Vondemonde sat in the cold a moment or two longer, watching his breath on the cold nights air, waiting to be sure the Lady was out of sight. Every joint ached, every breath was chilled and laboured, this was no state to be in before his big performance. He stood with the creak of old bones and frigid muscles, stretched out and jogged around the garden until limber and warm enough to implement his talents.
With an effortless bound he scaled the great tree and leapt the gap between it and the window he had unlocked two weeks before. He landed in a cat-like position, feet against brick, hands hooked over the small stone ledge. His boots and gloves, made of a fine rubber, were soft, flexible and had tremendous grip.
Releasing one hand, he unclipped two metal hooks that were attached to a strip of leather wrapped several times about his middle, and secured them to the ledge. Slowly he released both hands, committing full weight to his legs and the leather cradle. The left hook picked out a small nugget of loose stone, Vondemonde flinched as the leather gave way beneath him, but the hook ground itself deeper, securing itself into the hard ledge.
Sitting below the sliding panel of the large, diamond patterned window, he took an electric torch from the pouch on his belt and held it between his teeth. From the same pouch he produced a delicate scalpel and slit two reams of the lead which held the planes in place – one slit to the left, another to the right ” then peeled it away releasing the glass, carefully, onto the window’s ledge.
From the cloth bag slung over his shoulder, Vondemonde withdrew an extendable rod with small clamps on each end. He secured it to the lower frame of the window through the two new holes, and, securing himself with his left hand, pushed the sliding panel upwards with his right. It was only open a foot before he slid like smoke into the dark room.
He retrieved his equipment and made his way to Fransworth’s chamber where he searched for the keys. Silently he rummaged through her not-so-smalls drawer in the tight beam of the torch. Nothing. He searched more but to no avail.
He abandoned the search and made his way through the corridor towards the Junk Room when, without warning as such accidents tend to be, he tripped and fell with a soft thud and pathetic mewing cry. He rolled onto his back and shone the light to his feet. There, a small mound of white fluff lay on its side. Mr Fluffsies. Its chest lifted and fell in deep breath. Good. The last thing Vondemonde needed was a dead pet on his hands.
‘Bastard cat,’ he said in harsh whisper, ‘damned fool needs a bell about the collar.’ He rose to his feet, dusted himself off, and continued on his way.
He came to the third door along the right corridor, sank to his knees and slid the keyhole cover aside. The golden glow shone through; dim, yet a shock to his aged eyes, now accustomed to the dark. He took another tool from his belt and within the moment the lock was picked. This was a talent he was particularly proud of, the bolt shifted with the pleasant clunk of a job well done.
The door opened ajar and let slip the ancient light from beyond. As he looked towards it, a shadow flickered beyond his periphery. From the corner of his eye he saw the round emerald eyes of the ancient Demon of Dibaya advancing toward him, cold as the winter, yet burning with hate and fury. His heart shocked, beating faster than it medically should, and he turned towards the beast of the shadows and saw, stepping into the light, the simple figure of the docile cat.
Vondemonde rested his back against the frame of the door, his heart beating rapidly, fit to burst from his chest, his stomach turned, fit to rise from his mouth. And all at the sight of the pet with the eyes that seemed not to focus. He wasn’t prepared for such things ” museums and galleries did not have house pets. Yet from this, a vision of the past came to haunt him. Now, after so many years locked aside, repressed in the deep pit of horrors that lurked at the back of his mind. Something must have triggered the memory; the emerald glint of the felines eye, the musky smell of grave-robbed treasures, the ancient light unnatural.
Yet it was not only memory that had been rekindled. No, there was also a terrific adrenalin; one that seared through his veins, warming his whole body with a deep, sensual buzzing. He saw the light that spilled from the opened door as a newer, more vibrant gold; beautiful to behold, specks of dust floating and glistening in his sharp vision. He heard the evening carts making their way down the cobbled street, the hidden notes of the wind as Makar played his mournful melody. He could smell his own sweat, the perfume of a well-pampered kitty, the rust of the blade and the fragrance of the wood, the rot of primordial treasures unearthed.
He rose to his feet, shooed the docile creature away, and entered the glowing room as though fate decreed and urged it so.
Slowly he walked, careful not to disturb the precious treasure that cluttered the room, taking in the marvellous sight for a second time. There seemed to be more wonders than he had remembered; deadly Chinese Dao Sabres, breath-taking Oceanic sculptures, intricate Abroiginal fabrics. He’d be damned if he wasn’t returning for a personal browse after this whole affair was over. A large shelf was filled with chipped war masks, one had crystal eyes the size of his fists and brought back dark memories of the Congo.
He focussed himself. He was here for one purpose, and it sat above him in a small, yet complex network of metallic frames and crystal shards. He took a pair of tinted goggles from his bag, ones that fitted tight around the eye sockets and boasted narrow lenses that stood proud half an inch. As he donned the head-wear, the full beauty of the magnificent orb played out before him. It was slightly smaller than a man’s scull with concentric circles of the deepest orange flowing in the centre, churning and twisting like a kaleidoscope of flame. He saw the terrible injustice that was the botch-job welding; damaging and deforming the once hallowed jewel. He removed the goggles and the light burnt into his retina. Give the welder his due credit, poor man probably couldn’t see a damned thing.
Captivated by the bright light, Vondemonde reached out to touch it. He moved an old African drum into position, tested it and, seeing it was good, mounted. As his hand drew nearer, he felt no heat. He removed his gloves and reached out again with a bare hand. The orb was cool, his fingers now silhouettes against the shifting yellows and oranges. And then from the doorway came a screech and spit at his intrusion.
It flew towards him like a cat out of hell, a vicious blur of white with out-stretched paws and cold emerald eyes. It dug razor claws into Vondemonde’s face, he lost balance, falling backwards, shattering a pile of clay gods and china plates.
He loosened the mini-beast from his face and held it back with both hands. It stretched out its deadly paws, spitting and growling, displaying faultless, pointed fangs. The soft fur was pleasant and warm in his hands, but the creature beneath twisted and jolted with the fury of hell. He threw Mr Fluffsies away and stood, confounded by the unfathomable attack. But as soon as it had landed, the cat bounced back, tearing into Vondmeonde’s arm. It clung to him with tooth and claw, its back paws swimming in the air, tearing at ageless fabric and parchment as its momentum spun Vondemonde on the spot, narrowly missing a display of unsheathed Grecian swords.
Wrestling the creature off his arm, Vondemonde ran to the corridor and threw it, with a greater strength than he had intended to the wall at the end of the hallway. The cat cried as it flew into the darkness, then fell silent as it hit the wall with a deadened thud. At least it wasn’t a crack. A fractured kitty portrait would not go unnoticed by the obsessive old Lady. He looked into the darkness of the corridor. The silence was unsettling. His breathing was heavy and the bloody scratches across his face itched and burned. Was the little beast hurt? Will the Lady return to a find a cold corpse as a pet?
From the darkness, a glimmer of emerald. Then two, as perfect glowing circles in the distance. A sigh of relief betrayed Vondemonde’s worry, then, as he saw the little devil’s eyes advance, he threw himself into the golden room and slammed the door shut.
In the cluttered room, shards of ruined treasures lay scattered. The ancient drum had tumbled, the wooden shell cracked, the stretched goatskin torn. A pang of sickness claimed his stomach. So much culture, for so long hidden away from the public eye, now devastated because of that bastard cat.
Still, work had to be done. He picked up his tinted goggles ” hey had fallen during the attack ” and dragged a heavy oak desk to replace the now useless drum. He climbed towards the Orb of K’inich, donned a pair of heavy duty leather gloves and, with pliers and a serrated knife taken from his cloth bag, set to work on the complex wire mesh.
The damned thing was stubborn as hell. The wires were thick and neigh on impenetrable. And the jingling! That constant, high-pitched mess of sound bore maddeningly into his brain and left a residue of tinnitus. His shoulders burnt and his neck had stiffened in an upward stare. He had worked without significant progress for thirty minutes, and the breaks needed to rest his tortured body grew more frequent. He sat on the edge of the table surrounded by the shavings of metal and the odd length of wire he had managed to conquer, and wiped his seat streaked brow.
Then, in the distance, a doorbell rang. His heart sank. A voice called out, muffled, unclear, but a man’s voice. Then a knock at the heavy door which guarded the entrance of the Fransworth Residence.
Slowly Vondemonde opened the Junk Room door ajar. Claws shot through, Mr Fluffsies desperate for bloody revenge, writhing to break through the gap and attack the intruder. Vondemonde lowered himself, holding out his armoured hand. He opened the door a little more and snatched the creature as it lurched towards him. Swiftly he carried the creature to the Box Room. It attacked his hand without mercy, the razor claws only just penetrating the thick protection of the glove. It took three shakes and a blow against the wall before the damned thing released its hold.
He made his way to a room that overlooked the front of the house as the doorbell rang a second time. This time he could make out the voice of an elderly man, slow and frail.
‘Lady Fransworth? Is everything all right in there?’
Vondemonde peered through a crack in the curtains. At the gardens gate stood an elderly couple huddled together, clothed in night gowns and slippers. An old chap wearing a uniform approached them from the front door. He shuffled slowly and spoke even slower.
‘No answer. I’m afraid there is not much we can do at the moment.’
‘But we heard crashing and screaming!’ it was the elderly man, shivering in his gown.
‘Yes, sir, I believe you did, and you did well to call us, but there is nothing I can do for the time being.’
‘Rosalina!’ this was the elderly lady calling to the house. ‘Rosalina, it’s Margie, from next door. Are you all right?’ she practically spelled out the last part, then turned to the man next to her, ‘I can’t loose another!’ The elderly man reached out a comforting arm and she took it.
‘I tell you what I’ll do,’ said the police man, his voice wavering with cold and old age. ‘I’ll take a look around the back and keep and eye on the place through the night. You said you heard her leave earlier this evening. Perhaps she has not yet returned. If she is not answering by the morning, I will have our boys look into it.’
‘But the crashing? And the screaming?’ the elderly man again, sounding like a broken gramophone.
‘Yes, yes, I will look into it. Now never you worry. Get back to bed and I will be in contact tomorrow. Remember, Fransworth is barely in her eighties, young and fighting fit. I’m sure all you heard was the house pet.’ And with that the police officer ushered the elderly couple on.
Damn. Bloody cat must have disturbed the neighbours. Vondemonde didn’t have time to waste. The job had to be finished, quick. Still, it took the coppers half an hour to respond to an emergency call! If this town moved any slower it would be pronounced clinically ‘DEAD’.
The officer returned to the house, slowly making his way through the garden towards the right hand side. He gave the place a simple look-over, his torch barely lighting the scene, not looking for anything in particular. Vondemonde’s case was hidden, the window was shut and the nuisance pet was locked in the box room. Still, he thought it best to go about his business with more quietude than before.
The tinted goggles revealed the extent of his previous efforts. He had not nearly scratched the surface of the massive job. The thick metal mesh was tough to cut, but the thin chain links securing the small chandelier to the ceiling? Now that was doable. Without a second thought Vondemonde had cut and released the chandelier; the bulk weighed more than he had anticipated and as it released he had to jolt forward to keep it from slipping through his hands and crashing to the floor.
He searched the house for something to wrap around the small chandelier, the black cloth bag would no longer suffice. There wasn’t a great distance between the house and the rendezvous point, but a great glowing chandelier under ones arm was hardly inconspicuous.
As he ran from room to room he heard a voice from outside. Another elderly man, this time deeper, more demanding.
‘Good evening, officer, can we help you?’ then a girlish giggle. Presumably not from the same mouth. It was a giggle Vondemonde recognised.
‘Ah, Lady Fransworth, and Mr…?’ the officer did not seem to recognise the man.
‘Mr Sidebottom, at your service. Is everything well, officer?’
Fransworth? Here? Now? And Mr Sidebottom?! Who the devil is Mr Sidebottom?
Vondemonde lurched towards a window. She was back! And with another man! He looked younger than Vondemonde by a number years, larger, also, than his own spindly frame. Vondmonde’s heart sank once again. What the blazes was she playing at, the scheming harlot! It had only been two weeks and now she’s off with another!? He had to calm himself. He knew that their own courtship was a one night fling, and one night only, but his feelings had changed since then, and this new knowledge hurt.
‘Everything is fine, sir, we received a call of disturbance from a neighbour. Nothing to worry about, I have had a look around and all seems to be in order.’
‘A disturbance?’ the voice of the Lady.
‘A report of some unusual noises coming from the house, m’lady.’ The officer’s weary voice was suddenly more confident. ‘The couple next door thought you may have fallen and hurt yourself. Clearly not the case. You look as radiant as ever, if it is not too bold to say so.’
‘I believe it may be,’ spoke Sidebottom.
‘No, not at all,’ said Fransworth ‘and I can assure you I am quite well. This handsome young man will be looking after me tonight.’ A sickening high giggle from her and a low chuckle from Mr Sidebottom.Mr Sidebottom?!
No time for this, focus you damned fool! He reached for a large, pink bath towel ” every damned towel she owned was bloody pink ” and wrapped it hastily around the chandelier. It seemed to blot out most of the light. He tied the package together with a string taken from an ancient bow (with a brief word of apology and thanks to whoever once owned the artefact) and ran to the visitor’s room and the window through which he had entered. The clumsy package strapped to his back was less subtle than he had hoped; the crystal beads clanged together, muffled but noisy, as he walked. The folds of the towel glowing slightly in the dark room.
At the window Vondemonde heard those still speaking outside. He supposed he had to thank the unwelcome officer for stalling the whore and her fare-for-the-night. The wounds on his face itched as he listened. And then he remembered ” the little demon was still locked in the box room. Damned thing can starve in there for all I care! But still, he opened the door with much apprehension, and when the mini-beast inside leapt free, it did so with precision. The ball of white fury struck Vondemonde’s face, tearing at his flesh once again.
Outside, the voices bid each other farewell and the officer walked away.
Vondemonde wrestled with the damned beast, the chandelier on his back a muffled cacophony of tingles and chimes.
At the foot of the stairs, the bolt of the large wooden door slid with an audible grind and clunk.
Vondemonde took the screeching cat with both hands –take this, you damned bitch – and threw Mr Fluffsies once again to the far end of the dark corridor.
The front door opened.
The cat landed with a crack of one of the precious feline portraits and thudded to the floor.
The Lady called out in shock.
Vondemonde had no choice. He slipped out of the window, struggled to close the damned thing with the added weight on his back, and fell to the ground with a terrible carsh.
He crouched low, his eyes closed, his breath deep but silent.
He heard the sounds of rushing panic inside the house. The halted foot fall of the alerted policeman. The whine as a gowned neighbour opened a window to address the noise. The blood coursing through his ears with a steady thump.
‘What the hell is that? Margie, come look at this.’
Vondemonde took in a deep breath and held it for a moment. And then he was off. He ran to the base of the great tree, collected his briefcase and within a moment was over the back fence running for his life. Behind him the policeman’s whistle blew, Fransworth yelled from the visitor’s bedroom window and the neighbouring couple speculated as to what exactly they had just witnessed. And all the while his pink glowing package conducted an orchestra of tiny chimes and clanks.
He leapt over more fences, falling at each one, until he came to the road on the other side of the housing block. There was a problem with his left leg, this much was evident, but he could not stop. The heavy load on his back only made matters worse as he limped down the long road. Then, as if from nowhere, a black automobile appeared and skidded to a halt in front of him. Vondemonde crashed into the bonnet and fell to the ground.
The passenger door opened and a voice, deep and gruff, called from inside.
‘Vondemonde, get in.’