The three of them sit around the television like a little family. Lucas giggles as a tiny meerkat attacks his sibling, missing completely and tumbling down an incline in a puff of Kalahari dust. He sighs with contentment. “The best things are always on when we watch tv, Uncle Russ.” Claudia’s Master lets him believe that it’s some sort of magic, even though it’s just a DVR. The overly-complex remote could conjure up all sorts of educational programming, from small furry creatures to huge space-going vessels. Claudia thinks that Lucas may never have watched a cartoon. Or perhaps he watches them when he goes to visit his friends after school. What sorts of cartoons do they show now, anyway? She isn’t permitted to watch television except on occasions like this.
The older man sitting on the couch sets his glass down with a rattle of ice cubes, and smiles at the first-grader in his lap. Suddenly, a tickle fight ensues. Hard to tell who started it, but easy to tell who’ll win. Lucas is slippery as an eel, and twice as quick.
Claudia rises in one smooth motion from her seat on the carpet. She snags the empty glass and moves to the kitchen to get a refill – orange juice with a drop of vanilla extract and three ice cubes.
By the time she returns the tussle is over and both of them are chuckling and staring warily at each other out of the corners of their eyes. The full glass goes neatly on the coaster, and she clears her throat quietly.
“Ok, young man, time for you to go to bed,” his Uncle Russ declares. Lucas slumps in dismay but goes willingly enough. Tomorrow is a school day. “Claudia, please bring my laptop downstairs after you tuck Lucas in for the night.”
Lucas and Claudia ascend to the bedroom; the child can’t contain his yawns any more. He’s going to split his head in two if he doesn’t stop, they’re so wide. Ten minutes later he’s scrubbed, attired in fresh pajamas, tucked into his bed and still yawning. Claudia looks forward to snuggling in herself – Lucas’ sheets smell fresh and faintly bleachy. The housekeeper has done the bedrooms today, and her sheets are sure to be just as crisp and clean.
“Do you want your star light turned on?”
“Yeah, Mom. Please.”
She brushes his russet hair away from his eyes, then switches on the rotating lamp that throws a whole galaxy of stars up against his walls and ceiling, constantly in motion. It’s a cool device.
“Goodnight, Lucas. Sweet dreams.”
“G’night, Mom.” He speaks on a yawn, “Love you…”
“I love you, too, Pumpkin.”
The laptop is retrieved from the upstairs library and brought down to the living room, where her Master is waiting for it. He smiles as she hands him the case handle first. “Thank you, my dear.”
Claudia inclines her head. “You’re welcome. Is there anything else you desire?”
“Have you finished the invitations for the Chetwynd-Hayes’ party?” At her slow head shake, he frowns. “You’d best hurry, then. I will be giving them to Melinda tomorrow morning.”
“Yes, Master.” Claudia goes back upstairs with all due haste. She has a steady hand for calligraphy, and she likes doing it — the end result was always so pretty — but she had taken physical therapy today and she was sore and headachy and just wanted to go to bed. But they have to be finished tonight, and her Master loves to offer her services to his friends and colleagues. She doesn’t want to disappoint him. Melinda Chetwynd-Hayes works with him at the Chapter House, doing… whatever it is that Knights do.
She isn’t entirely sure what the Knights of Saint Christopher are all about. They are a private research institute of some sort, with branches scattered all over the world. Master never talks about his work, but he seems a bit fanatical. It makes Claudia just a tiny bit uneasy. But who is she to talk?
She had been invited to the Philadelphia Chapter House twice. The first time was at the invitation of a young man she’d just met – Lucas’ father. The second time was a farewell party for the same young man. He was going back to the Dublin House. He was never to find out that their short liaison had borne fruit. That was also the night she had met Russell Derleth. The night she came home with him to stay. Was that really six, almost seven years ago?
She toils over the calligraphy for what seemed a year. She hears Mrs. Berger, the housekeeper, switch off her television and retire for the evening. A dog barks across the street. Claudia hears the front door open and close. That was odd. Had she forgotten to get the mail?
Neck screaming after hunching for so long, Claudia stands carefully and stretches. The desk drawer yields nothing but an empty prescription bottle. Shit! There was a bottle of over-the-counter painkillers in the kitchen drawer. The water tastes better filtered, anyway.
On her way to the kitchen, she hears conversation in the living room. Who was over this late? Her first impulse is to greet the visitor and offer refreshment. It would be impolite not to do so.
“We must have him tested. He could figure quite prominently in our plans.” The visitor is Regent Matheson, an elegant but vaguely creepy man who always makes her wonder if the Knights are nothing but an especially polished cult. She pauses at the door. Perhaps she needn’t disturb them.
“Isn’t he a bit young?” Master asks, sounding doubtful.
“The younger the better. It makes them much more pliant and easier to train.”
“What about Claudia? She’s his mother. She..”
“Don’t you have his mother well in hand, Russell? She has no say in this. You know this has to be done, especially if he’s as strong as we suspect he is…”
The voices drone on, but Claudia is beyond listening. They are talking about her son. They are talking about Lucas!
Driven by panic, she moves stealthily up the stairs, as quickly as she dares. Lucas is in danger. They have to get out of there. Tonight.