The all-wheel drew up at the back gate, the front gate being perpetually manned by a guard who would be very likely to inform Bestia of their visit even if he could not refuse access to the lady of the house. Vassenia ignored the speaker-phone and stuck out an arm to input some numbers into the digital pad on the gatepost. The gates swung open, squeaking horribly as they did so. Gerel winced, and Edbert hunched his shoulders in disapproval at such evidence of poor maintenance. The back gate being for staff was surprisingly close to the residence. Surprisingly because the main one, with which Julia was more familiar, stood at the far end of a long meandering driveway in order to show off the sumptuous grounds to visitors of status.
Edbert parked the all-wheel on the raked gravel and handed the three women out. “Col, Bran. Please stay with the vehicle.”
The brothers bulked their muscles and Col went so far as to wink.
Vassenia smiled grimly. “Okay. Let’s do this.”
A uniformed steward stood at the front door. He looked deeply unhappy.
“Dominus Sextus says you are to be denied entry Domina.”
Vassenia looked coldly at the embarrassed servant.
“Whose house is this?”
“And whose money pays your wages?”
“So, just get out of my way.”
For a moment it was a toss-up who the unfortunate man was most afraid of, but in the end Vassenia was in front of him and Bestia was nowhere to be seen. He stepped back and the three women walked into the gloomy splendour of the over-decorated entrance. The steward tried to step in front of Edbert and the hounds, but found himself gently put aside by the blond giant.
Julia gave him her best flashing smile. “Don’t annoy my bodyguard. It’s not sensible.”
If it was possible for a person of such immense dignity to be said to run away then that was what the steward did, through the echoing corridors of leprous marble to escape from the frighteningly grim-faced quartet and their devil dogs.
Vassenia led the way through the comfortless modernity and the conspicuous displays of wealth to a surprisingly cozy sitting room.
“This is my boudoir. You can wait here while I find my stuff. And Sextus’ little secrets. No one is allowed in here but me – and that means no one.”
Julia found the decor, which was rather disorderly in a comfortable way, somehow preferable to the much more formal look of the cenaculum where Vassenia had held her prandia before she had been compelled to withdraw from that social circle. Gerel sat in the window seat looking out over the strange topiary formations and spindly exotic plants of the villa’s formal garden.
“I did not know,” Gerel said quietly, “that it was possible for a garden to be ugly.”
“Anything can be ugly if it’s made without love and is all for show.”
Edbert, who lounged in the doorway, grunted his agreement. “This whole place is a showpiece of wealth and ugly tastelessness. Except maybe this room.”
Vassenia padded back into the sitting room with two small leather cases in her hands.
“Now for Sextus’ books. They are in his suite. Through here.” She tapped what seemed at first glance to be the wall beside her. “Can somebody come with me and watch my back?”
Gerel followed her through a cleverly hidden doorway painted with trompe l’oeil panelling. They left the door open and Julia could see Vassenia pull out a cunningly fashioned set of steps and mount them with care. She seemed to be certain in her movements and Julia heard her give a small grunt of satisfaction just before Edbert’s wristphone bleeped.
“Faex. Bestia’s home.”
“Right. You grab the cases and get through that door. Shut it behind you and get the girls and the stuff out to the all-wheel. Beep me when you are out.”
Julia set her teeth and showed Edbert the business end of her professional-quality nerve whip. “Me and the dogs can deal with that spado. And no, before you ask, I won’t have any hesitation in hurting him badly if he gets too close.”
Edbert looked as if he would like to argue but he must have recognised Julia’s determination. He picked up the bags in one huge hand and slipped through the door shutting it quietly behind him. Julia snapped her fingers and Canis and Lupo came to her side. Once the dogs were at her knees she turned her eyes back to the ugly garden.
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