Frank's second wife--a nice woman to visit but she cleaned constantly. Dane had images of her chasing him with her dust buster.
He turned to the window to hide the grin, and realized he'd gotten pretty morose in the weeks since his grandmothers death, and the arrangements afterwards. He silently thanked Tammy and wished her well in her sterile little world.
"That would be great, Uncle Frank. But I think I need to get out on my own. Actually, I was thinking of moving up to my father's old place up in Maine. Take a little time off decide what I want to do with my life."
His uncle nodded. In truth, Dane did need to think about what to do. He had his bacheleur's degree in Mathmatics and Chemistry. Whether he should continue towards a masters degree, he didn't know.
He realized his uncle was strangely quiet. When he turned to look at him, Uncle Frank had a strange look on his face.
"Too bad about Anne," he said simply. There was none of the polish or the careful wording his uncle usually was known for. The look in his eye was sincere.
"I know," was Dane's only reply.
It took two weeks to get the red tape out of the way. Papers, Writs and a blur of devilish legal inventions designed to drain the strength of mortal men.
Then finally he was free. A duffle bag of clothes in the passenger seat and a napsack on the floor and he was gone. The two day trip up the coast flew by.
Each mile he made was a weight off his shoulders. Speeding along he almost felt as if he was flying--like the dreams he'd had as a child. A free spirit, not bound by the laws of man.
Well, almost. Three speeding tickets later he was in Maine. Cute little town called Redwick. God, he hoped they had running water!
He finally found the old estate just as the sun was going down. The moon was already up, a great yellow sphere.
The twin light illuminated the grounds, giving it a faerie quality. The house was atop a great forested hill, and was situated so the windows of the top floor could look out onto the ocean. The rocky cliffs obscured the view except for that level.
To the left of the house was a small wooded area which he knew from pictures concealed the family graveyard. Grandmother would already have be laid to rest there, along with his father and mother -- neither of whom he remembered beyond isolated images and half remembered feelings.
All had been cremated, sort of a family tradition he gathered. From what he understood, no Morris had broken the tradition in forty years.
And why break tradition. Seemed reasonable to him-- clean and simple. Why they bothered burying the ashes was another matter but no harm done in it.
To the right of the house was the gardens. Neatly trimmed lilac bushes and hedges. Again, neat and simple. Dane liked that. He thought Grandma would too.
Aaron, the caretaker met him at the front door. He didn't say anything, but Dane knew from his grandmother that Aaron had a speech impediment which made talking difficult.
The man was huge and burly, but cleanshaven and neatly dressed in clean work clothes. Dane knew he had once been a boxer, and now well believed it as he saw the man close.
Aaron's head was completely bald, but at the neck of his work shirt was a furry mat of gray hair. It made one think of the hedges out front.
Aaron shook his hand and picked up the luggage, such as it was, ignoring Dane's protest. He led Dane into the dining room and Dane saw a simple but well prepared meal had been laid out for him.
"Thank you," Dane began but Aaron silenced him with a shrug and gestured toward the chair.
Smiling, he hoped gratefully, Dane sat down to eat. Dane saw there was only one plate laid out and asked if Aaron would be joining him.
The big caretaker gruffly shook his head, half smiled and carried the bags off toward the back stair. Dane gathered he must eaten already.
The food was good. Simple but good: Roast beef with gravy and mashed potatoes and a whole basket full of dinner rolls. All still warm, surprisingly.
There was a pitcher of ice water, and a glass of cold milk. Would have preferred a coke or a beer but 'When in Rome...'
After dinner, Aaron insisted on cleaning up so he wandered on upstairs. He decided to save exploring the old place til tommorrow, when he would be rested and not road weary.
At the top of the stairs was a long hall, down which there was one open door. Glancing in, he saw the light was on and his napsack and bags were on the bed. Hmm, a functional looking fireplace. This must be where he was meant to sleep.
Looking around, Dane realized it must have been his father's bedroom. Pictures on the mantle showed his father and mother walking on a beach. Another picture of his mother was on the dresser: her in a wedding dress. Also on the dresser was brush set, some after shave, and an ornately carved abstract wood carving. It took several moments for him to realize the piece was meant to hold one's wallet and personal effects.
A big oak desk faced the ornate arched stonework window, which overlooked the garden. On it was a surpisingly modern phone, various pen and pencil racks, a letterhead memo pad, and a few miscellaneous paper weights. The letter head and one of the paper weights were in the form of a mastiff's head.
There were a number of comfortable chairs about the room, and a bookcase on either side of the fireplace filled with books and the odd statuettes and knick knacks his father had collected. He'd seen pictures of the collection in his grandmother's photo albums.
A big four poster bed was on the opposite wall to the fireplace. Beautiful and ornately carved, with a king size mattress. Dane sat down, and made a slight face--a little too firm for his tastes but not uncomfortable.
He admired the fireplace once more, a beautiful piece of workmanship. A tapestry of a hunting scene hung over the mantle. It was quite impressive, but his eye was drawn back again to the photograph of his parents beneath it.
He would have liked to have met them, just once. They looked like good people.
He lay back and stared at the ceiling. He'd have to get his stereo shipped here ASAP. The room exuded a quiet which was strange to him. Dane was definitely a city boy.
He lay visualizing where he might put it, without destroying the sombre balance of the room when sleep finally claimed him.
He awoke a few hours later, and couldn't get back to sleep. The clock on the nightstand told him it was a little after midnight. It was strange, but he had the distinct impression something awakened him. Was Aaron still up?
He lay there listening, and realized it must have been his imagination. Have to get up and get out of these clothes, he thought lazily. In just a few moments he'd have the energy.
The moonlight streaming in the open window dimly illuminated the far wall. The hunt scene above the fireplace seemed to shift in the moonlight.
As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he noticed a faint light shining from the edges of one of the bookcases.
Well, it was an old house. Perhaps the bookcase was built over an old doorway...perhaps an adjoining room.
Curiosity finally overcame fatigue and he forced himself off the soft bed. He walked carefully over to the bookcase (wouldn't want to trip and break a leg), and tried to look into the crack.
He couldn't see a thing, but a draft of warm air gently blew onto his face. Curious, he lumbered out into the hall and opened the next door down on his side.
The sewing room. He found the light and looked at the wall from this side. No sign whatsoever of any sort of door or even a crack. And the light had been Off.
Thinking he must have imagined it, he went back into his father's bedroom. Yes, he could still faintly make out a glow about the frame of the bookcase.
As Alice said, "Curiouser, and curiouser." He bent to examine the bookcase again when a gruff voice sounded from beyond it: "Mulucirep Odecide!"
Dane jumped back. The words had been clear and distinct, though he had no idea what they meant. Aaron had a speech impediment. There was no way it could be him back there.
"Mulucirep Odecide!" the words sounded again, even more distinctly this time.
Dane backed carefully to the light switch. He flipped it on, staring carefully at the bookcase.
The light filled the room revealig...nothing. The bookcase sat silently revelling in its mundaness. Dane breathed a sigh and began to advance back toward it when he heard a sound from the bed.
A great black mastiff lay on the bed, head between its great paws. The light seemed to catch in its eyes, making them glow red.
As Dane stood shocked with his mouth open, the creature nonchalantly grinned doggishly and said, "Mulucirep Odecide!"
Shivering, he awoke and sat up in bed. His heart was pounding and his breath was in short gasps.
"God, what a dream!" Slowly he relaxed. No eirie light shown from the wall. No huge mastiff revealed himself in his canine magnificence. It was just a dream....
He eventually fell back asleep. He has a pleasant dream this time: he was on a game show with grandmother and uncle Frank. They kept winning but kept passing him on his turn. He eventually tired of this and walked out to his car and went for a drive.
The show's hostess had looked like uncle Frank'd receptionist.
Dane awoke early the next morning. Finding the bathroom through a door in the bedroom he'd originally assumed was a closet, he showered. The large bath was off a private hall which also contained two true walkin closets and which also gave access to the study.
Cosy little set up. Whoever built this house had an eye for style.
He headed down to the kitchen, intending to make himself a sandwich for breakfast. Instead, a plate full of eggs and sausage sat waiting for him.
Still warm, he noticed. That Aaron was a wonder. He must have heard him get up and prepared the food. He wondered what the trust fund paid Aaron. The man was a wonder -- the house spotless, the gardens neatly trimmed and weeded, lawns mowed. It seemed to much for one person.
Have to check into it. Man might be due a raise.
After breakfast, he decided to head into town. He had tried to do dishes after breakfast, but all had been done save his plate and glass. As a token effort, he washed these and put them in the rack.
He ran upstairs to get his jacket and saw the bed had already been made. The man definitely needed to slow down. Dane was headed back out when he noticed a small carved statuette of a mastiff on the mantle he hadn't noticed before.
He grinned to himself, remembering the bizarre dream he'd had the night before. He patted it's little ceramic head and said, "A hearty 'Mulucirep Odecide' to you my little nightmare."
He was about to head out the door again when he heard a faint grinding noise behind him. His peripheral eyesight thought it caught a bit of movement.
"Oh, shit!" he said aloud and turned slowly.
The right hand bookcase was gone, having slid back into the wall. Behind it, illuminated by an eerie light was a large spiral staircase leading downward.
Dane glanced nervously to the bed. It was empty. He bit his own thumb to be sure he wasn't dreaming. No, it hurt. No dream here.
He advanced and looked down the stairs. It spiralled down effectively blocking his view.
"Come on, Dane. Be reasonable," he told himself. "You lived here when you were a child til you were two years old. Obviously, you saw this as a child and you subconsciously remembered it last nite."
Then why did it open when he said that weird word. Dad died over twenty years ago. Not likely he'd have a voice activated door mechanism then.
He decided he WAS going to check it. But damn if he was going unarmed.
Dad had a sword collection in the library. He trotted quickly over and selected a wicked looking civil war sabre. It wasn't a gun but it would do.
Going back into the master bedroom, he half hoped the strange staircase would be gone. But no, it was still there. Dragging a heavy chair over to block the entryway, he cautiously advanced down the staircase.
How had the damn thing opened. It had opened on command. That was impossible.
Or was it. There was another person in the house. Someone who would know it frontwards or backwards. Had he opened the hidden doorway. And was he lurking down here right now.
An image of Aaron standing at the bottom of the stairs with a weedwacker waiting to kill him. A bit silly, he admitted, but the image stayed.
At the bottom of the stair was a great arched doorway. The door itself, a monstrous bronze thing was ajar. All he saw in the unlit room beyond was darkness.
He pushed the door further open with the sword tip. It swung easily, though all beyond was still darkness.
My damn flashlight is up in the car. Maybe there was a switch.
He felt along the darkened interior wall with his left hand, ready to leap back if Aaron should leap at him out of the darkness.
He hand fell immediately on a row of lightswitches. He flipped the first one and the room beyond. About three feet in front of him lying on the floor was a huge black mastiff just like in the dream the night before.
Aaron MUST be behind this. Who else would be feeding the damned thing. And He'd bought his faithful family servant routine.
Well, to hell with it. He'd been smart enough to come armed and this pooch was meat.
He raised the sword up over his head and just as the hound raised itself to it's feet, he swung down with all his strength and weight behind the blow.
The sword must have been incredibly sharp. It was like a butcher's cleaver cutting meat. The blow landed perfectly, cleaving the beast's canine skull in two. It dropped to the floor like a side of beef.
Dane looked down at the body. Bastard must weigh at least a hundred and fifty pounds. The room beyond was a study similiar to the one upstairs. This one however was packed with larger collectibles similiar to those he'd seen upstairs. There were even two burning braziers.
Someone had kept those damn things lit. Well, he was no fool. He was getting the hell out of here. If Aaron got in his way, God help the bastard.
He pulled the door closed behind him and left. He moved carefully up the stairs ready to strike at anything that moved. He came eventually to the top of the stairs and back into the master bedroom.
He had his keys. He would carefully make his way to the car and get to town. There he would call his uncle and the police. And he would drive slow in case that son of a bitch had messed with his car.
He stepped carefully out into the hall. There, standing before him was another damn mastiff. Just as nasty and huge as the one had been downstairs.
Without a thought, he swung the sword again. The sword went clean through the beast. It did not cleave through, like with the hound below. It passed through like it wasn't there...like a ghost or something.
The force of his blow caused him to lose his balance. He stumbled and nearly fell into the beast.
"Damn!" he staggered back and regained his balance. The beast did not advance. He backed up to the wall and aimed the useless sword at the thing.
Was it really there. Was it some sort of illusion (he'd seen plenty of Star Trek episodes). Or was he imagining all this? Had Aaron drugged his food?
The beast layed down on the floor in front of him and looked up at him quizzically.
It opened a massive mouth full of shining white teeth.... and SPOKE: "Calm down, Dane. Jeez, you cut my freakin' head in half down there. If that blade had been silvered instead of just steel, I'd be dead now."
"Shit!" Dane exclaimed. Oh, man! He MUST be on some nasty drug buzz now. He'd only tried grass a couple of times and this wasn't the effect it had had. (In fact, it had only seemed to make him hungry.)
"I SAID calm down, kid. You've sure become the jumpy type. You don't remember your old buddy Darius. Didn't think you would, you're being so young and all. I'm glad I got through to you at all--proves you got the talent that he got the message. Bet ya thought it was a bad dream, huh?"
Dane didn't know if he should answer. Was the creature really there, and was it really talking to him.
"Yeah, I guess I did. You can talk?"
"Of course I can talk. You think I'm a new whelped familiar. I been doing business for nearly four hundred years..the last two hundred with your family."
"What do you want?" Dane replied. A slightly more quickwitted response than his first.
"WANT? Why YOU, kiddo. Why else ya think I been sitting in that stinking study downstairs for over, what? Twenty years? Where'd you pack off to anyway? Another decade and I'd have given up on you."
"I was living in Florida, with my grandmother."
"That old goat. She never did like the family business. I remember when she found out what your grandfather did for a living. She was really peeved when your dad also showed the talent."
"She's dead now."
"DEAD? Oh, Tartarus. I'm sorry. Didn't mean that old goat remark. I'm just cranky from being locked up so long."
Dane shook his head. Man, I am losing it. This cannot be happening.
"Really. Dane. No offense was meant."
"None taken, uh, Darius." This was too funky.
"Darius. Hey, I'm sorry. I didn't even properly introduce myself. My name is Darius Aurellius Falco. Class I familiar from the second plane of Limbo. Servant to the Morris Family line of Sorcerors since 1825. At your service."
So began his entry into his family's TRUE family business. He was a sorceror's son.