Their room was three floors up. How much more, Cassie wondered, would she see from the top?
In the oppressive heat Cassie couldn’t bear to pull on her dressing gown and slippers. Anyway, her T-shirt-and-baggies ensemble was perfectly decent, if a bit lacking in the Parisian style department. As she eased open the door, Isabella stirred, turned over, and resumed her snoring. Exhaling, Cassie slipped out into the corridor.
She was relieved to see that small wall lamps burned softly, creating pools of light in the darkness. Not that she was afraid of the dark. She knew there were worse things to be afraid of than ghosts and vampires and werewolves.
Words, for instance. Words were like fangs, if they were sharpened by an expert like Jilly Beaton. Words could bite deep.
Oh, you’re a worthless little slut, Cassandra Bell. Even a worthless big slut like your mother didn’t want you.
She used to be scared of Jilly Beaton. Too scared to tell anyone about her vile bullying.
No one will believe you, anyway, filthy little liar that you are! It’s in your file – compulsive liar. You try telling anyone and I’ll have your privileges withdrawn again.
So Cassie never had told anyone. She learned to fend for herself instead. And as she got older and taller, and discovered that a cold, blank gaze of hatred worked better than crying or shouting, Jilly Beaton left her alone and picked on smaller kids instead. Only now Jilly never knew when she would turn away from tormenting some poor girl to find Cassie watching silently, her eyes full of the silent promise of retribution, one day. That seemed to put her off. Made her keep her distance and bought the other girls some relief, if only for a few weeks.
Cassie shivered, wishing she’d worn her dressing gown after all. At least she’d had Patrick. She trusted him – just not with everything, that was all. He’d brought her out of herself, made her laugh, taught her she wasn’t worthless. And now here she was, at one of the most prestigious schools in the world.
Life was funny …
Barefoot, she crept towards the grand staircase. She wasn’t scared, but boy, this place was creepy. If she thought too much, if she listened too hard, she could almost hear sounds. Creaks. Whispers. The sigh of a faint breeze. A footfall.
Oh, don’t be daft. She gave herself a mental slap.
No. There it was again. Freezing, she strained to listen.
Yes. Definitely. The sound came from below. A very soft step; if it hadn’t fallen on the marble floor of the entrance hall, she’d never have heard it. This wasn’t the careful tread of someone who didn’t want to disturb sleepers – it was someone who didn’t want to be discovered. Cassie knew the difference.
An intruder? Hesitantly, she put a hand on the gilded banister and peered down into the gloom.
Moonlight and shadows, and for an instant the hall was full of ghosts. Her heart turned over in her chest, but a second later Cassie recognised the white shapes. The statues she’d seen earlier.
Something was still wrong, though. Achilles was slaying Hector, mercilessly, but there were only two marble figures on that plinth. So why were three shadows cast on to the floor?
Someone was hiding. Whoever it was had ducked behind the plinth when they heard someone coming. Now Cassie could also hear unmuffled footsteps. As she watched, holding her breath, the squat porter appeared and stood still, silently alert.
Cassie didn’t dare breathe, and she didn’t dare move back in case the movement drew his attention. She could only hope he wouldn’t look up. She couldn’t say why, but she knew, instinctively and for certain, that she didn’t want that dead-eyed, brutish porter to catch her out of her room. She wouldn’t want him to catch anyone. Not even a burglar.
At last he turned, clearly unwilling to investigate every shadow in the hallway, and his footsteps faded.
Beneath Hector’s dying body, the third shadow moved, slipping from the shelter of the statue and heading for the grand staircase. Her heart in her throat, Cassie backed away, hunting frantically for a place to hide. The prowler was going to come up the grand staircase – right past her. Damn. She went cold with fear. There were no convenient curtains, only shadows and a small alcove. She pressed herself back, staying absolutely still.
His footfalls were almost silent now on the rich carpet, but when she sensed him coming she took a small breath and held it, making no sound. Except for her heart, of course, thrashing like a triphammer, but luckily he couldn’t hear that. Nor did he see her, as he passed close by like a phantom.
She frowned. What was he up to? For a moment she longed to go back to her room. Her nice, safe, beautiful room with her softly snoring roommate. She could put up with a little insomnia.
Only one thing wrong with that scenario, decided Cassie: she didn’t like night skulkers. They were never up to any good. If something was wrong, she wanted to be first to know. Knowledge was power: she’d learned that lesson well at Cranlake Crescent.
Anyway, what was there to be afraid of? Waiting until Jake had turned on to the next landing, she slipped from the shadows and followed.
Damn, he was good. His antennae were a lot better than Jilly Beaton’s. He knew to pause unexpectedly, to listen for someone following. He could move swiftly and use the darkness just like she did. At the top of the stairs, she almost lost the trail.
He had slipped into an upper corridor. The blackness was more complete here on the deserted topmost floor: the ceiling was low and the only light leaked up from the lower levels. Cassie’s curiosity was strong enough to beat her nerves, though. She stepped into the corridor.