At the time it hadn’t seemed like too much to barter with the little man with the domed skull who had offered a solution to her predicament. At first he had asked for her virginity as a downpayment, but when she laughed and pointed out that it was a rose that had been plucked a good while since he had pushed out his long upper lip and made an old-maidish tisking noise. But then he had brightened. His master, he said, would be content with a week of her company in recompense for helping her out. At a time convenient to her, of course.
She had agreed hastily, frankly in so much fear of the consequences of her actions that she would have agreed to anything he suggested. Now, however, with the threat of prison no longer hanging over her head, she would have dearly loved to wriggle out of the deal, but there seemed to be no escape.
It was, therefore, with a fairly bad grace that she boarded the Eurostar for Brussels on a freezing cold Sunday afternoon in the pouring rain.
“Belgium…” she mused inwardly, “who lives in Belgium?”
That was a question that she was never to have answered. A pressed and barbered chauffeur, carrying a huge umbrella, met her on the station concourse and escorted her to a waiting limousine. He tenderly helped her into the rear of the vehicle.
“Our journey will be of about four hours duration, madam.”
She nodded as regally as she could, whilst mentally trying to pin down his middle European accent.
He got into the driver’s seat and the vehicle moved away as smoothly as if it ran on ball bearings. The sound of the doors locking was almost shockingly loud. She reminded herself that her own more modest saloon car performed precisely the same function when the speed reached ten miles per hour, but that was of very little comfort as she looked at the chauffeur’s shaven neck and the way his cap was placed precisely centrally on his almost square head. Not normally a woman noted for her imagination, she gave herself a mental shake, but couldn’t rid herself of a small worm of dread lurking deep in the pit of her stomach.
The journey seemed endless and she was only able to endure it with to
tolerable equanimity by concentrating on her own breathing and looking out of the window at the sheets of rain. As the day grew darker, the rain grew increasingly sleety and by the time they turned off the autobahn onto what was obviously a private drive it was snowing in earnest. The woman examined her own perfectly manicured fingernails and wondered just what she had allowed herself to be manoeuvred into. Pushing half a million dollars worth of assistance out of a sticky situation to the back of her mind, she allowed herself to feel misused.
The big car swished to a halt beside a set of ironwork gates. Her driver rolled down his window and said something she didn’t catch. The gates slid open and the car picked up speed again. Only now they were driving through a rocky tunnel. She shivered involuntarily. The tunnel was dark and it seemed that the headlights barely pierced the gloom.
“Almost there madam.”
That wasn’t exactly reassuring either.
Not being a fanciful woman, she wasn’t sure why her heart dropped to somewhere in the region of the needle-sharp heels of her boots when the car stopped outside the deeply carved, black walls of an ornate castle. Walls that were being rapidly decorated with white snow frosting. Somewhere in the very back of her mind she heard the words ‘Castle of Otranto’ and some long-forgotten fear grasped her by the throat. At that moment, had there been anywhere to run she would have fled. But there wasn’t. Instead she set her foot on the bottom step and mounted the worn stone steps, bending her mind to grace and suppleness grace in place of gaucherie and fear.
As she reached the huge doors one leaf was thrown open and a cadaverous figure in the dark suit of a butler stood regarding her. She was a woman well accustomed to servants, so she glided past paying him no more heed than if he had been one of the gargoyles that glowered down on her from the dark stone walls.
Inside the place a huge fire burned in the sort of grate that could have accommodated a whole tree. A servant bustled forward and took her coat. She automatically fluffed her hair and touched fingers to her perfectly painted lips before turning to face the figure that uncurled itself from a huge chair beside that crackling fire. For an instant she saw, or thought she saw, grey scaly skin, yellowish teeth, and long bright claws on strangely articulated fingers. But then the image wavered and all she could really begin to focus on was icy green eyes with vertical slotted pupils. She thought she might have been about to faint, but she was not granted even that small mercy. However, she had never lacked courage and walked to meet her fate with a straight spine and a cool smile.
One week can be a lifetime or as fleeting as a passing breath.
From that day until the end of a pampered and hugely successful life she could never decide which she experienced. All she knew for certain was that whatever happened to her in those seven days she must have pleased Him greatly to be allowed to leave on her own two feet.