The house that Ricard Zayaskar had bought was a sprawling Victorian, dark and gothic, pieces of it crumbling and rotting, as is the way with most old houses. Sprawling lawns of flawless grass graced the front of the property; old gardens, some neglected with choking ivy and woodbine that strangled the statues and fountains and overgrown with wild thorns and nettles, others carefully tended and cultivated to produce award winning roses - a passion of Christianna's, Ricard's Rosarian wife - opened from the back of the house and spilled to the dark woods that bordered the far end of the property. A ten- foot tall black iron fence hedged it all in - protectively or possessively depending on how one chose to look at it.
A man whose sanity had been questionable had built the house in the 1880's; the house itself was a testimony to this. The rooms were laid out in a design that must have made the builders leave screaming in frustration at the day's end. There were staircases tucked into closets and behind curtains; rooms that seemed too large or too small for the space they occupied; wall panels slid open to show the way down secret corridors; one section in the library wall opened if one knew which of the hundreds of books to move to reveal a steep stairway leading to an abandoned wine cellar. Ricard never did know about that room, the former owner had not bothered with telling him all of the house's secrets.
The man he had bought the house from, one Maximilian Crane, had been a descendant of the original owner, also a Maximilian Crane. He said that he didn't like the house to pass out of the family, but he was moving to Europe for health reasons and wanted to see it in the hands of someone he liked. And he liked Ricard. He said that he sensed a kinship with him and knew the house would be as pleased with the Zayaskar family as he was himself. He had given Ricard the grand tour - or so Ricard thought - one summer's night, showing off the many features of the house.
"I think you will be particularly pleased with this," he had said, leading him up a steep narrow staircase hidden behind an ornate wrought iron door. At the top of the stairs was a door, a deadbolt lock above the worn door lock. A tarnished brass skeleton key hung from a nail on the wall. Maximilian had smiled and thrown back the deadbolt and unlocked the door. He pushed it open and moved to one side to allow Ricard to pass him on the stairs. Ricard felt a moment of unease, almost as if he expected to be shoved into the room, hearing the locks scrapping closed behind him. But Maximilian had smiled and followed him in. He reached over and punched the light switch. A dim dusty bulb flared into reluctant life in the ceiling. Ricard glanced uneasily about the room, taking in the dusty floor and cloth- covered furniture. The windows were edged in stained glass of green, yellow, red, and blue, but it was the black bars over all the windows that arrested his attention.
"It was a nursery once," Mr. Crane had said with a smile. "Very dangerous to have access to the windows at this height."
Another door to the right led to a small bathroom. An antique claw- footed tub was tucked behind the door; a rust stained sink and pull-chain toilet dominated the back wall.
Ricard did not like the feel of this "nursery" room. It felt cold, almost malevolent. Maximilian sensing the other's malaise smiled kindly.
"I understand that you have some, uh, problems with your youngest grandchild."
Ricard turned to glare at him.
"Do not worry, Count Zayaskar. Oh, yes. I know of your title from the Old Country. Do not worry," he repeated. "There is one in every family. This room has been used often in the past for just such-shall we say -misfits. Keeps them contained, away from the family."
Ricard studied the other man's dark eyes and saw no judgment there or sarcasm. They did indeed seem to understand one another. He smiled.
"I will take it," he said, holding out his hand, the gold pinkie ring engraved with the Zayaskar family crest glinting in the dim light.
Maximilian took it in a strong, cool grasp; his own large silver ring with a tear shaped ruby glittered darkly.
"I haven't finished showing you the house," he began, looking very pleased and surprised.
"I have seen all that I need to. It will suit my needs perfectly."
Maximilian's smiled widened and he gestured toward the doorway.
"Shall we go down to the parlor then and discuss the - uh - terms of our agreement?"
Ricard nodded and moved hastily toward the door.
Maximilian's smile changed subtly as soon as the man's back was turned. The terms were not exactly what the Count was expecting, but he suspected that he would comply. He glanced upward at the ceiling. Hidden in the dimness of the far corner was a trap door, not usually noticed. It lead to rooms above that few knew existed. His dark eyes glinted and he allowed himself a small chuckle. Yes, things were working out quite nicely for all concerned. Except for Count Ricard's grandson. Ah, but therein lay the fun. He turned and followed his buyer down the stairs.
Christofer Zayaskar stood outside the wrought iron doorway, staring at it without really seeing it. His heart was thudding in his chest; breathing was difficult. He was close to panicking and he must not allow that to happen. Dr. Derwent had told him again and again that he must learn to control his thoughts and in turn his body when these attacks of panic and unreasoning came over him. He would never have a normal life as long as he was ruled by his overactive imaginings. He raised one arm and bared his wrist studying the scars there. That had been real, but the reason for it.
"It was imagination. Vampires do not exist. ." He swallowed lowering his arm, his fingers closing about the cold handle of the door. "There are no vampires. They do not live in the room in the ceiling. That was my imagination. He isn't real. He isn't real." The door creaked open, protesting on its rusting hinges. "He is not real. Not real." He moved slowly past the door, breathing through his mouth. Hesitantly he started up the stairs, the wood groaning beneath his feet. It seemed very dark here in this stairway and he felt unwanted memories creeping up on him like phantoms floating at the edges of his mind.
"No." He whispered, but the image of his grandfather shoving him up these stairs soon after their arrival here would not be denied.
Ricard had ushered him away from the others who were exclaiming over the house, enjoying the beautiful rooms, the large windows framed with dark velvet draperies. But Ricard had grabbed his wrist and pulled him out of the parlor and toward the stairs. No one seemed to notice this, but then they never did. He yanked him up the main staircase and down the hall to the left. He opened doors and went down corridors, up stairs and down others. Christofer had soon lost his bearing. They had entered a hallway that bore an air of neglect. It was in this hallway that the iron door stood. Ricard smiled as they approached it. A new heavy silver chain with a pad lock was wrapped about the door. Ricard unlocked it, turning dark glittering eyes to the youth, who had suddenly gone very pale. His lips were trembling as he stared at the chain. Slowly he raised his eyes to his grandfather.
"P..please, sir." He shook his head, this could not be happening. "I promise I won't -"
A sharp slap across his face silenced him. Ricard grabbed his arm once more and thrust him up the narrow staircase.
"Get in there." He hissed, unlocking the door.
The boy stared helplessly at the deadbolt lock, trembling now.
" ." He tried to deny this was happening, but then he was shoved up the remaining stairs and into the room. He tumbled to the floor, tripping over the edge of a faded oriental rug. There was very little furniture in the room, only an antique Rococo bed; a matching armoire towering to ten feet, the arched crest not quite brushing the ceiling; a Rococo drop front dresser with a wishbone mirror; and a Belter Rococo gentleman's armchair with cabriole legs and dusty wine colored upholstery. What frightened the youth most was the fact that his one suitcase, containing all his worldly possessions was laid neatly on the bed.
"You can't." he began, eyes flitting to the bars on the windows.
"I can." Ricard said with a cold smile. "Welcome to your new home." Then he turned and slammed the door closed. Locks whispered silkily and the clank of the chains on the iron door brought home the finality of this situation.
Christofer rose slowly to his feet, his eyes sweeping about the room. It had been cleaned, though the air still had the smell of being long shut up and unused. He moved dully across the room to the bed, and opened his suitcase. Lying on top of his neatly folded clothes was an envelope with his name written across the front in thick black letters. A feeling of foreboding filled him. He reached with trembling fingers to pluck up the envelope. He opened it and removed the thick parchment paper folded neatly in thirds. He read the two words written therein:
At the bottom of the page was a blood red teardrop.
Exactly like the one on the letter he had received today.
"He is not real. He isn't can't be real."
But now standing outside the door of his room his words felt untrue and forced. His left hand strayed upward, fingers caressing the soft skin of his neck.
"He is not why am I here?" He glanced at the brass key hanging in its place on the wall. Then he stared at the cold glass doorknob that seemed to glint malevolently from the Eastlake design rosette that surrounded it. Why was he so certain that his rosary was in there lying on the floor where he had dropped it? He could picture it perfectly in his mind's eye: the silver dulled with time, the rosewood beads dusty, waiting for the touch of his fingers. H e needed it. And it was here, trapped behind this door. Every instinct within him told him to flee, run back down the stairs locking the chain that lay moldering on the floor behind him. Run far, far away to where he would be safe.
He reached for the key.