Carrying a stack of library research material, I didn’t see the nose-high spider web covering the mansion’s front door until it plastered my face.
Startled, I juggled my loot and swatted at the tickly silk strands. Luckily for the web’s perpetrator, my reflexes were quick, and I didn’t drop anything. The brisk October breeze blew me inside as I shouted “EG!” into the towering foyer’s pristine stillness.
Mallard, our spy cum butler, would never have allowed a spider within the property’s perimeters. I knew who to blame for the sudden acquisition of sticky Halloween decorations.
“I suggest you repair to the turret with a broom,” a dry voice pronounced from the Waterford chandelier overhead.
“I’m still not a witch, Graham,” I countered our host’s insult, carrying my treasure toward the basement door. “You may call me Princess Anastasia, if you’re into Disney characters.” The Anastasia part is actually my name. Magda, our mother — who claims to be a Hungarian princess — has delusions of grandeur and named all of her children after royalty.
Amadeus Graham is our invisible landlord. He thinks he owns our grandfather’s house. Maybe he does legally, but morally, we have the higher ground. Thankfully, he lives in the attic where we never see him. We still suffer daily from his annoying commands.
Ignoring my commentary, Graham intoned in that irritatingly unperturbed deep voice of his, “Live bats appear to be involved.”
Oh, crikey. Stealing one of my half-brother Tudor’s imprecations, I dropped my reference material on the priceless Sheraton side table and dashed for the imposing mahogany staircase. Apparently Graham wasn’t commenting on my witchy appearance for a change, but on my half-sister’s behavior. EG must be testing Graham’s boundaries to see what it would take to get thrown out of the first real home we’d ever known.
I have spent the better part of my life as a doormat for my evilly inventive, peripatetic mother and host of half-siblings. Under Magda’s auspices, we’ve been dragged around the world to live in huts and palaces, but we’ve never had a place to call our own.
I liked to think, since I moved into my late grandfather’s Victorian home, that I was now in control of my life. Not seeing a lot of difference some days, except now I had the house’s current owner breathing fire down my neck whenever my half siblings got a little too creative.
Live bats in the belfry would qualify as too creative, on the verge of dangerously destructive.
I had no idea where Mallard hid the cleaning equipment. Since our nit-picky butler wasn’t here leading the bucket brigade, I had to assume EG had either chased him to the Irish pub he liked on the corner, or she had waited for him to leave on errands before populating the tower haunt she called her room.
Elizabeth Georgiana, my youngest half sibling, is the reason I ended up here in D.C. I was determined to give her the stable home I’d never had. Some days, it seemed I should have chosen a Bedouin tent rather than a mansion crammed with antiques. But I still had foolish hopes of suing for our inheritance, so I was claiming squatter’s rights for the nonce. EG had to learn to live like a civilized human being sometime.
“EG,” I said warningly, in my best Ruler of the Palace tone, testing the knob on her door. At the tender age of nine, EG had deliberately chosen the only chamber with an operating lock. I could dismantle it or take a hatchet to the door, but I was trying to respect her privacy, as no one had ever respected mine. The knob wasn’t locked — not necessarily a good sign. “Round up the bats. I want to come in.”
The door cracked open to creepy Halloween music, and my little Goth peered out. A black net blocked sight of most of the room. “They’re a science project,” she announced. “Bats are good for the environment. They’re not hurting anything.”
“Except insects and Graham’s patience. Where did you find live bats and should I ask?”
“They’re in the tower attic. I just opened the trap door. They’re my pets!” If she’d wear her black hair in braids, she’d resemble Wednesday in the Addams family, except prettier. She has our mother’s slanted cheekbones and long-lashed eyes. Today, she’d cut her hair in ragged spikes in front and colored them purple.
“You can’t take bats to school, and you can’t create your own haunted house until you own one. Get them out of there and close the trap door, or I won’t tell you when Nick arrives.”
“He’s almost home?” she asked excitedly, forgetting to be a sullen brat. “Did he tear out the turd’s eyes yet?”
Not a good visual. Yuck. “Bats, out,” I said firmly, shutting the door before the creatures could take it as an invitation.
Having accomplished my parental duty, I trotted downstairs to return to my professional tasks. I’m a virtual assistant, an invisible researcher, and ghost writer for a number of professors and corporations, Amadeus Graham currently being my primary client. It’s the perfect job for a cellar-dwelling introvert.
In addition to my normal duties, I was on a mission to save my family’s fortune. Nick was about to return with the key part of the puzzle.
The business office I’d set up for myself in a previously unused corner of the cellar can nowhere compare to the electronic paradise Graham inhabited on the spacious third floor, but my needs were simpler than his. I did not know, and didn’t care to guess, what our resident spook did that required equipment rivaling the CIA’s. But as much as I appreciated his allowing us to live here, I really wanted to pry him out of our lives before his enemies dropped a bomb on us.
To that goal, I turned on my computer to check Nick’s progress. I’m the eldest of the Hungarian Princess’s brood. At twenty-five, Nick is next oldest. As a result of Magda’s numerous marriages and affairs, we all have different fathers.
Nick currently works in a congressional office with EG’s senator father, but he’s taken a leave of absence for a family matter, i.e.: capturing Reginald Brashton the Snake — the executor who sold our inheritance to Graham and absconded with all our funds.
Using GPS, I’d tracked the yacht that Reggie the Snake bought with our money. We’d located the coke-sniffing bastard in the Caribbean with his off shore bank account. Nick had flown down to retrieve what he could. I didn’t know the full story of how he’d bagged Reggie — Nick is a lousy communicator — but I doubt it involved law officers. That’s not how we were raised.
Self-sufficient is the politest word for Magda’s brood. Our mother calls herself a journalist, but I’m pretty sure she’s a spy who likes hooking up with power magnates. The result is that no two of us have the same father, and there are a lot of us. Until recently, being the eldest, I’d been the one taking care of my half-siblings.
No messages from Nick were in my box, but the GPS showed the yacht had almost reached the Chesapeake. I had no notion of where one parked yachts — I didn’t even drive a car. Licenses are hard to come by in the deserts where I’d taught myself to drive in jeeps “borrowed” when the owners weren’t looking.
I set my latest new toy on the desk — a smart phone in which I’d disabled the tracking device to annoy Graham. I had lots of plans for the money Reggie had better be coughing up, and I was hoping Nick would call soon.
And then I returned to work researching Broderick Media, a conglomerate that Graham had taken an interest in, or a dislike to. I was deep in the bowels — bad image for a corporation called BM — of corporate infrastructure when the doorbell rang over my head. Since I wasn’t expecting anyone and this was the reason we employed a butler, I ignored it.
“I’m inclined to turn her away,” the desk lamp said dryly. “We have enough trouble without asking for more.”
I smacked the lamp in hopes of ringing Graham’s ears. He wasn’t supposed to have his limitless supply of bugs in my office. “We have an intercom, you know.” But I was already on my feet.
“You turned it off,” Graham reminded me.
Oh yeah, well, if he had to be technical about it… I hate intrusion while I’m working. So I wasn’t predisposed to appreciate whoever had dared the doorstep.
I didn’t linger to have words with a lamp and was already half way up the stairs.
Graham must have used the intercom to inform our visitor that someone was coming since they weren’t battering on the door or bell by the time I reached the main floor. Or maybe they were admiring the trailing pothos vine in the sphinx head that was our speaker. Graham scared off quite a few solicitors with the talking plant. If his presence didn’t irritate me so much, I’d have had to admit that his eccentric habits occasionally amused me.
I opened the door. I was tempted to slam it again — just because I could and because sibling rivalry thrived — but I maturely refrained. Someone in this family had to be the adult.